‘It could be worse. It has been worse. It will get worse. For the moment, though, it’s not too bad.’ Germaine Greer was sitting in the British Airways Monarch lounge at Heathrow Airport, ‘for all the world as if I was rich and famous’. It was 1 March 1976, and she was one of the best-known people in the world.
Greer was on her way to the United States for a lecture tour she was dreading. The travel was forced upon her. The US lecture circuit was lucrative, and despite her fame she was in financial trouble, under pressure to pay tax on income received and spent years before. She had been writing letters to the bank, putting them off on the strength of her expected earnings from the US circuit. She hated the tours. They left her drained and exhausted. She took weeks to recover from them.
Sometime before she left for the airport she had spoken by phone to her lover. He had suggested she write to him, and so she had bought a hard-backed A5 notebook and in it, as she waited for the inevitably delayed departure, she wrote the first entries in what was to become an extraordinary diary and travelogue. On the first page, she gave the document a name: ‘The Long Letter to a Short Love, or …’ She never completed the alternative title.
The name was a pun. The love affair had only just begun and was already, so far as we can tell, nearly over. She hardly knew him. As well, the man she was addressing was notoriously sensitive about being short, and she was not above teasing him. He was a journalist, working for the New Statesman, and only just beginning to be well known, emerging from the shadow of his famous father. Her ‘short love’ was Martin Amis, who would become one of the defining literary voices of the late twentieth century.
But was she really writing to him or, as she began to suspect towards the end, to the man she wanted him to be, or thought he might become? Martin Amis became her imaginary friend, and company during the lonely ordeal of the tour. At the end of the document she called him a whore, albeit beloved, but by then she wasn’t sure who she was talking to. She never sent the letter. Instead she packed the document, about 30,000 words long, into a manila folder, labelled it neatly, catalogued it and stowed it away. So far as I know, I am the first person to have read it other than Greer herself.
Greer sold her papers to the University of Melbourne archives in 2013. It is an enormous collection—478 archive boxes of documents chronicling six decades in the life of one of the world’s most important thinkers. Greer said she would use the proceeds of the sale to finance the care and rehabilitation of her rainforest property at Cave Creek in south-east Queensland. In her most recent book, White Beech, The Rainforest Years, Greer describes how she became ‘the servant of the forest’ after buying the land in 2001. Since then she has spent every spare cent on it.
The archive arrived in Australia in August 2014 and a few months ago was opened to scholars for the first time. It includes manuscripts of Greer’s books, her diaries and correspondence. There are letters to Fellini and her lover Warren Beatty—the latter almost pastoral, with descriptions of a drive through Wales in spring, along with a critique of his role in the movie Lilith: ‘You were so droll, mooching around like a method actor with your forehead carved into so many knots and furrows as are required of a serious actor under strain.’ Greer did not spare her lovers. As for the spring:
A warm mist like a spray of blood seems to hang over the hedges and within the copses. The imagery of spring is delicate and fresh but I find it violent and obscene. Everything seems to be pushing and bursting, swelling up and cracking open, oozing and sticky and murmuring. I saw the infant Wye leaping down to the sea and lambs tottering drunkenly tit-wards and I thought of what I always think of these days, and so by association, my dear, of you.
What was she thinking of? Perhaps her longing for a child, which she had begun to confess to journalists, along with the fact that her fertility was compromised. The archive spans the years from her student life in Melbourne, Sydney and Cambridge to the present day. It includes early notes and a synopsis of her groundbreaking 1970 bestseller The Female Eunuch, a book with which she could truly claim to have changed the world. Many scholars are already at work upon her papers, and there will be new findings and fresh reflections as a result.
But this document, the hitherto undiscovered and private long letter, will in my opinion be one of the most remarkable finds. Composed in her round handwriting over four weeks of lonely travel, it contains writing as sharp, as sour and as funny as anything she has published since. Literary criticism is mixed with personal memoir and travelogue that, with its acid observation and mix of awe and horror, recalls the madcap travelogue of Nabokov.
She used part of the writing later. Her account of a meeting with Frank Zappa in Los Angeles’ Beverley Wilshire Hotel is one of the highlights, and was expanded 30 years later, after his death, in a piece she wrote for the Guardian. There are also suggestions of material she made the focus of her 1990 book Daddy We Hardly Knew You—the miserable Melbourne school days, the thirst for adventure and affection in a loveless house, all glossed with rage and tears and transcended by her potent wit.
But for the most part the letter remained private, a companion over those few weeks, and today a moving memoir of what it was like to be Germaine Greer in the spring of 1976, when the storm you had helped unleash was enveloping the world, and every-one wanted to hear you talk about sex.
Greer opposes it being published in full—which was suggested to her by Melbourne University Publishing—and declined to be interviewed for this essay. She was offered the chance to read a draft of this essay and provide comment. This she also declined.
