It is always a danger for celebrities that they become parodies of themselves as they age. In outward ways this was true of Martin Amis. The novelist, screenwriter, essayist and critic and literary maven who graced television studios and book festivals in recent years was a sort of caricature: more epigrammatic, more flippant yet oddly judgemental, rail-thin and more seductively reptilian. He was conscious of the ageing process himself. “Novelists tend to go off at 70,” he said, “and I’m in a funk about it.”

That was perhaps not surprising, as he had once been a certified enfant terrible, a published novelist with The Rachel Papers at 23, literary editor of the New Statesman at 27, one of Granta’s storied Young British Authors at 33. And of course he was pre-famed, the second son of that tyro of a previous generation, Kingsley Amis, whose first novel, the sparkling dark comedy Lucky Jim, was published when Martin was only four years old.

Yet he always seemed relevant, always had something recently published, was always worth listening to on culture, society and the world. And his death, from oesophageal cancer at 73, seems premature and shocking. Those who find significance in  the coincidental have noted that he died of the same affliction as his great friend Christopher Hitchens, and at the same age as his father.

Martin Louis Amis was born in Oxford on 25 August 1949. His father Kingsley, not long graduated from St John’s College with a first, had already decided to make a career as a writer but was just about to take up a position as a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea, which would provide the fuel for Lucky Jim. His mother, Hilary Bardwell, was the daughter of a civil servant and had studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. Until Hilary inherited a small legacy in the early 1950s, they lived in genteelly straightened circumstances but were respectably, intellectually middle-class.

The Swansea years were marked by his father’s sudden fame: Lucky Jim was greeted with enthusiastic plaudits, won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction the year after publication and by 1957 was adapted for the big screen, a Boulting Brothers production starring Ian Carmichael (as eponymous hero Jim Dixon) and Terry-Thomas. When Kingsley, feeling jaded in Swansea, won a fellowship at Cambridge’s oldest college, the small, wealthy and grand Peterhouse, Martin attended Cambridgeshire High School for Boys (though he would chalk up attendance at a dozen schools over his childhood). One master called him “unusually unpromising”, and Amis would always insist that he read little but comic books as an adolescent.

In 1963, Kingsley’s affair with fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard was discovered by Hilary, and the couple separated. Kingsley married Elizabeth in 1965, and she broadened Martin’s intellectual horizons by introducing him to Jane Austen. Amis began with Pride and Prejudice, and within an hour was at his stepmother’s study door, demanding “I’ve got to know: does Elizabeth marry Darcy?” He would later cite Austen and Howard herself as his earliest literary influences. By contrast, his father took relatively little interest in his work at first, or indeed in parenting at all. Amis talked of “passing him on the stairs” as he made for his study, and it was significant that he remarked that Kingsley was always “pleasant”.

Howard seems to have saved Amis’s academic performance, sending him to a crammer in Brighton, and from being an “unpromising” pupil at school he became a brilliant student at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read English. It was an old, small and distinguished college—then all-male, of course—originally popular with the sons of Devon aristocrats and in the 17th century with Catholic students (who were not allowed to matriculate formally). It was the alma mater of Sir Hubert Parry and J.R.R. Tolkien, of Richard Burton and Alan Bennett. The novelist Philip Pullman, who graduated in English just before Amis arrived, would use the experience as the basis for the “other” Oxford depicted in the trilogy His Dark Materials.

The Rachel Papers was a statement of intent, witnessed by the closing sentence: “I refill my pen”. Thereafter, Amis kept up a drumbeat of novels. Dead Babies (1975), the tale of drug-fuelled weekend party in a country house, was an early flourish of his dark, biting humour and almost cruel casualness. Success (1978) charted the biographies of two foster brothers with the Amis-esque almost allegorical names of Gregory Riding and Terry Service. Other People (1981) told the story of Mary Lamb, an amnesiac discharged from hospital, taking in moments of comedy but an unwinding tale of despair and disaster towards an ambiguous conclusion. All were praised, at least in Britain, though some critics found Dead Babies juvenile, and the characteristics of Amis the novelist were emerging: confidence, black wit and a willingness to drink deep of the worst of humanity.

