A couple of years ago, I went to interview Keith Deller, 1983 World darts champion. He took the crown in one of darts’ most famous matches, an upset win over the allegedly unbeatable Crafty Cockney, Eric Bristow. In the pre-Sky, four-channel era, the final went out on one of those nights when everyone in the country seemed to be having their tea in front of the box, and Keith rounded off the victory in style with a 138 finish, a number that to this day is known reverentially as ‘the Deller Check-Out’ in arrows circles.
Keith is a very nice man indeed, funny and kind. His current job, when he’s not off on cruise ships or corporate days with Bristow, endlessly re-staging their final (‘I spend more time with him than I do with my wife’), is as a ‘spotter’ for Sky Sports. He sits in the broadcast truck and tells the director and the commentators which way the current titans of the oche are likely to finish, so that the camera can linger on the correct bed. It keeps the wolf from the door.
Luckily, the interview was for a simple Q&A – lucky for two reasons. The first was that I got the chance to ask Keith about the other highpoint of his career, as the early model for (and partial namesake of) Keith Talent, the indelible bad guy and aspiring darts champion in London Fields. The second was that I didn’t need to write about darts, because that could not be done better than it was by Martin Amis, and not just in London Fields.
‘Darts: Gutted For Keith’ appeared in the Observer in 1988, and is collected in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, published six years later. Amis wrote it as a kind of warm-up for London Fields, to ease himself in the darters’ headspace. He gleaned a lot from his trip to Enfield with Deller and the then-number one player Bob Anderson, aka ‘The Limestone Cowboy’. He was tickled by the name Keith, which had already done service for a dwarf in Dead Babies, but Deller’s world offered him much more, like the grudging acknowledgment of someone else’s good play (the single word ‘darts’, uttered under the breath), plus dirty jokes, brilliant competitions (Deller had also won the Double Diamond Masters, surely the inspiration for the Sparrow Masters that Keith Talent yearns to enter), and an idea of just how good at darts you have to be to be good at darts. Yet ‘Darts: Gutted For Keith’ is not research: it remains the best piece written on the subject (admittedly not the widest field) and exists as a rebuke to most of what passes as feature writing in the current Sundays.
In Visiting Mrs Nabokov, it sits alongside several other articles – ‘Watford In China’, ‘Tennis: The Women’s Game’ and ‘Chess: Kasparov versus Karpov’ – as some of the best sports writing you’ll read. Amis was a superlative journalist, as Visiting Mrs Nabokov  and The Moronic Inferno  — both available for a penny from Amazon — show. Not in the reporting sense – he wasn’t a story-breaker, he didn’t go through anyone’s bins or pop up on the frontlines of Srebrenica – rather, as he says in one of his intros, his journalism was of the type that got him out of the house. And whilst he was out, he was an amiable and interested companion, a dazzling observer and best of all a lethal and cold-hearted phrasemaker. Here he is on Mick Jagger, during an ill-fated trip to Earl’s Court to watch the Rolling Stones: ‘He does not really dance any more: it’s simply that his head, his shoulders, his pelvis, both his arms, both his legs, both his huge feet and both his buttocks are wriggling, at great speed, independently, all the time’.
And here he is, in The Moronic Inferno, on Brian De Palma and Scarface: ‘Even with an award-winning writer [Oliver Stone], an award-winning star [Al Pacino] and an unlimited canvas [$22 million and three hours of screentime] De Palma showed no inkling of human complexity: Scarface might as well have been called Shitface for all of the subtlety he brought to the monotonous turpitude of Tony Montana’.
De Palma is fantastically rude to Amis throughout their meeting, and yet Amis warms to him hugely, as he does to many of the people he visits. And, perhaps because his ego is assuaged by his fame in other spheres, he is able to remove it from his writing. His encounter with an ageing, ailing Truman Capote in The Moronic Inferno ends with him asking Capote to sign his copy of Music For Chameleons: ‘Rousing himself, Truman sat up and began to fuss with his pen… To my alarm I realised he had forgotten my name, if he indeed had ever known it. He sniffed and looked up cautiously: ‘The name’s Tony isn’t it?’ he croaked. ‘No, it’s Martin’, I said, trying to make Martin sound quite like Tony…’.
Then he is off to see Norman Mailer, and is soon in awe of the great novelist’s excess: ‘Mailer has accumulated six wives and eight (or maybe nine) children. He is obliged to earn over $400,000 per year to stay abreast of alimony and tuition fees. Last year his summer house was confiscated by the taxman. He has received, and spent, a $635,000 advance on an unwritten novel. And he is still half a million dollars in debt’.
Mailer is one of his favourite subjects: there are three pieces on him in The Moronic Inferno, and Amis uses them to show, brilliantly, the difference in scale between here and there. But he can write equally well about JG Ballard and his Shepperton semi, about Graham Taylor and Philip Larkin and second division football.
There is an eerie familiarity to some of this. The Stones, for example, are accepted as well past it – ‘the two or three new Jagger-Richards’ compositions left the audience embarrassingly cold’ – yet the piece is from 1976, when the Stones’ latest album was Black And Blue, in retrospect their halcyon days. Now they really are past it, but Mick’s dancing is still uncannily the same. But those days are gone too. Mart has, of late, lost all his mirth and he doesn’t write this kind of thing any more, even if he could find a paper that would run it. Significantly, perhaps, there’s very little about politics in either of these books, save for a goggle-eyed glimpse of Jerry Falwell and a piece on Ronnie Reagan and his beloved nukes.
Keith Deller remembered Martin Amis fondly, and still had his copy of London Fields. ‘He met my wife too,’ Keith said [his wife is called Kim, also the name of Kim Twemlow, Keith Talent’s darting hero]. ‘And the girl’s the bad one in the book isn’t she? I always say to her, ‘he got you right, love, didn’t he!’…’