In his memoir Experience, published in 2000, Amis wrote about the loneliness of the touring writer: ‘A writer’s life is all anxiety and ambition—and ambition, here is not readily distinguishable from anxiety; it is a part of your desire to do right by what talent you have.’ And elsewhere he commented:
On such tours … you feel like ‘the employee of a former self’ because the book is now out there to be championed … while you have moved on … you arrive in each city and present yourself to its media; after that, in the evening, a mediated individual, you appear at the bookshop and perform.
He could have been writing about Greer in 1976.
Greer is not known for her lyricism, but this long short letter is lyrical in places, and it is sad. Archivists have a convention of attempting, so far as is consistent with keeping records safe, of boxing documents in the same order as they were kept by the person who collected them: the order in itself might be significant. So it is that this intensely personal document is stored alongside the press clippings generated during that four-week journey, in which Greer is recorded on the front pages of US newspapers as having addressed audiences of thousands who gave her standing ovations for her attacks on the ‘Pill culture’. She encouraged women to ‘hound’ the manufacturers of unsafe contraceptives and become ‘enlightened consumers’. In Colorado she told an audience of 1200 that men were ‘absolute monsters of fertility’ and described the average ejaculation as a ‘sacrilegious waste of life’. It made sense, she said, to control fertility in the female, but no satisfactory method had yet been devised.
Yet in the letter to Amis there is very little mention of these public outings. She records a ‘better than usual’ standing ovation in Las Vegas, after which she drove down the Sunset Strip hooting and waving at the picket lines of hospitality workers, who were on strike and ‘making holiday in the rainbow light’. Las Vegas, she told him, was:
Preposterously beautiful against the velvet black night of the desert, a panoply of words and pictures, stripes and stars. Imagine, then, my dearest, the mad pride of the Las Vegas culinary workers who last night at eight o’clock reduced the whole thing to hysterical emptiness by walking out of the hotels which house the thousands of suicidal moths brought in by the display.
She imagined ‘Sammy Davis Junior, Ann Margret and Wayne Newton must spend the night warming TV dinners’. Greer herself had trouble finding food, and dined on salad, soy bean sausages and ice-cream with butter-scotch sauce bought from a super-market. The next day she wrote: ‘I sit enveloped in a yellow miasma, produced by thunderous farting.’
Another time, having given a lecture in Victoria, British Columbia, she wrote to Amis about the pleasures of a good hotel in the British tradition:
Soon the waiter will bring me my tea, tea served properly with really truly milk from cows tits, in a pot with hot water on the side … my lecture is done, and a roaring success, except that a young swollen pallid person fainted with a crash when I was describing the atrocities which occasionally ensue from the IUD.
She segues. She has a pain in her right side. ‘Ovulation, I suppose. Futile.’
Elsewhere in the document, she told Amis she suffered from neurasthenia—a term on which medical dictionaries are somewhat ambivalent. Does it even exist? The definition, when provided, describes chronic fatigue, moderate depression, insomnia and ‘nervous prostration’. Nobody, watching her progress, criss-crossing the country in a tumble of words, could have guessed. Yet this was a very unhappy and difficult time for Greer, and the letter has to be read in this context. And yet, for large parts, it is simply sparkling with wit.
The Long Letter is a message in a bottle from the past—to borrow the cliché, from a foreign land. Greer and Amis, like all of us, were stuck in their present. The past was defining, the future shrouded in mist. They could not have known that the mid 1970s was the height of the sexual revolution of which Greer was progenitor, enthusiast and victim. They could not have known that when this document found an audience people would be campaigning for the right to marry rather than the right to remain unwed. Or that the Cold War would be over, without the world having self-destructed. Or that the times would be more liberal, yet also strangely more conservative, than their own. Nor would they have known that Greer had already written the book—The Female Eunuch, published in 1970—for which she would be best remembered. Although she was to be a public figure for the whole of the next 40 years, she would never again be quite so unquestionably at the centre of the storm of change.
Four years before beginning the Long Letter, Greer had completed a translation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which women refuse to sleep with their husbands unless they stop the Peloponnesian war. She was not to know the work would not be performed until 1999. She was hoping it would be soon. Amis, on the other hand, had just published his second novel, Dead Babies. He had won a prize for his first, The Rachel Papers, and was beginning to be spoken of in his own right, rather than as the precocious son of his famous father and loving foil, rival and critic, Kingsley Amis, who then as now, was held to be the best English comic novelist of his generation.
Together Greer and Amis were part of a literary set that gathered around the New Statesman. This group ate together, argued together and sometimes slept together, building a network of broken hearts, powerful friendships and lasting enmities. Their friends included Julian Barnes, Clive James, Christopher Hitchens and Amis’s boss at the New Statesman, Claire Tomalin. These were to become lions in their own right—all famous writers, journalists and intellectuals, but in 1976 they were just starting out, and Greer was easily more famous than any of them. The Female Eunuch had changed the times. It argued for a new, powerful, sexual emancipation. Greer was never merely correct line. She did not come from the established line of feminists, who argued for equality. She thought equality in the male mould was ‘an incredibly conservative aim’. In part she blamed women themselves for their impotence, their eunuchdom, and it was potency that she wanted, and emancipation, including sexual.
