Life & Culture

Playing tennis with Martin Amis

Martin was unflashy and quietly spoken but on court he could display the occasional McEnroe-esque burst of bad temper


Martin Amis was a disciplined writer, rather like his father and fellow novelist Kingsley. Both liked to write in the morning and then relax in the afternoon. But while Kingsley would summon a minicab to take him to the Garrick Club for a long, liquid lunch, Martin headed for the more down-to-earth facilities of Paddington Sports Club in west London where he indulged his passion for tennis.

Paddington is no threat to Queen’s Club as London’s most fashionable tennis venue. Martin disguised it as the Hogarth Club in his novel The Information. It’s an unpretentious place, hidden away off a suburban street near Maida Vale, offering ten tennis courts, a bowling green and an undistinguished clubhouse, where in the 1980s and early1990s a motley crew of resting actors, car dealers and quirky characters could be found on a weekday afternoon, supplemented by BBC staff from the nearby Maida Vale studio who used it for lunch.

As a fellow member, I got to know Martin and most Monday afternoons we would have a game over a period of several years. I was then working as a journalist on The Observer and Monday was my day off.

We had very different styles. Standing all of five foot six inches tall, Martin was never going to have a power game but he was a crafty operator around the court, relying on topspin, slice, accuracy, the occasional lob and plenty of guile. In contrast, I was developing a serve and volley game, helped by the fact that I was six inches taller, so we had some excellent contests, generally winning a set apiece before retiring to the clubhouse.

Off court, Martin was unflashy and quietly spoken but on court, he could display the occasional McEnroe-esque burst of bad temper. In our very first match, he suddenly lost his cool and with a furious swish of his racquet whacked the ball up in the air and out of court. It landed in the backyard of the adjacent apartment block from where it was irretrievable. I wouldn’t have minded but it was my ball, and brand-new. He rapidly cooled down and we carried on, but I was a bit miffed that he didn’t offer to replace it. I’m not the sort to bear a grudge over one tennis ball, however, and I came to look forward to our weekly encounters.

In the clubhouse, Martin would roll himself a cigarette and order a Diet Pepsi, the only beverage I ever saw him drink. There was never any question of sitting down and embarking on a conversation about the book he was writing or the latest literary gossip. He wasn’t interested in the goings-on at The Observer either, even though he occasionally wrote for us and some of his closest friends, like Clive James and Julian Barnes (with whom he later memorably fell out), were regular contributors. He liked to keep the various compartments of his life hermetically sealed from each other.

We didn’t even talk much about tennis: Martin’s main passion was the general knowledge fruit machine in the clubhouse. As useless information is one of my specialities, this was an enjoyable way of winding down from our exertions on the court.

Tennis was to play an important role in Martin’s professional life. It was through tennis that he met Zachary Leader, an American academic at Roehampton University, to whom he turned to edit Kingsley’s letters, brilliantly, and then to write an excellent biography of him.

When I heard of Martin’s death, I went to my bookshelves and eventually found my copy of his experimental novel Time’s Arrow, a Holocaust story told backward. I remember asking him to sign it after one of our Monday afternoon matches, and he recorded the score after we were forced to finish, presumably because someone else had booked the court. The inscription reads, “To Bob, 2-6 5-5 … with best wishes, Martin Amis, P.S.C. 22.9.91.” I will always treasure it.

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