Ferdinand Mount

The monster we hate to love

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The Life of Kingsley Amis

Zachary Leader

Cape, pp. 996, £

What is it about fruit? There is no more searing passage in the memoirs of Auberon Waugh than the bit when three bananas reach the Waugh household in the worst days of postwar austerity and Evelyn Waugh places all three on his own plate, then before the anguished eyes of his three children ladles on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and scoffs the lot. So in all the 900-odd pages of this marvellous Life of Kingsley Amis there is nothing that chills the blood more than the moment when Hilly Amis’s eight-year-old son Jaime reaches for the one peach in a fruit bowl otherwise containing only oranges, apples and grapes and Kingsley shouts, in a voice described by his son Martin as ‘like a man hailing a cab across the length of Oxford Circus during a downpour on Christmas Eve’, ‘HEY! That’s my peach.’

Behind the sacred monster’s mask lurks a monstrous baby, an insatiable craving machine. There is a line that appears in Take a Girl Like You, but also uttered by Kingsley himself as he and some friends pulled up at a fried-clam joint on the way to the Newport Jazz Festival: ‘Oh good, I want more than my share before anyone else has had any.’ Just as Kingsley would later tell the ‘That’s my peach!’ story against himself, so he was constantly working his own episodes of unbridled selfishness into his fiction. In his last book, The Biographer’s Moustache, the novelist tells his biographer, ‘These days the public like to think of an artist as a, as a shit known to behave in ways they would shrink from.’ To which the biographer, maddened by his subject, retorts at the end of the book, ‘You’re not a reluctant shit and certainly not an unconscious shit, you’re a self-congratulatory shit.’

Amis was perfectly aware that he had, in the words of his poem ‘Coming of Age’, ‘played his part so well/that he started living it,/ His trick of camouflage no longer a trick.’ He had worked up his public persona so effectively that he became a natural choice for an up- market fabrics campaign — ‘Very Kingsley Amis, Very Sanderson’. Yet now and then he was plaintive about the costs of the impersonation. Why did he sit for 20 minutes in the bar at the Garrick and nobody come near him? His drinking partner, the naval historian Richard Hough, replied, ‘Kingsley, doesn’t it strike you that it could be because you can be so f***ing curmudgeonly?’ Again, one is reminded of Evelyn Waugh sitting looking like a stuck pig in the bar at White’s and glaring at each incomer, then complaining about nobody talking to him and the club going downhill.

The rage needed fuelling, of course. Throughout most of his later life, Amis was on a bottle of whisky a day, not to mention any available liqueurs, plus a ferocious assortment of drugs: frumil for his swollen legs, verapamil for his heart, brufen for pain, allopurinol for gout, senekot and lactulose for constipation. The more he turned drink into a hobby like jazz or science fiction, the more he drank. Travelling through Mexico, he insisted on carrying with him a sort of mobile cocktail bar containing tequila, gin, vodka and campari, plus fruit juices, lemons, tomato juice, cucumber and Tabasco. Wine was always a lesser interest though not a lesser intake. The first GP or General Principle of his book On Drink is: ‘Up to a point (i.e. short of offering your guests one of those Balkan plonks marketed as wine, Cyprus sherry, poteen and the like), go for quantity rather than quality.’ I can’t remember which Amis character it is who pats the fresh bottle that the waiter has just brought and murmurs happily, ‘Nice and full.’ Continuity of supply was a constant anxiety. He always liked to see where the next drink was coming from.

All this took its toll. As early as 1956 when he was only in his thirties, he was passing out cold after lunch or dinner, and in the 1970s often went upstairs to bed on all fours, though he never missed a morning at the typewriter. Yet it would be facile to imagine that it was the drink that somehow did for him morally. Like Waugh, he had a cruel streak long before he was seriously soused — it was an integral part of their comic genius. Both writers had fathers who were jovial, sentimental good sports. In Amis, as in Waugh, the savage gene skipped a generation. Kingsley’s father William Amis had ‘a talent for physical clowning and mimicry that made him, on his day, one of the funniest men I have known’, but he also had ‘a rowdy babyish streak in him which caused him, when perfectly sober, to pretend to be a foreigner or deaf in trains and pubs’.