In 1976 Amis was 26 years old, Greer ten years older. She was more than six feet tall. He was five foot four. Greer was carry-ing Dead Babies in her luggage, but had not, when she started the letter, read it. Perhaps Greer would have argued with the description of what she was writing as a love letter. In a news clipping from an interview done on her tour, she asserted: ‘I don’t fall in love. I don’t get completely done in by one person. I’m always capable of infidelity. Obsession is all too likely, it happens all the time. But I don’t like it and I wish it didn’t happen.’
It is not a secret that Amis and Greer had an affair, although their relationship is not mentioned in Amis’s Experience, nor in the biography of him written by Richard Bradford, nor in the Greer biography Untamed Shrew, written by the journalist Christine Wallace. Google Greer and Amis’s names, however, and you will find the fact of their relationship recorded on sites that catalogue the personal lives of celebrities. It also got a tangential mention in a memoir Julie Kavanagh wrote in 2009 of her relationship with Amis.
At the time Greer was writing the letter to Amis, Kavanagh was his partner. Kavanagh wrote of those times: ‘By the summer of 1975 Martin had become as famous as his father, and it seemed to me that everyone was after him, however unlikely, from Germaine Greer to [magazine editor] Mark Boxer.’ Amis, she said, was discovering sexual success:
The feelings of profound unattractiveness from which he claims to have suffered a couple of years before we met—feelings of short-arsed, physical inadequacy which he novelises time and again—had given way to Byronic magnetism. There was lost time to make up and no time for restraint.
Greer, too, had multiple lovers, and on this lonely trip was sometimes accompanied by a Detroit-based boyfriend, about whom she felt ambivalent, and who seems to have made her miss Amis all the more. On the plane to Boston from Heathrow, she wrote to Amis:
Last time we endured one of these meetings I advised him to try fucking first and talking later, but I suspect that he is no less jittery than I am and the action will not follow the word. It’s just the beginning that’s crusty; when we get through that it’s all smooth, like creme brulee … if I have to spend too long with [him] (ie a whole day) I get restive and irritated by his undemanding mind. It is better this way. Rather it is only possible this way. And this way it is only just possible.
At Heathrow, Greer had bought at the bookshop two books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize–winning Russian dissident author who had been expelled from the Soviet Union in late 1974. From the perspective of the present day, Greer and Solzhenitsyn are an odd intellectual pairing. This was the Cold War, when the orthodoxy was to see Communist Russia as evil. Greer, being unorthodox, was sceptical. Solzhenitsyn had become something of a modern-day prophet of the right. Feted in the West, he had been asked to speak to then president Gerald Ford about the Soviet threat. At the same time he was criticising what he saw as the ugliness and vapidity of Western pop culture.
Predictably, Greer was not a fan. She wrote to Amis, as her plane flew over the frozen wastes of Newfoundland on the way to Boston from Heathrow, that she had bought The First Circle despite Solzhenitsyn’s ‘sanctimonious face on the cover, peeping athwart the title … To reward myself then for so egregious [a] decision to appal myself, I slipped the Penguin Book of Sunday Times Crosswords into my dilly bag.’ In the air, she shared the crossword with Amis. Three clues had eluded her, including ‘Figure of a parson with no alternative to fish (R-c-a—e)’. She was freezing in her exit-row seat, wrapped protectively in fox furs, and observing her fellow passengers with a sour eye:
In all planes there is one passenger who stands up and gazes about a lot, and addresses all who catch its eye. This time the exhibitionist is a girl with bright brown crusty eyes and bull-nosed breasts. She has long hollow buttocks in roomy belted jeans. I hate her almost more from behind than I did when evading the pertness of her scaly eyes. The captain says we have only one generator—I hope it will not be my fate to hold the creature afloat in the freezing Atlantic.
On descent into Boston, she felt:
Knives in the Eustachian tubes. Pain, pain, pain … the pain in my belly makes me think that the pressure in my Fallopian tubes isn’t equalised either. …Jesus, Mary and Joseph I’d give you my heart and my soul not to have to do this again.
But she manages, partly because he is ‘with’ her:
Dearest interlocutor, you have a very good effect on me. My dream of loving better because loving others is coming true. Your eyes were upon me as I fell from the air bus yesterday and … I didn’t mention the pain in my head. I didn’t curse and stamp … because my first lecture was last night or because I was to sleep under the spent kerosene film of Logan airport.
She met her lover and then lectured at the exclusive women’s college, Wellesley.
