The pragmatic entertainer who said the unsayable

John Walsh, Literary Editor, charts the career of Amis, from poet to satirist
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The Independent Online
In the preface to his 1987 collection of stories Einstein's Monsters, Martin Amis explains how he once tried to interest his celebrated father, Kingsley, in the plight of the whale. He explained how the giant mammals had become an endangered species, how they were hunted down for profit by Japanese and Scandinavian harpoon ships, and how, worst of all, their noble carcasses were flayed and used in the manufacture of rubber good and cosmetics."

I don't know," mused Kingsley. "It seems rather a good way of ... using up whales".

The tone is unmistakable, its dry, unsentimental pragmatism wedded to a relish for saying the unsayable. In a writing career that spanned more than 40 years, Amis trained his pooh-poohing scorn on targets of bewildering diversity: from pop music to the Reformation, from Swansea to psychotherapy, from Yevtushenko to the way people pronounce "corned beef".

If he was not actually a hater on a grand scale he was at least one of the century's great piss-takers. And if the pretexts for his educated bile sometimes seemed a little obscure, just watching (or reading) him in action was a terrific sideshow to the business of literature.

He started out as a poet, loosely connected to the writers of "the Movement" - Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, DJ Enright - whose in-your-face demotic and rhetorical bluntness suited his stroppy, south-London muse. But, as the publication of Lucky Jim revealed in 1954, his true metier lay in creating fictional characters upon whom the phoney modern world impinges a little too much.

His debut novel is full of scenes of cumulative hilarity: a madrigal concert at the ludicrous Professor Welch's home, Jim Dixon's awful discovery, on waking, that he has burnt a hole in his hostess's sheets, the drunken lecture that is interrupted by an accomplice throwing a fit. With its verbal tics and physical grotesqueries, this is heartless comedy that derives from Waugh and Firbank, but with a confiding, modern relish for abuse. It may be seen as morally inspired, or as driven by the exasperation a lower-middle-class hero feels for his alleged betters. The Fifties media preferred the latter explanation and so the "Angry Young Men" phenomenon was born.

Amis's subsequent books - That Uncertain Feeling, Take a Girl Like You, I Want It Here, Girl, 20, One Fat Englishman - pursued the same idiom of disgust and were unfailingly entertaining, but more for their local effects, their tricks and digressions, than as coherent works of art.

After turning to genre fiction (the ghost story in The Green Man, alternative- world historical fiction in The Alteration, the whodunit in The Riverside Villas Murder), Amis was clearly getting stuck for subjects. From this dilemma he wrote (after Martial) a brilliant squib, Advice to a Writer: "That time you heard the archbishop fart/You did quite right to say./And should the ploughboy turn up gold/The news would make our day./But when the ploughboy farts henceforth/Forget about it, eh?"

The solution was to turn his own fear of impotence and his increasing exasperation with feminism into targets of parody, and Jake's Thing, in particular, offers a coldly passionate, long-stewed litany of misogynistic dislike in its penultimate paragraph. His next novel, Stanley and the Women, got him banned in America.

What had started out as the parodic voice of intolerant Englishness gradually hardened into the persona of Amis's later years - the crusty curmudgeon, flooring scotches after breakfast, setting the world to rights with sycophantic chums in the Garrick Club, half in love with Baroness Thatcher, anti-women, anti-welfare, anti-Europe.

The image was hard to gainsay but it was not the whole truth. I met Sir Kingsley half-a-dozen times, and was struck by his keenness to engage with strangers. Rather than lay down the law, he would demand your opinion; if it differed from his own, he would seek to change your mind rather than bully. He was always friendly, slightly alarming, endlessly entertaining.

He was an odd mixture of the engaged and the dismissive, the strident and the vulnerable, a man who cared greatly for friends and books and loyalty but affected to be beyond such things.

He was a moralist in a minor key, more concerned that people should say "tinned peaches: and not "tin peaches", than that they should worry about nuclear disarmament. This may be why his novels will probably be best remembered as records of their time - the foolish and phoney behaviour patterns of 40 years, as seen by an intemperate, don't give-me-that spectator.

A supreme comic creation

Jim Dixon, the accident-prone provincial university lecturer in Lucky Jim, may have been Kingsley Amis's funniest creation. Here, Dixon wakes up with a hangover:

"Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.''