Kingsley amis

Frederic Raphael settles old scores with a vengeance

Last Post is a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes and a settling of old scores by Frederic Raphael in the form of imaginary letters to many of the people who have been part of his long life. You might expect a nonagenarian’s critical faculties to have ‘mellowed by the stealing hours of time’, but far from it. Raphael’s intelligence and acerbic wit are undiminished.  George Steiner suffers a sustained attack for being gauche, malicious and too obviously ambitious Those who have crossed his path will be aware of his ability to ‘verbalise easily’ and, as he himself confesses: ‘It is one of my failings that I know how to hurt people.’

How to survive summer in Andalusia

Early on in his biography of the novelist Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader quotes a hilariously misanthropic letter Amis wrote to the poet Philip Larkin, one of his closest friends. Amis, at the time in his early thirties, was complaining about a three-month stint he and his family – including his son Martin, then five years old – spent abroad, as required by the terms of the Somerset Maugham Prize, which he won in 1955 for his first novel, Lucky Jim (Martin would also win it in 1973 for his debut, The Rachel Papers). Clearly not impressed with his surroundings in Portugal’s Algarve, Amis listed a ‘sort of basic kit’ of

Why are we so squeamish about describing women’s everyday experiences?

The way that language is shaped by the facts of biological sex is a rich subject. (The way that biological sex is framed, and sometimes refuses to be shaped, by language is perhaps one for another day.) Some languages have evolved forms which are distinctly those of male or female users. Japanese has speech patterns described as male or female, such as (male) the informal use of da instead of desu. There are scripts used exclusively among women, such as the syllabic Nüshu in Hunan, China. Many languages have gendered grammatical forms in ways that are not just metaphorical. Nouns such as ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are masculine and feminine in

The word ‘like’ is in crisis

‘Blame Kingsley Amis,’ said my husband, with the carelessness of one defying a man out of earshot. The blame, such as it was, lay in the title of the novel Take a Girl Like You (1960). The ambiguity in the title, he maintained, was between like meaning ‘such as’ and like meaning ‘resembling’. There is something in what he says. Like has been in crisis for a generation on several fronts. The most hated is probably like as an oral filler, along with you know or sort of. A second annoying usage is stranger: like introducing a made-up quotation serving as an adjective. An example would be to replace ‘He

Toby Young

It’s never good news when I trend on Twitter. The Oscars was no exception

When Kingsley Amis won the Booker prize for The Old Devils in 1986, he said that he had previously thought of the Booker as a rather trivial, showbizzy sort of caper, but now considered it a very serious, reliable indication of literary merit. It was a joke, evidently. Indeed, when he said it during his acceptance speech he grinned from ear to ear, just to make it crystal clear that he was being ironic. But it didn’t do any good. In a BBC round-up of the events of the year, the presenter said that Amis had won the distinguished literary prize in spite of having previously disparaged it. This was

Might ‘may’ kill ‘might’?

‘I’m with the King,’ said my husband. The king in question was Kingsley Amis, whose choleric The King’s English was published posthumously in 1997. The joke in the title depended on knowing two things: that there was an earlier book on English usage of that name (by the brothers H.W. and F.G. Fowler, 1906) and that a nickname of Amis’s was the King. Among those who bought the book, more, I’d think, might have been aware of the former. The point on which my husband was with the King is this: ‘Not many people used to reading could fail to spot that something is wrong in the sentence “If Napoleon

Fare game: life as The Spectator’s restaurant critic

A fictional Spectator restaurant critic called Forbes McAllister appeared on Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. He was played by Patrick Marber and was obviously based on Keith Waterhouse — bow tie, mad eyes — even if Waterhouse was never the restaurant critic at this magazine. McAllister was on TV to show off Lord Byron’s duelling pistols ‘and a lock of his stupid hair’. He bought them to annoy Michael Winner, then restaurant critic at the Sunday Times. ‘Are you entirely motivated by hatred?’ Partridge asked McAllister. It was his best ever question. ‘Yes, I think I am,’ said McAllister. ‘Rather perceptive of you. I hate you.’ Partridge then