Off to Wellesley, all glossy with sex … and I lectured funny at first, till I got angry and laid it on the creamy women of Wellesley and they stood and cheered. Then home to the Hilton and [her lover] did imitations of my lecturing posture which I found very sexy. Then after curling up around his silvery hairy brown body I thought of you … It astonishes me with that tobacco hair and those tangled black eyelashes that you do not have brown eyes. Your eyes … are cool colored, sort of air force blue-grey, and strangely unreflecting. You slide them away from most things and look at people through your thick eyelids, under your hair, your eyebrows and your lashes. You look at mouths more than eyes. Is it because you hate to look up? It is very shy and graceful and tantalising, as well you know.
She flew on. She had a nightmare hour at O’Hare airport, Chicago, where due to a late connection her luggage, containing Dead Babies, was left behind. ‘Here I am again. God, how glad I am you’re here … It is 10 o’clock in our night and I have miles to go before I sleep, and thousands of words to say.’ Now she was ‘in a long ghostly procession of dead white scorpions moseying down to take off from the world’s most phantasmagoric airport’ and her head had erupted in painful bumps. ‘I explore my sore head like an old ape … the stewardess’s perfume smells like rotting strawberries.’
She arrived in Kansas City ‘sticky with sweat after tumbling down the sky in a rain of coffee cups and sick bags’. Again, Amis’s imaginary presence gets her through:
Losing bags on a three week 10,000 mile tour is an ordeal, but because your eyes were upon me I was brave and funny about it, bought medicated shampoo, begged a dinner from the hotel, washed my sour and lousy head, sprang forth to lecture in a thorough good humour, all one hour and ten minutes. The idiot press demanded privileges, but I huffed and puffed a little and they blew away.
Later that night at the Kansas City Marriott Hotel, ‘a grey and sightless monolith by a leaden lake in a treeless landscape’, her bag caught up with her. She had Dead Babies once again. And so it went. On 4 March she was in Detroit, where she suffered a near physical collapse:
I have eschewed coffee. My bowels boil so, that I have had no option. No alcohol, no cigarettes, now no coffee. Nothing but black pride in my entrails holding me up … my mirror tells me that I am thick with collapsed, unhappy breasts. My shanks are dry … Detroit spreads her vast desolation under scummy grey sky.
Solzhenitsyn was not a good travel companion. She struggled with the prose, the sententious tone and the political message. She said of The First Circle:
I suspect that I am expected to observe in this book the canonisation of the intellectual, which I am unlikely to tolerate. The whole campaign of support for S has been in terms similar to the campaign to liberate only that pornography which has artistic merit.
Taxiing to take off to Montana, via O’Hare, she watched the passengers in their boots and Stetsons.
My skull feels as it if it has suddenly got too small for my brain. Nothing gives. All is tight and hard and sore … You elude me. My brain feels too sore and tired to bring you out of the filing cabinet in any significant shape. I get as far as seeing you answering Richard King’s questions about the New Statesman, smoking and swinging your leg, so bitter and so funny. I’m glad you’re not actually implicated in this pain and squalor. I’m writing to you like a shipwrecked sailor putting a note in a bottle. To whom it may concern. Why should my shipwreck concern you?
Solzhenitsyn was not radical, nor intellectual enough for her. She wrote that she was
slightly shocked by the caricature of Stalin. It verifies my suspicion that I cannot make out the right case against Soviet Communism. One is not inspired to fear Stalin so much as to despise him, which is too easy. We MUST see him as the successful exponent of a system which is the inevitable result of certain realities both economic and political. It must never be forgotten that only Stalin could wield enough power to stop Hitler. That is the real tragedy; the knowledge that has destroyed the innocence of the twentieth century.
But later her spirits were rising, and she wrote:
There is greatness in Solzhenitsyn, dammit. It would have been easier to deal with his very dreadfulness if he had been inconsiderable. His limitations stem from the same source as his greatness. Of course he knows … very little about Marxism in the context of the intellectual life of the free world. He reacts against socialism as I do to the Catholicism of my childhood. I reject God thereby losing baby with bathwater. He buys God for reasons just as ineradicably absurd … He is in other words a socialist novelist with his teeth sunk in the hand that has fed him.
Her spirits and her body recovered thanks to a sauna at the Holiday Inn, Bozeman, Montana, in which she had ‘purged this old body of Detroit and all its poisons’. The bath had all but done for Solzhenitsyn who ‘shed all his leaves as his cheap binding vapourised in the heat … My breasts seem to have climbed back to their usual position and the furrows in my face have shrunk away.’ In the meantime, she had given another lecture and was watching the 1970s war movie Kelly’s Heroes on the hotel television: ‘Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas in full battledress at the end of my bed, what more could a girl ask. (Yourself, my dearest, and the smoothness of your skin against my clean, clean limbs. I smell of birch branches.)’
Later in the trip she sees Solzhenitsyn interviewed on the television show Panorama, and she reflects more on communism:
When I was a little tiny girl, I used to embroil myself terribly over the issue of communism. Every day we were told that communism was the work of the devil. Consequently I every day became more and more convinced that the Church had reason to hate and fear the abolition of private property. Again and again I called the nuns to question. More and more I reflected glumly on the conviction that anti-communism was simply negative. Religion, having betrayed its own professed bosom, could only babble in terror at the demand for social justice which threatened to sweep away those representatives of God who had not only neglected to implement Christian principles in action upon earth, but had denied them by implication in the conduct of their own affairs. So I was driven out of my classroom. So my school friends said an Our Father and Hail Mary for my black rebellious soul.
Bozeman she found ‘a collection of pasteboard and glass and words flung higgledy piggledy on to a low plateau surrounded by blazing white mountains’. She flew out, bound for Great Falls, and instead of reading Solzhenitsyn, ‘now a terrible fagot of loose pages’, she stared at the snow beneath.
It is noon here, seven o’clock in your night … what are you doing my dear? I know you so little that I can’t even guess … You have the most delightful shirts and your neck is fifteen inches round. You make the cuffs less dirty than one would expect but perhaps you spend less time at your desk than one would expect. Try as I might I cannot remember anything about a tie. Perhaps I never saw you wearing one. I do after all perfectly recall your black jacket, your trousers (two pairs anyway) your boots, your socks and your unspeakable underpants.
The First Circle was finally deposited in the waste bin of the Holiday Inn in Phoenix, Arizona. She picked up two short novels by Solzenitsyn, which did not impress her either, and also read Cancer Ward, which provoked reflections on mortality and God, and memories of a horror period in a Sydney hospital while nurses suggested she repent. Greer wrote that she did not believe in God, nor approve of him. As for Solzhenitsyn:
I would give the whole oeuvre, so far, for any story by Chekov, which contains more compassion, more unpretentious virtuosity, and more understanding of the basic dilemma than Solzhenitsyn can ever identify in his theological wilderness. Come to think of it, I’ll read King Lear before I give Solzhenitsyn any more of my time.
On she went, to Seattle and then to Vancouver and Calgary, where the restaurant of her hotel was ‘full of skiers sporting pig skin faces and white necks’. She was squired to Calgary by Dr William Epstein, an expert on nuclear weapons and formerly of the UN disarmament division, ‘nice, right minded if self-deceiving’. He told her cheerfully that the world was bent on destruction then, dropping her at the airport, kissed her four times ‘rapturously’. There, she writes: ‘I went to the bookshop and bought By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, if only because [literary editor] Francis Wyndham’s comment was on the cover and the last time I saw him, you were in the same room. Gloom supervenes.’
By 7 March she was back in Phoenix, and at last had a couple of days break from her mediated, public self. She hired a Gran Torino and went on a two-day fast-paced tour of Arizona. She almost left Amis behind:
I had meant not to write in this book this morning … but I got four paces beyond my door and had to scurry back and fetch it. It is as if I don’t see without you: if I am not observing it for you I fall into traveler’s catatonia and the outside world disappears.
In Jerome, Arizona, she observed for him the county’s lady sheriff ‘complete with hand tooled belt, silver and turquoise buckle, tear gas canister, revolver and handcuffs’, but the
wild west is not as interesting as it ought to be … all the signs in outback Arizona are lettered in old colonial characters on imitation split boards and painted red on phony creosote. Jerome is a dead mining town, hideously resuscitated for the tripper trade.
But she loved the landscape:
Earth all acid colors … the sky is limitless … as you leave the valleys and climb into the hills the blueness swallows you up and turns into jostling mist and driving snow. It would be grand and empty if you could escape the realtors’ cabins and cold beer stores. I came around one bend with all the grace and precision of a legless dinosaur and beheld innumerable entreaties to buy myself some artificial logs and build me an ‘air-lock cabin’ in the wilderness.
That night she wrote to Amis from a fake log cabin with a view of the Grand Canyon. She had dined badly, with Solzhenitsyn for company, and now could hear the sounds of a couple in the ‘magic fingers’ bed in the cabin next door, and ‘bloodcurdling human cries indicate that the American nation disports itself nearby’. The Canyon, though, was beautiful. ‘Kant would approve the use of the term sublime,’ she wrote. The next day she rose to watch the sunrise but found herself ‘Incapable of feeling the right sentiments in the right place’:
The use of the term ‘rim’ in reference to the Canyon’s edges reveals the Founding Fathers, or at any rate the Naming Fathers, to have been struck by the Canyon not as a huge cunt, but as the biggest arse hole in the world … I was induced to laugh at the obvious when I came across a sign saying ‘rim Worship site’.
When she returned her Grand Torino to the rental company, she had spent two days and driven a total of 820 miles, ‘tearing around the back blocks, at high speed, shooting through pine forests and thundering over plateaux, struggling to drive my leviathan nicely around hairpin bends instead of wallowing in the accepted American Fashion’. She had seen a road runner and laughed out loud: ‘it looked so very much funnier than they do in cartoons’.
