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Kingsley Amis

On the English novelist.


The British post-war cultural scene was rich in writers—Anthony Burgess, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and my own favorite, Kingsley Amis. It’s probably a good job, however, that many of his works aren’t generally in print, as they’d surely leave many students and lecturers running a mile. The attitudes on parade in Amis’s novels are very much, shall we say, of their time and harden in the end into a sort of caricatured Garrick Club gruffness, or a Colonel Blimpishness, with the purple-faced author harrumphing over his pipe, complaining about how the world has gone to the dogs.

And those attitudes of Amis’s are indeed nevertheless startling, even to his admirers. Amis was always misogynistic and chauvinistic. Take a Girl Like You, for example, published in 1960, is about how the arrogant Patrick Standish is “justified” in behaving as he behaves if the female in question, Jenny Bunn, is beautiful and provocative.

In Amis’s world, sex, pretty much a chap’s full-time occupation, alleviates the tension caused by women, who are, if Stanley and the Women and Difficulties With Girls are any evidence, an alien band going in for superstition, religious mania, folklore, horoscopy, and witchcraft and generally less rational than your chaps. This is a terrible point of view, but it used to prevail. Look at all those James Bond films, for example, where women are on display to perform one function and one function alone, after which Sean Connery or Roger Moore gives them the boot. (Amis himself produced a Bond pastiche, written under the pseudonym “Robert Markham” called Colonel Sun in 1968.)

Amis is also dated in that his descriptions of London and even Swansea are already historical. His characters habitually drink and drive with impunity and park easily; today traffic congestion is impossible and criminal penalties for being “under the influence” are severe. Also in his novels the middle-classes and ordinary people, including journalists, live in big houses in nice districts. Most of us now are in cramped flats in slum districts or else scraping a living in the provinces. Amis’s pub landlords are disagreeable “characters”—in 2022 pubs have either closed down or have been turned into restaurants staffed with friendly East Europeans. His cabbies are opinionated Cockneys who have long since vanished while taxis are driven by people from Mali or Nigeria. In Amis’s towns Asians running corner shops are a novelty; immigration is only just beginning. Most dated of all, everyone in Amis’s novels sneers at the “queers,” as the homosexuals were called: “Right, on your way, brother. Out. I’m not having you in my house. Go on, hop it … There’s nothing says I got to have one of you in here, okay? Not yet there isn’t. Any moment now but not yet. So out.”

How can Amis be salvaged from any of this? What redeems him? Simply put, because his notes on human behavior, the incidental business in his books, are still the funniest in the English language, not excluding Evelyn Waugh. And if my copies of Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe, and Howard Jacobson seldom come down from my shelf, I will always revere Amis for being the one writer who was at his best recording hardly anything at all—two old blokes sitting down for a drink: “‘Well, how are you today ?’ asked Charlie. A duff question on second thoughts.”

He never strived for his effects. Unlike in Anthony Burgess, the vocabulary is very plain. The comic genius is in the syntax:

The traffic going the other way was much lighter but no faster, thanks to some extensive road-works with nobody working on them.

. . .

On his way to what people probably meant by the check-out . . .

. . .

He answered the question, or anyway spoke while looking at her.

. . .

His shoulder grazed but did not dislodge a framed photograph on the wall showing a row of men in hats standing outside a thatched cottage in Ireland or some such place.

It is “some such place” which is perfect. The Old Devils, which came out in 1986, justly winning the Booker Prize, remains the best (if possibly the only) account of my mob, the English-speaking South Welsh. Amis brilliantly skewered the existence of well-off retirees, who loaf about all day in the vicinity of the Gower Peninsula, boozing and arthritically committing adultery. The pretentious lunacy of the bilingual road markings in Wales prompted a classic line: “They went outside and stood where a sign used to say Taxi and now said Taxi/Tacsi for the benefit of Welsh people who had never seen a letter X before.” The grim Cymdeithas yr liath Gymraeg crowd, activists who want the Principality of Wales to be one-hundred-percent Welsh-speaking, still smart at that one.

Amis, an only child, was born in London in April 1922. He was educated at the City of London School and St. John’s College, Oxford, where he met Philip Larkin. No doubt academics have already investigated the influences the one had on the other, but it is rather miraculous that the country’s future leading novelist and poet respectively formed their alliance early, were educated alongside each other, shared the same cultural background, and knew the same people.

