Saturday 1 January 2011

If Lucky Jim Could See Him Now: Michael Barber on Kingsley Amis, and Zachary Leader's Life of Amis

Welcome to 2011, a year in which I plan to pretty much carry on doing what I have been doing on Existential Ennui, except perhaps not quite so frequently; for one reason or another I'm not sure how feasible daily posts will be this year. Mind you, my posts have been getting longer and longer anyway – so instead of a post a day, I think I'll slow the pace down and simply ensure that what I do post is as informative and entertaining as I can make it.

Luckily, I didn't have to strive too much for this opening effort, because the bulk of it – everything following these introductory paragraphs, in fact – wasn't written by me at all.

I've been interested in Kingsley Amis for a while now, in particular that period in the 1960s and 1970s when Amis was experimenting with genre and generally stretching himself a bit. Connected to that is Amis's attitude towards genre, a subject I've blogged about before (more than once). I'm not entirely certain where I first learned that Amis was keen on genre fiction, on thrillers and SF and spy novels, but I do know that for me an early indication that that was the case came from an interview with Amis I read online. Conducted by literary critic Michael Barber for The Paris Review in 1975, it deals in part with Amis's interest in genre fiction, mentioning by name authors Amis appreciated, such as Gavin Lyall and Geoffrey Household, which in turn inspired me to investigate those and other genre writers.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, when, quite out of the blue, Michael (who I don't know) left a comment on a post I'd written, not on Amis, but on Alan Williams and his novel about Kim Philby, Gentleman Traitor. Michael's comment was a treasure trove of added detail about Williams and Philby, but he ended it with a note mentioning he was intrigued by my Kingsley Amis posts and thought they might merit a separate comment. I replied that I'd be delighted if he wished to comment on them, but after some reflection Michael decided that the best way for him to respond was to send me a piece he wrote for The Hudson Review on Zachary Leader's 2006 biography The Life of Kingsley Amis, along with a suggestion that I might like to post it on this blog if I thought it would be of interest to Existential Ennui's readership (such as it is).

Naturally, I leapt at the chance. So, to begin a year in which I suspect we'll be hearing quite a lot about Kingsley Amis – and not just on this blog either – I'm pleased to present the full article. Enjoy.

. . . . . . . . . .

If Lucky Jim Could See Him Now, by Michael Barber

Women are hell. In lots of ways. A lot of them. A lot of the time.
                                                                                                - Kingsley Amis.