This was the period during which Amis made the transition to debut writer of famous paternity to full-time author in his own right. Having initially reviewed science fiction novels for The Observer under the pseudonym Henry Tilney, he worked at The Times Literary Supplement from 1972 to 1976, before being taken on by The New Statesman, then a stately but rather ageing organ of the intellectual Left under the editorship of Anthony Howard. It was at the magazine that Amis met Christopher Hitchens, just five months older and a Marxist who had already passed through Trotsykist and Luxemburgist phases by his mid-20s. He was a brilliant polemicist and provocateur who became Amis’s best and lifelong friend: indeed, the bond between Amis and Hitchens—though neither was uncritical of the other—became as close as a male heterosexual friendship can be. Amis once told The Independent “It is a love whose month is ever May”, albeit with a degree of ironic prettiness.

The 1980s were perhaps the pomp of Amis. Having decided that he would write for a living, he was lauded by Granta in the famous 1983 list of British novelists under 40, along with writers like William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain. The decade was dominated, in literary terms, by the first two-thirds of his loose “London Trilogy”: Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). They caught an element of the public mood, and gave Amis a canvas on which he painted some of his best work. They were tales of middle-aged men, successful but jaded, navigating a world which was in chaos, disorder, the beginnings of a societal collapse. Opponents of Thatcherism did not have to look hard for a metaphor.

There was a sense of frustration about Amis’s writing, but it was not frustration with writing, for he remained a dedicated craftsman who laboured over his careful tongue-and-groove sentences. It was a feeling which looked at the world while squinting through the smoke of a cigarette, head thrumming with a dull ache and mouth dry and stale from half-remembered excesses. Although he was never political in the same way as his great friend Christopher Hitchens, he was profoundly opposed to nuclear proliferation, for example, but his was not a ideological ennui. It was psychological, personal. Not that he was unhappy: in 1984 he married the American academic Antonia Phillips, and they had two sons, Louis and Jacob. He was able to create two characters for his London novels who were, in Amis style, caricatures but surprisingly finely drawn. John Self, the narrator of Money, is “addicted to the twentieth century”, and you can tell what that’s going to mean: the titular money, of course, but also alcohol, drugs and sex. Amis writes some of the most extraordinary descriptions of masturbation since Portnoy’s Complaint.

Keith Talent, who bursts into London Fields, is a working-class crook and cheat who is addicted to darts. What caused a frisson then would endanger the book’s publication today: Talent is a serial rapist, cheats on and abuses his wife, and regularly has sex with an underage girl whose mother he pays for the privilege. Of course it was intended to be shocking. Simon Schama described London Fields as “the never-likely-to-be-bettered bedtime story from the heart of Mrs Thatcher’s darkest Albion”.

London Fields was famously omitted from the shortlist for the 1989 Booker Prize. Two members of the panel, novelist Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, refused to include the book because of Amis’s depiction of women. It was reported that they felt he had not made it sufficiently clear that he disapproved of the behaviour of his characters, but one of the other judges, David Lodge, later revealed in his memoir that McNeil told him that one of her criteria for a good novel was that “it must be ideologically correct”. An early precursor of our current malaise. Although Gee and McNeil were outnumbered, such was the vehemence of their objection that the other judges, Lodge (who was the chair), David Profumo and Edmund White, gave way. Lodge later regretted not saying “It’s two against three, Martin’s on the list.”

The prize that year went to Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful, note-perfect The Remains of the Day, which no-one thought an unworthy victor. But it meant that Amis would never be a Booker winner, unlike his fellow Granta young writers Ishiguro, Julian Barnes (2011), Ian McEwan (1998) and Salman Rushie (1981). One senses Amis lived with that “failure”. More importantly, however, the row cemented the view that some already had of him, irredeemably a member of a boys’ club of writers, casually misogynist, freely unfaithful, hard-drinking, self-regarding and deeply clannish.

The London trilogy, loose as it was, became complete with 1995’s The Information. This was, in a way, a double autobiography, a morality tale of two 40-year-old writers who had been friends since university. One has achieved success, the other less so. This was the zenith of Amis’s depiction of the midlife crisis, which he would later describe as “​​an hysterical overreaction to the certain knowledge that you’re going to die”. Certainly Amis had experienced something of that himself, separating from his wife in 1993 to pursue a relationship with the American writer Isabel Fonseca, whom he had first met during an interview for The Times Literary Supplement. The media reaction was predictable. Amis was, they said, reliving his father’s infidelities, and Fonseca, because of her familial links to the wealthy Kaplan family, was painted as an alluring heiress.

