Uncle Kingsley

Patrick Parrinder

  • The folks that live on the hill by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 246 pp, £12.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 09 174137 8
  • Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist by John McDermott
    Macmillan, 270 pp, £27.50, January 1989, ISBN 0 333 44969 X
  • In the Red Kitchen by Michèle Roberts
    Methuen, 148 pp, £11.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 413 63020 X
  • See Under: Love by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg
    Cape, 458 pp, £13.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 224 02640 2

The folks that live on the hill? It’s not exactly what you’d expect of a Kingsley Amis title, but in another two years the old devil will be 70 and perhaps he is beginning to mellow. John McDermott remarks in his appealing study of Amis’s novels that the hero-as-shit, at large in a world of mutual animosity and obsessive self-interest, is one of their most characteristic figures. In The folks that live on the hill the hero-as-shit has given way to the hero-as-patriarch. Harry Caldecote, a retired librarian, heads an extended family of the weak, the lost and the habitually drunk who constantly turn to him for assistance. Harry feels mysteriously responsible for his tribe of feckless relatives. Outside his family, he is fondly regarded by the shopkeepers, bartenders and minicab drivers of Shepherd’s Hill, his chosen patch of North London. Folksiness in Amis’s new novel is only intermittently an object of satire.

The time is 1990, and Harry, twice divorced, shares a house with his widowed sister. The absence of his ex-wives and their replacement by a live-in sister and the occasional, girlfriend are Harry’s solution to the dilemma that has plagued many an earlier Amis hero. As a senior citizen living with his sister, he can take his pleasures more or less as he likes without having to run the gauntlet of marital disapproval. What he regards as one of his weak points – dislike of actually seeming a shit – can be indulged in the knowledge that he doesn’t really need to be a shit any longer. His past experiences are presumably reflected in an apophthegm which he takes, surprisingly enough, from Joyce’s Mr Duffy: ‘Friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.’ Not if you are brother and sister, he finds.

Since Harry’s ex-wives are non-persons so far as this novel is concerned, the road is clear for an unabashed affirmation of the benigner aspects of patriarchy. Harry takes a modest pride in what he would call his philogynistic tendencies. True, there are times when a wantonly chauvinist thought comes to mind (‘Well, he was not going to let himself be got down by a bloody dyke at his time of life’), but he has no sooner had such a thought than he virtuously suppresses it. Having little to do each day except to pay a social call or two at his favourite drinking establishments, Harry is frequently called upon by the women in his life to act as a one-man emergency service.

Traditionally, the patriarch as a literary character is not let off so lightly. Beside Job, King Lear and the Vicar of Wakefield, Harry Caldecote most certainly has nothing to complain of. The biggest threat to his peace of mind comes, one would guess, from the precocious minicab driver who warns him that the whole ‘drinking culture’ is destined to follow smoking into oblivion. Otherwise, the worst that can happen is that his household might turn into a home for displaced persons. Among those more or less committed to his care are Fiona, his daughter, an alcoholic with a long record of passing out in taxis and at parties; Bunty, his ex-stepdaughter, who is besieged by an estranged husband and mesmerised by a brutal lesbian lover; and two pathetically inadequate male blood-relatives, wastrel Piers and henpecked Freddie.

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