Sorry to go on like this

Ian Hamilton

  • The Letters of Kingsley Amis edited by Zachary Leader
    HarperCollins, 1208 pp, £24.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 00 257095 5

When Philip Larkin first met Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the early 1940s, he was appalled, he later said, to find himself ‘for the first time in the presence of a talent greater than mine’. Did he really believe this, or was he just measuring his own late adolescent bumptiousness? And what did Amis feel? According to his 1991 Memoirs, Kingsley found Larkin just a shade offputting. Togged up in wine-coloured trousers plus checked shirt and bow tie, this gangling provincial seemed to be projecting himself as some kind of dandy aesthete: ‘a little ridiculous in appearance, anyway outlandish, unlikely, on one’s hasty summing up, to be attractive to girls’.

Amis would soon enough experience a change of mind, at any rate about the clothes. The would-be aesthete, it transpired, was keen on jazz – and this for Amis at once signified that the bow tie could probably be overlooked. Larkin was inventively foul-mouthed, he hated Middle English, and he was quite good at impersonating David Cecil, or Cess-hole (though not so good as Amis, at whose relentless mimicries Larkin usually guffawed). Larkin also drank a lot – beer, mostly – and merciless derision appeared to be his social forte. He was indeed the sort of chap who knew exactly what you meant when you defined a bore as someone who ‘when he sees an unusual car in the street GOES OVER AND HAS A LOOK AT IT’. Amis soon decided that, by some miracle, he had bumped into a deeply kindred spirit:

I find that when I meet somebody nice and intelligent (which happens RARELY) I get annoyed because even though they are nice and intelligent, there is so much to teach them, and it’s TOO MUCH TROUBLE to teach them thigns that we don’t have to teach each other. Do you see what I mean? There is nobaddy esle but you who contributes as much as I contribute to the total of interest, and who HATES the things I HATE as much as I HATE them (who NEVER says things like Just a minute while I look at this car).

To cap it all, each of these two zestful haters had big-time literary ambitions. Larkin, in those days, wanted to write novels, and Amis wanted to write verse. And they didn’t just want to write these things: they wanted to be famous for writing them better than anybody else did. At first, Larkin forged ahead, publishing two novels and a book of not-bad poems before Amis had done more than get his stuff into a few little magazines. Since a lot of their co-hating was directed at the premature career success of others, a certain cooling between them might have been expected at this point. But Amis, to his credit, rallied manfully. ‘I am beside myself with anger and grief and envy,’ he wrote, on hearing of yet another Larkin triumph, ‘and am really very pleased for your sake, you lucky bastard.’ Even at this very early stage – 1946 – we get the sense that Amis needs Larkin’s friendship slightly more than Larkin is in need of his.

In his Memoirs, Amis looks back on the Larkin of the 1940s and wonders if, perhaps, he got him wrong. All that jeering merriment was fun, and Larkin was good at it, but was it not ‘a little strained and overdone’ – at least on Larkin’s side? ‘The solitary creature of later years, unable to get through the day without spending a good part of it by himself . . . was invisible to me then; most likely I was not looking hard enough.’ Amis knew about not liking other people but he had little of Larkin’s appetite for solitude. For him, ‘not seeing people makes me want to see some till I see some.’ In later years, Amis could not bear to be alone, except when he was writing. Larkin, on the other hand, came to find almost any company unbearable, including – in the end – his own. Again, in the pair’s early correspondence, we can now discern, or think we can discern, foreshadowings.

Amis, in his Memoirs, also wonders if Larkin’s taste for humorous invective was part of an overall distaste for ‘intimacy’: the jokes were perhaps strategies for keeping people, keeping even his ‘best friend’, at a distance. Intimacy, to be sure, makes rare appearances in this Amis/Larkin correspondence, of which we now have the Amis end (or some of it: these 1200 pages of Amis Letters are merely a ‘selection’, we are told). Instead of direct self-disclosure, we get yards of leering porn – mostly to do with what lesbian schoolgirls might, or should, get up to – and a certain amount of sexual note-comparing. The two young would-be shaggers routinely swap updates on this or that girlfriend – usually along the lines of ‘Will she/won’t she?’ and ‘How to get rid of her afterwards’. On the girlfriend front, it should be said, it is Kingsley who forges ahead, and as a result he tends to treat his friend’s somewhat feebler efforts with compassion – or, rather, with a sort of discouraging solicitude (as in ‘Is that one really worth the trouble?’): in either case striking the wrong note, one would have thought.

This undergraduate-ish stuff is fairly hard to take most of the time, although it’s done with an impressive stylishness, for ones so young. On the whole, we tag along because we know that the two scribes went on to bigger things. Certainly, for them, it served a purpose. Larkin, it seems, was usefully enlivened by Amis’s ebullient misanthropy. And Amis enjoyed putting on a show for his life-loathing, sex-starved chum. There was also an element of literary jousting. Each of them was genuinely erudite – in poetry, especially – and for each there was a rich, delinquent thrill in making out that scarcely any poetry was ANY GOOD. It was exciting for such deeply bookish types to call, say, Beowulf an ‘anonymous, crass, purblind, infantile, featureless HEAP OF GANGRENED ELEPHANT’s SPUTUM’ or to come up with obscene parodies not just of works they hated, such as John Pudney’s revered war anthem, ‘Johnny Head-in-Air’:

Wail not the luck
of Johnny shagged-to-fuck;
he died as quick
as Johnny got-no-prick.

but also of poems which, deep down, they admired, like Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’:

When the Gents has received my lasting consignment of turds,
And they piss in the bogs where an odour of vomit clings,
Will they say, as they scan the wall for dirty words,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?

And then there were the one-per-letter put-downs of current literary rivals. Alan Ross, Amis notes in 1946, is being touted as a ‘promising young writer’, a designation for which, at this time, Amis yearned:

A promising young writer. A promising young writer. A promising young writer. A promising young writer. A STEWPID LITTEL BOY WHO TRIES UNSUCCESSFULLY TO HIDE THE VACUITY AND TRITENESS AND SHEER ANALITY OF HIS IDEAS BY A TECKNEEK COPIED FROM OTHERS AND BADLY COPIED FROM BAD OTHERS. A promising young writer. A promising young writer. A SILLY DROOLING YOUNG SPERMICIDE. (‘Eh?’) A SILLY DROOLING YOUNG SPERMICIDE. (‘Oh.’)

On the matter of the promising young Ross, Larkin was a touch more circumspect. In 1941, he wrote (though not to Amis):

Alan Ross has published a book of poems as well. I haven’t seen them yet, but I doubt if they will be much good. Of course, they may be, but I have my misgivings. Anyway, what does he want with publishing poems: it is no time for poetry. God knows what it is a time for.

Larkin, of course, was no slouch when it came to skewering his literary rivals. In these early years, though, he is happy for Kingsley to out-skewer him. And Kingsley was happy to oblige. His aim, he said, was to provide ‘lots of long, funny letters to cheer you up, old son’. And what could be more upcheering than to hear Auden’s work denounced as ‘impossible piss . . . shameful shagbaggery . . . shit really’ or to be told that Dylan Thomas is ‘frothing at the mouth with piss’?

In his bibulous, old fartish final years, Kingsley Amis came over as a rather unpleasant piece of work and one of the effects of these published letters – especially the early ones to Larkin – is to make him seem a lot more likable than might have been thought possible. The clowning stuff gets tiresome, to be sure, but it is also quite interestingly nutty. Amis talked a lot in later years about his fear of going mad, and from time to time these letters do seem almost manic in their stop-me-if-you-can facetiousness. If there was a ho-ho to be had, young Kingsley would never let it pass. He didn’t, we feel, know how to let it pass. Even his own typing errors are enough to get him going. You can almost hear him squeaking with elation when, yet again, he makes a mess of ‘though’ (‘htuohg’ was one of his most delighted rearrangements.) Amis’s mistypes are never straightforwardly corrected or just left alone. Whenever they happen, he just has to answer back. Thus we’ll get, re Dr Johnson: ‘that doesn’t mean I can forgive him for resselarse christ what’s the matter with this fcuker?’ This ‘fcuker’ is his typewriter, or ‘wordprinter’, as he calls it. Some of the book’s most endearing moments involve Amis in conflict with his mischievous machine. (The wondrously thorough Zachary Leader wisely retains all of Amis’s mistypes, as though he, too, suspects that quite a few were half-deliberate. With ‘though’, for instance, the suggestion is that any word dumb enough to spell itself like this deserves everything it gets.)

In a similar vein, Amis is forever on the look-out for hidden, or not so hidden, puns – ‘pear runts’ for ‘parents’, ‘lie-tarted’ for ‘light-hearted’, ‘Boy-arse’ for ‘Boyars’, and so on – and he also takes too much pleasure in phonetical high-jinks: ‘a lot of ad dough less scent sew dough mith oller gee’. Larkin replies in kind, most of the time – although we don’t have all of his replies – and quite often one wants to steal away and leave them to it, silly boys. On the other hand, the giggles are not always silly. Some of Amis’s off-the-cuff lit. crit. is genuinely bracing. Amis on Hopkins could happily, for me, continue for a further paragraph or two:

About Hopkins: I find him a bad poet – all this how to keép is there ány any stuff strikes me as a bit unnecessary – and so his defence of his work to Bridges, in spite of Bridges being a bumblock of the first order, seems arrogant to me: You must be wrong when you don’t like my stuff, d’you see, because I know my stuff’s good, d’you see? And his silly private language annoys me – ‘what I am in the habit of calling inscapewell getoutofthehabitthen. I had another go at his poetry the other day, and confirmed my previous impression of it as going after the wrong thing, trying to treat words as if they were music. They aren’t, are they? If his verse can’t be read properly without key signatures and sharps and flats, so much the worse for it. And as for this bitch batch bum come cock cork fork fuck stuff; what is the point of it? Eh? Outrider – aaaaaagh; counterpointed rhythm – uuuuuuuth, and you can’t have counterpointed rhythm. I’m sorry to go on like this, but I do feel it.