Much has recently been written about the incumbent Commons Speaker, from (vigorously denied) allegations of bullying to (less vigorously denied) suggestions of Brexit-foxing chicanery. And to call John Bercow a ‘Marmite politician’ is to state the obvious. A little less obvious is his idiosyncratic style of address — the bizarre collision of a Dickensian clerk with aspirations to eloquence, a stern headmaster out of P. G. Wodehouse, and a contestant on Just a Minute desperate not to hesitate, deviate or repeat. Some of the Speaker’s vocal fireworks are plain to hear. His musical calls of ‘Jer-emy Cor-byn’ have been compiled into an ascending harmonic scale, and his strangled cries of ‘Oaaaaaarderrrrrrrrr’ have achieved social-media

Telling tales | 29 November 2018

Germaine Greer described biographers as ‘vultures’. I prefer to think of myself as a version of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade: vultures hunt by instinct but the two private investigators went after secrets with deliberate foolhardy masochism. It’s human nature to want to know more about the writers we admire — but what you discover isn’t always pleasant. Most recently, I completed a life of Ernest Hemingway. It was a joy to write mainly because after reading thousands of unpublished letters I felt relieved at having been spared an encounter with the living ‘Papa’. I knew of his reputation as a fibber but I was astonished to find that from


‘It’s up there on the shelf you can’t reach,’ said my husband in an unhelpfully helpful tone. The ‘it’ was a copy of The King’s English, Kingsley Amis’s book on usage. I quoted it the other week on the deployment of the. On the same page is a Kingsleyish word I wanted to follow up — pissily. ‘Until quite recently,’ Amis wrote, ‘it looked as if you could write of Greene’s Confidential Agent and Burgess’s Clockwork Orange and Kafka’s Castle, but indexers unnecessarily and pissily put a stop to that by throwing The and A and so on back in front of the main body of the title.’ Pissily figures nowhere

The | 26 October 2017

Veronica, who looks at Twitter, told me of an exchange she thought would interest me, about the use of the. She was right. The is one of my favourite words. The exchange concerned Sam Leith’s splendid new book, Write to the Point: How to be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page. He begins one chapter thus: ‘In his The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Joseph Conrad…’. Should he have written that yoking of ‘his The’? A friend of Veronica’s recommended Kingsley Amis on the subject. In (his) The King’s English, Amis is characteristically forthright. ‘Kafka’s The Castle,’ he writes, ‘is the sort of thing that people never say but

Why didn’t I listen to the Old Devil?

When Kingsley Amis won the Booker prize for The Old Devils in 1986, he said that he had previously thought of the Booker as a rather trivial, showbizzy sort of caper, but now considered it a very serious, reliable indication of literary merit. It was a joke, evidently. Indeed, when he said it during his acceptance speech he grinned from ear to ear, just to make it crystal clear that he was being ironic. But it didn’t do any good. In a BBC round-up of the events of the year, the presenter said that Amis had won the distinguished literary prize in spite of having previously disparaged it. This was

A woman of some importance | 22 September 2016

Searching for a 12-month stretch in the life of Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2013) that might illuminate the kind of person she was and the circumstances of her fraught and chaotic career, I settled on the year of 1955. Our heroine, then living in a maisonette flat in Little Venice and reading manuscripts for the publishing firm of Chatto & Windus, was hard at work on her well-received second novel, The Long View (1956). She was also having an affair with Arthur Koestler, who, when they entertained, her biographer tells us, expected her to ‘produce a three-course meal, look demurely beautiful and say as little as possible’. And so the year

