x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When words collide: the language Martin Amis hates

Martin Amis's language battle, expat women in the UAE and the newly single Kate Winslet.

The outspoken author Martin Amis was at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
The outspoken author Martin Amis was at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Martin Amis would like to go ballistic - big time - on those who use lazy prose Martin Amis is waging war on sloppy language. He calls it "Princess Diana language" and it includes a list of common phrases much-beloved of the young. "No brainer", "big time" and "went ballistic" are in his firing line, along with the ubiquitous "whatever". As a guest lecturer at the University of Manchester, he tells his students that they should never again use such phrases. "I say in the first class of the term: 'You are now leaving the peer group. You are never again going to use phrases like 'no brainer' or 'big time' or 'went ballistic' or 'whatever'. My father in The King's English has one sentence about the word 'whatever': 'Don't say it and never write it.' My younger daughter flinches when she says that in front of me because I've told her never to do that."

The controversial novelist, who was a guest at last week's thoroughly enjoyable Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, never tires of emphasising how important it is to select the precise word for every occasion and wants his young students to ban what he describes as the herd words. "Helloooooooo!" is another one. "It's an abdication of responsibility for what you are saying. All that kind of talk is really like a verbal high five to show that you are a member of a certain social group and all that's got to go," he says scathingly. "You are not going to talk like other people from now on. You're to become an expert in words and you've got to write things that no one else would write. To say that these are the tools of your trade is putting it mildly. This is your essence. This is your blood," he tells them.

"I was absolutely scandalised to read an article by the playwright David Hare talking about how 'hypocrisy was back in style, big time'. How could you possibly write that in print? It's one of these things that you hear in any pub or snooker hall and should never become part of your prose. As a lazy intensifier, it's unforgivable." His quest for precision is notable in his novels. I confess to often resorting to the dictionary when reading them. In his new book, The Pregnant Widow, Amis explains the roots of various words. "It's often tremendously enlightening. You get the perfect word for what you mean, which is what the whole struggle is."

His critics often decry him for being pompous and arrogant, but he says he doesn't use unusual words just for the sake of showing off. "It's all a quest for precision. It's not for ostentation. Words are what a writer is made of. They're your first love, your eternal love and it's difficult. Words make life difficult, make writing difficult. Social realism is incredibly difficult to describe. Just finding the words to describe the ordinary ways that people behave or a gesture as simple as picking something up and looking at it is hard to do with precision and in a way that's enjoyable for the reader, but solving these tiny little intricacies in everyday description and locking a novel together is so satisfying." I nearly said: "Yeah, right," but under the circumstances that would have been conspicuously inappropriate.

The concept of "ladies who lunch" has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Even business lunches have always been clock-watching affairs done at a scramble for a definite purpose. The idea of getting dressed up to spend an afternoon chatting pleasantly to a disparate group of women has just never occurred to me, and that is not being judgemental. It's just a fact of my life.

So I was intrigued to be invited to a Mother's Day tea by ExpatWoman.com and to discover what a lifeline organisations such as this can be when your world is suddenly uprooted and you find yourself plonked down in a strange country trying to make a life for yourself without your network of family and friends. About 70 woman from a dozen or so nationalities met at the Mahi Mahi restaurant in Wafi Pyramids in Dubai. The chat was of finding jobs, maids, doctors, decent second-hand cars and just settling in to a new life in the UAE. It was a very pleasant afternoon and although I'm unlikely to attend the daily coffee mornings, they serve a really useful social purpose. People come and go at such a rate in the UAE that we often need instant friends, and the fact that Expat Woman now has 20,000 members and 10 million hits on its website last month alone speaks for itself.

The gorgeous young star of Mamma Mia! Amanda Seyfried has probably put back the cause of real women with real figures by a decade with her remarks about how she keeps her slender figure. She spent most of that film in a swimming costume and candidly admits that she eats nothing but raw food to stay slim. Lunch might be nothing else but spinach and a few seeds, she tells Glamour magazine. "If I didn't run and work out, there's no way I would be this thin," she says. "But I have to stay in shape because I'm an actress." Well, at least she's being honest about it. She says she's convinced that if she'd been any bigger, she wouldn't have got the part. Noël Coward had a point when he delivered the musical advice: "Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington."

My mobile phone buzzed and a chummy male voice at the other end asked me how I was today. Before I could answer, he announced that he was ringing from Orbit Showtime and I knew it was the call I had been waiting for. Since the merger I've been convinced that all the good shows were suddenly on channels I wasn't receiving. Sooner or later I would be asked to cough up more money. And here we are a couple of months later in exactly that position. "It costs nothing," the salesman jabbered excitedly. Actually, it costs me Dh16 per month more. As soon as I agreed he hung up, which I thought was a bit rude, but when I arrived home the channels were already installed and presumably my bank account debited.

It seems no time at all since Kate Winslet was sobbing out her thanks for her Best Actress Oscar last year and declaring: "I'm so lucky to have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children who let me do what I love and who love me just the way I am." I guess a year is a long time in a show business. She and her soon to be ex-husband Sam Mendes partly blame working together on Revolutionary Road for the split, but looking back they might think their marriage was too rushed. They got together just two months after Winslet's divorce from her first husband, Jim Threapleton. In those days she was a slightly chubby bride and they celebrated their wedding with sausage and mash in a country pub. Maybe it was real but perhaps Winslet was just playing the down-to-earth girl-next-door part. Mendes was a rather more sophisticated character, well established in the movie industry and Winslet always appeared slightly star-struck with the glittering theatrical marriage thing. Perhaps now that she's an Oscar-winning actress and mother of two, worth £12 million (Dh66.6m), she'll take the time to reflect on who she really is.