The slightly-built figure with a tanned face and long greyish-blue raincoat stood outside Oxford’s imposing Sheldonian Theatre. Around him buzzed a swarm of photographers, all eager to capture the great man on film before the start of the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival event.
Martin Amis waited patiently for the snappers to finish before hurrying in. Ten minutes later he and the poet and critic Craig Raine (who as a postgraduate student taught Amis at Oxford), took centre stage. Raine dumped his bag on the floor, unravelled his scarf and then admitted cheerily to the audience that the pair of them had rehearsed “very little, if at all.”
The hour-long conversation that ensued was patchy – entertaining in places, shambolic in others. The two men covered everything from Amis’s view that for women, “having it all suddenly became doing it all” to his realisation that age is “very comic and tremendously humiliating.” Asked by Raine whether he got “cheesed off” when he was accused of being a misogynist, he said drily, “not nearly as cheesed off as my wife.”
Amis was primarily there to plug his new book, The Pregnant Widow, but the most fascinating part of the talk came when he spoke about his early novels. He said his writing style had “changed unrecognisably” and that he was “aghast” when he recently re-read the three or four pages of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. “A first novel is about energy and originality,” he said, “but to me now it looks so crude. I don’t mean bad language – it’s so clumsily put together. The sense of decorum, the slowing a sentence down, the scrupulousness I feel I have acquired, aren’t there. As you get older, your craft, the knack of knowing what goes where, what goes when, is much more acute.”
Asked which novels is his favourite, he admitted that it’s always “the last one – and they go down in my estimation to the first one.”
Amis sounded far more modest than I’d expected, and while he hasn’t exactly mellowed, there’s no way he sounds like an angry young man any more.