Monthly Archives: October 2007

Amis and his “urges”

I meant to write about this a while ago, but put it aside due to work. In a previous post I said I’d always admire Martin Amis for writing novels like Money and London Fields. What I didn’t say was that Amis has done precious little in recent years to earn further admiration. After publishing his memoir, Experience, he wrote a non-fiction book about Stalin called Koba the Dread, which from the extracts I read was more about his friendship with Julian Barnes and Christopher Hitchens. What better way to commemorate the tens of millions of victims of Stalinism than by thrashing out a tiff over which well-off author said what about Communism back in the 70s? The book was followed by Yellow Dog, infamously hated by critics (and by this reader).

Post-9/11, Amis published some meditations on the war on terror, in the form of a short story, “The Last Days of Muhammed Atta” and a long essay, “The Age Of Horrorism”, both published in The Observer. The short story contained an intriguing meditation on Atta’s “punishment”, suggesting that for the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers the very definition of hell was to be trapped with his own rage and self-loathing for all eternity. I myself had a slightly different view, believing that hell can be defined as having to read Amis’ lengthy description of the terrorist straining on the toilet, trying to take his final dump.

The essay wasn’t much better; a confused melange of stereotypes, overgeneralisations and Amis’ own overwhelming belief in the importance of his own opinion. Even the word “horrorism” in the title just seems silly, as his overblown prose attempts to hype up a shocking event (which doesn’t really need hyping up) and simply can’t compete.

Which brings me to the essential elements of Amis’s writing – he is an atrocity tourist. For the last few years, he has been trawling the worst parts of the 20th Century in his books; the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow, the Gulag in Koba the Dread and House Of Meetings. In a review of the latter book, Nicholas Lezard writes:

Amis has always described the world, even west London, as being full of the worst things. This almost irresponsible hyperbole has always been his trick, what gives his writing its finest and most distinctive savour. But now he has found the worst thing in the world, and the style now fits it neatly.

Except his search for “the worst thing in the world” inspires him to bring his both-barrels writing approach to complex, real-world issues, and this inevitably causes problems. Witness his now-infamous comments in a September 2006 interview with Ginny Dougary in The Times:

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part.”

This “urge” may well have stayed buried if Terry Eagleton, Amis’s new colleague at the University of Manchester, hadn’t brought them up. Quite honestly, any airing of these views by anyone I know would have prompted a furious response from me. They are absolutely disgusting and advocate collective punishment based on ethnic origin (“people who look like they’re from the Middle East”). Quite apart from the futility of such tactics in persuading people to give up terrorism, he also expresses a worry in the same interview that:

They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

This is plain, old-fashioned racism – the never-ending fear of the white man being outbred by “inferior races” that has recently gained new currency through far-right authors such as Mark Steyn. The fact that Mart described these opinions (and has since defended them) as an “urge” makes them even more nauseating – he acquires the nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of a saloon-bar bigot trying to justify his prejudices.

Since the story broke in the mainstream media, Amis has been trying to play it down. Does he prove he’s not a racist? In this Channel 4 News interview, he demonstrates nothing except an impressive ability to wriggle out of any question asked him. But the more ominous conclusion I draw from this episode, and from Amis’s terrorism-related writing, is not that he hates Muslims, he simply doesn’t see them at all. The talk of discriminatory tactics, strip-searches and deportations doesn’t come from a misunderstanding of counter-terrorism or unawareness of the futility of collective punishment. It comes from seeing a billion or so Muslims (1.5 million of whom live in Britain) as less than human.

In his amateur and highly selective sketching of Middle East history and his plans for the Great Islamic Reformation contained within “Horrorism”, he never outlines what any actual Muslims may think about this. They are just pawns to be pushed around on the chessboard of Martin Amis’s big ideas. The danger is that seeing people of a certain religion as a problem to be dealt with is an idea that is spreading through the political and intellectual circles of the West, with dangerous consequences.


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20 minutes into the future

Bored and hungover watching TV on Saturday night, I switched over to More4, which was showing various famous and infamous Channel 4 programs under the Channel 4 at 25 season, and saw the 1985 Max Headroom TV movie was on. Looking it up on IMDB today, I was a little surprised to find out that it was only made to provide a back story for the Max Headroom character who appeared on a music video show. The movie itself, while baffling, was a great-looking piece of work, mixing drama and dark humour in a portrayal of a gritty, run-down future that hardly seemed dated at all.

