The second time I met British novelist Martin Amis I was on my knees under a table in The Elgin in Ladbroke Grove. Amis and a dark-haired woman were seated at the table.
Amis was writing his novel London Fields at the time. He trawled Notting Hill Gate‘s underbelly, its Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove pubs, for material for his novel.
The Amis-like narrator of London Fields is Sam, one of three men murderee Nicola Six attracts to herself. The other two men are a toff and a toe-rag. Nicola Six attracts all three. She messes with their heads and precipitates her end.
She is a femme fatale to herself.
I didn’t recognise Amis and the dark-haired woman when they walked into the Elgin on Ladbroke Grove the second time I met Martin Amis.
They sat at my table.
They looked out of place. They looked like they didn’t know what to do next.
“Nobody recognises me in there (every day is like the first day) and I have to stand around behaving characteristically,” Sam says of the pub in London Fields.
If Amis wanted to be recognised, he would have been better off nobbing it at a flasher drinking hole. But he didn’t always like attention. He had a love-hate relationship with the media, partly because of the money he spent on his troublesome teeth, partly because his writing pushes the edge of the literary envelope.
“Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself,” complained Amis’s dad, Kingsley, of his boy’s language-driven, 1984 satire, Money.
In his novels Amis is at home with yobs as he is with nobs – Notting Hill Gate was the family’s manor after all. He might have enjoyed slumming it in Notting Hill’s smoky taverns in his youth but in his memoir Experience he coined the phrase “tramp dread”.
Tramp dread was “the suspicion… that you would not only fail, but actually go under.” He came up with the phrase in the louche 1970s – which was the first time I met Martin Amis.
He was outside Holland Park tube station at the time. The South African conscription dodger I met at my squat asked him for directions to the Notting Hill Gate Carnival. The annual carnival is a wild celebration of West Indian music and costume, noise and food.
Amis worked for either The Times Literary Supplement or The New Statesman back then. He looked up from his notepad and pointed us in the direction of Portobello Road. A riot was about to happen, he said.
He hared off like Alice’s white rabbit to cover it. We followed but lost him. At the bottom of the rabbit-hole I found myself on the front line, pressed against the door of a corner pub, between the bristling crowd and London’s finest. The pub door at my back was not tthe same one I met Amis in eight years later but the one he calls the Black Cross in London Fields.
Mob violence was a breath away. The doorway was angled on the corner. On one side of the intersection was a rabble of black faces; on the other, ranks of side-burned London bobbies.
The armies were separated by a cobbled no-man’s land. The sky greyed with bottles, ice and bricks. The missiles thudded into the Old Bill.
The police improvised riot shields from fruit crates, dustbin lids and cardboard boxes.
The rain of missiles halted momentarily.
A police officer stepped forward. A bottle curved through the air and hit him in the nuts. He crumpled. It was like a scene from a cartoon Bayeux tapestry.
The police charged. They dragged bystanders out of the doorway.
One grabbed me by the collar.
“Who threw that bottle?” he shouted. “You see who threw it?”
His eyes were wild. I was white. He let me go and towed away the bloke next to me.
My South African mate found me. He had a bucket on his head to protect him from missiles. We legged it out of the war zone. Stones pinged off the South African’s bucket-helmet. On the way to the Tube, we saw cars overturned, broken bodies bundled into ambulances; others were dragged out. Shop windows were smashed and appliances looted.
The Evening Standard found in the feuding families of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet motifs for the riot.
“The Montagus of the Notting Hill black community met their old rivals, the Capulets of Scotland Yard and the utterly predictable battle ensued.”
The Standard plumbed London’s fields’ villainy for colour .
“Muggings were rife throughout the nineteenth century fairs and festivals… even Battersea funfair saw its share of thieves, pickpockets, baby snatchers and youth prone to hitting ladies over the head with bricks… Crowds tend to attract villains.”
So did west London pubs.
The shaggy, overcoated, rastafarian I occasionally bought a five quid stick of hash from at the Elgin even got a walk-on part in London Fields.
Amis calls him Shakespeare and places him the Black Cross.
“Shakespeare is, by some distance,the least prosperous of the Black Cross brothers,” writes Sam in London Fields.
“The bum’s overcoat, the plastic shoes, the never-washed dreadlocks. He’s the local shaman: he has a religious mission. His hair looks like an onion bhaji.”
Shakespeare had just sold me a small stick of hash the night I met Martin Amis the second time. Another bloke suppled me with a tiny envelope of speed.
But even before Amis and the dark-haired woman had walked in I had sniffed some tension in the air. Something was up, something was amiss.
I slipped the speed envelope down the back of a cigarette paper packet and poked the packet behind a vinyl cushion on the seat bench. I put the hashish in a crushed cigarette packet and dropped it under the table.
That’s when Amis and the woman entered and sat at my table.
They looked nervous, they looked out of place.
“What do we do now?” said the dark-haired woman.
“I don’t know,” pouted Amis. “Get some drinks in, I suppose.”
The woman returned with a gin and tonic and a glass of red wine. They sat together at my table.
I was invisible with my rollies and my pint.
We drank in silence, smoked cigarettes, behaved characteristically.
Looking back, I recognise Amis’s dark-haired companion as the femme fatale and murderee, Nicola Six in London Fields. Nicola Six lived in a dead-end street not far from Portobello Road. The street is not named but I suspect it is Bartle Road.
The Notting Hill Gate cul de sac was once known as Rillington Place. The street name was changed after the serial murders and back yard burials at number 10 by John Christie, a creepy abortionist during World War 2.
The irony of the location is a dark spark in Amis’s novel.
In Experience, the author tries to comprehend how a cousin, 21-year-old Lucy Partington, came to be a victim of serial murderer Fred West. West also buried his victims, including his own tortured and raped daughters, on his property.
Nicola Six started at the shout of alarm at the pub door. Martin Amis sipped his gin as the Old Bill bundled into the crowd.
They had us punters, toe-rags and the black lads, turn out our pockets. They rooted out from behind the jukebox Swan matchboxes stacked with sticks of hash. They found mini envelopes on the picture-rail; stashes under the cushions.
The policeman who probed my corner found the discarded Rizla packet behind the cushion. He flipped it onto the table then patted me down. Amis and Nicola Six were better dressed and left alone. Shakespeare was long gone. The policeman told me I could leave. I hesitated, then pocketed the Rizlas – but not the cigarette packet I’d dropped under the table.
At the door I stepped over an unaccountable puddle of blood and joined a bunch of Falstaffs at a drinking establishment up the road.
After an hour or so I returned to the Elgin to collect my cig packet with the hash.
I scoured the pitted carpet under the table but found nothing.
I resurfaced. Amis’s gaze met mine.
He shook his head and regarded me from a great distance.
The next day I shared the speed and my literary adventure with a mate. We sat at the table in the Edgeware Road estate’s ground floor flat and spent a few hours on the Evening Standard crossword.
We were killing time when it’s time that does the killing. Time gets away with murder. The sun passed between the estate’s towers and then it was evening. Night crept into the flat.
“Ah, well,” I said.
“Another one down,”
But soon as I said those three words in the darkening Edgeware Road gaff, I saw myself back at the Elgin, resurfacing empty-handed – the cigarette packet was gone – from the pits and sores of the carpet to meet Martin Amis’s gaze as he shook his head, and I saw uncoil from behind his eyes the shape of the phrase from a decade earlier: tramp dread, tramp dread, tramp dread.