- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

A literary columnist broke some world-shattering news the other day. It seems that Martin Amis attended the launch for Madonna’s much-hyped children’s book, “The English Roses.” But when Mr. Amis threw a party to mark the publication of his own opus, “Yellow Dog,” Madonna was conspicuously absent. For all I know, that great woman of letters may not even have been invited to the bash in the first place. Yet it is a sign of Mr. Amis’ faltering reputation that the item was deemed worthy of printing in the first place.

For years now, London’s literati have embarked on an earnest ritual whenever a Booker Prize shortlist is announced. There can only be one question: What are Mr. Amis’ chances of carrying off the prize? This year the gossiping was muted. “Yellow Dog” won such tepid reviews that even the writer’s most faithful cheerleaders could only go through the motions. It is not long since his study of the cult of Stalin, “Koba The Dread”, attracted some spectacularly bad notices.

In comparison “Yellow Dog” was damned with faint praise, although a critique by Mr. Amis’ fellow-author and erstwhile admirer Tibor Fischer looks destined for a place in the hatchet-job Hall of Fame. “Yellow Dog isn’t bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing,” Mr. Fischer declared in an article ahead of the book’s publication. “It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad. I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page).” The next sentence in the review cannot really be reproduced in a family newspaper. Suffice to say that Mr. Fischer is not likely to be on Mr. Amis’ Christmas card list this year.

It came as no surprise, then, that Mr. Amis failed to make the cut for this year’s Booker. Worst still, he found himself being upstaged by an unknown writer, Clare Morrall, whose book “Astonishing Splashes of Colour,” fought its way onto the shortlist despite having been rejected by no fewer than 33 literary agents. Mr. Amis is said to have received a six-figure advance for his novel; Ms. Morrall, a 51 year-old music teacher, was paid around $3,000 by a tiny firm based in the unfashionable city of Birmingham.

Mr. Amis’ stock will no doubt recover sooner or later. But will he ever clamber back up to the heights he reached two decades ago when “Money” was the most fashionable book in town? My own guess is that he won’t. Reviewers who were once dazzled by his phrase-making and his ability to dredge up the most obscure words from the recesses of the Oxford English Dictionary are now grumbling about his inability to construct convincing storylines or three-dimensional characters. Suddenly, they all want him to be Trollope.

Having never been able to summon up the will to finish any of Mr. Amis’ novels — not even Money — I cannot help feeling slightly smug. I preferred Trollope all along.

Still, it is none too edifying to see him become a figure of fun. After being over-praised early in his career, Mr. Amis is now over-criticized. Much like poor David Blaine, suspended in his Perspex box for the amusement of the mob at Tower Bridge, he is having eggs thrown at him from all directions. The crowds have been so eager to make fun of his reviews and his famously expensive dental work that they forget that he remains a fine critic. The best of the literary essays and reviews in his portentously titled collection “The War Against Cliche” will outlast those of just about all of his contemporaries.

If one good thing comes out of this sorry spectacle it is that people may start to reevaluate the work of his father, Kingsley Amis, a figure who knew all about the fickleness of critics. For the last 20 years of his life — he died in 1995 — Amis Sr. watched his son’s star slowly outshine his own. Walk into a London bookshop and you will notice that while Amis Jr. is represented by half a dozen or more titles, his father is lucky to have more than “Lucky Jim” to his name.

Even “The Green Man,” a superb ghost story that was turned into a successful TV series a few years ago, is hard to track down. The same is true of “That Uncertain Feeling” — my own favorite among his novels — a magnificent dissection of small town manners, published in the mid-1950s. Towards the end of his career, Amis cultivated a reputation as a Blimp-ish reactionary and heavy-drinking stalwart of the Garrick Club. But the earlier novels, and even a late work such as “Stanley and the Women,” are full of the insecurities of a writer who was born on the wrong side of the British class divide.

Amis was a product of the suburban sprawl south of the Thames; his son was raised in ultra-fashionable west London. That difference goes a long way to explaining the differences between them.

It is a long time since that other grand old man, Norman Mailer wrote or said anything that did much for his own reputation. I was waiting for him to pop up in “Breaking The Silence”, a much-trumpeted TV documentary-cum-essay aired this week on ITV, Britain’s main commercial network.

Presented by the left-wing journalist and veteran anti-American campaigner John Pilger, the program purported to unveil the real aims of the War on Terror. If you thought the true purpose of the war had something to do with Islamic fundamentalism, Mr. Pilger supplied an alternative view: “Who are the most threatening terrorists?” he asked. “Indeed, who is responsible for greater acts of violence than those committed by the fanatics of Al Qaeda — crimes that have claimed more lives than September 11, and always in poor, devastated, far-away places, from Latin America to South-East Asia?”

The answer was obvious enough. All that was missing in this slickly crafted piece of propaganda was archive footage of George W. Bush trying on his jackboots in the Oval Office.

Dear old Norman did not make an appearance in the end, but the film could not resist tossing in one of his recent observations, to the effect that America is now in a “pre-fascist” phase. In a risible piece of demagoguery — much like Michael Moore without the jokes — Mr. Pilger tossed around images of wounded Afghan civilians while trying to portray William Kristol, Douglas Feith and John Bolton as members of a crazed “extreme right-wing” conspiracy.

It was particularly disappointing to see the respected World War II historian Richard Overy — the subject on one of my columns in the past — being hauled in to substantiate the claim that the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were somehow the moral equivalent of the Nazis’ wars of aggression.

Intelligent viewers will have seen through all this, I hope. But how often are Kristol and Co. given a chance to express their opinions in Britain without being portrayed as crazies? Unfortunately, Mr. Pilger is not really so far from the mainstream in British current affairs. He just happens to be a lot more strident.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times.

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