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.)

We are, however, vouchsafed a glimpse or two of Amis’s mother and father, whom he seems to have quite liked. Too much on them would have meant having to tell us more about a certain adolescent culture-vulture who used to tick his dad off for not liking Brahms, but we do learn that Amis père was a pretty good cricketer (possessing ‘a late cut I have never seen surpassed’) and had a talent for mimickry ‘that made him, on his day, one of the funniest men I have ever known’. And Mum? Well, like many another boot in merchant, Amis does tend to go a bit trembly on the subject of his Mum: ‘She was a jolly little woman for all her nerves, and shortness of breath, fond of a giggle, a fag, a gin and tonic (no more than a couple) and, I am sorry to record, an occasional glass of Empire wine, Keystone or Big Tree, for the “iron” in it. But she was more than that. It was that gentle creature who, when I rendered my first wife pregnant before our marriage, told my father not to be such a fool with his threats of excommunication and persuaded my future parents-in-law not to boycott the ceremony as they had been intending – the first of the appallingly long line of figures in my life who I have come to value altogether more highly, to appreciate the uniqueness of, now they are gone.’

The grumpily workmanlike prose style finds it difficult to cope with unaffected warmth. But this is Kingsley on his Mum, choked up; normally, he is careful to avoid such challenges to his composure. As to that ‘appallingly long line’ of valued and unique associates, it has to be reported that very few of them put in an appearance in this book. They, too, come under ‘privacy’, no doubt. Altogether, he vows, we will not be hearing much about ‘merely good chaps, or fairly good chaps’, nor about ‘self-restrained’ chaps, or ‘secretive’ chaps.

And fair enough, we have to say: these are his memoirs, after all. But what then is left to tell? Luckily, Amis possesses a good memory for anecdotes, or so he says, and he is also not too choosy when it comes to embellishing what he remembers in this sphere, he would rate himself as ‘fairly conscientious’. He has few scruples, either, about putting words into people’s mouths – especially dead people’s mouths – if it helps to liven up the narrative or lends support to some malign character sketch. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘I have invented dialogue,’ and if this means giving himself some of the more trenchant ripostes, the more dignified silences, so be it. There are moments, though, when we would like to know just how much inventing has been done. Did Philip Larkin really say of John Wain: ‘No advantage of birth or position or looks or talent – nothing, and look where he is now’? If I was John Wain, I would want to be sure of the exact words. According to Amis, Wain used to think of Larkin as a friend. And Larkin, although he is here said to have groaned when Wain ‘invited himself to stay with him in Hull, is also said (not here) to have refurnished his house in preparation for Wain’s visit. Admittedly, this does not mean he was looking forward to the visit, but even so, he did a bit better than just groan, or so it seems.

Another sort of scruple Amis doesn’t have is the sort that might have restrained him from recycling bits of writing from the past. These old bits – always acknowledged – do tend to stop us in our chortling tracks: strange, unexamined reminders of an earlier, more solemn Kingsley Amis: ‘His hands looked strong and deft, like a precision mechanic’s. But his face held the attention. With its clear blue eyes, thin upper lip above delicate teeth, and generally flattish planes, it was both grim and gay, seeming to hold both these qualities at once when in repose and lending itself to swift alternation between the one mood and the other.’ Eh? No parody, this is Amis on Yevtushenko, c.1962. Amis’s point in reprinting such blurbese is not, alas, to show us what a prat he used to be but (I think) to persuade us that there was nothing personal about the Amis/Levin campaign in 1968 to prevent Yevtushenko’s election to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry: ‘If successful, it’ – the election – ‘would have installed a trusted ally, if not a total minion, of the Soviet regime in a highly sensitive and influential slot.’ The highly sensitive slot, incidentally, went that year to Roy Fuller, who, when asked, declared himself ‘absolutely sympathetic to Marxist ideas’ and spoke of his ‘fundamental belief in the materialist conception of history’. And five years alter that, it went to the highly sensitive John Wain, thus prompting Larkin’s sneers, cited above. Oxford undergraduates, take note: Sir Kingsley, CBE, Dip. Booker, is perhaps not so honour-laden that he might not, if pressed ... etc. Just a thought.