Many years ago I interviewed Christopher Sykes about his biography of Evelyn Waugh. At one point he said, with great emphasis, “He was always an actor!” I was reminded of this when reading Professor Zachary Leader’s very long and searching biography of Kingsley Amis.[1] Like Waugh, Amis was a performer, his genius for mimicry acknowledged by all. And like Waugh he became so identified with what John Bayley called his “fantasy persona” that it was difficult to tell them apart. In 1975, the year Amis’s second marriage began to crumble, Nick Garland did a cartoon of his younger self asking his older self, “Are you making your tragic mask face or do you always look like that nowadays?” Increasingly – or so it seemed to those who saw only the public Amis – the mask, or masks, became indistinguishable from the man.
That Amis could wear an agreeable face I can vouch for myself. We had some very enjoyable lunches together and professionally speaking he could not have been more helpful. But no one reading this book could doubt that he was, as the critic D.J. Taylor puts it, an “intermittently horrible man” who belonged in the dock with monstrous characters of his like Patrick Standish, Roger Micheldene, Barnard Bastable and Alun Weaver. For instance in 1982 the Observer, for whom Amis had reviewed since the fifties, gave a sixtieth birthday dinner in his honour. Responding to the editor’s “fulsome toast”, Amis began by calling the Observer “a bloody awful paper”, and then gave them chapter and verse. No wonder people grew wary of him. Leader recounts how he once complained that for twenty minutes he’d sat at the bar of his club “and nobody came near me.” His companion replied: “Kingsley, doesn’t it strike you that it could be because you can be so fucking curmudgeonly?” Something similar happened to Waugh at his club. “Why are you alone?” asked a fellow member. “Because no one wants to speak to me.” “I can tell you exactly why; because you sit there on your arse looking like a stuck pig.”[2]
So should one ask of Amis what he asked of Waugh: If he hadn’t been such a shit, would he have written half so well? After all, he admitted that “a good source of material” was to take an aspect of his character he wasn’t particularly proud of “and push it to the limit.” Leader does not address this question directly, but in his introduction he drops a broad hint when he refers to Amis’s “lifelong obsession with egotism,[3] selfishness, inconsiderateness, qualities he acutely anatomises and censures in his writings even as they threaten to overwhelm him in life.”
In Britain, effrontery of the sort that Amis excelled at is usually thought of as an upper-class trait. But as he told his second wife-to-be, Elizabeth Jane Howard, “I’m not posh – like you.”[4] His father was a City clerk and he grew up in the nondescript south London suburb of Norbury, speaking with a London accent. Though he soon learnt to speak “proper” and ended his days as “Sir Kingsley”, a pillar of the Garrick Club, Amis remained as wary of nobs as Stanley Duke, the “underbred” narrator of Stanley and the Women; hence his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter who fought battles for which grandees had no stomach. Again, although Jane Howard’s being posh was part of her appeal, he held it against her when things went wrong.
An only child whose parents were reluctant to let him out of their sight, Amis amused himself from an early age by writing as well as reading. “I wanted to be a writer,” he told Eric Jacobs,[5] “before I knew what that was.” He was lucky enough to receive a first-class education at City of London School, a large London day school which was well enough endowed to offer bursaries to clever boys like him whose parents could not otherwise have afforded to educate them privately. In April 1941 he entered Oxford as an exhibitioner to read English and almost immediately met Philip Larkin, who was to become his close friend and collaborator. Both were mad about jazz; both loathed the English syllabus, with its emphasis on “filthy” Old and Middle English, and both had a very low boredom threshold. Though Larkin was not, like Amis, a performer (he had a bad stammer), they shared the same savage, anarchic sense of humour, preserved for posterity in their correspondence. A few years later Amis would pay Larkin this compliment: 

I enjoy talking to you more than anyone else because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, brutal, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful things that I don’t want anyone to know about; but most of all because I am always on the verge of violent laughter when talking to you . . .

