I wasn’t going to write anything about the BBC adaptation of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, Michel Faber’s postmodern Victorian pastiche, mainly because every post on this blog lately has done little more than recount my yea or nay on whatever book-based drama or documentary the BBC has broadcast over the preceding week. Also, I really, genuinely hated the novel when I read it several years ago; Faber’s ham-fisted attempt at a beguiling tone, his pious self-righteousness, and the feeble trope that William’s Victorian facial hair becomes more lustrous as he becomes more successful, all put me off the book before I was much more than halfway through. I think I sent it windmilling off into a corner and never looked at it again. Bad books do often make excellent films or series however (and I can admit that my dislike of the book was entirely subjective; there are many readers who swear by it as a masterpiece). The BBC version has not put a foot wrong, and every aspect of it is an advertisement for what this country does spectacularly well in televisual terms. It looks beautiful for a start. Under this gorgeous spread of colour Victorian London seems alien and strange, and the actors inhabit this foreign land as if born to it. It’s not been quite enough to send me back to the novel, but it’s yet another notch in the BBC’s belt for their highly successful Year of Books.
In an earlier blog post, I raged against the media shit-storm that always seems to blow up whenever Amis opens his mouth. I thought it unforgivably disingenuous for a newspaper to interview the man, garner his opinions on various subjects, then print hysterical headlines (I mistyped that as “headlies” there – ha!) about whatever supposedly “controversial” comment he had made within it. This current “controversy” is different in that the media reaction to it has been fairly muted, and in that his original comments seem far more bitter and mean-spirited than usual.
In an interview with the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (here’s the link, in French. Good luck with that. Here’s the report in the Telegraph and in the Guardian), Amis apparently (and let’s unpack this further; this is a breakdown of an interview in a magazine published in a different language – objective fact it’s not) spoke about how much he loathes Britain, the shallowness of British culture, the philistinism of the royal family, etc etc. Not much of this can be argued against, but venomous farewell flourishes to your home country before decamping to pastures new can irritate on many different levels. When I worked in bookselling, the type of customer I loathed more than any other were the ex-pats who’d moved to Canada, Australia or the USA in the 1970s, and had come back for a weepy nostalgia-fest before they died. When they told you, in their mangled accents, that they were really true-blue Glaswegians it was like they expected a medal for it. Amis’s comments put me in the same state of mind, especially when you consider that his antipathy towards the shallowness of celebrity culture and unearned success should, by rights, be stimulated to an even more violent degree by his new home, the United States. Britain, which has been in undeniable decline since 1945, is according to Amis “a power of the second or third order” and what happens here “doesn’t really matter”. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take from this that the only value nations can have is in direct proportion to the shadow they cast on the world stage? If so, it seems more like a bended-knee obeisance to military power, (which is slightly behind the times as far as the USA is concerned).
I think I’ve been particularly irritated by all this because I’m in the middle of reading everything Evelyn Waugh ever wrote, and when it comes to a bitter contemplation of national and cultural decline, Waugh makes Amis look like a swivel-eyed optimist. The difference is that Waugh fit his exploration of decline into a wholly ordered intellectual framework. Waugh was a proselytising Catholic and an unapologetic elitist, who didn’t even vote because he thought it presumptuous for people to tell the sovereign how to order their government. You don’t have to agree with this in any way whatsoever, but in narrative and stylistic terms it gives far greater coherence to his thesis. Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” is a considered, achingly poignant (and very funny) exploration of the way Britain won the war by forfeiting its honour, its prestige, and its power, and became a diminished country as a result (and this only scrapes the surface of its achievement).
I’m in no sense becoming an apostate as far as Martin Amis is concerned; I still think he’s the greatest living writer of English prose, and I still think he gets an extraordinarily raw deal from the British media. But I do feel somewhat less ready to defend him next time.