The theme this week seems to be moratoria, with an unexpectedly substantial side order of Martin Amis.
One of the most memorable things Mark Ravenhill ever wrote, at least when wearing his “cultural commentator” hat, is on exactly this first subject. It must be memorable; I just looked it up for the link and it turns out that it’s now seven years old. I still even remember the little woodcut illustration of a man being force-fed words which accompanied it when it was originally printed.
When I first read it, something in the introduction really chimed with my mood. Reading it again – subconsciously replacing all the dated references with contemporary ones – if anything, it feels even truer now:
“There’s a lot of art about at the moment. It's everywhere. It's really stressing me out. It's making me feel guilty. And I wish it would stop. For starters, there’s all those books on the Booker shortlist. I ought to read them... It’s not just art I want to be aware of. There’s culture, too. I mean, I’m not an elitist... Look. Isn’t there too much art around at the moment? Isn’t there too much culture? Isn’t it making us all unhappy? Clearly there’s a big problem. And we’ve got to find a solution.”
Ravenhill carries on for some while (well worth reading), before finishing with this modest proposal:
“I’d like to propose a year-long moratorium beginning on January 1 2001. No reviews, no cultural commentators on radio or television, no profiles of artists in magazines. Stop the presses at Time Out. Pull the plug on Front Row. Ban the Guardian listings. Just a simple sign up outside each gallery or cinema or opera house saying what's on. And let gossip and rumour do the rest. Go on. I dare you.”
Note the date. Imagine if nine months and twelve days later there hadn’t been the unmistakable sound of stampeding novelists and playwrights all galloping, water buffalo-style, to their desks to Address The Nation.
Oddly, fittingly, and ironically - given the rest of this week’s news - the other piece from the Guardian that has really stayed with me from that period is by Martin Amis. OK, it turns out to have been written over a year later – and, as such, sadly, wouldn’t have been caught by Ravenhill’s proposed prohibition – but in my mind both articles were printed on successive weekends around about November in 2001. Although, I can still remember where I was when I first read the Amis*)
Given the veritable media circus which Amis has magicked up, it is well worth going back and revisiting his musings from 2002, if only for their stark contrast to Now-Amis. Then-Amis is still impossibly straight-faced and self-regarding (the best parody Craig Brown ever did in Private Eye is the Amis one that begins: “I am a serious”). Consider:
“After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.”
But, Then-Amis is still, in ‘02, a man who pretty much thinks What-Liberals-Used-To-Think. What are odd are the subtle changes of inflection between Then- and Now- that seem to bespeak tectonic shifts. Yes, there’s a bit where Then- blithely refers to “the medieval agonism of Islam; the Bronze Age blunderings of the Middle East.” But it is partially balanced by his note:
“We recall that Ronald Reagan habitually anathematised the Soviet Union as ‘godless’. This epithet could hardly be unleashed on Osama bin Laden. So Bush, who is religious, and Blair, who is religious, offered the patent falsehood that the war on terrorism was ‘not about religion’. Iraq is godless too, but this fact is unlikely to be parlayed, just now, into another good reason for invading it.”
These are surely the usual cynical musings of the Hampstead-dwelling peacenik muesli eater that so enrage Ann Coulter and her ilk. Astonishing, then, that in just five years he has shifted so far. But then Amis is very much a follower when it comes to Big Questions. He just hitches (Hitch-es?) his wagon to whichever engine seems to be producing most steam and periodically shouts about it thereafter.
The bit that really stayed with me, and became a part of my mental furniture, is the following:
“My own page, as an additional belittlement, ended with a book called The War Against Cliché. I thought: actually we can live with “bitter cold” and “searing heat” and the rest of them. We can live with cliché.”
I mean obviously it is rot and his original premise probably hogwash (but then, I love clichés way too much), but there was something in the slightly befuddled, patrician manner - so graciously conceding that, ‘OK, I might have been a little harsh on cliché back there, all things considered’ – which was at once unintentionally hilarious and oddly moving. Yes, Amis might come out of it sounding like a knob, but at least he’s a knob with a shaken heart. A sadder and wiser bear than the previous year. Much less sad or wise than this week, perhaps.
The last sentence of the above-quoted para, which I left off because it hadn’t stayed with me, is: “What we have to do now, more testingly, is live with war.” – which completes the handy play on his own title. What seems to have happened to him, to all of us, is precisely that.
* Market Square, Cambridge, with Emily Haworth-Booth, laughing about Martin Amis’s monstrous ego and purple prose, if I recall correctly (which I often don’t).