One of the UK's greatest modern authors talks to Tony Tysome about fulfilling his first secret ambition
Something unexpected dawned on Martin Amis as we sat down to discuss his appointment as professor of creative writing at Manchester University.
It had just occurred to him, he said, that he almost became an academic after graduating from Oxford in 1971, rather than setting off on the path that led him to become a full-time writer who is perceived to be one of the UK's greatest living novelists.
"It is almost what I was going to do. It was my plan 'B'," he said. "I thought I would go to London and see where that goes, and if it did not go well I would go back to Oxford and do another degree."
The offer of the new post at Manchester, where he will give two seminars a week to about 30 postgraduate creative-writing students, therefore, "spoke to a secret, quiet ambition I have always had". He admitted that, while still in his early twenties, his notion of what it might be like to be an academic may have been influenced by a halcyon picture painted by the poet Philip Larkin, who was a visiting professor at All Soul's College, Oxford, when Amis was an undergraduate at Exeter College.
He recalled: "We had a very grand, drunken dinner at Oxford, and during the course of the evening Larkin said to me: 'Academe is like the Church in the 18th century - it's a fine, soft option for the younger sons. It's an easy, cushy kind of profession.' I suppose I am about to find out how true that is."
The prospect of a "cushy" life, however, was not what attracted the young Amis to the idea of a career in higher education. His interest had more to do with a sense and impression he had of literature sitting at the heart of scholarly endeavour, placing the discipline at the core of university life.
He explained: "I was quite high-minded in those days and felt that literature was the central discipline.
"It seemed to me that no one in the teaching profession had quite the centrality of the English don. I read an awful lot of literary criticism, and felt there was a centrality about it - that this was how you got your history, philosophy, and psychology: through the prism of literature."
Even though he never had to put plan B into action, having written and published his first novel, The Rachel Papers , at the age of 24 while working as an editorial assistant at The Times Literary Supplement , Professor Amis said he always regarded himself as "being in the education business".
He said: "In a novel, what you are trying to develop is the perception of people who read you and the people you 'teach'. You are trying to enrich the visible world with a sharpness of perception."
Professor Amis said he was "curious about teaching" and keen to discover how much of creative writing really could be taught.
He holds up the example of the University of East Anglia, which he said had "the most evolved course of this type in this country, with an incredible record of publications per student", as evidence that elements of creative thinking can be passed on from tutor to student. "I imagine you can bring people along and instil good and economical habits. I would have very much liked to have been able to spend some time as a tutor with myself at the age of 23. I could have saved myself a lot of grief," he said.
The chance to teach at Manchester appealed not only because it coincided with a decision to return to the UK from Uruguay with his family so that his young daughters could benefit from a "serious, hothouse Western education", but also because Professor Amis feels it will help him discover "what modernity has done to the young".
He said one characteristic of today's youth in Britain that could possibly affect him in his new role was what he called a "post-ideological" view of higher education, where students see themselves as customers, forcing higher education to become "more professional". He acknowledged that another "sneaky motive" behind his move into academia had to do with the opportunity to add grist to the mill of his creative imagination.
He was adamant that he was not about to sit down and write another Lucky Jim , the novel about a young history don that brought transatlantic fame to his father, Kingsley Amis. His experiences at Manchester will probably have to "marinate in the unconscious for a few years" before delivering up a tasty new literary dish. But the academics and students Professor Amis encounters are likely to add in some way to the raw ingredients of his future work.
"Although there is no means of establishing or even guessing what is going to snag in your unconsciousness and turn into a novel, you find that with every character, no matter how historically or geographically remote, you are always giving them characteristics of people you have come across," he said.
- I graduated from...
Exeter College, Oxford, with a first-class degree in literature
- My first job was...
Temporary work in a London art gallery
- My main challenge is...
To write those novels I have yet to write
- What I hate most...
- In ten years...
My youngest child will be 17, so I will be thinking about going to end my days in Uruguay
- My favourite joke...
I don't have one