Wine, women and Kingsley

Jeremy Lewis reads a sprightly if uncritical life of a bibulous literary knight; Kingsley Amis: A Biography by Eric Jacobs Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 17.99

All biographies get off to a bad start, in that the reader has to fight his way through family history and the kindergarten years before getting on to the really interesting stuff. Eric Jacobs is no exception to the rule (do we really need to know that the sub-manor of Norbury, the adjunct of Croydon in which the young Amis grew up between the wars, was granted to Nicholas de Carreu in 1337?) but he whets one's appetite for the good things that lie ahead by starting with a "Portrait of the Artist in Age," in which he describes, in unnervingly intimate detail, a typical Amis day, ventilating in the process some of his hero's likes and dislikes.

As Amis himself pointed out in his Memoirs, most writers' lives are dull and, for the most part, solitary affairs, in which routine and regular working hours are as important as they are to the commuter hurrying to catch his train. Like most writers, Amis spends the morning behind his typewriter, the manning of which is preceded by the rituals of ablution, defecation, dressing (surgical stocking and trousers from an outsize shop), a distressingly healthy breakfast and the reading of newspapers (riffled through in order to postpone the awful moment of getting down to it, but justified to the outside world on the spurious grounds that a writer needs to keep in touch).

At 12.30pm, Amis leaves the house he shares in Primrose Hill with his best friend (and first wife) Hilly and her husband, Lord Kilmarnock, and heads for the Garrick Club. There he can do what he really enjoys: gossiping with old friends, dodging bores, not having to listen to women banging on, drinking a great deal both before and during lunch, and eating a meal at which - unlike those detested dinner-parties - there is no need to talk to unwelcome strangers or hang about over the table a second longer than necessary. Back home, he puts in another couple of hours at his desk before the first drink of the evening, after which it is time to watch The Bill or Coronation Street, with the volume turned up full-blast and the characters on screen subjected to much armchair heckling: Amis is a stout champion of popular culture, sharing DJ Enright's view that the best television consists of soap-operas and the like, and steering clear of what his biographer describes as the "self-appointed pundits and trend- hounds who puzzle the public with their crappy opinions" (the Amis tone of voice is clearly contagious.) With telly and dinner behind him, Amis retires to bed with a book and a bucket that does duty as a pot: an unnerving part of the day, since he dreads being alone and is terrified of the dark - so much so that when he was courting Hilly she used to walk him home at night, rather than vice versa.

Having introduced his subject via this bravura display of literary ventriloquism, Jacobs takes us through the life: parts of which, of course, have been covered before in Amis's more episodic Memoirs. Jacobs interlaces his story with what he sees as autobiographical ingredients in Amis's novels: readers who have forgotten or never read the novels in question may find themselves skipping these parts. Needless to say, Amis's blimpish, empurpled exterior, "pro-drink and anti-bullshit", conceals paradoxical and contradictory traits. Despite his fame as a misogynist, he may have more innate sympathy with the predicament of women than many more strenuously enlightened men; he detests snobbery and racism, while enjoying jokes about class and national stereotypes; a regretful unbeliever, he loathes the way the C of E has destroyed its language and liturgy.

As the first English fellow of Peterhouse, in 1961, he found the "port and walnuts" rituals of Cambridge academic life as wearisome as flatulent literary conferences, far preferring to teach his undergraduates. A paid- up member of the Communist Party while at Oxford, he relished army life, proving a good shot and a nimble practitioner on the parade-ground: he specialised in marching a platoon towards a blank wall, ordering a "right turn" seconds before the moment of impact.

Amis's writing career got off to a wobbly start - libretti for operas written by his Oxford chum Bruce Montgomery (who later provided scores for the Carry On films), a study of Graham Greene's novels commissioned by an Argentinian professor, a book of poems published by the notorious RA Caton, a property-developer-cum-pornographer, who launched the young Larkin and left Amis to answer his phone - "Tell 'em Mr Caton's gone out for a few minutes" - but after Victor Gollancz launched Lucky Jim in 1954, the pattern was set.

On his return to Oxford after the war, Amis set himself a regime of "getting drunk and pursuing young women," both of which were to occupy much time in the years ahead. "Here's Amis, but too drunk, I see, to say much," William Cooper once remarked of his fellow-novelist - who sensibly observes that being a heavy drinker and an alchoholic are by no means synonymous. Amis's womanising was pursued with comparable enthusiasm - causing, one imagines, a fair amount of woe, not least to the long-suffering Hilly (who had already seen her recorder-playing brother and folk-dancing father transmogrified into Professor Welch and family in Lucky Jim). Amis's own father - an upright figure who had spent his life in the mustard business - was outraged to learn that his son was sleeping with a girl who happened to be married; and when Amis himself became a married man, struggling along in Swansea as an impecunious junior lecturer, much ingenuity was spent on his trips to London in borrowing rooms and working out watertight alibis. When he met the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, Amis found he had taken on more than he had bargained for. They admired and supported each other as writers, but the protracted disintegration of their marriage makes miserable reading. Eventually she left in 1980, saying she would return only if he gave up the booze: according to Amis, who rejected her offer, "She did it partly to punish me for stopping wanting to fuck her and partly because she realised I didn't like her very much."

All this, and a good deal more, is conveyed in a biography which, though repetitive and uncritical in every sense, is sprightlier and much better written than many of its more importantly "literary" equivalents. In the Acknowledgements, Jacobs gives the Bodlean Library a deserved wigging for their fatuous refusal to allow him access to Amis's letters to Philip Larkin, despite Amis's intervention on his behalf. Something to get hot under the collar about at the Garrick bar, perhaps?

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices