When Martin Amis appeared on stage, I cursed my luck. Virgin’s InterCity had got me to Manchester far too late. A dash from Piccadilly and I had arrived at the University five minutes before the debate was due to begin. So much for seat A2. I was forced to sit a dozen rows back and there was no chance that Martin would recognise me through my false nose and beret. It was the eternal dilemma of the celebrity in a non-celebrity guise: I’d be unable to reveal myself to my old friend and sparring partner for fear of causing a stampede of unpublished writers desperate to get into our Book Club. The situation was familiar yet still so frustrating.
I was in Manchester to work but I had arrived a day early to attend the Centre for New Writing’s Public Debate on the subject of ‘Literature & Belief’. I’d had barely made it. I was still out of breath when the porter of Whitworth Hall climbed up on stage and welcomed those of us packed beneath the gothic ceiling.
Balding and set heavy in the middle like an unexploded beer barrel, the porter had a broad Lancashire accent that fell over us like pint glasses down a coal chute.
‘I’d like to welcome you ladies and gentlemen to Whitworth Hall,’ he said, ‘but before we start the evening’s entertainment, I want to discuss a few matters of housekeeping...’ Which meant that he proceeded to locate the toilets and give us some helpful advice about escaping the building in the case of a fire. It amounted to him warning us that once all best-selling authors were out of the room, it would be every man for himself.
‘And so, with no more ado,’ he continued, ‘I want to thank you all for coming and I hope you enjoy the entertainment we’ve got lined up for you this evening...’
I had the strange feeling that a game of darts was about to begin and as I began to search the room for Peter Manley, I didn’t notice that Martin Amis had already walked up onto the stage.
As the room fell silent, I looked up and heard a loud sarcastic voice announce ‘game on, ladies and gentlemen, game on...’ The woman to my side elbowed me in my ribs. She told me to be quiet.
Amis always surprises me. He’s of slight build but his head is large as though it has rolled off some hill on Easter Island. Constructed in clay by a sculptor with big thumbs, he has an appearance that makes you suspect that God himself took a hand in creating this caricature of the perfect literary type. The lines of his face are strings of flesh held together by eyes that rarely engage the audience. His gestures are slow. His right hand hangs from his wrist as though it’s weighed down by an invisible cigarette. Most alarming is the way he wears his spectacles on a chain around his neck. There is something of the village shopkeeper about his manner. Touch my produce and you should really consider buying, he seems to be saying.
He was followed on stage by James Wood, who was actually the main reason I’d bought a ticket to the event. Wood’s recent book on ‘How Fiction Works’ is one of the best pieces of literary criticism I’ve ever read. Wood appeared less at ease in the surroundings. Balding, round featured, and with a gentle calm, he seemed much more amiable than Amis, that demonic tobacconist. When Amis brooded, Wood looked merely nervous, though his opinions were always confident. His right hand rarely moved from his chin and his body language was that of a man more at home in his study. He was still peering out from behind his books, throwing gems to an audience probably there for the man from Easter Island.
Yet as far as his prepared statements went, Wood had the more interesting things to say in the first half of the debate. He explained how he suspected that literature’s rise caused many of the doubts about Christianity at the end of the twentieth century. I agreed with him, to a point, though I think popular culture has had much more to do with it. Judy is far more significant that Zadie Smith, for example.
For me, the second half of the debate was edged by Amis who made some delightful allusions to two of my favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. After an hour, I was orgasmic with ideas and when it was time to open the debate up to questions from the floor, I was first to wave my hand. Unfortunately, I think my bright blue beret, false nose and comic pimple were not to the moderator’s liking. I clearly looked too sane. With hindsight, I should have been prepared for what followed. Somewhat naively, I thought that the people of Manchester would not waste the chance to ask five decent questions of two of the sharpest critics of literature in the last twenty five years.
How wrong I was...
The first question amounted to some confident fellow sporting a quality beard explaining how he felt dispirited that his faith was continually under attack from the likes of Richard Dawkins. It was only natural, I suppose, that from this he wanted to know: ‘could the two distinguished speakers tell me if they think I should write a book like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or something by C.S. Lewis?’