Junk Bond

You now need to be in your mid-sixties or older — a chilling thought — not to have lived your whole life in the shadow of James Bond. In 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation and the conquest of Everest, Bond announced his arrival with the words, ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning’, the opening line of Casino Royale. His creator was Ian Fleming, a cynical, not-very-clean-living newspaperman with a chequered career behind him, who wrote the book to take his mind off ‘the agony’ of getting married for the first time. Even Jonathan Cape, his publisher, thought the

… and sense and sensibility

Book reviews, John Updike once wrote, ‘perform a clear and desired social service: they excuse us from reading the books themselves’. It’s a theory, I’m afraid, that doesn’t apply to this review — but it certainly does to this book: an impeccably wide-ranging collection of Ferdinand Mount’s own non-fiction reviews, including for The Spectator, over three decades. Find yourself unaccountably vague on the premiership of Lord Rosebery? A little rusty on the life of George Gissing? Embarrassingly patchy on the history of Methodism? Thanks to Mount, there’s no need to plough through 500 pages on any of them — nor the more than 50 other subjects he covers. Now you

Scratching a living

John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800, a standard text for anyone set on a life of writing about books, was intentionally truncated, ending its chronology before Gross’s own time of eminence. Two decades after the book’s publication in 1969, Gross explained in a new afterword that he had not wanted to comment on his peers and colleagues, for fear of misunderstanding or offence. A perfectly justifiable approach, but it made the book uncomfortably tantalising for those who prefer their gossip to be at the expense of the living. The Prose Factory is dedicated to Gross, and partially overlaps with The

Larkin’s misty parks and moors — in all their lacerating beauty

When Philip Larkin went up to St John’s College, Oxford, in the early 1940s, he found himself in a world of deprivation and departures. The arrival of war had ruined any hope he might have had of living the sybaritic student life mythologised by Evelyn Waugh; the majority of the younger dons had departed to serve in the forces or the ministries; the few undergraduates at the college who hadn’t already followed suit could expect to be called up soon. And most were. But Larkin was not. Deemed unfit for active service because of his poor eyesight, he remained at Oxford for the full three years of his degree, while

We had so many books we had to hire a structural engineer to prevent us being buried

My father Anthony Hobson, whose books are to be sold at Christie’s in two sales next week, claimed that the book collector’s greatest joy was the sight of an empty shelf: a vacuum begging to be filled. Such a thing was a rare occurrence in our home, so freighted with literary matter, mainly upstairs, that the advice of a structural engineer had to be sought: were we all about to be buried beneath an avalanche of bibliographical rarities? On the landing stood the vast tomes on Renaissance book binding, my father’s lifelong study – serried dark objects stamped with words that sounded to my young self like spells: Sigismondo Boldoni,

The fat debate – Julie Burchill vs Katie Hopkins

In this week’s issue, Julie Burchill explains why she is not dieting. Ever. As Kingsley Amis said, no pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home. And Burchill has seen nothing during her long, wicked, wonderful life to make her change her ways — or her weight. But what will Katie Hopkins, arch-enemy of the obese, make of this? She joins Burchill on this week’s View from 22 podcast, to discuss whether someone can ever be overweight and happy. Hopkins has campaigned vigorously against obesity — so does she think Burchill is greedy when she goes off to ‘have another cream doughnut’, as Hopkins puts it? Burchill doesn’t seem too bothered by what Hopkins thinks. She reckons

Lolita’s secret revenge mission, and other daft theories of literary spite

Richard Bradford has written more than 20 books of literary criticism and biography. This latest one is a compendium of writers’ feuds and resentments. Reading Literary Rivals is a curious experience; from the quotations and bare facts you can just about make out a version of reality, but it’s fighting so hard against the author’s interpretations that it’s sometimes obscured altogether. It feels as if Bradford has done his research with a baleful monocle pressed to his eye, giving a ghastly pallor to everything he reads. When Dickens read Thackeray’s review of his work, he wrote to thank him, but when Professor Bradford read the same review, he saw nothing