An Amis who lives in his own world

Families/ famous relations
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The Independent Online
THE life of Sir Kingsley Amis is rich in literary success and sexual adventure. Two extracts from his authorised biography, published last week in the Daily Mail, portray someone with an ear for public acclaim and an eye "for a good time"; who, while married to his first wife and the mother of his children, once smiled ingratiatingly "at all the women at the breakfast table, being boozily unable to remember which one of them he had made love to the night before".

One of the three children Hilly Amis bore him is Martin Amis, a novelist as spectacularly successful, if not as adventurous, as "Kingers" himself. A daughter, Sally, was too young and retiring to compete with Martin, and indeed never sought a career. Sir Kingsley's elder son, Philip, was competitive and of independent mind, yet few people have heard of Martin's big (and taller) brother.

Philip Amis is a "collagist" - an artist whose work is formed out of bits and bobs and fantasies. In a 1993 exhibition by 30 collage artists, his was the most expensive (pounds 1,850); seething with such American pop culture images as Superman. Yet fame and fortune are not yet his.

Eric Jacobs's biography of Sir Kingsley, due out soon, contains childhood photographs of his sons, both smiling shyly at the camera. One's curiosity about the unknown sibling is immediately aroused. But Mr Jacobs chose not to formally interview Philip (or Sally) in the course of his researches, leaving curiosity largely unsatisfied. Last week I managed to find Philip's phone number.

"I gather you're an artist," I said.

"I just about gather that, too," he replied laconically.

I said I didn't want him to answer questions about his family. "That's what I really couldn't bear to do," he said.

Philip was born in 1948, which happens to be the year Kurt Schwitters, the German Dadaist collagist, died, both events occurring in England. Amis is an admirer of Schwitters and finds, as the latter found, life in England pretty frustrating.

Schwitters had to abandon his native hearth in 1937 for fear of Nazi persecution. Amis, too, has had to flee - in his case, the glittering parent-sibling axis - and try to create his own oeuvre away from the spotlight.

"Can I ring you tomorrow?" he said when I asked if I might see him. Next day he said the same thing. A put-off? "Well, you see, the thing is, you know I'd prefer to talk if I had something to talk about - if I had an exhibition or something like that coming up. And so, maybe later on in the year. . . . There's something coming up. I'm sort of working on it now - a mixed exhibition again."

Neither Amis brother is given to wanton levity, but last week Philip sounded particularly low in spirit. Some who have met him describe an unsunny disposition darkened as much by a pressing house mortgage as by the unavailability of garlic in Archway. He is said to hate London for its "limiting" qualities. At 46, he is uncertain about his career. During the 1993 exhibition in Notting Hill, he was unsure how many more collages he would attempt. "Maybe I have a few more in me or maybe I'll go back to painting again," he was quoted as saying.

It turns out that he threw up a career at which he already had been successful. Graduating from Camberwell School of Art, he became a professional graphic artist. Among his designing successes was the label of Rebel Yell whiskey. He tired of this on reaching his 40th birthday.

Why is he so unsettled? When Philip was 10, his father taught for a year at Princeton University. In the United States the brothers encountered the kind of frenzied, overlit images foreign to Fifties England. They absorbed these experiences differently, Martin re-expressing them in prose, Philip in watercolours and collages, but both displaying a fascination with things American.

It took Philip about six months to prepare for the 1993 exhibition, pasting images, some from magazines 20 years old, against a photocopied night sky. At the centre of Try again doc! is Philip himself, a black-and-white photo of an angelic English child surrounded by pre- Space Age American clutter. "It's a fantasy about my childhood," he said at the time, "except that it wasn't really like that. It's an ideal childhood . . ." His centrality in that collage is not repeated against the Amis firmament.

The realisation that his younger brother outshone him hurt at one time, he said. His relationship with Martin was close but competitive. "Having a brother that soon after you [a year and 10 days] means you are ousted straight away," he mused. "You develop a huge chip about being second banana, but that has all gone now. . . . We are good friends. We just happen to be in different worlds. He is in the world of literature and I am in a world of my own."