"SHE IS THE SMILIEST, MOST PLAYFUL OF BABIES"
BY VALERIE GROVE
[FROM THE TIMES OF LONDON. 7 APRIL 71997; posted on the Martin Amis Discussion Board 5 January 2000.]
Pictured for the first time with his baby daughter, Fernanda, Martin Amis talks about a year which has left him "emboldened and strengthened".
A year ago, six months after his father's death, Martin Amis told me he missed his dad most when he wanted to discuss some point of language with him. This may have seemed to some a peculiarly cerebral form of bereavement. But the shorthand dialogue between two like minds is the greatest loss. "I'm always dying to tell him things", Martin says.
Of course. Mangled, misused words were the lingua franca of Amis pere et fils. How they chortled in derision at the berks and oiks who could not spell, pronounce or use correctly the word *jejune*. (Nothing to do with jeune, and means thin, not puerile.) "Martin and I", Kingsley once told me, "have our ears permanently pricked for the way people say things."
Kingsley, who would have been 75 next week, is now back in the bestsellers with *The King's English*, his commonplace book about the state of the language.
I met Martin in The Engineer pub in Primrose Hill. At 47, he finds himself the father of a substantial family (four) and has moved with the writer Isabel Fonseca and their new baby Fernanda into a handsome stuccoed house in the road where his father lived.
It was perfectly possible---as it was with Kingsley---to spend the entire lunch arguing and laughing about words: the mysterious derivation of *sycophant* (one who shows figs); of *penis/pencil*; of *meticulous* ("beset by small fears"). "I'm slightly to the left of him, on language as on everything else", Martin said. "I don't say *medi-eval*, do you?" (I do, actually.)
He was astonished to find this book complete after his father's death. "I used to take the two boys to lunch there every Sunday, and would go to have a cigarette in his study. I remember seeing the *Deja vu* section on his desk and thought it was perfectly perceived and executed. But I rather doubted that there was a book's worth of stuff.
"After his stroke, he would struggle for words, even to complete a cliche. He would still tap away, but Mum said he was battling with the same sentence, day after day. Poor, poor thing.
"So I was amazed, when I got the typescript, at how solid and finished it was, and to find him at his most incisive, fair-minded, and wise. Some reviewers called it idiosyncratic. What did they expect from Kingsley?"
The title is an in-joke. Kingsley Amis was not fancying himself Fowler, or forgetting that it's now The Queen's English, as foolish pedants harrumphed. "The King" was how he was known among friends---a literary gang-leader, as Charles Moore wrote to The Spectator to say. (Close friends addressed him as *Kingers*. "Robert Conquest was *Conquers*", says Martin. "And they referred to Solzhenitsyn as *Soldiers*.")
I love the book because he deals with my bete noire, the now common misuse of "may" for "might" when the outcome is already known. "I may have died" or "The Queen may have got engaged to several other suitors before Prince Philip" are priceless examples that I wish the King were here to share.
"My obsession", Martin said, "is *if it were* and *if it was*. I once read, 'If the Big Bang were an instantaneous event'---and thought, well, it's the beginning of time, that long ago, it has to be *was*. But a philosopher friend tells me great minds have wrestled with this and not managed to get it straight. It's one of the great miasmas of language."
Martin, who took a congratulatory First in English at Oxford, is less classically educated than his father,having small Latin (O-level grade D) and no Greek. On a French TV programme he needed an interpreter but so did John Updike and V.S. Naipaul.
Still, in the impromptu brilliance of his conversation, and the muscular diligence of his writing, he outclasses his father. He would never use a word against its derivation: "You can't say *a dilapidated hedge* when *lapis* is stone." His dictionary is well-thumbed, and as Kingsley writes: "The habit of consulting a dictionary is largely dying out." In fact the book's refrain is Going, Going, as in Larkin's morose poem. The apostrophe is going, the possessive gerund is going, the subjunctive is almost gone. Change and decay in all around he sees. Yet it is also full of jokes, just as Martin's 1970s New Statesman column, *This English*, was.
Martin supplied his father with several items. It was he who told him about his dentist saying "Open widely". And Martin who heard Jessica Lange at the Golden Globes in Hollywood saying "Lastly but not leastly, I'd like to thank..."
