New light on old farts as Kingers lets rip

The Letters of Kingsley Amis ed. Zachary Leader (HarperCollins, £24.99, 1208pp)
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The Independent Culture

"I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody else because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, brutal, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don't want anyone else to know about," Kingsley Amis once confided to Philip Larkin. Almost half the letters in this vast - and vastly entertaining - selection are addressed to his old college chum. Forbidden subjects now exposed to public gaze include women ("basically dull, but basically pathetic too"), Ted Hughes ("ABSOLUTLEY DEVOID OF ANY KIND OF MERIT WHATSOEVER"), the Amis bowel movements ("Have just delivered a reeking billet of turd into the lavatory pan") and E M Forster ("Isn't the old bastard tedious and diffuse?"), as well as fantasies about lesbian schoolgirls and a readiness to allow his first wife, Hilly, to pose for the poet ("She is prepared to do corset-and-black-stockings or holding-up-a-towel stuff").

Amis-haters will be confirmed in their view of him as a reactionary, xenophobe and misogynist; admirers will warm to his loathing of humbuggery and pretentiousness; those of us who hover in the middle, never finding the novels quite all they're cracked up to be while secretly relishing his out- rageous utterances, may find the old monster more endearing than expected.

The letters begin in 1941, when the 19-year-old Amis - a slim young man, and a zealous member of the Communist Party - was studying at St John's, Oxford, and enjoying an affair with a married woman. They end just before he died in 1995, a bloated, whisky-sodden simulacrum of W C Fields with "huge jowls", false teeth and a 42-inch waist, tottering down to the Garrick for bibulous lunches and watching old films on the telly ("John Wayne fighting fires on oil rigs, just the thing"). In between he taught English at Swansea and Cambridge, made his name with the publication of Lucky Jim in 1954, abandoned Hilly and their three children for Elizabeth Jane Howard, and was abandoned himself (conditions for her return were that he should give up the booze and then "saw off my head and serve it up with a little Hollandaise sauce"), set himself up as the scourge of lefties and the champion of Mrs T, and ended up living with Hilly and her husband.

Amis the letter-writer remains remarkably consistent, both in his tone and - for all the raucous cries of "Shit" and "Fuck" - in the formidable technical expertise and depth of reading he brought to the business of being a writer.

"You've got to be extra careful, at the point when you ease your foot gently down on the accelerator, to avoid reminding the reader that 'this is poetry'," he warns Larkin during a line-by-line critique of one of his friend's most famous poems, "Church Going". Elsewhere he notes that they are united by "a desire to write sensibly, without emotional hoo-ha," and by their impatience with "those Henry James men who are too busy wondering what a writer is to be one". Poetry must be "instantaneously comprehensible". Amis's bullshit-detector springs instantly to life at any hint of flatulence or meaninglessness or pious windbaggery.

Dylan Thomas may have worked hard on his poems, but that "doesn't stop what he finally wrote being miserable, incoherent rubbish"; Seamus Heaney's memorial address on Robert Lowell wins "the golden piss-pot of the decade," so much so that "I can't remember wanting so devoutly to hit a writer since first looking into The Owl and the Nightingale"; a poem by Andrew Motion on Larkin is of "horrendous banality and shapelessness". Nor are his heroes immune from derision: Auden's The Age of Anxiety is so much "impossible piss ploshing in pot". Keats is a "boring, self-pitying, self-indulgent silly little fool"; and the Americans should "stick to making noises with musical instruments, and if they can't do that, THEN THEY OUGHT TO KEEP BLOODY QUIET".

Amis's hatred of the "arty-farty" was most famously and comically expressed in Lucky Jim, admirers of which may enjoy his mocking references to Hilly's father, a keen devotee of folk-dancing, and to her "excrementally evil" brothers, clad in sandals and saffron-coloured shirts and tootling Tudor music.

Larkin apart, Amis's closest confidant on such matters was that "old prick on wheels" Robert Conquest. They traded obscene limericks and heretical views, and - as a world authority on Stalin and the purges - Conquest was able to supply chapter and verse when Amis did battle with a "nasty little turd" over the vexed issue of whether Nazis and Communists had, at times, worked together to overthrow the Weimar Republic.

Although much space is given over to denouncing his fellow-writers - among modern novelists, only Dick Francis and Frederick Forsyth escape scot-free - and to bemoaning lowered standards in universities and the illiteracy of the Times, not all is fire and brimstone. His love letters to Elizabeth Jane Howard, before it all turned sour, seem worlds away from schoolboy giggling with Larkin over girlie mags and porno pics; his references to Hilly are loving, and tinged with regret and remorse; his letters to unknown admirers are invariably courteous, kind and touchingly grateful.

The onomatopoeic cries of "Aaaarrrgh" and such-like noises, and the references to "piss" and "shit" and "fartynge" are wearisome in bulk, but are redeemed by the vigour, the intelligence and the comicality of his prose. "What a feast is awaiting chaps when we're both dead and our complete letters come out," he once observed to Larkin. The dishes on offer may not be to everybody's taste, but the standard of cooking is seldom in doubt, and they are impeccably served by their editor, Zachary Leader.