One for the road

Ian Hamilton

  • Memoirs by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 346 pp, £16.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 09 174533 0

Kingsley Amis has a reputation for not liking other people, but – these so-called Memoirs might seem to permit us to enquire – does anyone, could anyone, like him? Is Kingers himself, at the end of the day, the sort of bloke you’d want to run into at – well, at the end of the day, at the club, or the pub, or at some crappy dinner party?

On the face of it, no thank you. The faint hope might have been that, in writing directly about himself, the irascible old shag would come over as somewhat, shall we say, cuddlier than his usual public image makes him seem. To any such tender expectations, though, Amis offers here a close-to-gleeful ‘In a pig’s arse, friend’ – i.e. you bastards will get nothing out of me, or not much, and what you do get you won’t like.

For starters, he confides, there will be zero in the book about anything that is private to him. Dodgy material of that sort will be restricted to privacies other than his own. He will tell us nothing of real interest about his wives, mistresses or kids (although he chucks Martin the odd walk-on here and there), or about any living loved-ones – a species defined by him as those who have emotional claims on me’. He doesn’t want to hurt types like these, he says, or hurt them any more than he already has (mind your own business), and he doesn’t want to be boring.

He also promises not to tell us how he thought up the plots of his novels, not to go on about reviews and sales: writer’s-life data that nobody, he thinks, wants to know about – and if anybody does, too bad. As it happens, quite a bit of such data does leak through, and we are two or three times referred to page so-and-so of Stanley and the Women, or wherever, and he even lets fall the occasional bibliographer’s nugget, if you please: for instance, did you, or Private Eye, know that Amis’s very first piece of published writing was called ‘The Sacred Rhino of Uganda’?

Thirdly, there will be a near-embargo on genealogical bullshit, Tony Powell stuff about the ancient Amises of Virginia, USA. We get a grandad with hairs sticking out of his red nose (‘how much I disliked and was repelled by him’), a grandma – ‘large, dreadful, hairy-faced’ – whom he remembers having ‘loathed and feared’, and an aunt who was, no question, off her head. A few Pritchettian genteel-weirdos are to be chanced upon around the margins of young Kingsley’s suburban London childhood, but the general picture of those years is as blurred for us as it evidently is, and maybe was, for him. (And no, we do not get told whose idea it was to call him Kingsley – some thing to do with Charles of that name, we conjecture, or perhaps it was Henry, C’s black-sheep brother, a figure whose curriculum vitae reads very like some of those that Amis has in store for us: pissed all the time, terrific sponger, no good at writing novels, and so on.)

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