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The Tarnished Mirror of the World: London in the intertextual web of Martin Amis’s London Fields[1]

Zia Gluhbegovic

In my writing, yes, I am fascinated by what I deplore, or I deplore what fascinates me: it’s hard to get it the right way round.[2]

A cross has three points. Depending on how you look at it, though, it might be said to have four.[3] The fifth point right at the centre of the cross is London. The question is to what extent this London represents the real city. In an interview with James Naughtie, Martin Amis offers a clue: “My three longest novels are all London novels. I do very much want and expect the city to be a presence in the book and to stand for all cities.”[4] His London is not a mimetic copy. Amis gives another hint in his interview with Will Self: “I have to push it through my psyche and transform it. So it isn’t, in the end, London any more. It’s London in the patterning of my cerebellum … what I feel I’m here for is to write about this city and what it’s like to be alive in it now. That’s the main thing.”[5] In sum, Martin Amis claims to have produced a personal psychological reflection of the city which, in turn, should be taken as a prototype of contemporary urban consciousness.

London Fields is about London as processed by Martin Amis’s brain, it is a textual recording of the pulse of the metropolis, a projection of its moods and its atmospheres, to borrow the phrase from Andreas Knaack. London is here not only a textual construction, however. It is the central point of the black cross on which converge the narrator and the three main characters, but it is also a study of the boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster, filled in with detail of streets, parks, pubs, restaurants and people living and working there. The problem is that this study is pieced together from scraps of the narrator’s and the protagonists’ perceptions, which are, in turn, constructed out of diverse discourses woven into a transtextual web. Since the narrator is self-defeatingly unreliable, while the elusive higher narrative authority (MA: Mark Asprey? Martin Amis?[6]) neither indicates a moral centre to help the reader reconstruct the implied author’s position, nor gives voice to those that are only heard as objects of somebody else’s discourse, it would be misleading to interpret this picture of London as comprehensive and authentic. It is, rather, highly selective and, at moments, dangerously parodic. The space in which characters move, as well as characters themselves, is caricaturally disfigured so as to accommodate the satirical purpose of the narrative. Martin Amis also employs the power of metaphor and allusion in order to charge his representation with more general meanings, common to the end-of-the-millennium city. In the paratext, the title designation, London Fields, challenges the reader as a puzzle with multiple interpretations. It echoes with gentle notes of pastoral idyll, pointing to an irretrievable past of innocuous innocence, where “the only hard evidence of sex is the children” and “soft hills”(323). Everything then seemed to be virgin, but was it also authentic? Nature and childhood might have long since been lost to civilizing projects and the perverted subconscious, as demonstrated by HER playground, Marmaduke and Kim. Now there is only London, and no fields. Or rather, “only force fields”, “fields of hatred and coercion”(134). Nature and society are in decline. In the words of Wilfred Owen’s “The Show”, “all migrants from green fields, intent on mire”, the boys David and Sam play in the stream in London Fields, obsessed “with their love of war”(323), since “love is war, and there is hatred in it”, as Forgael explains in Yeats’s “The Shadowy Waters”. “It feels like London Fields”(99): a research institute and a school, experience and destruction. Ultimately, London Fields is obviously a pun on the Elysian Fields, “the country of the dead…where… I shall find the love they promised”, in the abode of the Laughing People.[7] The narrator, in mock-Samson fashion, finds his true love only after he fails in his role as a fiction-manipulating artist, and triumphs as a saviour in someone else’s story.

In addition to the associations suggested by the title, London symbolism is further developed in the intricately woven web of metaphor. Samson Young, the narrator-scapegoat dying of irradiation and resigned to artistic failure in order to secure moral victory for love and innocence, opens his work-in-progress notebook with fresh bird’s-eye view impressions of London: a spider’s web and a cloaca. To these are later added Nicola Six’s childhood memories of TV nuclear raid alerts, where the city is represented as the bull’s-eye surrounded by concentric circles of devastation. A deeply disturbing vision of apocalyptic London thus emerges from the book: the city is felt as labyrinthine, mysterious, hazardously luring, like a disgusting snare.The problem with London (as postmodern liminal urban space[8]) and its chief paradox is that everything about it appears to be unnatural and uncultured. Or, perhaps, quite the contrary, overnatural and overcultured.