While at Oxford Amis joined the Communist party. This was partly out of conviction: belief in the brotherhood of man and the need to build the Just City; partly to bate his father, with whom he had quarrelled continually since puberty, and partly to meet girls, whom he thought, erroneously, might go in for free love. He kept his party card until 1956, a detail overlooked by Leader and also, in 1958, by the American consul who had to vet him before he could teach at Princeton.
               Drafted in July 1942 Amis spent his next three years in the Army, serving as a subaltern with the Royal Corps of Signals. Not exactly a happy warrior, he was willing to do his bit and afterwards nursed a substantial grudge against those, like Dylan Thomas, who had dodged the column. His unit took part in the liberation of northern Europe, and although Amis himself saw no action, he did witness the “terrible litter of German dead” around Falaise, the stench of which haunts Maurice Allington in The Green Man. Equally obnoxious was the attitude of some of his superiors – Rotarians in civvy street – who objected to the presence of an irreverent young commie in the Mess. Conscious of the grief they could give him on duty, Amis had no option but to put up with their jibes. Here, I think, is the source of the impotent rage Jim Dixon directs towards Welch, his boss. More to Amis’s taste, particularly as a connoisseur of “types”, were the old sweats – warrant officers and NCO’s – who knew just how far they could go without committing an offence. “Shorty” in Ending Up is one such.
Amis also provoked the stuffy Rotarians because he was frank about having an active sex life. Promiscuity was rife on the home front – “We were not really immoral, there was a war on”,[6] explained one British housewife – and Amis, who lost his virginity during his first year at Oxford, was a beneficiary. He was carrying on with a married woman, while helping himself to whatever else was on offer, the range and quantity of which increased once he crossed the Channel. So by the time he was demobbed Amis had grown accustomed to philandering. And although moralists were demanding a return to sexual continence, he was not disappointed when he went back to Oxford to complete his degree. One of the girls he seduced was a pretty 17-year-old art student called Hilary (Hilly) Bardwell, who informed him, shortly before his Finals, that she was pregnant. Amis didn’t want a “filthy baby”, but neither did he want any harm to come to Hilly, which it might well have done had they gone through with the (illegal) abortion he contemplated. So, “faute de mieux” he married her. Their first son, Philip, was born in August 1948; their second, Martin, a year later. Shortly afterwards, Amis was appointed to an assistant lectureship in English at University College, Swansea, the last job of its kind available that year.
Amis once said that “any proper writer ought to be able to write anything, from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout”.[7] That he was capable of this himself is apparent from the breadth of his achievement.[8] But although he showed early promise as a poet, it took him a while to find his voice as a writer of prose. His first (unpublished) novel, The Legacy, begun during his last year at Oxford, was rejected by about fourteen publishers – deservedly, said Amis, because it was “full of affectation [and] modernistic tricks”. He needed to put more of himself into his writing, the course urged by Philip Larkin, who knew, better than anyone, how brutally funny Amis could be. After reading the rather tame first draft of Lucky Jim (which would be dedicated to him), Larkin urged Amis to “sod up the romantic business actively”, meaning that Jim should have a real battle on his hands with regard to Christine, which he could only win by taking the offensive against Welch and Co. He also wanted “more ‘faces’ – ‘Sex Life in Ancient Rome’ and so on” and less “unnatural” dialogue. “This speech makes me twist about with boredom” he wrote beside one passage.
Writing is an envious trade and Larkin, who had given up fiction in favour of poetry, could be forgiven for minding the huge success of a book to which he had contributed so much. Amis was undoubtedly aware of this and it is a measure of the store he set on their friendship that when That Uncertain Feeling appeared the following year he would tell Larkin, whose input had been nil, how relieved he was that he liked it: “You’re the one whose opinion counts, as you know.” Within a month or two Larkin would make his own mark with The Less Deceived; and if he never enjoyed the reclame that attached to Amis in the beginning, by the time he died his reputation was, if anything, higher. In one of his last letters to Amis he wrote, “I think we’ve done something of what we hoped when unknown lads.” This letter also contains the last of very many private jokes they shared, a reference to “ole Ay, Merde, och” (Iris Murdoch), arrived at via the story of “Two Scotchmen in Paris. ‘What deed he say–merde?’ ‘Ay, merde.’ ‘Och!’ (shocked silence).’[9]
Meeting Larkin was one of two turning points in Amis’s life, the other being his marriage to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Before examining this and its baleful consequences, we ought to consider his first marriage, which lasted for seventeen years. It was, by any standards, irregular. Not only was Amis undomesticated (as indeed was Hilly), he was also a compulsive adulterer, determined to impale as many women as possible on his “pork sword.” That he managed this so often even before he became famous, in a provincial city, Swansea, not noted for its promiscuity, prompts one to ask the question, how? And answer came there none, because Amis’s many girlfriends are one source Leader had difficulty in tapping. The only clue is provided by Paul Fussell’s first wife, Betty, who refers to “Kingsley’s irresistible combination of comedy and sex.” If he did amuse the pants off his conquests, Hilly did not see the joke. She began to take lovers herself, one of whom probably sired Sally, her daughter. Amis was not bothered by this and always treated Sally as his own, which in early days was not saying much. “You never stop being a parent,” he once complained to me. But reading this book you might feel that he had a lot of ground to make up. His children came a poor third behind work and play, only welcome, according to Hilly, “as long as they didn’t get in his way.”
Betty Fussell met Amis at Princeton, where he spent the academic year of 1958/9 as Lecturer and Resident Fellow in Creative Writing. Recalling his stint there, Amis said that he “was bowled over by the amount of talent” he encountered. He was referring to the students, but it could have been the faculty wives, through whom “he cut a swath a mile wide.” Despite her domestic responsibilities, which included Amis’s recently widowed father, Hilly scored too. Indeed it was their disregard for conventional morality that made the Amises such a hot ticket: “They seemed to have no verbal or sexual inhibitions at all,” said Betty Fussell. But eventually the pace began to tell. Hilly feared “a terrible fall” in which a lot of people would get hurt and Amis, uniquely for him, could not strike a balance between work and play. So he turned down the offer to stay two more years and returned home to Swansea.
Princeton is depicted as Budweiser College in One Fat Englishman, whose gross hero, Roger Micheldene, is one of Amis’s most loathsome creations. Intended as an egregious exponent of the strident British anti-Americanism that Amis then deplored, Micheldene was mistaken by many readers for the author’s mouthpiece. Although at pains to disabuse them, Amis admitted that he’d “quite enjoy a couple of drinks with Roger”, arguing that in real life it was possible to like people of whom you violently disapproved. But Leader maintains that Amis and Roger would certainly have agreed about women. What makes you want them? Roger is asked. Under his breath he gives this answer: 

