Snug rambles with Kingers of a Tuesday night

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
IT IS SOME time since I turned my inky quill to the felicitous outpourings of my old friend and quaffing partner Sir (if you please!) Kingsley Amis. As one of his oldest chums, I am often sent a parcel containing Kingsley's latest novel to review. "One of the Old Devil's best since Lucky Jim" I always write before unwrapping the book, glancing at the cover and placing it in pride of place in "the smallest room".

I have oft enjoyed setting the world to rights over a foaming pint with Kingers in the snug bar of the Garrick come Tuesday night. Invariably, our talk turns to the world of letters; we delight in exchanging blunt and pithy (and sometimes quite outrageous!!) opinions on the contemporary literary scene, in much the same way as the goodly Dr Johnson and his trusty Boswell would trade their banter way back in the 18th century (congenial era!).

Happily, like Boswell, for some time I have maintained a diary of our fireside chats. I have every hope that Amis and Arnold: A Literary Friendship will prove a perfect nest-egg for those years when I have passed from enfant terrible to Grand Old Man of Letters. I rather think every American University (now there's an oxymoron - I jest!) will soon be queuing up with freshly-minted dollar bills to gather something - anything - from the Arnold/Amis Archive.

To whet the appetite of Vice-Chancellor Hiram V Hocus-Pocus III (excuse me while I employ my well-known talent for the comical name!), I have selected a few pages at random from the journals of my fireside chats with Amis.

The first, a true gem, is dated 1973:

Arnold: Read any books recently, Kingers?

Amis: Struggled through King Lear. Call this a pint? It's half froth!

Arnold: King Lear! That's Shakespeare, isn't it? The Bard himself. Any good?

Amis: Bit wordy. Heavy going. Any chance of another pint, Wallace? Seem to have mislaid the old wallet.

And harken, too, if you will, to another sparkling literary exchange, this from November 1984:

Amis: Had to review a book yesterday.

Arnold: Any good?

Amis: The review?

Arnold: No - the book.

Amis: Oh - the book. No idea. Bit long for me: 200 bloody pages, and not a picture in sight. Review wasn't bad though - pounds 350 for 500 words.

Finally, a soupcon from an agreeable literary ramble with the Old Devil I recorded only last June:

Arnold: What do you think of Joyce? Amis: Nice arse, shame about the legs.

Arnold: James Joyce?

Amis: Sorry. Thought you were on about that new waitress in the dining-room.

Magical! and just the day before yesterday the Old Devil came up trumps yet again, this time in his role as book reviewer for my alma mater, the Spectator.

Kingers, it seems, has turned his hand to reviewing a new novel called Enigma by one Robert Harris. There is no one quite like Amis when it comes to giving a bit of a leg-up to the young. He is always ready to offer advice, even if the advice is "desist". Alas, in this case, as in so many others, he found the novel's 390 pages a bit of a struggle, complaining with his customary elegance that it is "so physically big a volume that (surely a minus point) you have to hold it firmly on your lap and continually stop the pages from closing of their own accord".

One can only sympathise with the poor benighted - and now beknighted! - fellow. I, too, find it an extraordinary bind when perusing a tome not only to have to keep the damn thing open on my lap but also, every few hundred words or so, to be subjected by the publisher and author to the ghastly effort of having to turn over yet another page. I read books to relax, not to engage in some ghastly "aerobics" session. Frankly, no hook that forces its reader into such hapless contortions deserves a decent review, and Kingers has my fullest sympathy.

But this raises an interesting question. How can the cultured, intelligent reader avoid the twin chores of (a) having to keep the book open and (b) having to keep turning its pages? Personally, I find it worth paying my little helper Sir Roy Strong a few bob to kneel beside me as I read, turning each page when I nod. But Kingers can no longer afford such luxuries. Is there a bookish reader who might put him in touch with the appropriate department of Social Services before the poor fellow embarks upon his next review?

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