Martin Amis’s vision of London, mediated by caricature and metaphor, fits neatly into the mythical tradition of doomed cities. Peter Ackroyd makes a shrewd remark in his London: The Biography linking London with millenarian apocalypse: “… it is the fear, or hope, or expectation that this great imperial capital will in its turn fall into ruin” (579). Moreover, “November was the worst month for suicides in London and, during the Blitz of the winter of 1940-1, Londoners were more depressed by the weather than by the air-raids” (427).[9] Just as the historian-biographer brings his subject to fuller life by adding novelistic touches, so the novelist amasses concrete detail in order to produce the effect of authenticity and of specific locality. Accordingly, Amis generously supplies the careful reader with unobtrusive information on the ways and manners of London life. One should constantly bear in mind, though, distortions of Amis’s satirical perspective. The effect of the real produced by evocation of concrete detail is merely an illusion of verisimilitude, and the reader should not feel frustrated if she is presented with an “unreal city” instead of a “big, metropolitan project” (Thomas,1, 25).

The portrait of the city as gleaned from Amis’s text is rather bleak. The weather in London is either hot and dry or rainy and windy. Pollution and cityscape combine with the low-lying sun in order to produce the greenhouse effect. Or it may be that the sultry temperatures are due to overpopulation and body-heat. The low sun, “at the end of the street like a nuclear detonation … setting the horizon on fire” (365), once the “giver of all life”, has now become “the lifetaker, the carcinogenic sun” (148). It leaves “just fire and blood … [turning] slums into crystal battlements” (365). “You want it out of your sight”(365). “Why didn’t it go away? Why didn’t it go out?” (451) The sun is the bomb, the destroyer, but it is also the son (148, 470), the forever young god, welcome heat and light, the creator. Emulating solar aggression, the rain hurts with its whiplashes. “The rain made toadstools of the people in the street … as the wet souls converged at the entrance to the underground, faceless stalks, in mackintoshes, beneath the black flowers of their umbrellas.” (195) It seems to dissolve people as in some bizarre baptism before they step into the underworld. “The rain is terrible … in a northern city, suspended from soiled clouds… unclean water.” (205) The sky also interacts with the city: its shape and distance, the colour, arrangement and movement of clouds affect or reflect the moods and feels of the city. Dead clouds loom heavily in the lower sky. (344) Another constant of London weather is the wind. Storms and tempests have periodically wrought havoc since time immemorial.[10] In London Fields winds “tear through the city… softening it up for an exponentially greater violence” (43). The weather gives us a pre-view of the nuclear blast, it “makes us feel … what it is to live in a universe” (43).

One of Amis’s London themes concerns ecological disaster and destruction of natural communities, starting with the garbage tip on the green patch, that attraction between trash and greenery. Moreover, animals are afflicted as well. A squirrel vomits by the Kensington Gardens park railings and “the dogs aren’t living as long as they used to” (97). Unlike Laurence Sterne’s sentimental pilgrim who mourned the death of the ass he had loved so much, the Metrocab driver “treats his car as a peasant might treat his horse or ass, with numb and proprietorial cruelty” (447). Even humans get rough-handled in this hellish sewer swarming with rats. In “slum and plutocrat Britain” (137-8), “the inheritors of the millennium” (404) grow impatient of civic ideas such as queueing, zebra-crossing, women-and-children first, leave-the-bathroom-as-you-would-expect-to-find-it. London margin has its eccentrics and lunatics, humans brought to extreme states of low life: the homeless blind man masturbating against the wall on Rifle St, upset by occasional kindness; the cruciform woman standing in the middle of the Tavistock Rd, head up and arms outstretched, with a trusting and admonitory smile; the bag-lady arguing with her own breast in Queensway; the old woman whipping herself with a coconut switch; the woman beating her head against the wall of the post office on Ladbroke Grove. The market street is lined with piles of shoes, hats, handbags and gloves (400), a bearpit of voodoo and hunger, where life is “set out on barrows, on ping-pong tables” (35), a rat trench teaming with the troops of the poor (149).

Within society, communication is breaking down. “Illiterate themselves, the streets are illegible.” (367) Violence has moved from the telephone boxes (transformed into rain shelters, urinals, sex service stations) to the human body. People turn themselves into bomb sites or protest posters, and even babies have tatoos and piercing. The city traffic evokes imagery of urban jungle. In the low sun, trapped in gridlocks, frustrated by roadworks, “traffic is a contest of human desire” and recently “something has gone wrong with human desire”: people are “using up each other’s lives” and everyone appreciates “the last little packet of time” (326). There is no time to wait, one must get there before the others. The street crowds dance with the energy of carnival exuberance, at the same time threatening life with suffocation or mob-trampling.

