When I don’t have to go to work I read a lot – fiction, non fiction, books, blogs and articles. I like reading books best as the feel of the paper between my fingers takes me back to the time when I used to lose myself in them as a child. I was an omnivorous reader from a young age, possibly because I was far too peculiar to get on that well with other kids. From the age of 10 or thereabouts, I was a regular visitor to the adult section of Wimbledon Public Library, where I would plunder the shelves for all manner of unsuitable reading material. I would scurry back with carrier bags full of bizarre and subversive volumes – I also used to devour my mother’s sex and shopping novels and raid my academic father’s booksheleves for highbrow filth.
I think this is how I discovered the novels of Martin Amis, which seemed hugely exciting to my adolescent brain. The rude words, the constant references to drink and drug taking. The racy yet self consciously literary prose. And most of all the larger than life grotesque characters – Keith Talent, Nicola Six, John Self and Charles Highway.
My favourite Amis novel is not Money or London Fields (his two most celebrated) or his debut – The Rachel Papers. My second favourite is the totally decadent and depraved Dead Babies. But my all time favourite is one he wrote in 1978 called Success.
I was thinking a lot about the word ‘success’ and what it means in our world – you are a success if you are wealthy and attractive (and probably white) and a failure if you are poor, disabled or fat (and probably from an ethnic minority). A successful man will have money and a successful woman will have lots of successful men wanting to marry her/have sex with her. This message is pumped implicitly and explicitly by the mass media – we are all expected to try to be a ‘success’ and constantly berated for our collective inability to lose those extra pounds or get that promotion. No one ever mentions that ‘success’ is largely determined by where you come from in the world – any failure to meet increasingly exacting standards is ALL YOUR FAULT.
Most importantly, there is never any mention of the C word. Class. Class and success are, of course, intrinsically linked, both in life and in Amis’s novel. This is what I remembered from reading the book many years ago and why I ordered myself a copy from ebay. Reading the book in 2016 was a fascinating experience – I think I last read it in the 80s or 90s. Underpinning Amis’s narrative is (amongst many things) the story of social mobility.
The two main characters are upper class Gregory Riding and his working class foster brother Terry Service. Terry and Gregory are the same age and whereas Gregory is louche and foppish, Terry is stolid and industrious. Gregory flounces round an art gallery,whereas Terry has a dull but increasingly lucrative job in sales. As he novel unfolds, we see Gregory sink into a pit of indolence and madness, whereas Terry becomes stronger, more determined and a ‘success’ both financially and in terms of his growing self confidence.
The book was written in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. I possibly find the book so fascinating as it could only have been written in the pre Thatcher era. Terry’s success at work is largely down to his friendship with union official Stanley Veale. Terry works in sales and the very thought of there being a union in such an environment seems completely insane. Veale is presented as rather dubious figure, doing dodgy deals and living in a staggeringly vulgar home in Fulham (an area now more likely to be housing bankers and lawyers than trade unionists). Could such a character exist today? Obviously not. But the fact that he is such a presence in Amis’s novel shows just how radically different the world of my childhood was to the world that my children are growing up in. At the time Amis was writing, it seemed that the upper classes were a busted flush and the future belonged to Terry and to Stanley Veale. It felt like power lay in the hands of unions and ordinary people rather than in the hands of the traditional ruling classes. Did Amis believe this or is he expressing a middle class fear? It’s genuinely hard to know, but the novel presents an almost unrecognisable society.
The book is riotously funny and full of jokes – even if you don’t give a monkeys about politics or class or trade unionism, you will find much to enjoy. I love it for many reasons but possibly because I always enjoy seeing that there is an alternative. The world has not always been the same and it won’t be the same in the future. Doom-mongers point to a dystopian world where we are all replaced by robots (that’s if we survive the consequences of climate change). I am not so sure. I think we have a say in the way the world we live in is organised. We have a choice to make it fairer again.