In other respects the 1990s were mixed for Amis, though his star was already sufficiently secure in the literary firmament for it to fade. In 1991 he was, at last, nominated for the Booker Prize for Time’s Arrow, a challenging work with reverse chronology which posed as the autobiography of a German doctor, Odilo Unverdorben, who worked at the death camp Auschwitz under “Uncle Pepi”, a thinly veiled portrait of Josef Mengele. The award that year went to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road—Okri was at 32 the youngest winner and the first black writer to take the laurels—but Amis was, at least, no longer an un-person for Booker judges. (There was still controversy: the novelist Nicholas Mosley walked off the judging panel when his colleagues refused to shortlist The Sins of the Father by Allan Massie, and then announced that the other entries were light on ideas, which seems unfair given Okri’s work and Amis’s novel at least.)

The Information, the last of his London trilogy, caused a greater impact for its commercial attributes at its literary reception. Amis asked for—and was given—an advance of £500,000, which was enormous in fiction-writing circles at the time. But to do it he split with his publisher, Jonathan Cape and his agent of 22 years, Pat Kavanagh, and joined up with Andrew Wylie, nicknamed “The Jackal” and known for poaching clients, who took him to HarperCollins UK. Not only was Kavanagh deeply hurt, she was married to Amis’s old friend Julian Barnes, and it caused a deep rift between the two which took a decade to repair. Amis later said he regretted seeking such a large sum, as Jonathan Cape had been offering £300,000, though Christopher Hitchens would argue that Amis had chosen Wylie because he admired the way the agent had supported Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

His peers did not treat him kindly: he called it “an Eisteddfod of hostility”. A.S. Byatt called Amis’s demand for such a large sum “folie de grandeur” and “a kind of male turkey cocking”, and much comment was passed on the extensive dental surgery Amis underwent around the same time, widely presumed to be for cosmetic reasons and/or to impress his new partner, Fonseca. In fact he had always had dental problems, about which he would write with extraordinary lyricism in his memoir Experience (2000).

But 1995 was also the year that his father, Sir Kingsley, died at the age of 73. He had been a heavy drinker for much of his life, and when his second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard left him in 1980, she offered to return if he would give up drinking. He refused, believing it was an intolerable requirement for which he would inevitably resent her. But he did begin to moderate his intake and was productive for the last decade of his life. In August 1995, he fell after a suspected stroke and never really recovered, dying in hospital that October. That Kingsley’s death affected Amis is hardly surprising, but it was more than that.

The relationship between father and son had always been complicated. They had almost opposed views of the world and cultural sensibilities, Kingsley an old-fashioned, public-school-and-Oxford Tory who eventually embraced Thatcherism, and Martin a restless, sometimes Zeitgeisty, pessimistic liberal who was once described as “the Mick Jagger of literature” and would come to make his home in New York. Amis père refused to read his son’s books, but then, as he aged, he told Martin that he refused to read any work of fiction which did not begin with the sentence “A shot rang out”. The younger Amis claimed, mostly convincingly, not to mind this lack of paternal approval, and portrayed an affectionate, if perhaps distant, bond. It is certainly significant that when he published his memoir, the first word was “Dad” and the last words were “Kingsley Amis”.

His relationship with his father was also intimately intertwined with his attitude towards criticism. Amis described himself as “the only hereditary novelist in the canon”, that is, the only son of a famous literary father who could more or less match his parent in acclaim, skill and importance. (It is in fact a fair assessment, but insufficiently modest for the British literary milieu.) This came at a price: in 2014, he told The Guardian “it became accepted that you could say whatever you fucking well liked about me—because, so to speak, I didn’t earn it”. However, there was also a sense in which Kingsley’s lack of engagement with Martin’s œuvre made the latter fireproof. After all, if he had reconciled himself to the fact that his own father, one of the great English comic writers of the 20th century, disliked the whole concept of his writing, it was unlikely he would take too much to heart the opinions of anyone else.

The tumultuous 1990s, centred in the furore over his advance for The Information and its fallout, had a particular resonance because a great deal of the criticism levelled at Amis was, stripped of malice and rudeness, accurate. Not only was it accurate, it went to the heart of the kind of novelist, writer and human being he was. Although he was famously lacking in stature—he was 5’6” and described himself as a “shortarse”—he was very much an alpha male, Clive James once writing of his “stubby, Jaggerish appearance”. Partly it was the ever-present cigarette, which by the 1990s was an unmistakeable symbol of rebellion as well as addiction, and partly it was the fact that there had always been a louche, sinuous and frankly sexual air about him. If the cupidity of the advance and the brouhaha over his relationship with Fonseca made him look arrogant, lecherous and egotistical, it was hard to deny that he possessed those characteristics in no small degree. What disappointed some, and perhaps stung Amis himself, is that his mid-1990s literary output was not up to his own high standards.