That evening she was depressed. Americans were disporting themselves ‘in the heated waters of the Ramada Inn swimming pool like hippos’ and she was imagining Amis pronouncing the name of the region she had just driven through. ‘I think of your lips and teeth saying Tonto, nipping the T’s. It’s one word that even you cannot drawl.’
True to her intellectual roots as a Shakespeare scholar, Greer did indeed read King Lear, as she swooped up and down the coast of California, nearing exhaustion and in a kind of horror at the excess and soullessness of the cities. Her San Francisco hotel had been hosting the National Association of Recycling Industries. ‘Competitors embrace, buy and sell to each other, cement a relationship by being drunk and uninhibited together.’ ‘It seems to my tired brain’, she wrote between San Francisco and Los Angeles, ‘that Lear was struggling against the same odds as America.’
An opportunist, huckster society, unconcerned with truth, unaware of truth, innocent even of appetite, using all as mere manipulation. Lear, like any conman’s victim, asks to be manipulated, begs for hard sell and brings chaos upon himself. ‘What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters. Speak.’ The bosom that cannot profess is lost here too. Most of the people I meet alter truths as if they were falsehoods, for the function of all utterance in this word-stricken society is manipulation, not meaning.
Yet it was also Los Angeles, the heart of US awfulness and madness, as she saw it, that provided Greer with her most heart-warming encounter of the trip—getting to know Frank Zappa, one of the most innovative and versatile rock musicians of his generation, his wife Gail and their family. Greer gave an account of the meeting in her letter to Amis, but reprised it at greater length in 2005 when she wrote for the Guardian, after Zappa’s death.
Their encounter began in the famous Beverley Wilshire Hotel, then the pinnacle of celebrity and luxury. Elizabeth Taylor was staying there at the same time as Greer, and she met ‘dear Woody Allen’ on the steps. She considered ringing Warren Beatty, her sometime lover, but decided not to. The reason was simple. The night before, 15 March, she had discovered that she had crabs. She assumed she had contracted them from her Detroit lover, but as she acknowledged there were many couplings in which they could have passed to her, or from her: ‘The unspeakable question is could I by any concatenation of adverse influences have given them to you? … I spent the evening hunting for them until I had two adults, a teenager and assorted eggs assembled in an ashtray.’
The next day she went down to breakfast. There were Zappa and his wife, who were staying in the hotel while their house was being decorated. They called her over, and she told them about the crabs. Zappa was almost pleased, and took charge of the situation. As she wrote later in the Guardian:
‘Not a problem,’ said Frank. His black Rolls-Royce with tinted windows was waiting in the hotel driveway; in no time we were at Schwob’s drugstore, and Frank was yelling over the heads of the would-be Lana Turners twirling on the stools at the counter: ‘Blue lotion, please, blue lotion for the crabs.’ The words rang out like a triumphant fanfare.
She would describe the Zappas as the only sane people in Los Angeles. It was after this encounter, as Greer travelled to San Francisco for the second time, that she began to wonder if she was writing to Amis at all:
As the miles add up, I find this letter harder and harder to write. My style falters and whole paragraphs emerge as dry as powder. Yesterday I left this book in a taxi cab and would have lost it if the driver hadn’t driven back … with it. As for you, my darling, I see you very rarely. Even in my dreams you send me only your handmaidens.
In Los Angeles she had encountered the American writer and socialite Anthony Haden-Guest.
I dragged you screaming into our conversation, which was a bad move for he asked at once about Julie [Kavanagh], and I was ravening for a glimpse of your dear self. Of you he said ‘the oldest young man he had never known’ and then ‘Isn’t it odd how the sons have fulfilled the ambitions of the fathers? Auberon Waugh is an upper class gentleman, and Martin Amis is small and sexy and cultured.’ I was pleased with that because it implied a connection, if tenuous, between Waugh and your beloved self. He did say ‘small’ more or less in that position, in a way that made it sound like an achievement, and I liked that too. I think of your arms, your shoulders, your nipples, your soft thick skin. I cannot get you all in focus. The image of Frank Zappa drives you out. Frank Zappa staring at the swollen curve of my breast in my old blue t-shirt. ‘Australian tits,’ he says, and keep staring as only a 50s delinquent could stare. ‘They have their ups and downs,’ say I and they demonstrate by standing to attention. Odd. He is a really beautiful ugly man, with hair like curled black silk and legs no longer than his arms. His lips are dark brown, his nose, nobility. Would I? Yes, I would.
On to Missouri, and she read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the novel-length prose poem written by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart cataloguing a destructive love affair. The book was then a cult hit. Greer thought it ‘Awful in the real sense of the word “awful”’. It was a ‘vortex of egotism’. In this mood, Greer had no time for female victimhood:
The immense greed and insatiable narcissism of women is nowhere more arrestingly deployed. Any man appalled by the single mindedness of women’s love ought to read it. We are all taught, you see, to value ourselves highly, to give great importance to the commerce of the body, to accept death rather than devaluation. Our love is as pure, classic and unreasonable as hatred.