Kingsley Amis is scathing of snob usages: *Connexion* is not classier than *connection*. But he still sets some arbitrarily snobby U/Non-U traps: crossed sevens are "an affectation"; he judges it absurd to pronounce Latin as Latin, not English; he disallows the useful *forever* as in "I'm forever blowing bubbles". He insists that *alas* is pronounced "alahs". Pfui! as he would say.
Most infuriating is *Womanese*. The Amises share a conviction that all women are Mrs Malaprops. Most of Kingsley's examples are from Martin's novel *The Information*---"the only page he read: I marked it for him". Martin says all the women in his life mangle phrases, and his mother, Hilly, is "world heavyweight champion". (She once said, "Get your A levels, and the world's your lobster".)
It is a relief to see Martin Amis smile. For him, 1995-6 moved off the Richter scale of stress indicators: his marriage broke up; Isabel Fonseca was pregnant; he moved house; he had his teeth expensively fixed. He ditched his agent and his publisher; he was accused of greed and in a painfully public rift, lost his old friend Julian Barnes. His long-disappeared cousin Lucy Partington turned out to be one of Fred West's victims. *The Information* was about the mid-life crisis and it became a mid-life crisis: he said all he needed now was the death of a parent...
However, he says, a crisis strengthens and emboldens you. And it passes. One bonus was the emergence of Delilah Seale, his daughter from a 1975 affair, now an Oxford undergraduate of 21. Two new books are finished. And in November, Fernanda arrived, "the smiliest, most playful" of babies, he dotingly says. He can see what he missed by not knowing Delilah's babyhood. "Girl and boy babies are like kittens and puppies. Boys are noisy, messy and get wet and shake their fur at you. And it's true that a dad can be more affectionate to a daughter. With a boy, even when they're six months old you're on the brink of having the conversation that begins 'This is all very well, but you have to stand on your own two feet...'"
His tennis partner, Zachary Leader, editing the Amis letters, says they are mercifully "not too bad" on the racist/sexist front. "I said to Kingsley when the Larkin letters came out, 'yours will be even worse, what are you going to do about it?' and he said 'Nothing. I'll be dead, you'll have to deal with it'. One of the few times he referred cheerfully to his own death."
I wonder if Martin will ever shake off the son-of-Kingsley tag. A New Statesman competition for unlikely book titles included *Martin Amis: My Struggle*. Good joke---but the fact that Amis junior should prove to be good as well as lucky was "a bit bloody much". "I sort of overstayed Kingsley's welcome, by sticking around, not shutting up after a couple of novels. I came down with a full set of dad's genes and talents, and people thought I'd bucked the work ethic, by my struggle not being a struggle." Is he released from all that now?
"Well, no, because I'm still overstaying the welcome." He remains fixed in favour of fiction above biography as revealing of the writer's soul; it is "the only way to redeem the formlessness of life, otherwise the stuff itself would strike me as unendurably thin". Come on, he can hardly call his recent life thin. "But the entanglements of life are shapeless, just brute happenstance, heavy-handed reality."
He says a writer is, by definition, one who is most alive when alone. "But there's a big bill to pay. It makes you very detached. I notice, even with the baby, if I'm very preoccupied with writing, and come down and pick her up and kiss her, it's as if she's a stranger, because I'm so elsewhere. But that's the only complaint I have against the job." As he told Melvyn Bragg in his South Bank interview, there is no point in writing at all unless you think you're the best; every writer thirsts for Johnsonian longevity of esteem, and posthumous survival---but will never know if he gets it.
Kingsley would have winced to hear Sue Lawley introducing Martin on Desert Island Discs recently with a howling dangler: "Cool, witty and 47, writing is of overwhelming importance to him." He would also have heard Martin concede to Sue that the death of the intercessionary parent promotes one into the temporal front line---and that this is both energising and liberating. "Surely I must now go from boy to man", he said. "I can't, surely to God, still be the Bad Boy, as I approach my fifties."
The King is dead; long live the King; and from what he tells me, the princes Louis and Jacob are a brace of sharp kids.
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