What they had chiefly in common, apart from a mutual love of jazz and a hatred of intellectual showing off, was an instinctive understanding that something special and ineluctable about England and Englishness was disappearing (“More houses, more parking allowed, more caravan sites”). Both men were at the forefront of the notion that more means worse, particularly in the field of higher education, where they were to be employed. As a grand example of Amis’s breadth of learning and his concern for social questions, I heartily recommend The Amis Collection, a collection of selected non-fiction writing from 1954 to 1990. (The book also contains, among other things, a hysterical demolition of Edgar Alan Poe: “The detective stories are merely stories with a detective in them. They are wild fantasies strung together on pseudo-logic . . . acres of meritless rubbish.”)

In 1949, after war service in the Royal Corps of Signals, and a desultory stab at graduate studies back in Oxford, Amis obtained a post teaching English at University College Swansea, on the south coast of Wales. Larkin, meanwhile, was a sub-librarian in Leicester, in the English Midlands. They visited each other, and Amis began writing what was to be his satire on academic life, Lucky Jim, published in 1954 to acclaim. It has even been published in Korean and Serbo-Croat.

Larkin, however, was filled with chagrin. His address, in Dixon Drive, Leicester, gave Amis his hero’s surname, Jim Dixon, and he felt a lot of his own jokes and situations had been appropriated. His girlfriend, the snaggle-toothed harridan Monica Beale Jones, became the first of Amis’s monster women, Margaret Peel, with her terrible taste in clothes and overbearing manner.

It is fair to say that thereafter their friendship was mostly epistolary—Amis only visited Hull, for example, where Larkin spent thirty years as the university librarian, to attend Larkin’s funeral—but I know of at least one strange meeting, as told to me by the Welsh television presenter Mavis Nicholson, who in her youth had been one of Amis’ students.

Amis and Larkin were invited for drinks at Mavis and Geoff Nicholson’s house, near the Old Vic Theatre, London, became too drunk to get themselves home, and missed the last trains, so Mavis said she’d put them up—if they didn’t mind sharing a bed. It amused Mavis to no end to see that they erected a big Berlin Wall barrier of pillows and bolsters down the middle of the bed, and that their shoes were placed on the floor in such a way as to facilitate a fast getaway, if necessary.

In 1946, Amis married Hilary “Hilly” Bardwell and treated her appallingly, having affairs all over the shop, leaving her to raise the three children. One of them, of course, was the future distinguished writer Martin. From Swansea the family moved to Peterhouse, Cambridge. There were stints in Princeton. But Amis no longer needed to rely on academe for a living, and he rather indulged himself as a libertine, as disclosed in One Fat Englishman, his offering of 1963. The anti-hero and Amis stand-in is Roger Micheldene (“Roger, why are you so awful?” “Yes, I used to ask myself that quite a lot. Not so much of late, however”). Amis and Hilly divorced in 1965.

As with Updike in America, the novels are always about this decidedly mid-century subject of domestic disharmony and erotic cheating. Patrick Standish, played in a film adaptation by the boorish Oliver Reed, is a monster, carrying on much as Amis did, with his roving eye. This became an Amis theme: the temperament of the solipsistic male, the idea that responsibilities and duty cramp one’s style. Amis was fascinated by how awful people can be while getting away with it: Ronnie Appleyard in I Want It Now, Sir Roy Vandervane in Girl, 20 (a perfect role for Peter Sellers), right up to Alun Weaver in The Old Devils.

Interestingly, with The Alteration in 1976 and Jake’s Thing in 1978, Amis’s theme became that of impotence, the waning of lust in middle age, and with it the onset of depression and insomnia. Alcoholism was the cause, bottle after bottle of single-malt whisky, and as Zachary Leader demonstrated in his huge biography, all of this had parallels in Amis’s own life, during his marriage to Elizabeth Jane Howard, which ended in 1983.

In a rather comical arrangement, Amis went to live in the basement flat of a Primrose Hill house occupied by Hilly and her latest husband, who happened to be Lord Kilmarnock. The Kilmarnocks became Amis’s servants, having pickled onion sandwiches ready for when he returned, blind drunk, every afternoon from the Garrick. The comedian Barry Humphries and I were nearly crushed to death when Amis fell down the Garrick stairs.It’s only when he more or less lost Hilly that Amis released her importance to him. His late novel You Can’t Do Both poignantly explores the ramifications of either settling for one partner or settling instead for being a lonely has-been rake. Amis died of a stroke a year later in 1995, the once-handsome man hugely bloated by cortisone and heavy drinking. Lady Kilmarnock died in 2010.

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Roger Lewis is the author of Anthony Burgess: A Biography. He writes regularly for the Times and other British newspapers.