In memory of Martin Amis


It was a warm Saturday evening as the low sun signalled both the end of exams and my first year in Durham. It had been a year spent mainly enjoying languid drinks in my college bar, I reflected, as I drank languidly in my college bar. It was then I received a text from a friend, informing me that Martin Amis had died the day before. In that moment, the colour in the sky was slightly dulled and the buildings of John Snow appeared alien, as my world became at once misaligned. The author whom I blame whenever asked that unanswerable question, “why do you study English?”, was dead. The man whose books I’d lent to peers in first term, transforming them to friends, was gone.

Waking early the next morning, I examined my carefully disorganised bookshelf and, finding nothing suitable, staggered forth from hill to town, where open hands eagerly received Times Arrow from the man behind the Waterstones counter, just as an English teacher had dealt me The Rachel Papers five years earlier. I sat on observatory hill that day, ill-prepared for the summer heat, and read from cover to cover. Maybe it was dehydration, induced by dry breeze and summer sun, or perhaps the novel’s deconstruction of time but I arrived at a contentment of thought and emotion that has proved irretrievable since.

The author whom I blame whenever asked that unanswerable question, “why do you study English?”, was dead

May nineteenth marked a year since Martin Amis’s death and the end of my second year at Durham. In this time, I’ve outgrown the failed attempts at Amis emulation which I thought would define my university persona and instead, found a more subdued fascination with Amis’s books. In both pub chats and essay drafts, the snarling style of his novels is a constant source of inspiration, while the tenderly balanced wit and pensiveness of his memoirs offers escapism without fail. It is, however, the way Amis describes the process of reading that best explains his appeal. He described good writers as those who invite their readers into their most comfortable chair, serve them their most delicious wine and give them their full attention. For this reader, no writer proved a better host than Martin Amis. Where other “writerly” authors have often over-stylised to the point of self-indulgence, no Amis sentence is without a cocksure wink to the reader. Regardless of subject matter, his turgid style serves to let one in on the joke, not keep one out. Take the opening to his review of The Life of John Milton by A.N. Wilson: ‘the Milton multinational is now so far flung that one must query any addition to its holdings. A monograph on Milton’s ostler bills or ministerial memos might be in order – but another life?’Amis’s style is a symptom of hospitable good manners. He wants to make you laugh and he’s very good at it. Few but Amis could get away with describing a hangover as ‘the ghost of summer thunder,’ and not have it appear over-penned (or reek of the lamp in Amis’s words).

Martin Amis, like his father, Kingsley Amis, and every other writer worth their salt, is not without his controversy

Martin Amis, like his father, Kingsley Amis, and every other writer worth their salt, is not without his controversy. I haven’t the time nor the authority to mount a proper defence here, but I will say this, I’ve never come across a Martin Amis reader that wasn’t wholly pleasant, reasonable, and moderate. In fact, the only complaint I have is that of unoriginality, with many a young reader trying their best to emulate the cool brood of Amis. I personally have already stolen at least one of his phrases in this article. A tragic irony for the warrior against cliche. It is instead the loss of figures such as Amis, not to the literary world, but to our own personal worlds that I wish to address. I’m sure if Donna Tartt or Zadie Smith were to die, campuses would be awash with the grief stricken. We feel these writers underfoot when we walk. They colour the landscape and define our confidence. I cannot say that the Martin Amis is the greatest inspiration in my life – I never had a chance to meet the man – but my Martin Amis, the strange cocktail made by a permeable mind and alluring prose, is not only a defining inspiration but the inspiring definition of the person I am. In describing his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, Amis wrote of a ‘love whose month is ever May.’ For me, my relationship with literature is ever the May of 2023, sat on a hill in the sun.

Image credits: Javier Arce

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