And it was in this mood, with Zappa’s image in part obscuring the memory of Amis, that she at last began to read Dead Babies. The experience dominated the last long, sad and angry movement of the letter.
Dead Babies has dated. It was a satire on its own times, an ink-black comedy peopled with the kind of comic grotesques that Amis was to make a feature of his fiction. Re-reading it is difficult. At times the fist fucking, the violence, the ghastly characters are so overwhelming that one loses the comedy and is left only with the disgust. Julian Barnes reviewed it when it was released, and wrote:
Sparkling might not be the first adjective that springs to mind to describe a novel packed with the concentrated disgust which Dead Babies contains. Nevertheless, Martin Amis’s version of the bleak and wrecky future that awaits a sex-and-drug-addicted society is so fizzing with style, so busy with verbal inventiveness, that the adjective is impelled upon one.
Amis has said in recent years that he dislikes both his first novels. Today Dead Babies reads like a young man experimenting with horror and his ability to shock. In an arch dig at the format of an Agatha Christie, Dead Babies follows a group of people staying for a drug-addled weekend of awful sex and casual cruelty in a country house. At the centre are two characters that Greer, correctly, spotted as caricatures of Amis’s blackest views of himself.
First there is Keith Whitehead, a man so short and ugly that people vomit when he takes his clothes off. He was to recur in later novels by Amis. Then there is Giles Coldstream, a man obsessed with his teeth. Amis has since described, in Experience, the decades of pain and worry he had over his woeful dental condition, resulting eventually in expensive and painful treatment over many months in the 1990s. But when he wrote this novel, his teeth were still a burden to him—one of the reasons, he was later to say, that he never smiled. Dead Babies opens with Giles Coldstream dreaming that he is spitting out his teeth.
Greer began to read the book on 23 March, in the Hilton Inn, Columbia. She was guffawing. ‘I adore Keith Whitehead, the nadir of your own self image, and therefore dear to me.’ But she didn’t like the ‘sixties coterie’ that was creeping into this ‘immaculate style’. The novel was meant to be set in the near future. His characters would not therefore ‘express themselves in dated 60s slang, not if they are worth reading about anyway’.
Next she was in the Eastern International Hotel in Kennedy, then on a flight that made her bowels ‘crawl with terror’. She was becoming irritated by his prose. ‘If anything else “implodes” in this book I shall scream … Page 230. I scream.’ She landed in Paducah, Kentucky, and informed Amis that the grass was no bluer than anywhere else, then she laid into him, a mix of love, punishment and psychoanalysis:
I believe it is my dearest author’s design that I should not dislike Keith Whitehead. If suffering may make saints in Solzhenitsyn’s mould it may well make Keith sympathetic, especially as he does not do any harm to anyone else … Keith plus Giles equals a cloacal view of Martin Amis, and everyone else riding the shit blast. Moreover the tall, affluent people whom Keith cannot succeed in joining are dull. It is not their hedonism that makes them so, but their inability to perceive beauty and experience pleasure. The author cannot manage his narrative for the same reason that he could not end The Rachel Papers. He is himself a victim of their crapulent culture, envious even as he is satiric, unable to achieve his own perspective or to safeguard his own utterance from the contamination of their style. My darling, your narrator is still a small boy undergoing petty humiliations at a public school. Coveting, adoring and hating his tormentors, devising for them a hellish punishment as fatuous as any poetic justice. The book resounds with your own fear of obesity, baldness, homosexuality and ridicule; if I did not love you before I should be hopelessly in love with you now. This nugget of disgust and confusion you lay before the public so trustingly. No wonder they were outraged. William Burroughs, William Golding, Hunter S Thompson, all the petrified froth of the [illegible] conjured up in this owl-ball of a book.
She wrote to him next from the 13th floor of the Nashville Holiday Inn (‘a bad hotel’), with a view of a sandstone replica of the Parthenon. ‘Small, squat and dull as a gas chamber … I draw back, concentrating my sick attention on your small hands and feet, your boots abandoned to the fifth position.’ This time she began her critique of his book with an anecdote, recalling a day on Rhodes when she lunched with ‘verminous hippies’. ‘After lunch I asked if I might void my overcharged bowel anywhere.’ She was directed towards a bridge, where she found neat rows of turds ‘all singing loudly, accompanied by flies’. She added her ‘steaming offering’. When she returned, her host hippie took himself off to the bridge and on return said, ‘I hope you don’t mind … I did mine on top of yours.’ Greer comments: ‘I could have murdered him.’ She recounted the experience, she said, because of Dead Babies:
You have voided in the public eye. You will not be thanked for it. It is not the unpleasantness of your vision that excites reproof but the vulnerability of the author, for once casually revealed. As for me, it makes me helpless with desire for you. Now I know that I shall never force this letter upon you. The thought of it makes my heart pound, as if we were to shit together.