The turn of the millennium saw the release of Experience. Writing a memoir at the age of 50 is a challenge to oneself. He was by no means signing off—there were some very substantial works still in his future—but it indicated a degree of self-reflection, and was certainly frank. Although his father dominates the book, it dealt with his relationships with his mother and stepmother, revealed that a brief affair with the author Lamorna Heath, who committed suicide in 1978, had resulted in a child, Delilah, and also dwelt on the fate of his cousin, Lucy Partington, to whom he had been close in their childhoods.

Partington had disappeared late in 1973, at the age of 21, and in 1994 it turned out that she had ended her days, tragically, in the horrors of the basement of 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, the home of Fred and Rosemary West. She had been decapitated and dismembered, her remains pushed into a space between two water pipes along with a knife, a rope, a section of masking tape, and two hairgrips. Circumstantial evidence indicated that she might have been alive for several days after her abduction, but it was not certain, and that, Amis wrote, “is the inference I should prefer the family to make”.

The memoir, therefore, gave Amis’s audience a lot to digest. It was generally well received and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography in 2000. But it also marked the beginning of a decade in which his emphasis shifted. Between 2000 and 2009, he would publish only two novels, Yellow Dog (2003) and House of Meetings (2006), but his other output soared. Experience was followed by The War Against Cliché (2001), a collection of essays and journalism, Koba the Dread (2002), a highly stylised examination of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, and The Second Plane (2008), a collection of writings on the so-called ‘War on Terror’ addressing the 9/11 attacks and Islamic radicalisation. The publication of The Second Plane was prompted by a vicious spat over racism between Amis and the quarrelsome, Marx-influenced literary theorist Terry Eagleton.

Was he avoiding the hard emotional labour of novel-writing? He spent two years living with his wife in her father’s native Uruguay, and on his return in 2004 he expressed disquiet at the political landscape in the UK, seeing mounting hostility towards the US and Israel, and wondering if he had become more right-wing or if the culture had changed (there was an element of both). And in 2008 he became a grandfather when Delilah Searle gave birth to a son, which he would describe sharply as “like getting a telegram from the mortuary”. Was this a midlife crisis? Vanity Fair had already diagnosed him as suffering from that affliction as far back as 1995, but the 2000s seem indicative of something more profound than wanting new teeth and more money.

Amis had already had a long career as a writer acutely capable of articulating the spirit of his age, from the mid-1970s through to the end of the 20th century. Now it looked like the ground might have moved under his feet to an extent which he struggled to accommodate. Being accused of prejudice and Islamophobia put him in territory which his father would have found familiar (and in which he might well have revelled), but it was very un-Amisian for the younger man. Conversely, his sparky defiance and contrarianism, his eagerness to challenge prevailing orthodoxy, could find much succour here.

But his critics were forthright, and many thought the quality of his work was in decline. Novelist Tibor Fischer, who had been featured in Granta’s list of young writers ten years after Amis, described Yellow Dog as “not-knowing-where-to-look bad… like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating”, though the author himself rated it as “among my best three”. 2006’s House of Meetings, a return to the subject of Stalinist repression, fared a little better with reviewers, but even positive notices remarked that it could be “wearing”, possessed “a nasty glitter”, was “essentially unserious… almost glib” and represented, cuttingly, “a wicked parody of the Amis style”.

This unease, unevenness, almost loss of form may have been exacerbated by his ongoing battle with a novel he had begun in 2003. Amis had begun to draft The Pregnant Widow as “blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme”, which at that time might have sounded some alarm bells. Five years later, though he would come bitterly to regret the decision, he abandoned this draft and wrote a very different novel. Taking eight and a half years to conceive and write, longer by some way than any other book of his, it emerged in 2010 as a story of the sexual revolution. This, Amis reckoned, was an incomplete process which baffled some women. “Feminism,” he wrote, “I reckon, is about halfway through its second trimester.” The novel met a sharply mixed reception, Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times calling it “a thumping disappointment”, while The Spectator’s Richard Bradford lauded it as a “unique, sometimes exquisite experience” and Tim Adams for The Observer labelled it “a satisfying return to first principles”. Christopher Tayler, in The Guardian, equivocated. “Is it a ‘return to form’? Not exactly, but there’s plainly a regathering of artistic energies.”