In theory, not so very different from Kingsley’s lifelong habit of delighting his audience with imitations of squawky radios and trains going through tunnels. It was his imitation in the quad at St John’s College, Oxford, of a man falling down after being shot that made Philip Larkin, who had not met Amis before, think ‘for the first time I felt myself in the presence of a talent greater than my own’. At Amis’s memorial service, Martin played a tape of his father’s celebrated party piece of FDR addressing his British allies over a faulty short-wave radio. The tape itself proved faulty and so Martin relentlessly played it again — an episode straight out of a novel by either Amis. But William Amis’s turns were all too often facetious — and for this, like Arthur Waugh, he was not to be forgiven, or not in his lifetime:

I’m sorry you had to die

To make me sorry

You’re not here now.

Nor were the fits of howling and night terrors that woke Kingsley in his later years a new development. As a young signals officer he had splashed onto the Normandy beachhead only a month after D-Day — his first trip abroad — but he had always been subject to what we now call panic attacks. From childhood he had suffered screaming fits. When he was 18 and the City of London School had been evacuated to Marlborough, his housemaster’s wife had to comfort him in the middle of the night when these fits woke him up. When his first wife Hilly was about to have their third child, he was frightened to go to the callbox by himself to summon the midwife and had to take Martin with him. Martin was then aged four. After his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, left him, he was petrified of being alone and his children had to organise a rota of Dadsitters. He was so terrified of finding himself in an empty tube train that when he and Jane were living out in Barnet, he would choose to travel in the rush hour for his sorties to the Garrick Club.

This sensitivity was immediately obvious when you met him and made him even more attractive. As the pictures in this generously produced biography show, he was dazzlingly handsome as a young man and all his life he had a charming voice, hesitant but not diffident, and somehow confidential as though he was talking to you alone. He seemed quite extraordinarily natural in a way that made other people in the room seem loud or forced, and as John Bayley, who met him first at Oxford, pointed out, ‘The natural Amis stayed with him all his life alongside the other one.’

Nor were these qualities superficial or put on. He was a tactful consoler and capable of great generosity to people in trouble. Although his household at Barnet already contained at least eight assorted adults — they also entertained on a heroic scale — he readily assented when Jane invited the dying C. Day Lewis and his wife Jill Balcon to come and live with them, despite the fact that he didn’t much like Day Lewis and Jane had once had a brief fling with him.

Sometimes this generosity hardened into an ossified bar code: he was pernickety that everyone should stand his round and behave like a good fellow. It was an offence against the laws of hospitality to say to a lunch guest, ‘Shall we go straight in?’ There was no keener member of the 1400 Club at the Garrick, composed of those barflies who thought it poor form to sit down before 2 pm. Like Richard Burton, he believed that ‘the man who drinks on his own’ was scarcely human.

But until his very last years his company still left a glow. And when he arrived in Swansea as a young lecturer with Hilly and their small children, they hit the place like a tornado, laying waste both the campus and the crachach in the Uplands district. Kingsley set about a programme of screwings that would have been enough to construct an ocean liner. Hilly followed in his wake, but hers was only a cottage industry in comparison with Kingsley’s mass seduction. At Saturday night parties he would ask every woman present to come outside and visit his greenhouse — an implausible pretext considering his well advertised dislike of gardens and gardening — and one by one they would return dishevelled but with a wild, furtive triumph in their eyes

Drink and sex were his passions. The extraordinary thing is that he could not believe that one might have an impact on the other. When his powers began to fail, he consulted a series of sex therapists (as well as regular shrinks to treat his night fears) and even consented, like the hero of Jake’s Thing, to wear a ‘nocturnal mensurator’, a device for measuring penile tumescence. It never seems to have occurred to him that he might be suffering from an entirely normal case of brewer’s droop.

Both in his letters to Larkin and to Robert Conquest, there is, it cannot be denied, a callous tone about his references to women. To Larkin, for example: ‘The only reason I like girls is that I want to f*** them.’ When trying to reconcile Hilly: ‘The successive application of tears and pork sword had brought hubby right back into the picture’ — while at the same time denouncing Hilly (who was bringing up three children and doing everything for Kingsley without him lifting a finger in any direction) for ‘her laziness, her continuous peevishness with the children, her utter lack of interest in anything whatsoever’. Soon he was able to report triumphantly, ‘I have more or less got my wife back. As a consequence (though I can quite see how you can’t quite see how this can be so), I have got my girlfriend back too.’