Later she criticises the way he ‘scatters its dramatic personae in a fairly callow manner’. They achieve ‘no identifying style’, and in a reference to Kingsley Amis:
Papa still il miglior fabri.’ [Father still the better craftsman.] ‘Nevertheless [Dead Babies] probably works out your relationship to the genie of the sixties. Now that those sterile traces are kicked over, what will you do. (Think not, my dear, that I am unaware that these observations are unpardonable, these questions brutal. After such, what forgiveness?)
In the next entry, Greer has returned home. She is exhausted, near physical and mental collapse. Bills have arrived that mean her earnings from the tour are spent before she has even received them. She is now quite certain that she will never send the letter:
This despairing cry to someone who hardly exists will never be heard. The man I wrote to was the man who would have known how to finish The Rachel Papers, who would bear my criticisms of Dead Babies and even recognize it. I have not despaired of his eventual existence but I shall be too early to see it. Perhaps when he loses his battles with physical degeneration, he will understand, but understand is not what I want. It is better for him and for me that this book remains closed. I do not care as much as I wish I did, and he is not what I wish I cared for … For a month and from 6000 miles away I loved him well.
She is suffering from neurasthemia: ‘hot rheum flowed from my eyes down my temples. I felt as if gallons more waited to drown the bed, swelling my eyes and garlanding the day with headaches.’ And a few pages later:
How can I dismiss you, my own darling? I have no choice. In the month that has passed since you telephoned and bade me begin my letter, I have come to rely upon you absolutely, but I have also made you in my own image, simply imposed my alter ego upon you, and with it all my passion, and alas all my loneliness. I dare not allow irrelevant reality to intrude upon this self indulgence. Behind the … haze of my darling, I see your real outlines as unnaturally meaningless and squalid, for I am tensed against information about you.
Greer confided her obsession with Amis to friends who ‘roar with delight to discover anything so exciting as an infatuation … they remind me that I have been fond of other whores …’ Another of her lovers calls to visit.
I hate the skinlessness of the side he turns to me. Why can I not love those who love me? Is it still the deathliness of unloved childhood? Must I despise all those whom I can have and adore the ones I cannot? These tears are shaken from the primal wound. Mother, I hate you. Martin I love you. Actually I love Keith Whitehead. From henceforth this letter is addressed to Little Keith.
Those are the last words in the letter.
In preparation for writing this essay, I contacted both Greer and, through his agent, Martin Amis. Amis’s agent said he was not available for interview, and a suggestion that he might consider emailed questions received no response. Greer engaged in some email correspondence, but made it clear she wanted nothing to do with the essay receiving public attention, largely out of concern for the many friends and lovers who are mentioned in it. Greer’s second book was published in 1979. Titled The Obstacle Race, it was about female painters. In the same year she took a job at the University of Tulsa, which seems to have solved her financial problems. She went on to become a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. Greer was also a lecturer at the University of Warwick (1967–72) and Professor of English and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick from 1998. She published many more books, including a sequel to The Female Eunuch, The Whole Woman, published in 1999, in which she argued there had been little progress in the feminist movement:
When The Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners. It’s time to get angry again.
Martin Amis’s best-known novels were published in the 1980s and 1990s. They have put him unquestionably among the finest writers in English. But he has also become controversial, loved and hated by the critics and often in the media. London Fields was famously left off the shortlist for the Booker Prize because some of the judges thought it woman-hating. He has been accused in print and by his peers of egotism, narcissism, misogyny and greed. The barbs directed at him make Greer’s loving criticism from 40 years ago look comparatively mild. Meanwhile his best novels are glittering and savage.
As for the two of them, there are few records of their dealings with each other. In an interview published in 2009 Amis talked about his latest book and mentioned Greer tangentially. She had quoted him, he said, as saying that ‘all men should be locked up until they’re 28 … We’re terrible, we can’t help it!’
In 2009 Amis’s 1984 novel Money was adapted for television by the BBC, and an interview Greer did with Amis about the book was released. A snippet of their encounter survives on YouTube. Money was a wonderfully tricksy book, narrated by a character called John Self, described by one reviewer as ‘obese, junk-guzzling, alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill-popping, priapic, with rotting teeth, tinnitus and a dodgy heart’. The novel also features a minor character called Martin Amis.
In the snippet of the interview on YouTube, Greer is still giving Amis a hard time. She laughs at his assertion that television has caused a ‘convulsion of stupidity’. She tells Amis that he is talking like the Martin Amis in the book, who is ‘rather prissy really’ and that ‘in the Martin Amis that I know slightly there is a good slice of John Self’. Amis’s response, if any, is not recorded. She accuses him of being ‘a brilliant hater, with an eye for what is grotesque’, but concludes that this talent is, in the end, ‘profoundly moral’.
I like to think he would have paid her the same compliment. It is my own conclusion.