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
Saturday 17 June 1995
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?
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