Nor did Elizabeth Jane Howard fare much better. When she eventually walked out on him, he explained to Larkin:

She did it partly to punish me for stopping wanting to fuck her and partly because she realised I didn’t like her much. Well, I liked her as much as you could like anyone totally wrapped up in themselves and unable to tolerate the slightest competition or anything a raving lunatic could see as opposition and having to have their own way in everything all the time.

Well, it takes one.

Curious perhaps that he chose her in the first place. Many people found her affected and, though very beautiful, not all that easy to get on with. She did not deny herself that she was awkward and self-centred. To pursue her career as a writer, she had more or less abandoned her only child, her daughter by her first husband the naturalist Peter Scott, but when married to Kingsley she worked night and day to look after the large, untidy household, drove him everywhere, dealt with all the repairs and accounts and acted as the most dutiful of stepmothers, all of which left little or no time for her own writing.

For someone who took such an intense interest in people’s quirks, Kingsley often seemed indifferent to what people were actually like. He tolerated company at the Garrick Club that other members fled from. He would make regular excursions to Swansea to drink in the Bristol Channel Yacht Club with the solicitor Stuart Thomas, described by some as ‘one of the most unpleasant men I have ever met’, and eventually expelled from the Yacht Club on grounds of ‘general horribleness’.

But then, as Zachary Leader points out, the desire to irritate and annoy animated Amis himself all his life, and hobnobbing with other curmudgeons was part of it. He liked to give offence in his books too, by putting in recognisable portraits of people he knew, like Peter Quennell’s wife Marilyn or the old devils he drank with in Swansea. In embarking on a new project, for example his Ian Fleming pastiche Colonel Sun, he liked to think how much it would annoy intellectual lefties. Baiting was a pastime, ranking only slightly behind drink and sex. Nor did he restrict his venom to people who could stand up to him. He could be cruel to some shy stranger who made an ill-phrased remark or had an unfortunate laugh.

It was sometimes as though his reservoirs of sensitivity were concentrated on his writing. All his delicacy of touch went into the run of the sentence. Surprisingly, although Zac Leader is a professor of English Literature rather than a biographer by trade (he also did an exemplary edition of the Amis letters), the one gap in this otherwise beautifully balanced, affectionate, unsparing and unfailingly accurate portrait is any discussion of Amis’s style in its heyday. Rightly, Leader points out that late Amis can be almost as orotund and impenetrable as the late Henry James — a comparison which would have annoyed Amis greatly. Anthony Powell thought that in The Folk that Live on the Hill, for example, the determination not to be pretentious develops into a sort of pretentiousness.

But all memorable styles tend to become parodies of themselves in the end. And Amis’s style is certainly memorable. To me it is one of the most original and infectious styles in 20th-century English writing, comparable in its impact to that of Joyce or Hemingway, though not recognised as such, or not by academics, because of Amis’s dislike of their carry-on. The way he writes arises out of what Stephen Potter would call his Ordinarychapmanship, but it is only the starting point to declare, as Amis does in what is taken to be the Manifesto of the Movement poets, ‘Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities.’ What Amis does is not only to represent ordinary blokes and (less successfully) blokesses but to catch the way their minds run on, correcting their first thoughts, doubling back, trying to render what exactly it is that they are thinking. More complicating still is that Amis is at the same time setting down how the author is trying to describe and then describe better, more exactly, more vividly what the characters are doing or saying or looking like. So that at its best you feel a thrilling sense of actually being there as the text is being created. Amis was famous for liking unshowy immediacy in books. All his life he preferred the sort of book which began ‘a shot rang out’. He hated writers like Bellow and Nabokov for their distinguished style which ‘usually turns out in practice to mean a high idiosyncratic noise level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction’. Yet he was at pains to point out that immediate didn’t mean simple. Paradise Lost was the greatest poem in our language, but it was difficult as well as being immediate. Amis was himself engaged in something which was much more difficult than it looked. When it works, a comic joy spreads over every page, even when he is writing about death and decay as he is in Ending Up or The Old Devils.

To the end Kingsley remained the spoilt only child who believes that the universe ought to be organised for his benefit and is furious whenever he discov ers it isn’t. ‘You atheist?’ the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked him. ‘Well, yes,’ Amis replied, ‘but it’s more that I hate Him’ — resented the competition, I suppose. And it is this combination of indignation and eloquence that puts him up there with Swift and all those other monsters we hate to love.

I ought to say that this book is 200 pages too long, but as I enjoyed almost every word of it, I can’t.