"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Damn You England: The Latest Version

The news that Martin Amis is to leave Britain again, in disgust at his native land, has been greeted with the usual round of derision from journalistic commentators.  It is what always seems to greet the public pronouncements of Amis.  Several have referred to John Osborne's notorious "A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen" published in Tribune half a century ago in August 1961 at the worst period of the Cold War. Describing this as "a letter of hate" to his fellow countrymen by which "I mean those men of my country who have defiled it. The men with manic fingers leading the sightless, feeble, betrayed body of my country to its death.  You are its murderers..."  it goes on in similar vein rather too long.  Osborne was only 31 at the time so this is not the ranting of an Amis who feels that he has had enough after a lifetime of watching his country go to the dogs.  "Damn you, England," said Osborne. "You're rotting now, and quite soon you'll disappear."  Well, as we all know, England hasn't disappeared.  The tradition of hating England has deep roots.  See for example the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, or more recently the writers of the 1930s like Lawrence Durrell.  But it is always difficult to know where hate ends and love begins.

We all have our Meldrewish moments and I notice that over in the Twitter aviary I have been sounding off in recent weeks about aggressive London cyclists, contemporary pub culture, and so forth.  In a sense Amis has a point but his manner is against him.  There is quite a lot about contemporary English life (I am deliberately avoiding conscripting Wales, Scotland and Ireland into all this) that is hard to take and, reflecting on it here in the Welsh countryside in glorious weather in recent days, I have been trying to get in touch with my mellow side and put it all in perspective.  I think it mostly boils down to a prevailing lack of adequate socialisation.  In the cities we seem to have lost the art of negotiating one another's space, the small courtesies and urbanities that make life tolerable when we are herded together.  The cyclist with his shrill whistle or deep aggressive bellowing at a pedestrian perceived to have committed some misdemeanour or the crowd of people blocking the pavement outside the pub and forcing a blind person to walk into the road (I am not making that one up) are people who have allowed themselves to get trapped in their own egos and we need to find a way to let them out.  Oh dear, what am I saying? We need to be nice to each other?  Can't I come up with something less bland?  The social psychologists tell us that people aren't really happy, in spite of all the material benefits we shower ourselves with, and I suppose this is it.  All that manic, competitive stuff on the city streets, isn't an index of personal contentment.  If you are a rich writer you can move abroad, put it all behind you, start again somewhere else.  The rest of us just need to keep on battling.  Osborne and Amis are perhaps fortunate in finding someone they can blame.

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