Martin Amis’s difficult relationship with literary London
One of the lesser honours afforded to the celebrated writer Martin Amis, who died at the weekend aged 73, was perennial status in this Diary column.
As the son of a famous writer, Kingsley Amis, he attracted a certain society interest from a young age. But he broke onto the scene in his own right aged 24 with the publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. Ever after Amis enjoyed, or endured, run-ins with our Diary scribes at literary parties across London.
We first featured him in 1974 when he won the Somerset Maugham Award for The Rachel Papers. Our hack asked Amis about his father’s reaction to the news. “When I told him I’d won it, he just burst out laughing,” Amis said. “Then he just started muttering at me to just watch it. He remembered that when he won it he was 33 and I’m an infant of 24. Said I might get too vain if things went too well for me too early.”
The good-will between Amis and the Londoner didn’t last. In the 1990s, the column made an enemy of him with two scoops. First we revealed he was demanding a £500,000 advance for his next novel, The Information. Second, that he had spent £20,000 on a dental procedure to fix his crooked teeth.
Much of the literary crowd in London turned on Amis. They were led by the novelist A.S. Byatt, who called his financial rearrangements “folie de grandeur” and “a kind of male turkey cocking”. The negative attention compounded with the death of his father Kingsley led Amis to characterise 1995 as his annus horribilis.
So stung was Amis by the Diary’s scoops that he placed a minor character in The Information named Rory Plantagenet, the “cornily patrician and altogether vestigial” editor of an unnamed London evening newspaper’s diary column. The diary editor who broke the embarrassing stories, Rory Knight Bruce, wanted Amis to admit that he was the basis of the character. He gate-crashed the launch party of The Information, hid in a broom cupboard for much of the evening eavesdropping on guests like Salman Rushdie and Nigella Lawson, before emerging to demand answers from Amis. “Yes, you are Rory Plantagenet,” said Amis, “but there is some hope for him.”
Amis was open about his irritation with the British press. “People were very generous to me to begin with,” he said, “people who had been generous to me for a while probably expected me to write a couple of novels and then shut up, as writers’ sons usually do. There’s a feeling that it’s a bit bloody much that I’ve gone on and on and here I still am.”
In 2002 Knight Bruce had moved on but some animosity remained. The column rather unfairly railed against a piece Amis wrote in the New Yorker on the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, declaring him a sycophant and suggesting he was after a knighthood.
In the mid-2000s relations healed as the column found common cause with Amis over the indoor smoking ban. We watched on with admiration as he lit up a rollie at Granta magazine’s 100 party in 2008 and rebuffed instructions to go outside. He left eventually, but only after a back and forth that lasted about the duration of a smoke.
Amis got away from the London scene entirely in 2012 when he moved to Brooklyn, but he still popped up in the diary ocassionally when he returned for book tours and the like.