A man’s sexual aim . . .  is to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature that is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.

Amis wrote that shortly after falling for Elizabeth Jane Howard, of whom it could justly be said that in addition to being beautiful, intelligent and posh, she was also “cool, dry, calm, etc etc.” But there was more to their relationship than sex. Aged forty, Amis had had his fill of teaching and wanted to write full time. In Jane, one of the few women novelists he enjoyed reading – he could never have married her, he told me, had that not been the case – he thought he had found the perfect partner, a combination of lover, colleague, helpmate and housekeeper. In fact Jane’s responsibilities extended far beyond the domestic: she drove the car, found schools for her stepchildren (without Jane’s involvement it’s doubtful whether Martin would have got to Oxford), and, with the help of a good accountant, rectified Amis’s chaotic finances. Politically Amis and Jane were compatible too, which would not have been the case earlier. She was a moderate Tory, he was a lukewarm Labour voter whose belief in Marxism as a progressive cause had been shattered by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Thereafter he moved inexorably to the Right on foreign policy, even advocating the use of British troops in Vietnam, while remaining liberal on social issues like race, abortion and hanging. Both he and Jane agreed that the bigotry they encountered in Nashville, where Amis lectured at Vanderbilt University in 1967, did the conservative cause a disservice.
So what went wrong? The short answer is drink, which played an even larger part in Amis’s life than it did in his novels. For Amis, drink was inseparable from conversation and hilarity, without which life was not worth living; and these he found in the company of men. One of the reasons Jenny Bunn, the heroine of Take a Girl Like You, gets such high marks is that she doesn’t begrudge a man his sessions at the pub with his mates.[10] Shy with strangers, Amis also found drink an invaluable social lubricant when he found himself among people he didn’t know well. Professionally it had its uses too, for while he couldn’t write when drunk, he did find a glass or two of Scotch helped when nerving himself to begin a novel. Above all, drink agreed with Amis. Like his character Maurice Allington he drank to experience “that semi-mystical elevation of spirit which, every time, seems destined to last for ever.”
Allington is a well-adjusted alcoholic – well-adjusted in that despite drinking a bottle of Scotch a day for the past twenty years he runs a popular country pub whose restaurant is in the Good Food Guide. Equally remarkable, he can still cut the mustard, his ambition being to enjoy a threesome with his wife and his mistress. Amis was also a well-adjusted alcoholic: no matter how much he’d drunk the night before – it was not unusual for him to have to crawl up the stairs to bed – he would be at his desk the following morning. And for many years, despite an intake to rival Allington’s, he too remained sexually active; indeed one of his recommended hangover cures was to “perform the sexual act as vigorously as you can”.[11] But in his fifties he began to lose interest in sex, a predicament heralded, says Leader, by his genre novel The Alteration, whose hero is a young chorister threatened with castration to preserve his sublime treble voice. The chorister loses his balls and Amis lost his libido, almost certainly as a consequence of drink. His “heroic” efforts to recover it via therapy found their way into his next novel, Jake’s Thing, about an Oxford don, formerly a great ladies’ man, who suffers from the same dysfunction as Amis. Eventually we learn that Jake’s real problem is that he’s never really liked women, only wanted to sleep with them. Was this also true of Amis?
A feminist would rest her case on Stanley and the Women, the most venomous of Amis’s novels,[12] in which the narrator’s best friend says he’s amazed that only twenty-five per cent of violent crime in England and Wales is husbands assaulting wives – “You’d expect it to be more like eighty per cent.” Could the same man have written “Women are really much nicer than men / No wonder we like them”? Yes, but that was in another country. At the time he wrote Stanley and the Women, Amis was trying to come to terms with losing not only his wife, which he minded terribly despite disliking her, but also a sizeable chunk of his wealth – all earned, as he was at pains to point out. That Jane had helped him earn it, by ensuring that all he had to do at home was write and pour the drinks, he chose to ignore. But there was another reason why Amis was so bereft. This most combative of men, whose last, unpublished poem begins “Women and queers and children / Cry when things go wrong . . . ” was a cry-baby himself who would literally howl the house down when one of his many phobias got the better of him. The dark gave him his worst moments; he could not bear to be alone in the house at night. So when Jane left him, his sons had to take it in turns to “Dadsit”, as Martin puts it.[13]
