Monday, March 8, 2010

My words are bigger than yours

Martin Amis and his verbal brawls are no classier than Pete 'n' Kate's split, writes Susan Daly

Saturday March 06 2010

He says he's misunderstood. She says he's a selfish cad. His friend calls her spiteful. The parties involved, all well-known faces, chose to air their dirty linen through the pages of a British national newspaper rather than settle their grievances in private.

You would be forgiven for thinking this to be the latest volley in the bitter split between glamour model Katie 'Jordan' Price and pop-singer Peter Andre. The protagonists in this petty tit-for-tat, however, would be horrified by the presumption. Martin Amis is the enfant terrible of modern English literature. Anna Ford was once the face of BBC news. Surely a spat between them is of public importance?

It was certainly reported as such. The row was sparked when Amis complained to The Guardian newspaper that the press made a habit of twisting his quotes and making him look controversial when, really, he's just a nice old man. Ford, whose late husband was a close friend of Amis, took umbrage at this image of victimhood and called Amis to tell him to get over himself.

Except, of course, she didn't. She aired her accusations that Amis had been disrespectful at her husband's deathbed and neglectful of her daughter, his godchild, in a letter to The Guardian newspaper. Amis vowed to reply to Ford "personally". It transpired that to Amis, this meant a rebuttal fired off to the letters page, admitting his shortcomings as a godfather but calling her other grievances an "unworthy farrago".

A few days later, novelist Christopher Hitchens, a mutual friend of Amis and Ford's late husband Mark Boxer, stuck his oar in to take Amis's side in what he described as this "cultural free-for-all".

Hitchens was right about one thing: it was a free-for-all. The row was as undignified as drunken fisticuffs on a Friday night -- and every bit as trivial. Yet because this bit of luvvie hand-flapping was conducted through the pages of a liberal broadsheet, it acquired the sheen of intelligentsia.

The chattering classes had a licence to gawk at what was essentially a tabloid smackdown with bigger words. (Who uses 'farrago' as a term of abuse?)

Pete 'n' Jordan's bitchfests are in the tuppenny place to the tawdry squabbles of Amis and his literary cohorts. Amis -- the misunderstood guy, remember -- is as prolific in making enemies as writing novels. He threw over Pat Kavanagh, his agent of 22 years, in favour of a bigger advance in the early 1990s, losing his long-time friend Julian Barnes, Kavanagh's husband, in the process.

He dirtied his bib chez Kavanagh a second time by replacing his lover Julie Kavanagh, sister of Pat, with her best friend. He left his first wife, also for her best friend, the writer and now current Mrs Amis, Isabel Fonseca.

Amis's second in his recent duel, Christopher Hitchens, is no less generous with his sabre. An extract from his forthcoming memoir -- and it is forthcoming in many ways -- detailed his trysts in college with two young men who would later become members of Margaret Thatcher's government. He also included the nugget that he had slept with Sally Amis, Martin's younger sister. Amis himself has detailed Sally's battle with the alcoholism that would eventually kill her and what he called her "pathological promiscuity".

If this level of tawdry detail spilled over the pages of Heat magazine, it would be deemed tacky. Literary giants don't do sordid though -- they have grand passions.

Amis is a magnet for negative publicity that he says he does nothing to create. In the column that got Ford so riled up, Amis claimed a "mishmash of quotes" were responsible for reports that he had called for euthanasia for the elderly, and expressed dismay that women have "too much power for their own good".

His talent for generating attention is ironic considering comments he made about Katie Price a few months ago, reducing her appeal to "two bags of silicone". Amis feels he too is being reduced to the sum of his most gossiped-about parts, and his work overlooked. (He has a book out, you know.) He wrote: "The vow of silence looks more and more attractive."

It's a threat unlikely to be carried out. Amis's wordy circle can't resist the frisson of a bit of verbal mudslinging. Salman Rushdie has had a long-running feud with Germaine Greer since she -- he says -- dubbed him a megalomaniac almost 20 years ago. He in turn calls her "sanctimonious".

Chris Hitchens called Gore Vidal a "crackpot" last month and fell out with his journalist brother Peter for years, their dispute re-ignited from time to time in various publications.

The roots of such arguments are as banal as any in the world of celebrity -- professional rivalry, sexual jealousy, sheer bitchiness -- but are elevated by the self-importance of some literary showboats.

Yet, somehow, an obsession with the marriage of the Beckhams or the Coles is regarded as purely for the hard of thinking.

Take the case of VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux, who broke their 30-year friendship in 1996. Theroux later took the trouble to paint a thinly-veiled Naipaul as a miserly snob in his novel Sir Vidia's Shadow. The initial bone of contention between these two literary megaliths? Naipaul had married a "new and hostile" wife.

Essentially, they fell out because one didn't like the other's missus.

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