The most tedious read of this week, or of any other week, is Julie Kavanagh’s “consensual kiss-and-tell” account, in an article for quarterly magazine Intelligent Life, of the years she spent with the novelist Martin Amis during the 1970s.
Kavanagh may be a fine biographer – Simon Callow, that multi-fcated man of the theatre, thought her 2007 biography of Rudolph Nureyev magnificent – and she may be an equally fine magazine editor –she has in her time been London Editor of Women’s Wear Daily and W., Arts Editor of Harpers & Queen, and London Editor for Vanity Fair – but a autobiographer she is not. If one can judge from this shownin, she’s just about up there with those many poor souls who bear their souls to the Agony columns newspapers on a daily basis.
Kavanagh visited Amis this April in Primrose Hill, just a week before he finished his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, to discuss her article. Her description runs thus:
It could have been so awkward, the experience of revisiting our past for what I suppose is basically a consensual kiss-and-tell. It certainly felt strange to be applying biographical techniques to my own life, questioning my ex-lover about events and chronology, and it was disorientating—yet also reassuring—to see glimpses of the young man I’d loved in the manners and expressions of a near-sexagenarian. But we swiftly fell into an easy, jokey rapport; there seemed no limit to what I could ask him or what he could reveal to me. We could even laugh now about the histrionic full-stop in the note I wrote after we’d broken up: “I’ll never forgive you. Ever.” It was indelible to him, completely forgotten by me. This proved an extraordinary couple of hours in which I learnt things I’d never known, or simply not retained. He even remembered the book I was reading that first summer in Spain. It was his father’s novel “Girl 20”, which has one of the most heart-rending last lines in fiction: “We’re all free now.” “You were about ten pages from the end, and I looked up and saw that your face was a mask of tears.”
A this stage, if not before, the reader has begun to ask himself why he reading this stuff reading this stuff? The answer has to be that her affair with Amis brought into contact with a group of man who were making a big splash on the London literary scene of the time. The reader expects that Kavanagh , as one of the few women who had an insiders view of how this group worked, might offer the reader some new insights into the group dynamic, if there was such a thing. The reader might expect that, but the reader does not get it. What the reader gets is a lot less illuminaging.
What regularly gathered the so-called literary mafia together were the lunches which took place most Fridays at a Turkish-Cypriot joint on Theobalds Road. These were almost exclusively male occasions, but I was tolerated from time to time either because I was Martin’s moll, or because of my flattering sponging-up of every word.
“The glue of those Friday lunches was everyone’s adoration of Martin,” says James Fenton, the poet, theatre critic and foreign correspondent, who was another participant. Hitch agrees. “He was the conversation, he was the charisma.” But Clive James was always a stellar performer, and so was Kingsley, an occasional guest of honour. Julian Barnes, later to be my brother-in-law, was noticeably more reticent, though he added a note of gravitas, as did the other, less extrovert regulars Dai [Russell] Davies, the critic and jazz musician, and Terry Kilmartin, the Observer’s literary editor. “We needed them there,” says Hitch. “We couldn’t just have shown off to each other.”
What we have in the end is a cut and paste job put together by a profile writer who has little more to offer than a few thousand words that will be forgotten almost as soon as they are read. Clive James the “stellar performer”, Julian Barnes adding the “note of gravitas”. James Fenton’s “adoration of Martin” may qualify with readers of Harpers & Queen as insights, but they do nothing for the reader who is seriously trying to study these men and their work. In the end, what we have is namedropping, that is in atself rather sloppy. Can the general reader be really expected to know that Dai [Russell] Davies is now a respected broadcaster for Radio 2. Kavanagh, presumably in her anxiety to get as many names in as possible, presumes that he can. Should the reader be bothered that he does not know? The answere has to be a resounding no. Kavanagh tell him so little that is new about the people he knows – or thinks he knows – that it’s unlikely she would tell him anything worth knowing about the ones he does not know.