English By any other Name


On July 22, as corks were still popping across London in celebration of the new royal baby, a sellout crowd gathered at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for a different celebration of Englishness.

The occasion was a rare joint appearance by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the literary equivalent of a concert by the Three Tenors—or perhaps a friendlier version of the Yalta conference, with three allies jostling to carve up whatever territory might still be controlled by big-dude British literary novelists of a certain age.

Since the 1970s, this triumvirate has been accused of "dominating and distorting British fiction", Rushdie boasted. "But unfortunately," he added, "since Martin and I have established our beachheads in New York—so look out, America! Ian has to look after England on his own."

The event itself, which featured readings from the most recent novels by Amis and McEwan, each introduced by Rushdie, could not be less English, Amis hastened to add when he took the stage. In England, "if your favourite living writer, who also happened to be your long lost brother, was reading in the next house, it would never even occur to you to go and stick your head round the door", said Amis. Americans, by contrast, "come and listen to things".

Those things included wry and often unprintable reminiscences about London in the 1970s literary life and the trio's late and still-lamented friend Christopher Hitchens.

"I feel there should almost be an empty chair here," Rushdie said, before going on to recall Hitchens's fondness for word-substitution games. One of the more family-friendly ones: substitute "hysterical sex" for "love" in famous titles, as in 'Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera'.

But it was also a master class in the themes of the English novel, as recast by writers who have been branded "Ian Macabre" or, in Amis's case, a master of "the new unpleasantness".

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