Recently my girlfriend and I acquired a cat from the local rescue centre on Lewisham Way.
“Trial Baby!” more than one of my friends has bellowed, hilariously, into my face and so I throw it out here early to get it out the way. Let’s put it to one side and ignore it. Whatevah.
The curious thing about cat ownership – and perhaps something I, true to form, had not fully appreciated – is not the way one starts talking to her as though she has an opinion on anything other than dinner, or the incredible stench of her poo, or the way cat hair can now be found in amongst the keys of my computer, but rather that it comes with a surprising amount of responsibility. This should perhaps have been obvious when the rescue centre sent round someone to assess the flat for its suitability - and, presumably, our suitability to look after a cat. Despite being overrun with strays, they don’t let any old fool take on a moggy.
During the assessment I did as instructed and kept my mouth shut.
We passed, evidently, but beyond the obvious of making sure she is fed, watered and has somewhere to sleep, I am surprised how much else I feel obliged to do for her. Growing up we had cats, but I was always more fond of the dogs and understood their goofy reliance on me whilst the cats were more aloof, using us as advanced tin openers. This one requires regular attention, laps to sit on available, being actively played with and extensive tutoring on how to use the cat-flap.
I like taking a more involved role in her life, even if it does make me apprehensive. She’s never used a cat-flap before and was reluctant to head-butt it open, so we taught her by leaving it open in increments using a clothes peg, the door handle and some string and sitting on the floor demonstrating how it could be opened with ones paw whilst she looked on, indifferent to process, but wanting to go outside. It worked eventually, but I worried for some time afterwards, on my cycle home, that I would return to find her distressed at being stuck outside or in. I would pedal harder and when I arrived all she’s interested in was dinner. Taking a dead baby bird she had bought into the lounge as a play thing away from her, I felt a ridiculous urge to try and rationally explain the moral wrong committed. The body was light in my hand, the face turned away, unknowingly twisted upwards trying to get away; the cat just looks at me and gives a little mewl of disappointment. I feel I should be doing something more.
She is something of a flirt too, endearing herself to either my girlfriend or me, but rarely both simultaneously. She looks for cracks in our relationship to exploit in order to gain food or be let into the garden through an opened door avoiding that degrading semi-crawl through the hole. She seeks to play us off each other as we vie for her affection.
Martin Amis is something of a flirt too, always threatening to deliver something interesting and exciting and more and more frequently it is just bluster and blunder. Nowadays he is more famous for being Martin Amis than for his writing, but back in the eighties there was a moment when he almost had it. London Fields, Money and Information are all fantastic novels of their time, albeit all definitely flawed, and from then on he drifted off up a blind alley.
No-one should have to read the Information more than once, despite the good bits, or at least not without a good decade’s pause so that still sits on the shelves with just the one read in it. I watched the Nick Frost adaption of Money last year so that’s too fresh which just leaves London Fields on the viable reread list.
I first read London Fields shortly after moving to London, appropriately enough, and got a bit too swept up in it, to be honest. Easily done. It confused me, kept me continually off balance not least from being set nowhere near Hackney neighbouring London Fields in the East and instead stamping itself all over Notting Hill, Holland Park and Maida Vale in the West as though Amis felt permitted to juggle geography to his will. Plus I found the odious Keith Talent strangely appealing. That’s the real talent of the book, how such a repulsive character can still come across as eminently likable, provided you never had to endure more than about twenty minutes of his real company. Just before moving to London I’d worked in a locals’ pub in Birmingham and Talent reminded me of an amalgamation of all the regulars’ bad bits. The sort who turned up at midday and didn’t bugger off again until gone closing time. The types who were at once funny, monotonous, faintly sinister, warm hearted, generous and miserly. Hang around any pub long enough and a concoction of contradictions will be found lurking somewhere.
I now know, since my girlfriend was living in Maida Vale when we met, the area far better than I did in 2001 and so on the reread rather than being a collection of meaningless names and places the geography, which is so important not only to the plot but to the conviction of the book, made much more sense. Keith’s local, the abysmal sounding Scarfell Arms was not too far from my girlfriend’s flat. We dropped in a couple of times for a drink. It was usually empty and despite its attempts to spruce itself up for the significantly more gentrified market than of London Field’s time, it seemed to be mourning the more psychotic crowd it had once, at least fictionally, played host to. Eventually it closed up and reopened with a new name, not that anything really changed. Pubs can’t change, not really. It’s like their history is dyed into the bar.
Despite its worryingly misogynistic characterisation, shameless self-indulgent plotting and motivationally confused narrator, I thoroughly enjoyed London Fields on the reread. I understood it a lot better than the first time and didn’t find the image of Keith on his knees in the lock-up, a bottle of knocked off Porno in each hand a cool image, but I also realised that perhaps it was time to stop. Amis’ enfant terrible reputation, despite now being sixty, is based on the words in London Fields and Money. They are important novels, of a sort, and can be hugely enjoyable but they also have a teenage brashness I possibly still misunderstood in my early twenties for reality, a lack of responsibility for what’s actually, really important. Their depths are shallow and Amis has never really been able to cast as wide and vital opinions on society as I suspect he imagines he does; if anything his novels have always told us more about him than anyone or anything else. It is a fallacy to suggest that novels should tell us something about ourselves. The difficulty with this is that it invariably requires that ultimately tedious repeated trick of the sympathetic narrator or lead character when sometimes the story needs a shit to tell it. However, writing which offers no reflection or magnification of anything other than the author suggests a self-indulgence that hasn’t grown up, has refused to take on any responsibility for the words on the page and after a certain age that only has a limited appeal.