The critical ambivalence towards The Pregnant Widow was illustrated by the fact that it was not longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize, but that year saw Amis named Writer of the Year by GQ magazine. The most likely explanation is that, while it was not a flawless book by any means, it was a powerful enough force to push Amis the writer back into the front line. And it set him up to produce in 2012 Lionel Asbo: State of England, the subtitle of which made its ambition clear. This was familiar territory, biting satire on the life and culture of the United Kingdom, and although one reviewer mused how hard it must be for Amis, “never quite knowing if he’s a national treasure or a national embarrassment”, the truth was that Amis didn’t care. “National” was enough. His aim was, as it always been, to be a writer who ‘mattered’, and who was able to pinpoint society’s weak spots with a flurry of witty phrases and sharp commentary.

Any novelist who inhabits the literary end of the fiction spectrum will have considered writing a “state of the nation” novel (what is sometimes called in this country a “condition of England” novel). It is a beast not easy to define: while it must of course be set in contemporary society, its scope and ambition must be wider. It has to embody the whole nation, or find a microcosmic way of representing its time and imparting some kind of lesson, bringing some moral heft behind its observations. The Victorians perhaps saw the apogee of the condition of England novel, because these books could reveal truths to their readers: Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, which punchily portrays a fictional northern city called Coketown, or Mary Barton, a tale of industrial Manchester and the Chartist movement, by Elizabeth Gaskell. Such a feat is challenging in the age of universal information.

American writers have tended to lead the field in the state of the nation. Harriet Beecher Stowe skewered the horrors of chattel slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as early as 1852 (yet now the book is remembered chiefly for supposedly perpetuating racial stereotypes) but the heavyweights are writers like John Dos Passos (USA), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), James Baldwin (Go Tell It On The Mountain), John Updike (The Rabbit Angstrom novels), Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities), Don DeLillo (Underworld), Philip Roth (American Pastoral) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections). Amis knew this. He was devoted to Saul Bellow, one of the most dazzling of the great American writers, and before he wrote Lionel Asbo he remarked “At the moment the US is the centre of the earth. English novels in the 19th century reflected our political preeminence, but then American fiction stepped in.”

Amis meant Lionel Asbo as a summation of an England he manifestly disliked. After 2010 he had gradually moved his life to a brownstone in Cobble Hill, a chi-chi, historic corner of north-west Brooklyn, blaming his homeland’s “moral decrepitude”, and there was a feeling that the relocation to the US gave him much-needed space to breathe and think and write on a bigger scale. The novel was subtitled “State of England”, parading his intentions for all to see, but some critics felt he had missed his mark.

The Guardian called Lionel Asbo “an eccentrically impressive performance”, but it was not meant as a compliment, later adding the phrase “another pornotheological farce”. The New York Times granted that Amis was “an insistently moral writer” providing “Dickensian refrains”, but that the novel failed to “accrue the weight of tragedy”. An uneasy and half-tacit consensus was that Amis had reached too far, undertaken too great a task, and instead of finding a more modest target, had produced an unsatisfactory work that was tired as satire and inadequate as grand social commentary.

He had only two more novels in him. The Zone of Interest (2014) returned to the Holocaust and to Auschwitz-Birkenau, telling the story of a German officer who falls in love with the wife of the commandant. It seemed a return to form, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction in 2015 and hailed by critics as his best work in years, perhaps since London Fields a quarter-century before. The scale seemed more manageable, though one cannot see anyone except Amis finding a smaller, more intimate setting in the annihilation of European Jewry, and his formidable wordsmithery was allowed to attract the praise it deserved.

His last major work was, contrarily, a fictionalised autobiography, Inside Story (2020), centred on his relationship with three late friends and authors, Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. Amis distanced the tale from reality by the introduction of an entirely imagined female character, Phoebe Phelps, though loyal readers must have rolled their eyes just a little at another hyper-sexualised but vulnerable young woman in an Amis novel. But the book had much more fundamental themes, addressing not only friendship and loss but the death of his stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and the very art of writing.

