Orlando Bird

An enduring classic

Text settings

A couple of years back, John Carey reviewed a new biography of Kingsley Amis and began with the question that people had been asking for years: why was he so horrible? Amis is regarded as one of a generation of fat philistines, drink-sodden and misanthropic, who made careers of bating Britain’s ‘Trots and leftist shags’. But he was not always so. John Metcalf, reviewing Lucky Jim for the Spectator in 1954, described it as ‘that rarest of rare good things: a very funny book’. ‘Dixon’, he wrote, ‘is completely believable, his predicaments and gaucheries are a part of him, and Mr Amis watches with wide-eyed objectivity’. Lucky Jim, Metcalf concluded, is ‘a very funny, very human novel’.


In Lucky Jim, Amis’ first novel, we can certainly see the nascent alcoholism as well as the misanthropy – not one of its characters comes out unscathed at the end. But it’s also a novel with a social and historical significance that should not be overlooked.


Grammar school-educated and recently demobbed, Jim Dixon is a young History lecturer at a provincial university with no idea what he’s doing there. His recently-published article, ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’, sheds ‘pseudo-light’ on ‘non-problems’; and he divides his time between dodging earnest students and appeasing an exhaustingly neurotic girlfriend, Margaret. His mentor is the absurd Professor Welch, a man totally uninterested in teaching. Rather, Welch subjects Dixon to evenings of madrigal-singing, supposed to unite people with a shared passion for ‘Teutonic bores’. The book’s real villain, though, is his son Bertrand - a pompous amateur artist, complete with beard, beret and a friend called Otto. Dixon meets him at one of Welch’s hallowed musical soirees. He also notices Bertrand’s pretty girlfriend, Christine, and falls in love for the first time.


But with hard-won romantic success comes professional failure. Dixon turns up to his make-or-break lecture on ‘Merrie England’ drunk and black-eyed, and the brilliantly memorable scene shows Amis at the height of his powers, particularly as a mimic. After realizing in horror that he is impersonating Welch’s bumbling diffidence, Dixon adopts the tone of an ‘unusually fanatical Nazi trooper in charge of a book-burning, reading out to the crowd excerpts from a pamphlet written by a pacifist, Jewish, literate Communist’.

The mimicry is important: Lucky Jim is the work, not of a ‘horrible’ man but an ambivalent one. The mannerisms Amis mocks – Welch’s insistent use of phrases like ‘of course’ and ‘you see’, or the ‘preludial blaring sound’ he makes at the beginning of lectures – are ones he would have encountered or even, perhaps, adopted during his days as a lecturer at Swansea. His attack on the literature of ‘art galleries and foreign cities’ – whose practitioners he dismissed as ‘wankers’ – is, in its, way a great literary achievement. And it is socially significant. During the 1940s and 50s, people like Welch and Son still held sway in Britain’s literary and academic worlds (Martin Amis recalls his father’s savage impersonations of Lord David Cecil, who taught him at Oxford and may, indeed, have formed some basis for the character of Welch). The Bloomsbury Group – who, with members including Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, monopolized British cultural life during the early-twentieth century – were also a routine target of Amis’s derision. For all their self-styled bohemianism, many were unreconstructed snobs and would probably, like Margaret, have regarded Dixon’s frustrations and fantasies as those of a ‘shabby little provincial bore’, not worthy of literary attention. Amis does think they’re worthy of literary attention – but he still wants us to be able to laugh at them