“But you, you. The actor gets you to the life. The sheen of youth. The sheen of power. What’s it like, power? Is it heady?”
Yes, he said, but you’re steadied by the responsibility.
–The Long Kiss Goodbye: Martin Amis on Tony Blair’s Farewell, The Guardian, June 2, 2007
Earlier this year in a scintillating appearance on the BBC’s HARDtalk, the leftwing politician George Galloway was asked if he would shake Tony Blair’s hand.
“Only as a prelude to shaking him by the throat,” replied the British MP, sensibly choosing appendages. “He’s a mass murderer. He’s responsible for far more deaths than the obscurantist savage Bin Laden, for far more deaths than Saddam Hussein, responsible with Mr. Bush for everything that happened in Abu Ghraib, for everything that happened on the killing fields of Iraq!”
Not as keen to bite or even nip is Martin Amis. Once, writing scathingly about politicians in the 80s and 90s (see his amusing portrait of a Reagan-era convention or his review of Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes A Village”), Amis reliably seized their pant legs and shook. No more. Late-career blues, 9/11 moralizing, political slippage to the right and the emergence of what he calls a new “tenderer” sensibility have all taken a toll.
Today the prose is as stylish as ever, but the wit is soured and the targets those of a police canine unit. Now he snaps at war protesters (“bawling”), multi-culturalism (“woozy”) and bloggers (“semi-literate”). In a Q&A with readers in The Independent, he tells a clever mocker of his clash-of-civs hysterics to “fuck off.” Kingsleyfication, the condition of the young wit gone aging reactionary, has set in. What Amis is tenderer towards is not life itself but power, authority.
Embedded by The Guardian in Tony Blair’s farewell tour, the former satirist does his best to be of decaffeinated use. Heroically saddled in combat armor, reassured by bombproofed limo doors and nannying the PM over an unfastened seatbelt, his tone is beyond respectful. It’s fanboy. Blair is his generation’s Beatle Prime Minister, and Sgt. Pepper taught the bombs to play. Now pro-war and though gloomy about its chances, Amis is as apt to valorize the west in its slaughtering as once he was to ridicule its social, sexual and political manners. There is, after all, the White Man’s Burden. In a multimedia segment for the article, he is heard to say that flying over the Middle East with Blair reminds him there are “millions” down below who want to “murder” and “behead” him. Perhaps he was thinking of literary Britain.
There’s one worthwhile moment. Amis records how after speechmaking at a base in Basra, Blair loses his nerve in what is supposed to be a spot of stage-managed mingling. Unexpectedly (did no one prep them?) the soldiers begin to unburden themselves of the ghastly bits, the hell into which maniacal idealism has cast them. And Blair, at a loss, with no podium or spinmaster to steady him, turns stammeringly Bushlike. Amis makes little of it; what the novelist’s nose has detected, the political sentimentalist is in no mood to breathe. Besides, there’s an incoming mortar round to set up more belle lettres.
But in that sweaty few seconds the truth, however fleetingly, has Blair by the neck. In his momentary discomfort (would that it could deepen, but a plane awaits to whisk him back to Pepperland) we glimpse something long overdue, and it brings to mind an English writer less willing than Amis to play the pet, Siegfried Sassoon, whose short WWI poem “They” is about such strange meetings where high sentence is made to face the result of its low deeds:
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race.
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘ We’re none of us the same! ‘ the boys reply.
For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic; you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change. ‘
And the Bishop said: ‘ The ways of God are strange!
RICHARD CRETAN is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org