On the face of it, Martin Amis and Barclays Bank have little in common. But it was while reading Lionel Asbo, Amis’s new novel, that the penny finally dropped for me. What they have in common is that, in the government’s tepid reaction to the Barclays scandal, and in Lionel Asbo, we have all lost our bite. As a nation we seem to have forfeited our appetite for the jugular.
Amis is still the greatest literary stylist of our day. A great fountain of words continues to cascade from his brain/mouth/pen – a kaleidoscope of metaphors, industrial strength verbs, scabrous analogies. In this regard he is still light years ahead of Messrs Barnes, McEwan and the rest. From beginning to end, Lionel Asbo lampoons proletarian ‘culture’ – its moronic brutality and vapidity, its frightening ignorance, its self-defeating selfishness. But in the end Amis does something that the vicious eponymous hero – with his far-apart teeth reminiscent of a Halloween pumpkin – would never do: he pulls his punches. We are let off the tragedy that ‘impends’ (a typical Amis construction), as if the author couldn’t quite bring himself to deliver the killer blow, and the novel limps to an end.
But Amis is not alone in his new-found inhibitions, so far from Dead Babies. A short time before I read Asbo, I visited the Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern. This is, in my view, the worst-curated show in the long and otherwise distinguished career of Nicholas Serota. Panels on the walls of the exhibition tell you that the famous shark installations show us what fear is, close up. But they don’t. Inside a case, and surrounded by formaldehyde, they distance the shark so that they are every bit as tame as the formaldehyded sheep and cows that are displayed alongside. For Hirst (and the Tate curator, whose name I won’t mention), there is apparently no difference between a wild and vicious carnivore and a familiar and domesticated herbivore. In their world, a shark has no more bite than a sheep.
Nor are the spin or dot paintings any better, or the butterflies. They are whimsical, distant from life, devoid of emotional, still less intellectual content that relates in any direct way to our predicaments, past, present or future. Hirst had always been a second-rate artist for these very reasons, but now Amis has joined him.
So has David Hockney. How someone who is basically a scenery painter ever got where he is has always been beyond me. His recent show at the Royal Academy, with its bountiful sunshine radiating good fortune across the British landscape, would make L. S. Lowry pack up his paint box and jack it in. Hockney seems intent on making Britain as bland and as vapid as the Los Angeles he celebrated all those years ago, but with sunshine that is much less truthful. The success of the show only betrays how bland and vapid we have all become.
It goes further. David Hare’s latest offering, South Downs, has been on show recently, twinned with Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Browning Version’, at the Pinter Theatre. This is the David Hare of ‘The Permanent Way’, ‘Pravda’, ‘Plenty’ and ‘Stuff Happens’. To be fair, Rattigan is not quite the bland playwright he is sometimes dismissed as being, but the subject of Hare’s play is¸ by his former standard, blancmange.
The preponderance of musicals, revivals, and musical revivals in the West End theatre (Chicago, Shrek, Billy Elliot, Wizard of Oz), is also evidence of the fact that, even among audiences, there is not much demand any more for novel, provocative mordancy. Over at the National, ‘Collaborators’ treated Stalin as a joke, while ‘The Last of the Hausmanns’ treated ageing hippies as farce. In both cases, the plays were written for laughs which blunted rather than sharpened any more searching point.
Then there’s journalism. Let’s start with Tom Bower (until now at least a friend of mine). Bower is without question one of the most successful investigative journalists of our day – the scourge of Robert Maxwell, Richard Desmond, Conrad Black, Richard Branson and Gordon Brown, and to that extent a national treasure. His latest effort? A bio of Simon Cowell where the main revelation is that Mr Cowell uses black loo paper. Now, of course I am envious of the oodles of money Tom is making from the Cowell book, but you see the point: even Tom, at least for now, has lost his bite.
So has Rod Liddle, who writes the same column week in, week out, for The Sunday Times, using the same kind of ‘joke’, an analogy juxtaposing a ‘high’ culture victim alongside a ‘low’ cultural metaphorical parallel in which the main aim is not to skewer the victim but to show how funny and clever Liddle is for spotting the parallel he has invented – more like a pub rant without the risk of a punch-up if you go too far. And nothing like as tough as the Today show, where Liddle used to work.
The best-seller lists exemplify the same trend. In non-fiction it’s one book on World War Two after another – the literary equivalent of the West End revival and a long way from the world of now. In fiction, soft porn S&M outsells even Lionel Asbo – titillation where no one gets hurt.
Of course I have cherry-picked these examples. But these changes have overtaken Amis, Hirst, Hare, Bower, Liddle and others. Maybe it’s age (too much of it), maybe it’s money (too much of it), maybe it’s the ambition for status (too much of it), the longing to be above the salt, but, as Lionel Asbo would say, ‘Nah! Reset.’
You can call the government’s response to the latest banking crisis, which is slated to extend well beyond Barclays, as ‘tepid’ or ‘insouciant’, or you can put it down, more cynically, to the fact that the bankers and the cabinet were all at school together. But it goes deeper, and wider. More and more (and save for Jeremy Paxman), we finally resemble the civilization Ezra Pound first described in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 1920, as that ‘of an old bitch gone in the teeth.’