We ought not to downplay Kingsley’s sense of his own worth – that’s for sure. Wounded or ruffled vanity is the trigger for several of the score-settling tales he has to tell. John Wain has not been forgiven for patronising Amis early on, and both Enoch Powell and Roald Dahl might have been rendered more benignly if, when given the chance, they had evinced a surer grasp of Kingsley’s stature. When Andrew Sinclair and James Michie are sniped at for being mean, for not picking up the tab, we get the feeling that Amis’s ire comes mainly from his not having been treated with sufficient deference. Surely it wasn’t just the money – and yet maybe it was: they say it takes one tightwad to nail another. And is there not a certain meanness of um – spirit in making public a chap’s way with his wallet? The retribution seems excessive.

But then it often does. Even Amis’s famous right-wing politics seem to be standing in for something else, some deeper enmity. Certainly, they have as much to do with loathing the lefty element in our domestic cultural arena as they have with plotting any new world-orders. And his literary judgments seem similarly tainted with a sort of oppositional vigilance, with protecting his own turf. The writers he likes pose little or no threat – Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell: either safely senior or safely underrated by the mob. Philip Larkin used to exhibit the same tendency when asked to name his lineup: Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith, Betjeman.

Larkin, of course, is the one contemporary to whom Amis is prepared to yield high marks (Robert Conquest, perhaps the most ‘all right’ of Kingsley’s literary cronies, is shunted off into ‘light verse’). Larkin is named as Amis’s second-favourite poet (Housman is tops, though he may not have stayed tops, we suspect, if Amis had ever sat next to him at Trinity High Table), and as his ‘best friend’. Mysteriously, though, the pair of them seem rarely to have met: in thirty years, Larkin never invited Amis up to Hull – not even to look over his new furnishings. The friendship was given its shape and its vocabulary when they were undergraduates and perhaps each of them was nervous about risking too much adult intimacy. It’s odd, though, and it prompts the question of how often Amis got to see his other friends. He says that altogether in his life, he has had seven friends.

Amis’s memoir of Larkin is affectionate enough. Most of it was written for a book of tributes, when Larkin was alive. There are now a few posthumous additions and they leave a taste not a nasty taste, but almost. There are the quoted indiscretions, and there are disclosures that put Larkin in a bad or embarrassing light (it seems he was a tightwad, too). And there is also a wish, not obvious, to take the poems down a peg or two. On the subject of Larkin’s much-celebrated ‘Aubade’, Amis is dead right to pick on that dreadful ‘think with/link with’ rhyme, but he is surely too heartily commonsensical in his summing-up: ‘on first reading “Aubade” I should have found a way of telling you that depression among the middle-aged and elderly is common in the early morning and activity disperses it, as you tell us in your last stanza, so if you feel as bad as you say then fucking get up, or if it’s too early or something then put the light on and read Dick Francis.’ And then what? Sit and wait for it to go away – the feeling, and the poem? Amis believes it was ‘fear of failure’ that prevented Larkin from persisting in his attempts to be a novelist. ‘No poem of Philip’s preferred length lays your head on the block in the way any novel does.’ Yes, any novel.

Behind so much of Amis’s jesting, we discern a rigidly straight face, an obscure but powerful thwartedness. He tells us that he has had a lifelong tear of going mad, and we believe him. Maybe if he was not so afraid of sounding like an American poet, he could have told us in this book what sort of mad he has in mind. We do get a description of some hallucinating he once did when he was in hospital he calls it ‘A Peep Around the Twist’ – but this chapter is as boring as most dream-writing tends to be, as boring as Amis himself would doubtless find it, were it not about him. I suppose what’s really missing is any sense of Amis as a plausible character in his own narrative. Without wanting him to get stuck into a stretch of fearless self-analysis, we would quite like him to tell us what he thinks is wrong with him.

As it is, all the drunks drink more than he does, or can’t handle what they drink as well as he can. All the narcissists and time-servers push themselves and try to get ahead, as he does not. All the talent is either wasted early or absent in the first place – not true of his own. To which he might retort: but that’s what being a writer of fiction is all about – you get to be in charge, you get to lay their heads on the block. Instead of presence, we get authorial persona, by the yard: Amis the observer, the interlocutor, the recollector, the top judge, consistently projected as the shag who got things right that other shags kept getting wrong. And as the shag, moreover, who’s been given precious little credit for his efforts, since you ask. Well, actually, we didn’t ask, but still ... good God, is that the time? One for the road? We’ll pay.