The Egyptologists by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (1965)

‘A typical Yank bint, gentleman. More money than sense and more cheek than either.’ (p.34)

After reading half a dozen Kingsley Amis books I thought I knew what to expect in terms of subject matter and style. Subject matter alternates between sex – the war of the sexes, men trying to shag girls etc – and men getting drunk, really drunk, and behaving terribly. The style is deliberately offhand: lots of casual ‘whatevers’; the use of military metaphors giving comic exaggeration to everyday activities; and the narrator’s tremendous awareness of the way characters deploy stylised facial expressions or tones of voice (all features described in my previous Amis reviews).

This novel has whole stretches, chapters even, where these tricks and tics aren’t present, so I imagine they are the sections authored by Robert Conquest. You can tell the Amis parts, particularly around voices and faces:

The President took it upon himself to offer a few practical demonstrations, including the ‘scholarly stoop’, the ‘excuse me while I check that reference’ and, as reply to being offered a drink, the ‘good heavens no’. (p.35)

A few feet away, Chester and the Treasurer passed by on their up-and-down promenade, talking volubly but indistinguishably, hands clasped behind back. They were performing the ‘Balliol quad peripatetic duologue’. (p.40)

In a way the entire novel embodies the military metaphor strategy, since it describes an amateur club or society consisting of half a dozen middle-aged men, supposedly devoted to Egyptology but whose main purpose, for the first hundred pages or so, is excluding everyone else, including their wives or anyone with genuine knowledge of ancient Egypt, from attending any of the meetings or even finding their way to the club house, squirreled away somewhere in darkest Westbourne Grove, in West London.

This gives rise to sort-of funny mention of a wide range of strategies, protocols, procedures, passwords, pamphlets and routines, all carefully numbered and named, whose sole purpose is to anticipate any possible eventuality of anyone ever wanting to visit the clubhouse, or talk to the President of the club, or discuss actual Egyptology. Thus, when an American academic pays a scheduled visit, the members all adopt ‘standard Article 22 procedure’, designed to discourage all discussion and hasten her departure. During Ladies Night – the reluctant necessity of inviting their wives along to the Club at least once a year – the novel explains the elaborate plans for what each member has to say to each wife to sow confusion and misunderstandings among them, and to generally put them off attending any other events. Article 6 states:  Members whose wives wish to attend a lecture must block this by counterfeiting one of the following: food-poisoning, slipped disc… (p.119)

Some of the members have even worked up pseudo-scientific analyses of the problem of dealing with snoopers:

[The Secretary had even proposed] the devising of a curiosity-lethality formula with variables including N to represent the number of potential investigators, S their degree of solidarity, I their mean intelligence quotient and a number of others rather lamely eked out with K as an invariable cussedness-constant. (p.69)

In quite a funny scene, a troublesome reporter from the BBC phones up asking to speak to the President of the Society and the member on duty says, ‘Sorry, the President is addressing a public audience’, and turns up a record player he has to hand which plays a record of a Society meeting made some while earlier, complete with applause and coughing.

This is fine as far as it goes but by page 100 I was still no closer to discovering what these half dozen grumpy, heavy-drinking, middle-aged men meet for unless it is to discuss the myriad ways they’ve managed to stave off anyone finding their club or discussing actual Egyptology there. Is it a sort of spoof of the mania for spy stories, of the flood of films and novels and graphic books about spies and espionage which exploded into the mediascape in the mid-1960s? (A hunch reinforced by mention of the classic Bond villains, Goldfinger and Blofeld, on page 102, and of James Bond himself a little later). Is it simply a satire on men and their need to form clubs and make up silly rules to give themselves a sense of importance?

First half of the plot, or sequence of events

We meet the members of the Club, deliberating. A young American woman academic visits and is shown the elaborate charade that the Club is, alas Madam, closing down as you can see (fixtures and fittings being removed during her visit etc). They hold a Ladies Night for their wives packed full of disinformation strategies (described above). They are raided by the police, maybe hoping to find porn or contraband but there isn’t any and, upon having to make a formal visit to the police superintendent a few days later, they are surprised when he asks to join the Club.

A BBC reporter phones for an interview with the President, only to be put off with ever more elaborate excuses. In the middle of the book there is a Grand Scheme which involves them organising a weekend away, allegedly to dig for and research pagan remains near York: in reality, the Secretary is the only one at the end of the phone number given as the group accommodation contact, answering any calls made by the members’ wives or any other inquisitive persons. He is pictured rather vividly shacked up with the attractive American who came calling in an early chapter. The wives hold a meeting of their own, drinking bad wine and wondering why their husbands all suddenly developed an intense interest in ancient Egypt at the same time.

Why indeed?