Stanley and the Women is dedicated to Hilly, the first of many such gestures that a contrite Amis would make. Leaving her, he now admitted, had been the biggest mistake of his life. And it was Hilly and her third husband, Ali Kilmarnock, an impoverished Scottish peer, who provided a long-term solution to the Dadsitting problem. In return for a roof over their heads in London, which they could not then afford, and a modest stipend, they undertook to move in with Amis and keep an eye on him. It was not an ideal solution because, as Amis told Larkin, “They have a little boy of 9. Yes, but he’s very nice. No, but there it is. Oh well.” There were other tensions too. Amis was a needy man at the best of times and the hurt he suffered over his “Rolls-Royce” divorce from Jane made him even more demanding. Hilly had a cuckoo in the nest. When she broke her hip, Anthony Powell commented in his journal “no doubt worked to death”.
But much to everyone’s surprise this peculiar ménage, “like an Iris Murdoch novel”, lasted fifteen years under three different roofs. Though Amis sometimes behaved intolerably he knew a cushy billet when he saw one and never went too far – well, not very often. More to the point, once Stanley and the Women was done he no longer wrote as if suffering from a chronic metaphysical hangover,[14] the symptoms of which had been apparent since Ending Up in 1973. The Old Devils, while giving off a strong whiff of memento mori, was his first mainstream novel since I Want It Now to have an upbeat ending. And it was noticeably more sympathetic towards women, which must have weighed with the Booker Prize jury, four out of five of whom were female.
Winning the Booker gave Amis a second wind. In the nine years that remained to him he wrote five novels, his Memoirs and The King’s English, a typically provocative guide to modern usage. He also became a restaurant critic, which given his preference for fry-ups and curry was, as Leader says, “dumbfounding”. Equally dumbfounding was the amount of drink he continued to put away – dumbfounding, because his iron constitution had long since started to rust. He was grossly overweight, unsteady on his feet and a martyr to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (fearing he might disgrace himself at his investiture, he took so much sealant beforehand that his family thought he might be permanently blocked up). More worryingly for someone who had already experienced a brief period of madness when, in 1982, he broke his leg and was stuffed full of drugs instead of drink, he began to have “funny moments”, in which he spoke nonsense. This was a portent. His brain no longer matched his liver.
In August 1995, while staying with friends in Wales, Amis fell down some steps and hit his head. On returning to London he spent a week in hospital and then went home, where it was soon apparent that he was deranged. Over the next few weeks he went rapidly down hill and, back in hospital, mercifully contracted pneumonia. He died on October 22 1995. Almost his last coherent words were, “For God’s sake, you bloody fool, give me a drink.”
Zachary Leader never met Kingsley Amis (or if he did he doesn’t say so), but having edited Amis’s Letters, and being, moreover, a friend of Martin’s, he was the natural choice to write an authorised biography. British reviewers have applauded both his thoroughness and his even-handed approach, particularly with regard to Elizabeth Jane Howard, but almost all of them have complained that at more than 1000 pages, the book is too long. I agree. An academic writing a biography for the general reader needs to strike a balance between critical appraisal and narrative, and this Leader does not always manage, particularly in the first 500 pages, which are overloaded with explication. On the other hand he establishes beyond doubt that while Amis certainly made things up, he also drew copiously from life, which he always denied – probably because his most autobiographical novel, I Like It Here, was a flop.
By way of a little prep for this piece I reread Ending Up, not opened for at least twenty years, and found myself laughing so much that my wife tried to smother me (we were in bed at the time). Leader’s declaration that Amis was “the finest British comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century” seems unchallengeable, though I think that “serio-comic” is a better description of him as a writer. As Simon Raven once noted, Amis’s jokes are like Shakespeare’s jokes about the pox; “they make you laugh on the other side of your face.” But what was not funny at all was how seriously Amis came to take himself towards the end of his life, as Leader is obliged to relate. So to show that he could still laugh at himself I will finish with an anecdote he told me at one of our last meetings. He’d been out to lunch with an old Oxford mate who was in the Cabinet Office at 10 Downing Street and who had at his disposal a large chauffeur-driven motor. When they got back to No 10, somewhat the worse for drink, Amis’s mate ordered the chauffeur to drive Amis home to Primrose Hill. As he was dozing off in the back, Amis had a sudden thought: “If Lucky Jim could see me now!”

