Pfui! He rules

THE KING'S ENGLISH: A Guide To Modern Usage by Kingsley Amis, HarperCollins pounds 16.99
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The memoirs of Kingsley Amis were almost pathologically un-self- serving. Terrific fun, for not exclusively worthy reasons, they were also distinctly uncomfortable to read, settling old scores with a recall hard to reconcile with the poses Amis assumed (or self-protectively feigned to assume) as he turned himself to reveal ever less flattering angles in the distorting mirror of his own memory - the adulterer, the drinker, the grudge-collecting friend, the pusillanimous skinflint. The book's tragic flourish was a poem addressed to the writer's first wife, full of regret at his treatment and desertion of her and of appreciation of her grace. From its position as coda to the book, this poem became to some extent its key.

We live in a time when writing is admired for flagging itself and its subject up rather than for propelling itself by the use of what might be called stylistic torque. This has conduced to a literal-minded approach to what is read which (or should that "which" be "that"? The King's English will tell us) addles us. Readers are increasingly deaf to the tension between style and content or indeed to their happy marriage. Tension, though, is the crucial twist to Kingsley Amis's springs of artistic action.

It is also the prerequisite of all comedy if it is to rise above the slapstick (whose tension is closer to that of sadomasochism). By the time he wrote his memoirs, the King - it is to be assumed that this book's title involves not lese-majeste but the irresistible truth - had his tension more finely tuned than almost any other writer in English then living.

The tension that drove the Memoirs was in part that between anarchy and form, for each of which Amis had an exquisite feel. In his novels this tension sparks constantly: at the chafe between heroic manner and apparently nugatory matter; between hyperbole and footlingness; between formality of articulation and banality of apprehension; between grand human intent and base human effect. It flares up in set pieces such as Jim Dixon's hangover, Sir Roy Vandervane's new underpants for starting an affair with Girl, 20, Stanley's refined wife's fancy dinner party, Jake's detumescing brushes with the giraffe's ears on view in girlie magazines, and, appallingly, in the masterly periphrases of Ending Up, when the horror of nominal aphasia is captured by this most death-shaded of artists. In the Memoirs there is an additional tension, lent weight by that poem; there is the man who is staring at us from the page and the man we pressingly realise he understands how to be, decent certainly and superlatively talented, cleverer in more ways than one skin can hold, at any rate a skin so rawly antipathetic to pomposity. There is in the Memoirs the additional poignancy of Amis's good looks, captured in photographs taken in his youth. The word unsaid is the most unfair talent of all, that leaves mourners bereft after its possessor has gone as almost no other: charm.

It's a word compromised by Anthony Blanche's grand downer on it and those who possess it in Brideshead Revisited, and it's hard to think of "charming" in the mouth of any Amis character but some awful wife with a feminine way of holding teacups that is all her own, but The King's English composes in its way an autobiography more willing than were the Memoirs to display undefended charm.

The biographical note in the back flap of The King's English elides any mention that he is dead. It elides almost everything. It is as sad as a season's end. It just sighs out: "Sir Kingsley Amis's novels include Lucky Jim and the Booker Prize-winning The Old Devils. He is also the author of many volumes of fiction and non-fiction. His last novel, The Biographer's Moustache, was published in 1995." There's a distinction in that "is" that few of us earn. The gaff (not "gaffe" as I read in last week's Oxford Times) is blown only in the last sentence.

Jibes like that above (about not jibsails but gaffsails) are to a degree the province of bores and line-toers, oldsters who con the papers for their next pip of outrage, or else smarmy geezers who think you can ride the tiger with a reference book in your hand. Such types get short shrift here. The King is tough on those who think to make themselves interesting by clinging to pedantic verbal housekeeping, such as tucking up prepositions in the blanketty middle of a sentence, if this is not the effect required. ("It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.") He is similarly tough on "grammatical martinets" and the "imaginary rules that petty linguistic tyrants seek to lay upon the English language", when it comes to the "dreadful fame of the split infinitive". Passim, Amis nods to Fowler's Modern English Usage, giving page references and quotations that add to the book's pleasant sense of quest. A good reference book leads us along a path that proves different each time. What is most unusual about this one is that it may be read like a novel, from start to finish.

There are two reasons for this: the tone of voice is irresistible, touched by neither pedagogic nor pettifogging language; it is also fabulously well written. It is commonplace to say in praise of so-and-so that he (we do not have to say "he or she" but it is desirable to avoid the ugly "they") "writes like an angel". I don't know what it means. But - and we may begin sentences with "But" - angels must surely shed light about them. For once that dreary phrase might come into its literal own. The light makes for clarity.