Simultaneously attracted and repelled by the mob, outsider characters in London Fields, the foreigner, the woman and the aristocrat, walk right into its gravitational centre: the pub. London is distinguished by its pub aura. The end-of-the-millennium public house features pool, pinball, darts, fruit-machines, kegged beer and Scotch eggs, fights and drug-dealing. Every pub has its own feudal lord, baron or knight, and there are also distinctions of prestige between individual pubs. The Black Cross is an unpretentious joint on the Portobello Road. Its black door of fear opens into a tube train where people “grow up and get old in the space of a single week” (36). There is also the Foaming Quart in Brixton, a church and school turned into a discotheque and pub, with wooden flooring and stained-glass windows. The upmarket high-tech Marquis of Edenderry, fashionably painted red, is the site of Keith’s triumph in the Duoshare Sparrow Masters semi-finals. In addition to these, other pubs are frequented as well, millenial places of worship: the Mecca and the Golgotha.

Class-ridden tradition seems to be preserved grimly. “Even in a nuclear holocaust … people would still be brooding about accents and cocked pinkies, about maiden names and settee or sofa, about the proper way to eat a roach in society.” (24) Although characters in this novel break through the social membranes and mingle freely, they still live in self-contained class-separated worlds. Their public spaces are sharply defined and closed off by cliché and stereotype structures. The down-and-out, the hard-pressed queue in front of Salvation Army hostels and soup kitchens; the working class and the cheats eat their pork pies, Scotch eggs and Mexican chillis in pubs, snack-bars, junk-food outlets and exotic diners; the posh prefer cocktail-bars and expensive restaurants. Likewise, former mansion houses and country estates have been converted into prestigious boarding schools, with “thousand-acre parklands, olympic swimming pools, computer studios and so on”, whereas modest school buildings for the children of the poor, with “low stage, damaged skylights, Roman numerals of the clock and quelling wood”, have been turned into a church or a discotheque. (151) The Talents live in Windsor House on Golbourne Road, a council block of flats, a concrete highrise shining in the low sun and smelling of urine. That could well be Trellick Tower of the Kensal Estate (Ackroyd 526), lending an atmosphere of poor communal living to the Noting Hill vibes. Guy Clinch’s family reside in a detached villa on Lansdowne Crescent, “a citadel of order” (276), scattering money with its array of labour-saving devices and hosts of repairmen and cleaners and household servants. However, a peculiar form of mimicry conceals surface social differences. Amis calls it envy-preemption (3). Consequently, the black cabs ply only in the West End and the City, as just another tourist attraction, nostalgic and expensive. Elsewhere people ride around in small plain cars without signs. The rich are polite enough to make sure they are not socially offensive and so “strive toward a state of stone-grey invisibility” (3).

London thus seems severely divided, as in a state of constant war between different groups. Such representation, which might appear offensively black and white, is a consequence of the chosen narrative method and of the postmodern concept of disintegrated individual identity, whereby authenticity becomes impossible. Owing to the shifting narrative perspective and elided moral focus, the reader is left with the characters interpreting themselves and their environment on the basis of their media-constructed experience.[11] Thus, Bonfire Night is a festival of delight and relief for some, and a horrorful Bombfire Night, anticipating the nuclear catastrophe, for others. The solar eclipse is a rare and exciting natural phenomen or a total blackout, the beginning of the age of darkness. Women and non-white races do not have a voice.[12] Susie Thomas (18) has a point here, arguing that “if he had wanted to, Amis could easily have included black characters who disprove the prejudices articulated in the novel, but no other perspective is offered”.[13] They are only white male fantasies, pliable glamorous sex objects, dangerous drug dealers and savage rioters, ridiculous descendants of monstrous WW2 enemies or restaurant-owners eager to please with their fanciful flavours. This is not the implied author’s attitude, however. The three men in the novel, the yob, the effete rich sentimentalist, and the artless narrator, do not control their identities. They are manipulated by the cultural texts that construct them. Samson Young is the unreliable narrator who messes sentimentally with the characters of his borrowed story, being, most probably, only a fictional construct in someone else’s narrative. Keith Talent is “a liar” (43), whereas Guy Clinch is a self-deceiving neurotic. The only characters in the novel successfully manoeuvring their transtextuality are the self-abolishing authoress, the playful murderee, and the city, the multiform organism seduced by a momentary belief that it was heading for annihilation. Both the authoress and the city find pleasure and draw strength from their multiple identities. It is the creative pleasure of self-transformation. London absorbs all that is brought into her and outwrites and outlives all. London Fields as a story has to come to an end, but London lives on with its bright burning sun/son (148, 470): the star, the child and the writer.[14]


[1] In this essay I take the term ‘intertextual’ in its broadest sense, roughly overlapping with Gérard Genette’s concept of transtextuality as the totality of texts and discourses to which a given text explicitly or implicitly relates (1).