Michael Barber interviewed Kingsley Amis for The Paris Review (“The Art of Fiction LIX”). He is the author of biographies of Anthony Powell and Simon Raven.

[1] THE LIFE OF KINGSLEY AMIS, by Zachary Leader. Pantheon. $39.95
[2] The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. by Michael Davie (London 1976) p786
[3] The Anti-Egotist (Oxford 1994) was the title Paul Fussell gave to his exemplary study of Amis as man of letters.
[4] Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream: A Memoir (London 2002) p339
[5] Author of Kingsley Amis: A Biography (London 1992)
[6] John Costello, Love, Sex and War (London 1985) p17
[7] “Writing for a TV Series”, The Listener 19/26 December 1974, p 813
[8] 25 novels, 7 volumes of poetry, 11 works of non-fiction, several dozen short stories, 9 radio and television plays, over 1300 pieces of journalism and almost 2000 letters.
[9] Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (London 1992) pp 752/3
[10] Amis thought American men were deprived in this respect. “Where do they go to get away from the wife and kids?”
[11] On Drink, (London 1974) p 91
[12] The quote at the head of this piece is from an interview I did with him at the time.
[13] Martin Amis, Experience (London 2001), pp 306/11
[14] In On Drink Amis distinguished between the physical hangover, characterised by headaches, nausea etc., and the “incomparably more dreadful” metaphysical hangover, recognisable by the profound feelings of doom and gloom it generated.


  1. This is an excellent essay. Existential Ennui is a great blog and your posts are always high quality - but reading Mr. Barber's piece from the Hudson Review reminds us not to take for granted those journals that still commission and publish literary criticism.

    I committed a terrible sin in reading Paul Fussell's book on Kingsley Amis (I was on a Paul Fussell kick) without ever having read anything by Kingsly Amis. Still haven't. But I really enjoy the things you've done on him recently.

  2. If you feel like giving Amis a try, of the novels I've read so far I can heartily recommend The Anti-Death League and Ending Up. The latter has the added advantage of being quite short, so it won't take long to rattle through.