If there was such a thing as literary royalty, Martin Amis would be it. His father was Kingsley Amis, writer of Lucky Jim and best friend of Philip Larkin. Martin inherited a pedigree that has seen him propelled to the highest echelon of writers alive today.
Friends with the late Saul Bellow and regular dinner companion of Salman Rushdie, one of Amis’ major achievements in the 1980s and ’90s was to write late twentieth century London better than any of his contemporaries in his unofficial trilogy of Money (1984), London Fields (1989) and The Information (1994). It is this London of London Fields which the narrator refers to in the closing line of the first chapter.
In Money, the notorious figure of John Self lives a bombastic and hollow lifestyle of indulgence which ultimately leads him into fundamental crisis of identity. The Information famously caused more of a stir due to the circumstances of the book’s actual publication where Amis demanded £500,000 from his publisher instead of the £300,000 offered. Nestled between these two novels is the gem of London Fields which Amis dedicated to his father, who refused to ever read the book.
For Martin Amis, Chelsea can be said to have been home for large periods of his life. He notably lived there in the early seventies with close friend Rob Henderson, whose struggles with alcoholism and ultimate demise inspired the character Charles Highway in Amis’ debut novel, The Rachel Papers.
London in London Fields is as central as the title might suggest, and Chelsea is but one area which is brought into focus. London Fields is set up to be a murder/mystery in reverse. Three characters are presented in the first three chapters by an American novelist/narrator, Samson Young, who cannot believe his luck that the story he is about to tell has just unfolded before him as he sat in a Notting Hill pub. There is ‘the Murderer’, Keith Talent, ‘the Murderee’, Nicola Six and ‘The Foil’, Guy Clinch.
The title refers to a train station in Hackney, not Chelsea. However, the name is entirely borrowed and translated a few miles over to where the novel takes place, in W10 and W11, Chelsea and Notting Hill. The word ‘fields’, transplanted thus, transforms this expensive pocket of West London into a playground for Samson Young to explore in this – not ‘whodunit’ but more interestingly – ‘whydunit’.
‘If London’s a pub and you want the whole story, then where do you go? You go to a London pub. And that single instant in the Black Cross set the whole story in motion.’
The story emanates from the Black Cross Pub on Portobello Road, the central forum for the novel’s characters and action. Set 10 years after the actual publishing date of the novel, London Fields depicts a London in the midst of a societal and environmental crisis. Actions are drawn out and viewed in these apocalyptic circumstances as London’s population is re-examined under the dark cloud of the approaching millennium. At this momentous milestone, London Fields examines what the seemingly ubiquitous urban decay, depravity and sexual deviancy says about the state of its times.
Chelsea and Notting Hill do not come out all that well.
Kensington Palace | © Wikicommons