"The great poet of the postmodern metropolis" Colin McPherson/Corbis/Getty Images

May 23, 2023   5 mins

English culture has produced a number of cliques and coteries in its day, from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Bloomsbury Group to Macspaunday (otherwise known as the Thirties poets Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Cecil Day Lewis). The Angry Young Men of the Fifties weren’t exactly a clique since they scarcely knew each other, and apart from being young they shared almost nothing in common, least of all anger. Several of them ended up as curmudgeonly old buffers with dubious views about women and ethnicity. Among the latter was Kingsley Amis, father of the novelist Martin Amis, who died last week. Amis Senior moved from the high-spirited iconoclasm of Lucky Jim to a Right-wing clubman’s view of the world, and we shall see later that in one respect at least, Amis Junior followed suit.

Amis’s own clique — Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Clive James — were a formidably talented bunch of wits and whiz kids, almost all of them products of Oxbridge in an era of intense cultural creativity, the Sixties and Seventies. Between them they have produced superlative fiction, caustic satire, and devastating humour. Hitchens, who wrote that the life of the “poxed and suppurating” John F. Kennedy was remarkable not for being cut short but for lasting so long, described Prince Charles (as he was then) as a “morose, bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts”. Ian Fleming was “a heavy sadist and narcissist and all-round pervert” with a particular penchant for the human bottom.

Hitchens’s spiritual twin, Martin Amis, easily matched him for mordant wit. He was the great poet of the postmodern metropolis, his finger unerringly on the pulse of its hardboiled, streetwise, sexually libidinous inhabitants. His sensibility belonged as exactly to its time and place as that of Dickens or Faulkner. We are ushered into a depthless, deregulated world of appetite, self-interest, and purely vacuous freedom in which anything goes, held together only by the rigour of literary style. Style in Amis is what rises triumphantly above the squalor of his material. Its shapeliness, equipoise and finesse constitute an implicit critique of contemporary culture, which saved him from anything as uncool as having to pass explicit moral judgements on it. He once remarked that he would sell his grandmother for a finely turned phrase, and if I were his grandmother I would have taken this comment seriously enough to go into hiding. In a literary milieu in which style is sometimes considered “elitist”, few modern writers can handle a sentence so superbly.

Part of Amis knew this frenetically consumerist culture from the inside, while an alter ego submitted it to savagely entertaining satire in the name of a moral norm which is present only by its absence. His fiction thus refutes the old clichĂ© that satire requires a stable standard by which to judge. If anything goes, however, nothing has value — not even shock-value, which is why calling a book Dead Babies smacked of clamouring for attention in an offence-proof world. The great modernist writers had the good fortune to confront a readership that was still eminently shockable. Indeed, the title Dead Babies would have been unthinkable in the Sixties, only a decade before the book appeared. In a postmodern world where the monstrous and psychopathic are routine, Amis didn’t have the modernists’ advantage. This was a civilisation in which nothing could be said, which was both the object of his satire and a source of his endless verbal fertility.

There’s a disparity in Amis’s writing between the sordid or macabre events it narrates and the tamely conventional views which silently underpin it. It’s a discrepancy which is true in different ways of Rushdie and McEwan. These writers portray a late-capitalist world which shows up the bankruptcy of liberal values, yet they have no real alternative to such values themselves. Like most liberals, they are nervous of convictions and commitments, which appear them as dogmatism and soulless system. (When Boris Johnson was asked in an interview whether he had any convictions, he replied warily that he had picked up one or two for speeding.) Amis dismissed socialism and Christianity as obsolete ideologies, but in his view all ideologies were obsolete. Except, of course, middle-class liberalism, which is no more than plain common sense. One of Clive James’s favourite slogans was “pas de zele”, though one imagines that his aversion to ardour didn’t apply to opposing General Strikes.

The contemporary world is divided between those who believe too much (Islamists, for example) and those who believe too little (the metropolitan literati). It was logical, then, that when Islamism struck in New York on 9/11, having first invaded the London literary world in the shape of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Rushdie should wrap himself in the Stars and Stripes, apparently unconcerned by the fact that 30 years to the day before 9/11, the USA overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile and installed in its place an odious dictator who proceeded to murder far more people than died in the World Trade Centre.

Martin Amis’s response to the tragedy was more discreditable. The Muslim community would have to suffer, he suggested, and Muslims — even entirely innocent ones — should be hounded and harassed, with deportation further down the line. This, we should note, was the view of a liberal. God knows what retribution the far-Right were dreaming up. Amis’s vile pronouncement exposed the limits of liberalism, which can move quickly into a violent defence of the status quo. Christopher Hitchens mounted a shabbily disingenuous defence of his old chum, claiming that Amis had merely been engaged in a “thought experiment”. It’s remarkable how Hitchens’s much-sung passion for truth and justice failed to extend to his literary cronies.

All of the Amis coterie launch their critiques of contemporary culture from a privileged position within it. As a young journalist, Hitchens was the ultimate champagne socialist, though as his career progressed the champagne gradually took over from the socialism. His desire to belabour the Establishment was matched only by his eagerness to belong to it. A practising Trotskyist at Oxford (though he never really practised enough to get good at it), he ended up admiring George Bush, dining with the architects of Western butchery in Iraq and generally cosying up to the neocons. James Fenton also began his adult life as a Leftist revolutionary before leaving such infantile fantasises well behind him.

These aren’t just biographical issues, but they aren’t to be mistaken for literary judgements either. The relation between politics and letters is more complex than that, as a glance at the great modernist writers would suggest. Joseph Conrad was a deep-dyed conservative and misogynist with a virulent hatred of the political Left. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis supported the fascist cause, while W.B. Yeats, a champion of plans to stop the poor from breeding, flirted with fascism as well. D.H. Lawrence was racist, sexist, homophobic and antisemitic, while T.S. Eliot was a high Tory who championed a quasi-fascistic French movement. Yet all of these figures were radicals — radicals of the Right rather than the Left — and the fineness of their work is related to the depth and breadth of their challenge to a liberal democracy in profound crisis. Besides, there were plenty of modernist experiments on the political Left as well.

Almost all of these writers thought deeply about politics, philosophy and the shape of a whole civilisation, which is hardly true of Clive James. Some of them were powerful visionaries, which is not quite how one would describe Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan. This is one reason why their work, taken as a whole, has never been equalled in the century or so which has passed since it appeared, and certainly not by the Amis group. It’s surely no accident that the finest artist among the latter, Salman Rushdie, has moved between different cultures, idioms. and literary forms like so many modernist authors before him, transcending provincial pieties and decencies.

As for Amis, he and I crossed swords once or twice in public, not least because of what I took to be his slur on a whole people. But he spoke in a moment of panic and withdrew his words later, though as far as I know he never apologised to those he had offended. He was a fabulously gifted writer, and though I never met him (he wouldn’t share a TV studio with me) his relatively early death is a sore loss to the republic of letters.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.