Half-way revelation

All is explained in chapter 13 (unlucky for some) when the member named Isham unwisely has a date with the President’s wife. He plies her with drink, lots of drink, a splash-up dinner in St Martin’s Lane, and then a (deliberately) confusing taxi journey to a house in Westbourne Grove. Yes, he is having an affair with her and using the Club’s premises to do so! Unfortunately, she has cleverly rumbled the whole thing. It is an Adultery Club. It organises regular Thursday night lectures which don’t exist, during which one of the members mans the phone and plays the recording of a meeting if required while the others go a-swiving; the Wives Night is a necessary chore to maintain the fiction; the awaydays allow an entire weekend of adulterous fornication.

On one level it is a great Disappointment, taking the cunning, over-planning lecher theme from Amis’s previous novels and raising it to a new level – a whole club for calculating womanising swine. (In fact this particular chapter is very funny, in the way the biter is bit and poor Isham realises the wife of the Club has not only rumbled the entire set-up but it is his fault and his responsibility – oh dear, what are the others going to do to him?)

Aftermath

… And, once the secret is out, the novel stops being so God-Almighty mysterious, slips into place as a farce and becomes much more enjoyable. The second half is dominated by a series of crises, all designed to show the hapless husbands panicking like Brian Rix running round without his trousers round his ankles in a Whitehall farce. There are a number of choice scenes:

  • Furze, the Society servant, delivers a deadpan speech about the awfulness of women, featuring his own pledge to his wife that she will ‘get it’ once a month, regular like, whether she wants it or not, and ‘e’s kept his word, regular as clockwork and soon ‘is 35 years duty will be up and ‘e’ll be able to retire an honest man.
  • One of the wives arrives unexpectedly and, after a panic, they press-gang a new member into pretending to be a visiting Italian academic and Professor of Egyptology, complete with outrageously exaggerated accent. Reminiscent of a Peter Sellers or Terry Thomas comedy.
  • When an American who, through a friend of a friend, joins the Society then promises to set up a cousin branch in New York, actually arrives back in New York, he is arrested for smuggling hashish in the stuffed crocodile the members had given him as a memento. The investigation by the American authorities hangs over the second half of the plot like a cloud…
  • There is a pointless sub-plot about a silly conversation that gets going about the relative merits of front-clipping as opposed to back-fastening bras. One of the members owns a textile place and gets his people to run up a sample which opens both front and back. When he brings it to a meeting several members enthusiastically help him try and clip it on the life-size bust of Queen Nefertiti just as the latest member, an MP, walks in and, in a bid not to be caught, they clumsily let the statue fall to the ground where it smashes.
  • Maybe the funniest sequence is the incident of the burglar. When the Society servant sees a light on in the building late at night, he lets himself in, only to hear an intruder bolting out the back way. The superintendent, once established as a member, suspects the intruder will do it again and recreates the incident, Furze in the front door, intruder belting out the back only to be caught by the copper and a few other members. To their surprise it is the inoffensive character, Mordle. When questioned it turns out he has developed a real interest in Egyptology and had been breaking into the club to use the reference books in a paper he’s writing. The weekend in Yorkshire they’d used for seeing mistresses, he had gone on a study weekend at Oxford. ‘But what do you tell your wife to explain these evening absences?’ they ask him. ‘Oh I tell her I’ve got a girlfriend,’ he says deadpan and they all fall about laughing.

So that when we see the President’s wife not telling the other wives the Club’s secret, but planning a more complex revenge, it only adds to the general air of frenzied absurdity wholly appropriate to a farce. The climax of the novel comes when she conspires with the BBC producer to arrange for an outside broadcast team to descend on the Club and force the members to take part in a live 12-minute debate segment on a daily news programme, along with a real-life Egyptologist. This scene is a comic masterpiece, with the members having just a few minutes to come up with an elaborate plan, viz they will adopt personas designed to out-talk the time but without revealing their complete absence of knowledge. Thus the Secretary adopts the ‘doddering old man’ strategy and takes two hesitating, stuttering repetitive minutes to begin to even warm up to the answer to the question, ‘What first interested you in Ancient Egypt,’ while the Secretary, asked the same question, launches into an extremely detailed breakdown of the Society’s accounts along with his credentials as an accountant and the difficulties posed by the financial challenges of… and so on and so on.

The expert is still able to get a few words in edgeways and is in danger of discrediting them when they play their trump card by getting the presenter slipped a note saying the noted Polish academic Professor Asimov is in the audience and willing to take part. Asimov is, of course, the club President in an outrageous disguise and his heavily-accented and deliberately obtuse replies to the hard-pressed TV presenter are the funniest things in the book.