Amis gave him a look loaded with buckshot. ‘How dare you finger my quality shag tobacco!’ I thought he would reply.
‘I think you should ask a higher authority about that’ is what he did say.
It was a better answer than the question deserved. Unexpected too since I doubt if there are any higher authorities than Amis. Wood, however, was much more polite. ‘I think you should try to write allegory,’ he said and sounded like he meant it. But doesn’t that just mark the man? He probably catches moths and sets them down beside open windows before putting on some quiet cello music to help them on their way.
As I winched up my lower jaw after the sheer banality of the first question, the second was being asked from the front row and I had missed my chance to grab the radio microphone.
‘I have written a book,’ began a woman who I couldn’t see from where I sat but probably looked quite earnest, ‘and it is still unpublished...’
‘No surprise there,’ I muttered to the amusement of a few around me.
‘In my book...’ And here I have to ask you to insert some generic hokum. I really can’t remember much of the nonsense that came out but I think it might have involved elves. ‘But my question is... I recently had a dream in which I dreamt that that I was standing here asking you gentlemen on the stage if you could tell me what a perfect world would look like. So, could you tell me what a perfect world would look like?’
I forget what answer came from the stage. I had pretty much had enough of it by now. Two questions wasted and I was in no mood for stupidity. Unfortunately, nobody had told this to the person asking the third question.
‘I am the lost woman from the Book of Ezekiel!’ she said, her voice bellowing it out like a railway bomb alert. I zoned out pretty quickly and I noticed that neither Amis nor Wood wanted to answer the lost woman from the book of Ezekiel. I could see why she was lost and I felt pretty bad for Ezekiel.
The fourth question was the only decent question of the evening and related to Dickens. Both Wood and Amis answered it well and Martin did tell a nice anecdote about Greene that I hadn’t heard before. However, even as he was speaking, I knew that I must act. If I wanted to ask my question, I needed to wave like I’d never waved before. And this time I also gave a cough to attract the attention of the panel.
And it worked... to a degree. The moderator looked my way, smiled a thin evil smile and then pointed to a woman on the other side of the hall.
‘The last question, I’m afraid,’ said the man who I suspect has some vendetta against pimpled men in berets.
‘I think the panel don’t have a clue about postmodern Christianity...’ began the last interrogator. I wanted to shout ‘bollocks’ but I resigned myself to sighing loudly as I slowly sank down into my seat.
There was nothing for it. My ears ached as I listened to another question woefully inadequate for the quality of the brains up on the stage. Shortly after, the event broke up and I was left with my question about dogma, art and morality unasked. Amis and Wood were whisked off to wherever it is that a university fills their honoured guests with cheap wine and I was left to trudge the long way back to my hotel room. As I walked through the night, the glowing red sign of the Palace Hotel far behind me, I felt so terribly lonely. I suppose that’s why I rang Judy on my mobile.
‘Had a good evening?’ she asked. ‘Did you get to speak to James Wood? And how was Martin?’
‘They blanked me,’ I said as the Manchester rain began to fall. ‘They were off the stage before I could get James Wood to sign my book. I hate this city. The people here are mad! Do you know that, Judy? Absolutely mad!’
I turned up the steps of my hotel just off Princess Street. The view from my window was onto the Sackville Street car park that had been turned into a mini Thailand. ‘I’m not going to get a bit of sleep,’ I told her as I climbed the stairs. ‘The Ladyboys of Bangkok are playing in the car park across the road and all I can hear are the strange laments of men with large breasts and thick makeup.’
Judy fell silent. ‘Sometimes, Richard, I just wish you would tell me the truth instead of making up all these silly stories... You don't honestly expect me to believe that there are Ladyboys in the car park opposite your hotel?’
I was too tired to tell her that this was the absolute unadorned truth and that in order to understand the madness of Manchester, you really have to hear every dumb question, see every heavily corseted young adult male, and you really have to see life from behind a false nose and a comedy pimple.