“The rage, the dissatisfaction, the bitterness”: an old novelist speaks

The surprisingly large number of English people who heartily dislike their own country are in for a trying few days. The cricket season has started. Two bank holiday weekends in the spring sunshine will encourage families to celebrate the joys of the English countryside and seaside. Politically, the likelihood that the Scottish National Party will soon enjoy majority rule in its own country will put the question of nationalism centre-stage.

Then, the climax of this orgy of Englishness, there will be a royal wedding, with its frenzy of sentimental press supplements, its misty-eyed nostalgia, all supplied with a grave yet simpering commentary from Huw Edwards, Nicholas Witchell and other loyal, forelock-tugging subjects in the media. Some England-haters have booked holidays abroad, but one has decided to make the move permanent. Martin Amis is leaving the country once again. In fact, as he recently told the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, he would “prefer not to be English” at all. This country, he says, has declined from being an imperial power to rarely even being mentioned in The New York Times.

England is in “a state of moral decrepitude”, apparently. There is the lottery, celebrity as a new religion, the tabloids, not to mention “over-excited models and rock stars in short shorts”. His current novel, called State of England, will address our national decline and “the rage, the dissatisfaction, the bitterness” it has caused. The book will, he boldly predicts, “be considered the final insult”.

This is not, one has to remind oneself, some leathery old expat speaking, slumped over an international edition of the Daily Express by a swimming pool in the Dordogne; it is the author of Money, London Fields and – how cruel life can be – The War Against Cliché. Coming from a serious novelist, these views verge on the unhinged. To judge whether a country “matters” on the basis of its power on the world is plain silly. The various malaises of which he accuses his homeland may well be true, but they are precisely what provides a novelist with material. He should be running towards them, rather than moving abroad. The idea that English culture will be gravely insulted by a novel from his mighty pen is slightly embarrassing.

Yet this spasm of rage is more interesting than it may seem. Amis has been leaving, or talking about leaving, England for the past decade. He goes away – sometimes to America, sometimes to Uruguay – and then comes back to become infuriated all over again.

The man once described as the voice of a generation still is. The anger is grimly familiar: it is that of a man in his seventh decade who dislikes the way the world is going. Like his father, Amis has built up an impressive head of steam over the years and, now that he has reached the stage in his life when personal disappointment and vulnerability have kicked in, he seems positively to glow with universal disgust.

Kingsley Amis put that rage to good effect in The Old Devils, recognising that what is a truly interesting theme for a novel is not national decline but the ageing men who believe it is all around them. It is not England’s decrepitude that could make a fascinating novel, but that of Martin Amis. Sixteen years ago, he wrote brilliantly in The Information about how sexual and professional success or failure impinged on the lives of two writers. If the new novel is as brave, funny and forensic in its view of age, intolerance, frustration and disappointment, it will be a treat. Perhaps, as a tribute to his father’s novel One Fat Englishman, he might call it One Sad Englishman.

On the other hand, if it is, as he seems to be indicating, a sustained complaint about how the country is going to the dogs, we can all save time by reading the international edition of the Daily Express.

Independent, Friday, 22 April 2011