[2] John Haffenden. Novelists in Interview. Qtd. Ryan in Mengham 204.

[3] Martin Amis. London Fields. London: Vintage, 1999. 209. All references are to this edition.

[4] This interview was broadcast in the Book Club on BBC Radio 4, on 5th and 9th August 2001. The transcript can be found on the BBC Book Club web edition, 26 June 2004.

[5] Qtd. Andreas Knaack. Constructions of London in Martin Amis’s London Fields.

[6] One might argue that Martin Amis, contrary to what he claims in interviews, plays around with others’ perceptions of London rather than filtering the city through his own consciousness.

[7] W.B. Yeats. “The Shadowy Waters”.

[8] See Lehan’s study on city as a borderline entity.

[9] The eclipse, the climax of the Crisis and Nicola Six’s self-directed murder all take place in November, on Guy Fawkes’ night and after.

[10] In his account of “the late Dreadful Tempest” of 1703, Daniel Defoe suggests that terror was so intense that “many thought the end of the world was nigh”. After “two years of unnaturally cold and windy weather”, “London’s Hurricane” broke out on the night of October 16 1987. (Ackroyd 429).

[11] Frederick Holmes, “The Death of the Author as Cultural Critique in London Fields”( Tredell 113). In Understanding Martin Amis, James Diedrick also discusses authenticity and mediation (12).

[12] Nicola Six, “a male fantasy figure” and “the bitch in the book”, La Belle Dame sans Merci, is, above all, the dead author, the irresponsible artist withdrawn from the games text plays of and in itself, insouciant about real-life suffering and injustice. By contrast, MA/Martin Amis kills off his narrator in order to impose God-like control and achieve a more humane closure: the rich guy will help the poor guy bring up the child and the two families will be restored, all at the cost of doing away with the two authors (who represent opposed narrative traditions), since where fiction ends, life begins. (Græsborg and Lind 99).

[13] Thomas also approvingly quotes Frederick Holmes’s remark in a similar context [12].

[14] Though ecological catastrophe may still be imminent, a change is bound to transform class and race relations, with all groups putting in joint efforts to protect future generations. Viewed in this light, the abrupt happy ending, flaunting an apparently troublesome political message, convincingly negotiates Penny Smith’s accusations of reactionary ideology (Tredell 103).

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000.

Amis, Martin. London Fields. London: Vintage, 1999.

Diedrick, James. Understanding Martin Amis. Columbia, SC: University of Carolina Press, 1995.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Græsborg, Bo A., and Thorbjørn Lind. The Reader in London Fields: An In-Depth Analysis of London Fields, Emphasising the Play Between Text and Reader and the Consequent Implications for Narrative Authority. MA at Aalborg University, Denmark, 2000.

Knaack, Andreas. Constructions of London in Martin Amis’s London Fields.

Lehan, Richard Daniel. The City in Literature: an intellectual and cultural history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.

Naughtie, James. Interview with Martin Amis. Broadcast BBC Radio 4 Book Club, 5 & 9 Aug. 2001. Online transcript 26 Jun. 2004.

Ryan, Kiernan. “Sex, Violence and Complicity: Martin Amis and Ian McEwan”. An Introduction to Contemporary Fiction: International Writing in English since 1970. Ed. Rod Mengham. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999. 203-218.

Thomas, Susie. “Posing as a Postmodernist: Race and Class in Martin Amis’s London Fields”. London Literary Journal Vol. 1 No. 2 (2003).

Tredell, Nicolas. Ed. The Fiction of Martin Amis: A reader’s guide to essential criticism. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2000.

Self, Will. “An Interview with Martin Amis”. Qtd. Andreas Knaack. Constructions of London in Martin Amis’s London Fields.

To Cite This Article:

Zia Gluhbegovic, ‘The Tarnished Mirror of the World: London in the intertextual web of Martin Amis’s London Fields’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access]