M. ‘I’ve spotted him!’
M. ‘Down there. Having a coffee. On his own.’
Me. ‘Hey. Do you think he’d like it if we joined him?’
M. ‘I doubt it. He’s reading a book.’
D. ‘God, is he reading his own book? Unbelievable. He’s reading Yellow Dog.’
M. ‘No it’s not. I think it’s Hitch 22.’
Me. ‘Yeah well, whatever it is, look, he’s almost at the end. You know how it is when you’re nearly at the end of the book. You want to prolong the moment. So we’d be doing him a favour.’
M. ‘You can if you want to. I’m staying here.’
Me. ‘Coward. What about you, D?’
D. ‘Well we’ve come all this way. Seems a shame not to try...’
Back home in England, you’d never get away with it because: a) it would be considered a touch infra dig, and b) he’d never present such an obvious sitting target for such a prolonged period of time. But here in Dubai, the rules are different. That’s what we’re calculating. Indeed, I think it’s secretly one of the main reasons my friends D, M and I decided to come to this Emirates Festival of Literature. To hang with The Mart. The great Martin Amis.
Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds pathetic. At least it will if you’re a girl. I haven’t met a girl on the entire planet — apart from his wife Isabel, of whom more later — who gets excited by The Mart to nearly the same degree as boys do. But that’s because The Mart doesn’t really do girls’ books. He writes books about foul characters called Keith, and darts, sports cars called Fiascos, and the fantastic breasts of aristocratic blonde 20-year-olds in Italian castles, with glorious show-off, willy-waggling sentences and fantastic adjectives like ‘rangy’. I don’t know why, exactly, but when you’re a boy — at least a boy of a certain generation — this sort of thing really hits the spot. You feel you’re in the presence of greatness and you want a bit of it to rub off on you, ideally by getting some sort of quality time with the man.
But how? Interviews don’t count — they’re too one-way, too much of a performance. Bumpings-into-at-parties don’t count either — they’re too fleeting and unsatisfactory, as I’ve discovered many times before. The first must have been in my late twenties, when I said: ‘People say I look a bit like you. Do you think I look like you?’ and I can’t remember what his reply was but it must have been pretty boring, otherwise I suppose I would remember it.
I think it’s a deliberate technique of his. I’ve seen it used before, though usually by rock stars or movie stars rather than novelists. They’ve honed this way of dealing with non-famous strangers where they engage with you just enough for you not to go away thinking ‘What a ****!’, but not so that you can get any kind of conversational purchase on them. And off they slip, the eels.
Some are so grand they don’t even bother with those bare niceties. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, for example. A friend told me he’d once spotted Page in the street in Hammersmith and was just starting to tell him how much he’d meant to him, etc, when Page gestured him into silence with a diffidently outstretched palm.
‘Which was quite rude, don’t you think?’ said the friend. ‘Well, I dunno,’ I said. ‘He is the Hammer of the Gods. Imagine how many times it must happen when you’re Jimmy Page, having people telling you Led Zeppelin changed their life. If you gave them all the time of day you’d have no time left for your existence.’
Indeed, in my teeny tiny way I have experienced this myself. I am not Martin Amis. I am definitely not Jimmy Page. But even I, crap and really not very famous person that I am, quite often feel a flutter of mixed ingratitude and trepidation when a stranger recognises me. Even once I’ve established that they don’t hate me and don’t want to kill me, I still resent slightly the time I’m now going to have to spend being nice and listening to the things they want to tell me.
So I quite understand why The Mart always has that wary, slightly hunted look about him in public. The last thing a brilliant literary mind like that needs is some prat coming up to him and saying: ‘God I loved The Rachel Papers/Dead Babies/Other People’ (bad call: he doesn’t rate the early ones), or ‘God I loved Money’ (an even sorer point because it was probably his peak) and then having to be gracious in response.
Part of the challenge then, on this quest to hang with Mart — spend quality coffee-and-roll-ups time in the bar with him, below the swimming pool terrace from which we’ve been monitoring him on and off for half an hour (I conflated the dialogue at the top for dramatic purposes) — will be to signal to him immediately that D and I are not your usual, glib, stupid, fan riff-raff but the kind of interesting people who’ll brighten up his day.
Being all lavishly looked-after guests of this Emirates Literature Festival helps, obviously. They’re great levellers, literary festivals, especially in exotic places like Dubai where you’re all staying in the same hotel and bumping into one another at breakfast and going on exciting group excursions like the one into the desert where you smoke hubbly-bubbly pipes and ride camels and get to sand-board down the sides of sand dunes and such like. You, The Mart, Yann Martel, John Simpson, Kate Adie, Alexander McCall Smith, Jeffery Deaver — there might be slight differences in the size of your book sales, but for the festival duration you’re one big pretend-happy family.
Besides this, we have another secret weapon. Isabel Fonseca. Perdition catch my soul, but I do love Isabel Fonseca. Apart from my wife, she’s perhaps the most perfect specimen of womanhood I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just that she’s stunningly beautiful and intelligent and talented and looks great in a hat, but that she’s really nice with it. Approachable. No side. Just lovely, as D, M and I had discovered the day before on an outing to Dubai’s Old Town (which isn’t at all old really, just not as modern as the rest) when we totally bonded with her.
So D and I go on to the secret sun terrace where The Mart is having his quiet coffee and fag and we pretend to be surprised to see him. ‘Martin,’ I say, greeting him like an old friend. ‘Your talk was great last night...’ (He nods graciously. Quick. Quick. Think of something less fan-ish!) ‘...and Isabel. We so totally love Isabel. You really lucked out there. She is amazing.’ Yes she is, The Mart agrees. ‘So hey, is it OK if we join you for coffee?’ ‘Actually,’ says The Mart. ‘I was just about to leave.’ And after just enough shifty page-turning and final-dregs-of-sipping to let us know it’s not about us or anything, he does.