Amis does not often admit to feeling anything, straightfacedly, outside the realms of money, sex and literary fame. Would he have opened up to Larkin if he had felt that such self-revelation would be welcomed? Who can tell? Now and again, as if in passing, he will say things like ‘I feel very sad now,’ ‘I feel very depressed this evening,’ or ‘I am not too happy at this season.’ He knew, though, that it was not his role to be low-spirited: Larkin would always beat him at that game. Certainly, Larkin brooded more darkly on his own destiny than Amis in these letters ever does. As Larkin saw it, we surmise, Amis would always be a top-grade entertainer, whereas he, Larkin, had more sombre roads to travel. ‘I reckoun you ave the nack of writting,’ he wrote to Amis in the 1940s, ‘why don’t you go in for being a journalist?’ Later on, Amis would be genuinely awed by Larkin’s poems: they were, he repeatedly conceded, so much better than anything he himself could do. Larkin, on the other hand, seems to have been decreasingly impressed by Amis’s fiction. He valued his friend’s vulgar streak in letters but had much less taste for vulgarity in art. One suspects that, for Larkin, Amis really did become, or always was, a journalist – albeit a journalist-in-fiction.

If true, this must have made it all the more difficult for Larkin to swallow Kingsley’s celebrity and wealth. After all, it was he who had originally wanted to write novels. The ambition to do so did not last but Larkin continued to glamorise the idea of big-time literary fame: the sort of fame that poets, as he saw it, hardly ever get a taste of. A turning-point in the Larkin/Amis relationship seems to have come in the mid-1950s, after each of them had scored a long-pursued success: Larkin with The Less Deceived and Amis with Lucky Jim. Their separate paths – Larkin as poet, Amis as novelist – were now publicly defined. But just as Larkin continued to wish, or say he wished, that he had written further novels, so Amis wished that he had done more as a poet. In these letters, he is always more ferocious about mediocre poets than he is about mediocre fictioneers: after all, he might have said, rotten novelists work harder, write more words, than rotten poets. It could even be contended – and once was, by Amis – that ‘No poem of Philip’s lays your head on the block in the way any novel does.’ That ‘any novel’ covers quite a field.

Although Amis’s letters to Larkin continue to the end, the gaps between them get longer and as the years go by we can detect a deepening strain: as if the need to hold onto the past is all the time getting stronger than any notion of what-happens-next. Amis’s life gets more complicated – children, love affairs, divorces and so on. He drinks more heavily and gets depressed more often. The wealthier he becomes, the more tax he has to pay, and all the rest of it. Larkin, meanwhile, sits up in Hull, still in need of someone who can cheer him up. For him, a complicated Kingsley was no more to be enjoyed than a complicated anyone. For Amis, it became easier to trade limericks with Robert Conquest than to keep up the old banter with a Larkin who, in later years, he rarely saw.

The Amis/Larkin correspondence is what makes this book a document worth having and one wishes that perhaps one day these letters might be published as a separate volume, so that we might more clearly track a friendship that, without doubt, made a difference to the lives and works of two of our best writers. Larkin, I think, throughout his life, kept at least one eye – or ear – on Amis’s scorn-hoard. And if Amis felt that, as a writer, he was never fully stretched, it was maybe the spectre of Larkin’s excellence that made him feel this way – IFF, as he would say, he felt this way.

Apart from the Larkin/Amis saga, the book – though far too long – is full of interest and entertainment, even in the later stages, when Kingsley the clown has turned into Kingers, the old Thatcherite clubman. Much of the interest is gossipy and bookish, but what else can we expect? Apart from Larkin the gossipy bookman, Amis had nobody to write to. In his correspondence with agents, publishers and fans, he is properly neutral and efficient, with the odd surge of crusty repartee when someone crosses him, or fails to come up with a decent fee. The absence of letters to his first wife, Hilly, leaves a sizable gap – quite clearly, this was the relationship that mattered most to him – and that gap is not at all made up for by the ardent love missives with which, in the 1960s, he bombarded Elizabeth Jane Howard, who became his second wife. These seem forced and self-conscious but maybe they wouldn’t if we did not know how things turned out for these two lovers. After they have split up, Howard is routinely referred to as a money-grabbing shrew.

Have we been spared some even nastier material about this second wife? Zachary Leader has selected 800 letters from what he calls ‘a trawl of several thousand’ and we can’t know what he has deemed unsuitable for publication. (‘When material is repeated,’ he declares, ‘I mostly omit it’; hence the sprinkling of dots within square brackets). One thing we do know that he has scissored is a fair amount of ‘jazz rant’, and for this we should be thankful. A few small questions linger. What has happened to Amis’s letters to Robert Conquest that are quoted from in Eric Jacobs’s biography of Amis (‘May want to borrow your flat at times like the early evening, for an hour or two, to entertain a young lady’; ‘I used you as an alibi on Friday afternoon – you know I’d do the same for you any old time, eh?’)? And how was it that Amis became the piss-frothing Dylan Thomas’s literary executor? And what is this limerick about Christopher Ricks that Leader calls ‘unprintable’? These things we need to know. Or do we?