Here is an idea for one of the country’s many courses in creative writing or broadcasting. To illustrate the terrible, corrupting effect of cliquishness and publicity on talent, students would be asked to analyse the careers and cuttings of a group of media types in their sixties who used to lunch together at Bertorelli’s three or so decades ago, and have been talking about it ever since.
With the mock irony which was to become his professional trademark, Clive James used the phrase “brilliant creatures” to describe the group but, over time, what brilliance there may have been has faded into absurdity. They have become serial controversialists, PR addicts. To write their names these days invokes such weariness that it is tempting to avoid spelling them out, as if they were expletives of the literary world. Martin A*** has just been attacked by Anna F***, with many references to the sainted memory of Mark B***r. Standing on the sidelines, bitching, has been C**** Hitchens while Lucretia Stewart has contributed to the debate by revealing, rather oddly, that she had bonked them all – A***, B***r and C****. She had never had much time for F***.
What a terrible advertisement for the writing life these people are. How embarrassing it is that, at a time of life when some sort of maturity should be manifesting itself, they have revealed themselves to be more preeningly self-obsessed than ever.
What went wrong? Each was bright enough in his or her way, producing essays, novels, poems or cartoons which captured the moment. One of them went on to write two funny and perceptive novels which helped define the 1980s. In the end, though, talent fades under the light of public attention. As Kazuo Ishiguro, a serious writer who has shown no interest in publicity, once put it, fame “does something to the author’s head. You are asked to be a public person and a lot of the time it can be flattering in an unhelpful way”.
The first indications of the effects of this process on the Bertorelli’s group has been a fondness for declaring each other’s genius. When, in 2001, Amis and Hitchens appeared together at the Hay Festival to discuss each other’s work, the result was one of the most embarrassing displays of mutual brown-nosing in modern literary history.
The next phase has seen them deploying the opinionated grumpiness of approaching old age, but taking care to do it in public. They have become hooked on controversy – about religion, about sex, about dying. When the effect of those has diminished, they have attacked one another.
Most of us, if annoyed by something an acquaintance has said in a newspaper, might harrumph and complain to friends. What few of us would do is to turn our irritation into a public spectacle, as Anna Ford has done. That, and the equally public responses to it, represents a degree of narcissism which almost qualifies as a form of insanity.
The great mystery is why the British press continues to be fascinated by these ageing egotists and their tedious little spats. The great sadness is the more they show off in life, the less their work is worth reading. Twenty-five years ago, a youngish novelist, in an interview for The Paris Review, described anything written about him as “secondary showbiz nonsense”. Amis and the other “brilliant creatures” have come a long way since then.
Independent, Friday, 26 February 2010