Not charity. There's little holding back from Amis's passionate prejudices. In each short essay ("Billion", "Breathalyser", "Disappearance of Latin") there is quite likely to be a trenchant stand taken, a line drawn from a view to a death. Under "Billion", for example: "No doubt it is too late for us to try to insist on pounds 816,000,000, but surely not to try to insist on printing pounds 1,000 million. Otherwise we are in effect conniving at a conspiracy to keep voters in the dark about just what enormous sums are being spent or discussed in their name. And their name includes our name."

Under "Power of Words", Amis moves into a profoundly serious and admirably pithy illustration of this power, concluding: "There are obviously several reasons for the trouble in and about Northern Ireland, but the use of a few words is among the most intractable."

Elsewhere, Sir Kingsley's noble struggle against America is continued: "Never begin a fresh sentence with too followed by a comma, to mean something like further or also. Not even Americans should be allowed to get away with that."

E M Forster gets an incidental larruping under a section entitled "Two cheers for only connect". The newspapers, far more deservedly, get a gralloching. Scots get a nod for liquid and adjectival reasons: "Nobody talks about butter- scottish or hopscots, and I have never come across a Scottish egg or woodcock, nor a dendrologist who talked about a Scottish pine (by rights he should say a Scotch fir, a fir being a kind of evergreen conifer with needles placed singly on the shoots, whereas a true pine has its needles placed in groups of two or more)." From Professor Welch on, Amis has had a great drone note.

There is consistent high teasing. Under "Idiom", Amis writes: "Idiom, or appeals to the dictates of idiom, may allow us to keep on writing and saying I shouldn't be surprised if it didn't come on to rain without anybody turning a hair, but it was naughty of Milton to write, 'Adam, the goodliest man of men since born / His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.'"

Milton and "naughty" in apposition provide a nice instance of Amisian torque. There's more under "Sexist language", where Chaucer is applauded for spotting that chicks can't hack Latin.

As in all conversations that are truly enjoyable there are moments in this book when the reader wishes on reflection to amplify. I wish he could have been in a position to add to his list of often-confused words the splendid misusage (in this newspaper of 2 March) by the - exceedingly - vivid talker Jack Nicholson: "[A reporter] becomes exacerbated by the fact that he's at a distance." "Careening", too, seems to be taking the place of "careering", though the transposers can't have done much of the former or they'd stick right with "career". The battle over "flout" and "flaunt" has been lost. "Mitigate" is being routed or is it raunted by militate. "Reverent" and "Reverend" have become interchangeable on what Amis stalwartly refers to as the wireless, and the Daily Telegraph has given up on the distinction, about which Sir Kingsley is clear if resigned, between "weaved" and "wove". Follow the Telegraph's thread and get giddy: "She [a television director] weaved together a series of anxious characters ... who passed on the narrative baton like relay runners." How mixed were that metaphor's drinks?

This book's charm lies in its combination of self-enjoying light-hearted commitment to lucidity with perfectly expressed seriousness. Of course there are cruces where the odd grievance is aired - women, snobs and showoffs cop it (though Amis lets slip that he has read Joyce who surely showed off for Ireland). Bullshit gets its due - there is a magnificent essay on the pissiness of "the sort of thing people never say but apparently make no bones about writing" entitled, brilliantly, "Kafka's The Castle". Under "What x is all about", Amis writes: "It seems important not to spend a moment more than strictly necessary in denouncing this fearful gobbet of trend. Anybody who speaks or writes to the effect that anything is what anything at all from aardvarks to zymotics, is about, especially all about, deserves exclusion from the ways and habitations of mankind forthwith and without possibility of remission in the forseeable future."

He gets even more self-revealing. His own changing pronunciation and relation thereby to class is analysed. In the context of pronunciation, I'm not sure I'd go along with him about what he says is the received pronunciation of "turquoise" (TURKwoyze), and I wish he were here for me to tell the etymology of OK I was told by a Canadian. It stands for Orl Korrekt of course. And Amis is a Dutchman. And do people younger than, say, 55, still say cafe facetiously as "caif"? There is a nice term for the disease of ultra-U speaking of a consequently non-U sort that Sir Kingsley might like - he probably coined it; it's Cecilis, pronounced naturally, as you will know, to rhyme with physalis.

Belief and the Holocaust are separately and more than once discussed. Amis's understanding of the moral weight of language lends what he has to say a sobriety that we sorely need and lends this, his posthumously published book, a profound poetic truth. In quite another context, he says here: "Most things are never meant, as Philip Larkin wrote, and we all know that a thing does not have to be meant by anyone in order to happen."

The last words of this marvellous autobiographical reference book are:

"Pfui! Except for its occurrence in Ancient Greek, there is no middle voice worth bothering about, and an example of a verb-form in the active, "doing" voice is I love, and an example of a verb-form in the passive, "acted-upon" voice is I am loved, and that is that."

It is. He is.