Portrait of the artist as a young horse

KINGSLEY AMIS: A Biography by Eric Jacobs, Hodder & Stoughton pounds 17.99

WHEN Kingsley Amis taught at Cambridge in the early Sixties, he did not meet his fellow don F R Leavis. This, according to Amis's biographer Eric Jacobs, is a pity: "Perhaps if they had sat down together they could have had that serious talk about literature which eluded Amis throughout his Cambridge days. Leavis might even have found Amis quite serious and well-informed on the subject. Then again, he might not."

There can be few more futile areas of speculation for a biographer than encounters his or her subject might have had with people they never met. You don't need to be a biographer to play this game of imaginary conversations and the fact that Jacobs does it, and the insouciant tone he adopts, both demonstrate this book's closer relation to extended newspaper profile than biography.

From the introduction, pompously entitled "Portrait of the Artist in Age", Jacobs concentrates on the kind of surface detail that fascinates journalists - what Amis has for breakfast, who prepares it for him, even his daily struggle to evacuate his bowels: "The shit, for instance, once taken in Amis's stride, has become outstandingly important because success or failure in this department can colour the mood of the entire day."

The image unintentionally evoked here, of the youthful Amis bounding along the street leaving piles of steaming ordure in his wake, like a horse, is a typical example of Jacobs's careless prose. Unlike some horses I have known, however, Amis is apparently undeterred by confrontations with the bovine species. "Many sacred cows," Jacobs informs us a couple of pages later, "are unsacred to him."

There is something half-hearted about this attempt to present Amis in the guise of iconoclast rather than blimp, probably because his political opinions, while unremittingly right wing, are also boringly predictable. Pro-American, anti-Europe (with an anxious aversion to "abroad", excepting the US) and a devout worshipper at the shrine of Mrs Thatcher, his propensity to bang on about moral decline proved too much even for his heroine's one-time education secretary, Kenneth Baker. When Amis buttonholed Baker one day on the steps of the Garrick Club, he had "three points to make", one of them being that the expansion of higher education under the Tories had let in a lot of third-rate students - a prime example of his idee fixe that "more will mean worse". Baker's response, according to Jacobs, "was not quite what Amis had been hoping for. He shouted 'Taxi!', dived into a black cab and disappeared."

After ploughing through nearly 400 pages of this dreary book, one can only applaud Baker's quick thinking. The irony is that Amis's loathing of dull people and his strategy for avoiding them at the Garrick - not including them in the conversation, failing to buy them a drink and even, "in really bad cases", finding someone else to talk to at the bar - are chronicled without any recognition on Jacobs's part that his subject emerges as a prize club bore himself.

Indeed, the book offers speaking testimony of its author's own unusually high boredom threshold. For two and a half years Jacobs met Kingsley Amis "three or four times a week, in the Garrick club and the Queen's public house or at his home in Primrose Hill". They also visited together half a dozen places in which Amis had lived, excursions that involved a "good deal of eating and a great deal more drinking".

An impartial portrait was always unlikely to emerge from this nightmare schedule of sociability. Take, for example, Amis's reputation for entrenched misogyny. First Jacobs trots out the old chestnut that wanting to have sex with lots of women, an urge the younger Amis shared with the heroes of his early novels, is "evidence that they liked women after their fashion". Next he links the undeniably misogyny in the later novels to Amis's "disillusion about women as his relationship with Jane [his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard] slowly and painfully disintegrated".

In other words, Amis is no unthinking woman-hater but one forged by bitter personal experience. Yet, in a revealing passage towards the end of the book, Jacobs exposes an altogether nastier side of Amis's attitude to women: "By talking a lot they made themselves seem important and by overwhelming the conversation with chatter they concealed the poverty of what they had to say." This, says Jacobs, is "why the male-member Garrick Club was such a good place for him to spend time".

What this book most conspicuously lacks, however, is an attempt to estimate Amis's merits or importance as a writer. He is not obviously a novelist whose lasting literary reputation is assured, yet Jacobs offers no more sophisticated judgment than this one from the preface: "It will be enough indication of my own feelings about his writing if I say that one of my main motives for embarking on this biography was the realisation that Amis was the only writer whose latest novel I still customarily bought on publication at the full hardback price - the kind of critical appreciation Amis himself most values, and rightly so."

There is something determinedly middle brow about this stance: a suspicion of anything as highfalutin' as literary theory which Jacobs presents as one of the bonds between them. At times it is hard to tell whether he is paraphrasing something Amis has told him or putting his own interpretation on events; it seems likely, though, that his asides about fictional farting contests and bowel movements - "Amis avoided getting the shits for his entire six and a half weeks in Mexico" - come straight from the horse's mouth. A rare case of biographer and subject finding themselves united by faecal attraction?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie