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Martin and Kingsley Amis - a tale of two titans. By Valerie Grove

Blog | By Valerie Grove | May 21, 2023

Martin Amis, who has died at 73. Picture by Javier Arce

What started as a joke (‘Martin Amis: My Struggle’ was a New Statesman competition entry in 1973 for unlikely book titles) dogged the younger Amis for decades: being compared with his then more famous father.

Amis pere’s utterances about finding his son’s novels a bit too like hard work were seized upon. But father-and-son were completely united in their shared mockery of howlers, mis-usances and sub-literate expressions. How they chortled in derision at the oiks who misused words like jejune. (Meaning thin, not puerile.) ‘Martin and I,’ Kingsley once told me, ‘have our ears permanently pricked for the way people say things.’

Laughter and jokes were the keynote of any table they shared — eg at Clive James’s Friday lunches where they were a double act. Kingsley would add grimaces about anything pretentious, even a crossed figure 7 (‘an affectation’), and all food-writing.
Once, memorably, he performed an imitation of ‘a somewhat self-congratulatory mousse’. They could spend whole lunchtimes arguing about words and discussing derivations: ‘sycophant’ being one who shows figs; ‘meticulous’ being ‘beset by small fears’; the link between penis and pencil. They shared a conviction, based on their affection for Martin’s mother Hilly, that most women were phrase-mangling Mrs Malaprops. “Get your A-levels and the world’s your lobster,” they alleged Hilly said once. Martin supplied Kingsley with several overhearings -- ‘it’s a vicious snowball’, ‘lastly but not leastly,’ and his dentist saying ‘Open widely’- for the elder Amis’s last book, The King’s English, published posthumously.

The title was an in-joke: ‘The King’ is how Martin’s gang, including the Hitch, referred to Kingsley. Martin was astonished to find this book had been left in a finished, publishable state: after his stroke, Kingsley would struggle to finish a sentence, even a cliché.

Despite the brilliance of his memoir, Experience, and of his journalism, Martin remained certain that it was fiction that revealed a writer’s soul: ’the only way to redeem the formlessness of life. Otherwise the stuff itself would strike me as unbearably thin. The entanglements of life are shapeless, just brute happenstance.’ This was just after his annus horribilis, his messy mid-life crisis affecting all his closest relationships.

In the end, he out-performed his father in the muscular diligence of his writing. He would never start a novel with what his father called the detective-story ideal: ‘The door closed softly’;‘A shot rang out.’ He had, he said, ‘sort of overstayed Kingsley’s welcome, by 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 not having to struggle.’

The fact that Amis junior had proved to be good as well as lucky was ‘a bit too bloody much’. When he said this in 1997, he also declared his ambition. Being promoted, by his father’s death, into ‘the temporal front line’was both energising and liberating. ‘I can’t, surely to God, still be the Bad Boy, as I approach my fifties.’

But he also knew: ‘There’s no point in writing at all unless you think you’re the best: every writer thirsts for longevity of esteem, and posthumous survival – but will never know if he gets it.’

Today’s reactions to Martin Amis’s death suggest that he can rest in peace.