Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Rake's Progress

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 3-4, 2012

Doing the biography of a living writer can’t be easy. Writers like to have control over things – especially over the contents of books. When Martin Amis “co-operated” with his new biographer, Richard Bradford, he didn’t do so unconditionally. He granted Bradford a series of interviews, and gave him the green light to approach certain other approved parties. But he stipulated that some people – including his mother and his ex-wife – would not be involved.  

Considering these restrictions, Bradford hasn’t done an entirely bad job. His book is lopsided, but it’s meaty. It contains a better class of information than it would have if he’d tried to proceed without Amis’s approval. It isn’t a first-rate biography by any means, but it has one crucial thing going for it. Martin Amis has lived a life you don’t want to stop reading about. 

His personal history seems implausibly heightened, like the plot of one of his novels. His father, Kingsley, was one of the liveliest writers of his generation. His mother was a free spirit who routinely let the kids ride around on the roof-rack of her car. He published his first novel at 24; became a rakish celebrity; worked his way through a roster of stunning and well-connected girlfriends. In his mid-twenties he inadvertently fathered a daughter whom he didn’t meet till he was in his mid-forties. His cousin, Lucy Partington, vanished during the 1970s; twenty years later it emerged that she had been abducted and murdered by the serial killer Frederick West. 

The story has been told before – most artfully by Amis himself, in the memoir Experience (2000). Bradford hasn’t retold it very elegantly, but he has augmented it with generous chunks of previously unavailable information. While his interviews with Amis himself have yielded nothing startling, some of Amis’s most articulate friends – including Clive James and the late Christopher Hitchens – have disclosed things they never would have if the project had lacked Amis’s blessing. 

Bradford deserves credit for getting their testimony down, but he has no knack for digesting his source material and converting it into a fluent narrative. He tends to bung down the quotes of his interviewees in verbatim slabs, some of which go on for nearly a page. At times the project veers close to oral biography.  

By letting his sources speak at such length, Bradford keeps reminding you how few of them there are, and how tightly clustered together they are on the Amis sympathy axis. Hitchens goes on the record, lavishly, about the disintegration of Amis’s friendship with Julian Barnes. He divulges the contents of a hostile private letter that Barnes wrote to Amis. This is juicy stuff, all right. But it is, palpably, just one side of the story. Whether Barnes was offered the chance to give his side I don’t know. If he wasn’t, he’s got a right to feel angry all over again. 

It isn’t that one longs to hear Amis get bad-mouthed. It’s that Bradford’s information comes from too few angles to give you a properly rounded account of the man. The pages dealing with the break-up of Martin’s first marriage, to the philosopher Antonia Phillips, are especially threadbare. Forget about getting both sides of that story: Bradford is hard-pressed getting just one.   

But those were the rules, and Bradford can’t be blamed for obeying them. What he can be blamed for, quite loudly, is the slapdash way he handles his material. Bradford has written three previous biographies, including one of Amis’s father. But there are times when you’d be willing to bet he’d never read a literary biography before, let alone written one. He has a weird way of dispensing essential information. 

On page 48, for example, Amis makes an unheralded reference to somebody named Rob. Bradford, not very helpfully, appends the word “Henderson” in square brackets. Four pages later we’re told what we should have been told straight away: that Rob Henderson was, for some time, Amis’s best friend. Rob sticks around in the narrative for several years. Then on page 102 Bradford casually, and without elaboration, announces that Rob, these days, is “dead.” He doesn’t feel the need to expand on that until page 363, where he discloses the cause of death: cancer, in 2001.     

Bradford seems temperamentally averse to saying the right things in the right order, or indeed at all. A biography of Amis, you might think, would be the right place for a clear account of the famous dental procedures he underwent during the nineties. But Bradford doesn’t seem all that interested in clearing the matter up. He quotes a newspaper report suggesting that Amis spent $20,000 having his molars replaced, but doesn’t say whether or not this is accurate. A while later he takes another brief pass at the question, and leaves you with the impression that Amis’s oral issues amounted to nothing worse than a pair of infected wisdom teeth. But Amis’s own memoir recounted, in excruciating detail, the surgical removal and replacement of nearly every tooth in his head. 

On the subject of Amis’s novels, Bradford can be illuminating. When he analyses portions of The Information (1995) in the light of Martin’s concurrent marriage breakdown, he is performing useful criticism, even if he does misremember a couple of plot details. (The hack novelist Gwyn Barry scores his first raging success with Amelior, not with Summertown.) 

Bradford forgets, though, that a biographical approach to Amis’s work can only get you so far. Amis is principally a satirist. He is interested – fearlessly – in the outside world. No doubt the novels contain wisps of his personal history, but that is not what they are about. A critic who plunges into the books in pursuit of Martin’s shadow risks seeing less in them than the average reader will, not more.    

Bradford, a couple of times, can be observed doing exactly that. Pursuing his notion that The Information is “a story about Martin Amis,” he cites the biographical fact that the father of one of Martin’s aristocratic girlfriends was fascinated by Martin’s velvet trousers. He then quotes a long scene from the novel in which an ageing aristocrat contemplates the trousers of Richard Tull, the book’s luckless anti-hero, and demands that he remove them. 

