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All hail the King - Roger Lewis remembers Kingsley Amis, as Martin Amis dies at 73

Blog | By Roger Lewis | May 20, 2023

Hilly and Kingsley Amis with Sally, Philip and the late Martin Amis, Swansea, 1956

Kingsley Amis was an awful chauvinist – and the funniest writer in history. Roger Lewis salutes him, as his son Martin Amis dies at 73

It’s a good job that, over a century after he was born, the works of Sir Kingsley Amis CBE aren’t generally in print, as they’d be hastily cancelled, with students and lecturers running a mile.

The attitudes on parade in his novels are very much, shall we say, of their time – the fifties through to the seventies – and harden in the end into a sort of caricatured Garrick Club gruffness, or a Colonel Blimpishness.

Those attitudes are nevertheless startling, even to his admirers, and were always misogynistic, chauvinistic. Take a Girl Like You, for example, published in 1960, is basically about rape, and how an arrogant male (Patrick Standish) is ‘justified’ in behaving as he behaves if the female in question, Jenny Bunn, is beautiful and provocative – as if, underneath, despite protests, she’s asking for it.

In Amis’s world, sex, pretty much a chap’s full-time occupation, alleviates the tension caused by women – who are (according to Stanley and the Women [1984] and Difficulties with Girls [1998]) an alien band going in for superstition, religious mania, folklore, horoscopy and witchcraft, and who are generally less rational than your chaps.

Amis is also dated in that the London (or Swansea) he describes is already historical. People drink and drive with impunity and park easily. The middle classes and ordinary people such as journalists live in big houses in nice districts. Pub landlords are disagreeable ‘characters’. Cabbies are opinionated Cockneys. Asians running corner shops are a novelty. And everyone sneers at the ‘queers’: ‘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, OK? Not yet, there isn’t. Any moment now but not yet. So out.’

The point of Amis, archaic sexual opinions aside, is that all the incidental business, the notes on human behaviour, is the funniest in the English language – not excluding Evelyn Waugh. If my copies of Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe and Howard Jacobson have long since been dumped in the charity shop, I will always revere Amis and keep him on my shelf, for being at his best when he’s recording hardly anything at all. For example, two men 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 roadworks with nobody working on them’; ‘On his way to what people probably meant by the checkout, he noticed…’; ‘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’ that is perfect.

The Old Devils (1986), which justly won the Booker, remains the best (if possibly only) account of my mob, the English-speaking South Welsh. Amis brilliantly skewers the existence of well-off retirees, who loaf about all day in the vicinity of the Gower Peninsula, boozing and arthritically committing adultery.

Kingsley Amis with The Old Devils, which won the 1986 Booker Prize

The pretentious lunacy of the bilingual road markings 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 laith Gymraeg crowd – the Welsh Language Society – still smart at that one.

Amis, an only child, was born in London just over a century ago, on 16th 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 leading novelist and leading poet formed their alliance early.

What they had chiefly in common – apart from a mutual love of jazz and a hatred of intellectual showing-off – was an instinctive grasp 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 will mean worse, particularly in the field of higher education, where they were to be employed.

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. Larkin, meanwhile, was by now a sub-librarian in Leicester. 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 – for example, Amis visited Hull, where Larkin spent 30 years, only to attend Larkin’s funeral – but I know of at least one strange meeting, as told to me by Mavis Nicholson, who in her youth had been one of Amis’s students.

Amis and Larkin were invited for drinks at Mavis and Geoff Nicholson’s house, near the Old Vic, and became too drunk to get themselves home. So Mavis said she’d put them up – if they didn’t mind sharing a bed.

It amused Mavis no end to see they erected a big Berlin Wall barrier of pillows and bolsters down the middle of the bed, and their shoes were placed on the floor in such a way as to facilitate a fast getaway, if necessary. So who wasn’t quite trusting whom?

In 1946, Amis married Hillary (Hilly) Bardwell and treated her appallingly, having affairs all over the shop, leaving her to raise the three children – one of them, of course, the future writer Martin, who has sadly died at 73. 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 the 1963 offering, One Fat Englishman. The antihero/Amis persona 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.

And aren’t the novels always about this? Patrick Standish is a monster, carrying on much as Amis did, with his roving eye. This became an Amis theme – the temperament of the shit. He was fascinated by how awful people can be and get away with it, the charm switched on and off. For instance, 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 Jake’s Thing and The Alteration, the subject became that of impotence – the waning of lust in middle age. Alcoholism was the cause. 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. Barry Humphries and I were nearly crushed to death when Amis fell down the Garrick stairs.

It was only when he’d more or less lost Hilly that he realised her importance to him – the novel You Can’t Do Both (1994) 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 in 1995, aged 73, the once-handsome man hugely bloated by cortisone and single malt.