Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Milk of Human Kindness

After the lightning flash of Terry Eagleton’s comparison of Martin Amis’s musings about Islam and terrorism to “the ramblings of a British National Party thug,” the debate rumbled through The Guardian last week. First Ronan Bennett, in an article with the fingerwagging headline “Shame on us,” argued that the apparent non-reaction to Amis’s statements allowed the author to get away “with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time.”

Then Christopher Hitchens, sleek as a seal from his Vanity Fair-sponsored extreme makeover, weighed in on his old mucker’s behalf, by insisting that “Martin Amis is no racist.”

Both Bennett and Hitchens drew parallels between the IRA campaign in the 1970s and today’s Islamic-inspired terrorism to examine notions of collective responsibility.

Bennett made his point about the inflammatory nature of Amis’s comments by taking sentences attributed to the writer and replacing the word “Muslims” with “Asians”, “Blacks” and “Irish”. For example:

“Strip-searching Irish people. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole Irish community and they start getting tough with their children.”

Hitchens, in a characteristic tactic, attempted to cast doubts on his opponent’s intelligence by focusing on a point of English usage:

“Ronan Bennett’s clumsy tirade against Martin Amis in G2 on Monday will not have been a complete waste of space if it allows us to revisit the words “discriminate” or “discrimination”. . . Thus to accuse Martin Amis of being a racist is to say that he can’t tell the difference between, say, one Irishman and another.”

This last comment actually made me think of a sentence by Amis, written a very long time ago and in a very different context, that made me unsure whether he could even tell the difference between one Irishman and a piece of excrement.

From Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), the following passage describes the down-at-heel lodgings of his erstwhile childhood Nanny:

“I looked around the room. There was only the one door off it, and we had come in by that, so it was safe to assume that these four walls (or six: the bedsitter was L-shaped) bounded Nanny’s existence–apart from sorties to some rancid bathroom, which would anyway have crap and catatonic Irishmen all over its floor.”

No doubt “The Hitch” would object to my overloading of the rhetorical concept of zeugma to support the claim that the above passage implies an equivalence between drunken Micks and crap. But does the sentence at least begin to challenge the impression that Amis’s recent remarks about Muslims are the product of a middle-aged brain calcifying with bigotry? As the Rachel Papers was published when the writer was only 24, it might seem that Amis was never overly concerned with empathizing with either the mindset or conditions of those outside his social and intellectual circle. It’s a good first book, but if you care to read it, the above quote will seem hardly anomalous. Around ten pages on, with all the pinched sarcasm marginalia allows, I annotated the following sentence with the phrase “the milk of human kindness”:

“Was this the case with everyone–everyone, that is, who wasn’t already a thalidomide baked bean, or a gangrenous imbecile, or degradingly poor, or irretrievably poor…”