But the joke, in the novel, is that the trousers aren’t Richard’s; they’ve been lent to him by the old man’s daughter, and the old man has abruptly recognized them as his own. Instead of quoting the parts of the passage that make this clear, Bradford replaces them with ellipses. This is a bit naughty of him. It makes the passage sound more straightforwardly autobiographical than it really is.   

Bradford does some similar textual pruning when psychoanalysing Kingsley’s Girl, 20 (1971). He feels that one of the protagonist’s children resembles Kingsley’s rebellious older son, Philip, who by this time was well into his twenties. The character, says Bradford, “frequently tells members of the family and visitors to ‘fuck off’, refuses to go to school and urinates regularly on the bathroom floor.” So he does, but it’s a trifle misleading of Bradford not to mention that he is six years old. 
First-rate biographers do the simple things well. Zachary Leader’s Life of Kingsley Amis (2006) was a model of the genre: lucid, panoramic, reader-friendly. Leader, admittedly, had the luxury of writing about a figure who was no longer around to help or hinder him. But he also had the right temperament for the job. If he had any personal quirks, he kept them out of his book. Bradford puts his in. His book is okay as an interim biography. But when the job of definitive biographer is being filled, I have a feeling that Bradford will, as the early Amis might have phrased it, get aimed.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Less Fun than it Looks

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 24-25, 2012 

Is there a job in the world that isn’t much less fun than it looks? From a distance, being a Wiggle would appear to be a pretty cushy gig. Roll out of bed at around ten, slip on the coloured shirt for a mid-day show, mingle backstage with some celebrity milfs, then spend the remainder of the day reclining in a hot-tub full of cash. 

Anthony Field, the Blue Wiggle, has written a book that unveils the less glamorous reality: the bad hotels; the terrible food; the backstage arguments, one of them culminating in the throwing of a toy drum kit; the grim logistics of coping with irritable bowel syndrome on the road. Field isn’t complaining, mind you: he keeps stressing that the joy of the live shows makes it all worthwhile. But he leaves you feeling that he and his fellow Wiggles have thoroughly earned their success. 

Field earned his while suffering from a diabolical array of health problems that threatened, at one stage, to curtail his wiggling for good. He pulled himself back from the brink, thanks to an exercise and dietary regime he details in the book’s second half. But it’s the first half, describing how he got to the brink in the first place, that makes for more compelling reading. 

Field played in the Sydney band The Cockroaches as a youngster. An uncomfortable fit as a rock and roller, he eventually quit to finish a degree in early childhood education. This would prove one of the shrewdest career moves made by an entertainer since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. During his final year at university, Field formed a children’s group with two other teaching students – Murray Cook and Greg Page – and the ex-Cockroach Jeff Fatt. The Wiggles were born. (A fifth Wiggle, Phillip Wilcher, played on their first album but left soon afterwards.) 

The group’s early struggles were not all that different from an emerging rock band’s: there were meetings with boneheaded executives, efforts to crack the American market, gruelling tour schedules. Sometimes they played three 90-minute shows a day. Could Keith Richards manage that? 

Probably not, if he had to spend two hours in the backstage toilet every time he ingested something mildly toxic. Field, during his darkest years, was so unhealthy that he made Keith look like Michael Phelps. His problems, according to his own incomplete list, included “hernias, back ailments, broken bones, food sensitivities, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, potentially fatal infections, circulation issues, and exhaustion.” 

Let's pause now to get a few things straight about the Wiggles’ collective health issues. Field is not the Wiggle who left the group to deal with a mysterious fainting illness. That was the Yellow Wiggle, Greg Page, who quit back in 2006, and was reinstated earlier this year, causing his replacement to be controversially stripped of the yellow shirt. (Field’s book, alas, was completed too early to tackle the Wigglegate imbroglio.) 

Nor is Field to be confused with the Purple Wiggle, Jeff Fatt, who had a pacemaker installed in 2011. No: Field is the one who has suffered from just about everything else. He is excellent at evoking what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Fellow sufferers will find some of his observations scarily accurate. “Pain,” he says, “becomes a habit that’s hard to break.” 

Field broke it when he met a holistic chiropractor named James Stoxen. In the book’s second half Field lays out, complete with photographs, the exercise routines with which Stoxen helped him morph from an overweight, pain-racked pill-popper into the chiselled, tattooed specimen depicted on the book’s front cover. (Sidebar question: now that even the Wiggles are getting tattoos, can we agree that the tattoo has officially lost its bad-boy connotations? Who’s getting one next? Kevin Rudd?) 

The book, it must be said, does get rather bogged down exploring the Stoxen philosophy. Stoxen views the body as a giant spring. He carries around a bedspring in his bag to demonstrate this principle. He believes that the spring is divided into seven “floors” or levels. He abhors shoes, and advocates walking around barefooted whenever possible. For all I know, he may be right about these things. But his intonations do sound, prima facie, like those of many other self-help gurus who have gone before him. 

Still, there is no doubt that his techniques have worked for Field. Nor can you question the genuineness of Field’s desire to spread the word. He knows he sounds like an evangelist, but feels that the good news must be shared. His fervour is contagious. At one point I seriously considered rustling up a set of witch’s hats (where do you buy a witch’s hat?) and giving his programme a try. I know how his young fans feel. Field has enthusiasm, and that can’t be faked. Somehow he never lost it, no matter how debilitating his problems got.