This got me thinking; why do so many of the best dystopian visions of the future come from the 1980s? I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and of the film adaptation of 1984 done in the same year. Both were distinctly British takes on a dark future, picturing a world where nothing worked and authority was either malevolent or incompetent (or both). Rather than the sleek surfaces and outward-looking optimism of 1950s sci-fi, inspired by American postwar prosperity and the Atomic Age, these dystopias seemed based on the austerity of Britain in the 1940s, as Orwell clearly and intentionally did when writing 1984. Added to this, the Thatcherite 1980s, with their celebration of laissez-faire capitalism and growing gap between rich and poor, created unease over a possibly unequal and unstable future society. It was a time when the country was changing, so people projected their anxieties into the future, enlarging them to fit the canvas of science fiction.

Do the anxieties of our own age (of terrorism, environmental disaster, demographic timebombs) get as good a presentation? While a number of contemporary works have tackled the threat of Islamist terrorism and war in Iraq, the only truly effective vision of a future based on such dark themes is Alfonso Cuaron’s blistering Children of Men. The film’s central plot device – an outbreak of infertility dooming the human race – can be read as a metaphor for mass disillusionment in the face of a world in such bad shape that life loses all meaning. The most frightening vision of a possible future where we refuse to believe in the future anymore.

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Airline service: a peasant’s view

Joe at Mutantfrog wrote a post recently on the evolution of flight paths from Europe to Japan. Readers my age may be surprised to know there used to be an awfully large country called the USSR directly in the way, which wouldn’t allow Western airlines to fly through its airspace. The route to and from Japan was eventually whittled down from a monster Tokyo – Manila – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – New Delhi – Karachi – Bahrain – Cairo – Rome (- London) route in the 1950s, to nonstop flights between Japan and Helsinki, which involved going over the North Pole. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, airspace restrictions were lifted, and all flights to Japan I’ve been on the past four years take me over Russian airspace.

The first time I ever went on a long-distance flight was to Japan, way back in 2003. I had window seat, and spent a lot of the 12-hour flight marveling at the epic expanses of the Russian landscape spread out beneath me. Of course, it only took a couple more trips for the magic to wear off. Now, I go for an aisle seat every time, so I can get served drinks and go to the toilet easier.

Don’t think this marks me out as a seasoned traveller. For the most part, I buy all my tickets from student travel agency STA Travel, and rank them on how much money I can save. (Nota bene: for flights to the Far East “saving money” is a relative notion.) That’s fine – I’m not particularly fussed about gathering up air miles so I don’t have to kick it in economy class with the other peasants. In fact, going on a different airline every time gives me some insights about how the service varies across different airlines.

JAL is assumed by many to be the Holy Grail of air travel to Japan, and I certainly arrived for my year abroad in style; direct flight from Heathrow to KIX, delicious food and those lovely warm towelettes that precede meals in Japan. (You clean your hands with them, but on long-distance flights nobody minds if you sneakily freshen up and wipe your face as well.) Air France pleased me less, as its 20kg weight limit for luggage meant that I was charged loads for bringing a year’s worth of stuff back home. On the plus side, their food was good as well – at least by airline standards. On a short return trip last summer, I used KLM, which I have to say is the best of the bunch. You were fed almost non-stop, the in-flight entertainment was on demand – which meant you could start and stop the films whenever you wanted – and the selection was great. I watched De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Casino Royale (again), The Departed (again), and a rubbish action flick called Shooter – the less said about that the better.

As for the mystical quality known as “service” – namely, how well the staff treat you – I don’t see it as a huge factor. I got drinks and food whenever I wanted, and in the end that’s what counts – I don’t really need stewardesses smiling at me and patting my head to make me feel special. Or stewards, for that matter.

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Useless trivia (an occasional series)

I read a couple of weeks ago that singer-songwriter Jack Peñate (who delivered a stomring performace at Leeds Met last Saturday) is the grandson of author Mervyn Peake, writer of the Gormenghast books. According to Wikipeeja, not always reliable but filled with pop culture-related stuff, it’s true. There is literally nothing to connect the Gothic, surreal prose of Peake and Peñate’s bouncy ska and skiffle-influenced pop, except the fact I rather like them both.

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