The King and the former princess

Two verses, two views of life. A year after Kingsley Amis's death, Christopher Hitchens finds much to mourn still
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The Independent Online
Last month, my home town of Washington DC was favoured by a visit from Diana Spencer. She had come, as is her custom, to patronise a charity ball. In the course of what I thought an unusually simpering speech, she announced that she had four lines of verse which had come to "mean a great deal" to her, and which she desired to "share". Taking hold of a large white card, she read as follows:

Life is mainly froth and bubble Two things stand in stone Friendship in another's trouble Courage in your own

As I heard this, I felt my heart soar like a hawk, for in the last year or so of his life, Kingsley had found himself tiring of that very same Hallmark-card quatrain. Its cheery repetition had a tendency to get him down. So he briskly re-tooled it for his own purposes, as follows:

Life is mainly toil and labour Two things see you through: Chortling when it hits your neighbour Whinging when it's you

I'm pretty confident that anybody who knew Kingsley Amis will experience a thrill of recognition at the placement of that word "chortling". The rewrite breathes with Kingsley's contempt for sentimentality, his tendency to nausea at anything of the mawkish, his detestation for sententiousness and cliche. It was while writing a chortling letter to the Washington Post, giving credit where it was due and amplifying the paper's po-faced report, that I was visited with an immense pang of loss. Not only could I not "share" the joy that the clipping would have brought him, but I could not imagine who would or could fill the void he had left. On whom, now, could Bob Conquest try his latest virulent limerick? Who was there to do the faces, mimic the voice, make all the noises?

It may sound paradoxical or pious but I shall remember Kingsley chiefly for the sweetness of his manners. I might select any one of a dozen examples of hospitality and consideration but the one that will always be with me is the night of my engagement. Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh hosted a dinner, and all our friends were there. But you know how it can be when the occasion is an officially happy one - that tiny undercurrent of unease lest things not be perfectly swell. Sensing the whole thing without the slightest prompting, Kingers at once assumed the entire cost, the whole "sense of occasion" tab, for the assembled company. He told all his jokes. He did all his imitations. Spurred by requests, he made all his noises. And I don't just mean the Metropolitan Line train entering the station at Edgware Road, or the brass band approaching on a foggy day - I mean also the sound of a forces short-wave radio being switched on in an other- ranks mess in Burma, and the one (described by Philip Larkin as "unusually demanding and seldom performed") of four British soldiers attempting to start a 10-ton lorry on a freezing morning "somewhere in Germany".

So when he was good he was really very, very good. And I suppose it's true that when he was bad he was horrid. I can certainly remember other evenings when his imitation of the old fogey or even the old brute was a touch too persuasive. And, by insisting that this was his actual face, and not a mask donned for the occasion, he did sometimes let the face grow to fit the mask. I'm aware that not everybody liked his memoirs, but I think it will be found none the less that he never made himself responsible, in fiction or non-fiction, for saying anything hateful.

In fact, while we're at it, why not place on record how "sensitive" he was? In spite of his supposed efforts to the contrary, he couldn't help being decent and broad-minded. Think of the tender treatment of homosexuality in The Riverside Villas Murder or Ending Up or even Difficulties With Girls. Recall his staunch non-racism in what I'd nominate his masterpiece, Girl, 20. How often he awarded the best lines, the most winning characters, to those whom he had set out to ridicule and subvert.

If I quoted from him I would never be done, so let me instead quote indirectly. By a happy coincidence I had a letter recently from Janet Montefiore, whom some of you will know as the author of Feminism and Poetry. She took sharp issue with those, like David Lodge, who had employed the word "misogynist" in their obituaries. As she went on:

"I do not think this was a vice of Amis's, however much he liked the idea of male privilege. He showed no trace of rancour in the correspondence I had with him. I asked his permission to reprint part of his poem 'In a Bookshop' in my book, Feminism and Poetry, one of whose chapters begins a discussion of love sonnets by women with a quotation from this poem contrasting the way male poets go in for titles like 'Landscape Near Parma' or 'The Double Vortex' with 'I Remember You', 'Live is My Creed', 'Poem for J' - 'the ladies' choice'. One might expect both the title of my book and the way I use the poem, which I describe as 'good-tempered but patronising', to be to a right-wing 'misogynist' what the proverbial rag is to the bull. Actually, Amis wrote me a friendly letter of permission, saying that the poem wasn't meant to patronise women: on the contrary, its point was that women's emotional directness was preferable to men's self-regarding intellectualism. He ended by wishing my book well, and hoping that it would mention Christina Rossetti, a poet he admired. I was delayed replying. When I finally did write, his response was, again, warm and generous. It is much to the credit of this 'misogynist' that though he didn't know me, didn't - notoriously - like books with 'Feminism' in the title, and didn't agree with what I said about his poem, he neither resented my saying it nor (as he could have done) prevented me from publishing it in the way I thought right. Not every writer is so generous."

Nor is every person so generous, but I think that we have hit upon the right word. Kingers was lavish, with himself and his wit and his opinions and his hospitality and with his wrath and his booze and his prejudices. Testimony to this open-handedness need not depend on personal recollection. He did, after all, raise a body of work which, whether life proves to be froth and bubble, or toil and labour, certainly makes that life easier to get through and equally certainly helps illuminate the ticklish business of being a candidate member of the human race.

Taken from Christopher Hitchens's tribute to Kingsley Amis at his memorial service last Tuesday.

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