There is a sense of reckoning about the book. Not only does it address mortality head-on, but Amis made it clear that, aged 70 when writing it, he expected it to be his last full-length work, after which he would restrict himself to shorter works until he reached the point of wanting to “shut up and read”. But it is a puzzling and challenging work, difficult to categorise and elusive of purpose. The Irish critic Kevin Power was left with questions to which there was only a nebulous answer. “What is Inside Story? A novel? A memoir? Perhaps it’s simply an anthology—autumnal, summative—of Martin Amis’s poems.” It is a typically sparkling feat of prose, but Amis had made that almost an assumption, a victim of his own success. That it returns to themes from earlier in his career is hardly a fair criticism: it is, after all, a kind of autobiography. For all that, as an acknowledged coda, it sits uneasily, Does it attempt too much? Or does it simply lack a coherent purpose? Did Amis really know what he wanted it to be?

If Amis did not foresee his death so soon after Inside Story was published, he had been concerned with posterity for a long time. He liked to recall Bellow’s description of death as “the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see anything”, reminiscent of the phrase dubiously attributed to Sophocles but used by de Gaulle and Nixon, “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been”. 

In 2009, paying tribute to John Updike, Amis has written “Several times a day you turn to him, as you will now to his ghost, and say to yourself ‘How would Updike have done it?’ This is a very cold day for literature.” He understood intimately and exactly the place writers have in our consciousness and the void they leave behind them. How could he not? He had seen it in his own father.

He had once said that “most writers go off”. Many felt that he had done so, that he had, as he entered his eighth decade, said everything he had to say, and was running on fumes in creative terms. But I think this misses the point. Because, peculiar though it may sound, I don’t think Amis’s canon, for all the boisterous energy of The Rachel Papers or the sleazy wisdom of Money, was his legacy. He was once asked how he decided what he would write about, and his answer was striking. “It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject. It isn’t the idle selection of a subject—it chooses you.”

That matters. What Amis leaves behind is not so much his novels (which are not so widely read now), nor his extensive and skilful criticism, but a sort of mindset and style. He wrote words, phrases, descriptions, emotions, and if they added up at the end of the day to a novel, so much the better. But words were his currency. He was a writer because he wrote.

“Much modern prose,” he sighed once, “is praised for its terseness, its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue, et cetera […] Once, I called it ‘vow-of-poverty prose.’ No, give me the king in his counting house.”

Amis was a writer of a kind which has largely vanished: razor sharp, bold, self-confident, conscious that to be a public intellectual was a gift which could only be repaid by savage honesty. His prose hummed with energy but reflected hard work too, and his persona spoke from every page of every book—sometimes too loudly. If he was a rock star, the “Mick Jagger of literature”, he was clever enough to complain that the Rolling Stones’ front man was never described as the “Martin Amis of rock’n’roll”. His self-confidence came not so much from arrogance but from the sure knowledge of how talented he was, and he never apologised for that, not letting it be stifled by politesse or convenience.

Once he and his like roamed the salons and bars of the world: Amis; Hitchens in the van and wreathed in smoke; Rushdie silky, seductive, the exotic and the familiar of the Anglo-Indian; McEwan & Boyd and Ishiguro & Barnes thoughtful and watchful. They knew they mattered, not to everyone, perhaps, but to those who took books seriously, who took culture seriously, who took ideas seriously. Now some are gone: Amis has joined Hitchens, Rushdie, despite others’ best efforts, is still with us. Most have aged, some have mellowed. But the world has changed, and no longer thinks they are so influential or important. It is our loss.

“We all have an urge to write in adolescence… the writers are just the ones who keep going.” Amis wrote, and wrote brilliantly. That urge, much more than the satisfaction of the outcome, the acclaim, the canon, was what drove him. That was one reason he was so versatile, encompassing novels, short stories, non-fiction, books reviews and literary criticism. Different destinations, but all from the same starting point, the same motivation: the unquenchable urge to pour forth words, to put them on the metaphorical page.

Although he once said that a writer’s life was eased by the fact that two hours of uninterrupted work would count as a productive day, he was being disingenuous. He knew what rolled and groaned inside him, because it was what had driven his father: Kingsley had been a writer of strict discipline, producing a minimum of 500 words each day and tackling, like his son, a spectrum of fiction and non-fiction. In the end, as it marked his life and death, it is appropriate that he likened writing to smoking: “you have a sobbing, pleading feeling in the lungs as they cry out for their first cigarette of the day, and my desire to write is rather like that. It’s rather physical.”

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.