Fun-loving man who was 'driven to write'

Sir Kingsley Amis: This 'Angry Young Man' of the Fifties retained his passion for literature up until his death yesterday
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The Independent Online
MARY BRAID

His critics labelled him an irascible hard-drinking, misogynist whose politics were somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun's. But last night, those who loved and admired Sir Kingsley Amis concentrated on his literary achievement, his honesty, unpretentiousness, his "tremendous sense of fun".

"Kingsley loved to provoke people with his opinions," said Eric Jacobs, his biographer, who insisting people misunderstood the trait. "He thought that if you were going to be right-wing, there was no point in being half- hearted about it. People were always laughing when he was about. That was a lifelong thing."

Kingsley Amis, in fact, started out on the political left. That was unsurprising considering his background. He was born in 1922 and raised in Norbury, an undistinguished suburb of south London, in a lower middle-class home.

His father was an office clerk. After a grammar school scholarship, the clever young Kingsley won another scholarship to Oxford, where he read English at St John's College. He was always proud of his roots and, as an outsider, developed fiercely independent views on literature and society. He became labelled one of the "Angry Young Men" in the 1950s after his novel Lucky Jim satirised the manners and bourgeois values of the day.

He believed the social elite excluded the masses from culture, and confessed he always felt awkward with the highbrow upper-class dons he mixed with for the two years he taught at Cambridge before leaving to become a full- time writer. But by the late 1960s Amis was already moving right. He ended up one of the right's strongest defenders.

Some critics regard the1950s as his heyday but Amis continued to write and impress until the end. In 1986, he was awarded the Booker Prize for The Old Devils. In the last year, he published two novels and finished a book on English language usage and was working on another novel when he died. He was, said Mr Jacobs, "driven" to write. That his mental and physical condition had been declining for some time and his daily visits to lunch the Garrick Club continued made his output was all the more remarkable. Friends say he suffered a series of strokes this year before a serious one a few weeks ago and that years of heavy drinking had begun to take their toll.

Some suggested Amis was jealous of his son Martin's literary success and that he had not read any of his novels. Martin, on the other hand, greatly admired his father and had read all his books.

Mr Jacobs said yesterday that there probably had been a bit of jealousy but that Amis had also been proud of his son.

What may have been at the root of any resentment was a fear that his son's distinctive style might affect his own. "He used to get rather irritated because he thought Martin was having an adverse effect on him," said Mr Jacobs. "He said he wished Martin would just write something simple like 'He finished his drink and left the bar'. But he also said to me that if people were still reading books in 50 years' time they would probably see him and Martin as twigs on the same branch."

But if Amis really did not read Martin, neither did he favour any of his contemporaries. In fact, he found little to recommend modern literature, which he dismissed as pretentious or snobbish, and most evenings preferred to reread old favourites, such as Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and George MacDonald Fraser. Reading usually followed his favourite programmes, The Bill and Coronation Street. He always believed that books had to be engrossing enough to compete with the lure of popular culture.

Amis was a man of tremendous habit who travelled little overseas and did not believe that foreign countries broadened the mind. Every week day he could be found "lunching" at the Garrick Club, in central London. Every Saturday lunchtime he was in the same local pub and every Sunday in Odette's, a restaurant in Primrose Hill, north London.

His living arrangements in the last 15 years of the life surprised many. After he split up with his second wife, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, with whom he eloped in 1964 and lived with for 16 years, he set up home with his first wife Hilary Bardwell and her husband Lord Kilmarnock in Primrose Hill. The arrangement was unusual - Hilly acted as housekeeper to Amis - but it seemed to suit all concerned. It was said that Amis had been lonely on his own in his large home in Hampstead.

Among the many phobias he confessed to in his 1991 Memoirs were fear of the dark and of being alone. Friends say that in recent years Amis could not work without Hilly being at home. "In the end she looked after him,'' said one. Ferocious drinking and womanising were said to have blighted his marriages. When his second wife told Amis he had to choose between her and alcohol he opted for the latter. When she walked out he never spoke to her again. But he continued to hanker after Hilly whom he said he should never have left. At the end of Memoirs are three poems dedicated to H, one of which ends "Well that was much as women were meant to be, I thought, and set about looking further. How can we tell, with nothing to compare?''

Amis's reputation for misogyny grew out of his books and his public utterances. Jacobs thinks it is exaggerated but admits: "He did have a view over a considerable period of time that women talked a lot to cover up the fact they had nothing to say."

The broadcaster Mavis Nicholson said last night that Amis, whose student she once was, had been a loyal friend. She had visited him in hospital last week "to say goodbye''.

Obituary, page 16

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