Sexism

This novel’s predecessor, One Fat Englishman, was bursting at the seams with outrageous opinions about women (as of Asians, blacks, Jews, Americans and anyone else he could think of to insult) but, being told in the first person, the reader could attribute these views to the repellent anti-hero, Roger Micheldene.

This novel is told by an omniscient narrator and you can almost hear something snap as Amis or Conquest or both decide to just vent their angry opinions about women. Mentioning the poor quality of the wine which the wives of the Egyptology Soc members consume at their meetings,

Not that, being women, they took much notice of what they drank – they came for the chatter. (p.69)

It is taken as axiomatic that all the men in the Club are reluctant to go home to their shrewish wives, and that the wives must be manipulated into complete ignorance of the Club’s true purpose. All the men at one point or another make speeches about how ghastly and unbearable women are, leading up to Furze’s, admittedly quite comic, but fundamentally misogynist, diatribe.

His earlier novels featured fornication – That Uncertain Feeling and Take A Girl Like You treated quite bitterly and seriously – but the whole mating game was reasonably balanced, with women giving as good as they got. Even in the One Fat Englishman you get a powerful sense of the American women Roger Micheldene lusts after, responding in kind and outmanouevring him at his own game.

But somehow, in this one, the balance tilts and the continuous, concerted and unrelenting denigration of women by the members of the Society stops, eventually, even pretending to be funny. Beneath it all you can sense a real hatred of women. In Englishman Roger’s perceptions vary wildly between genuine affection and drunken lechery, in the earlier novels the protagonists’ feelings are complex and mixed; here, all the men hate women, full stop. There’s no nuance, just a large number of well-educated, successful professional men united in their uniform and unrelenting hatred of women, and it’s not so funny any more.

This mood falls away in the last part of the novel, which becomes genuinely farcical and hilarious. And in the last few pages there’s a kind of boom-boom punchline, when it is revealed to various members that their wives knew all along the whole thing was a con, some just wanted their menfolk out of their hair, some felt pity for them and thought a nice affair would make them feel better, some took advantage of the free Thursday nights to have affairs of their own. So the authors make an effort to redress the balance in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’, and it does make the men and their labyrinthine plotting look absurd. But it doesn’t quite wash the flavour of the women-hating of the middle parts of the book out of the reader’s mind.

Swearing

Maybe it is the ‘permissive’ influence of the 1960s but there’s more crude swearing in this novel than in its predecessors.

‘All this is pretty farfetched, isn’t it? I thought Swift had taken the piss out of the anagrammatic method for good and all.’ (p.44)

The Secretary’s wife spoke with emphatic disgust. Her habit of rebuking what she called going out of one’s way to be a shit… was one of the things that bound her husband permanently to her. (p.73)

‘I took him very carefully through my “special field” – you know, magical sodding cults and beliefs in the pissing Late Period…’ (p.99)

When informed that an MP is going to be elected to the Society, Cambuslang replies:

‘But he’s the most terrible prick, isn’t he?’ (p.101)… and later: ‘He struck me as a really massive shit.’ (p.164)

In Amis’s novels the rise in swearing corresponds closely to the decline in humour, as if the necessity to use euphemisms and indirect insults in the more restrained texts of the buttoned-up 1950s made for a more charged and humorous prose. Once you’re allowed to say someone is a sod or a prick, you end up with a text full of people calling each other sods and pricks. It very quickly becomes monotonous.

Related links

Cover of The Egyptologists

Cover of The Egyptologists

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

L.S. Caton

A character named L.S. Caton appears in Lucky Jim. He promises the eponymous hero that he’ll publish his academic paper in a newly-established journal. Instead, Caton flees the country and the journal collapses – a further blow to Jim’s shaky reputation – while Caton is last heard of setting off for South America.

But Caton is then mentioned in most of the subsequent Amis novels, making him a nice running joke:

  • In Take A Girl Like You he appears in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Patrick Standish’s school about his experiences in South America.
  • On page 159 of One Fat Englishman Roger Micheldene discovers a letter asking a reviewer to consider his book about South America for publication.
  • In this novel he appears on page 43, as an agenda item for a meeting of the mysterious Egyptology Society, and then again on page 158 as that night’s guest speaker.

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis (1963)

‘I hate to say it, but you certainly are one fat Englishman. It was like fighting a grizzly bear.’ (p.75)

A short (170-page) comic novel which I had very mixed feelings about. It is laugh-out-loud funny every couple of pages, much funnier than I Like It Here or Take A Girl Like You, but the subject is appalling and quite frequently you feel Amis is going well out of his way to be offensive. A funny but uneasy read.

The fat Englishman

The ‘concept’ is simple: Roger Micheldene is a middle-aged English publisher. He is fat bordering on obese. He is a drunk and a glutton, stuffing his face and drinking himself insensible at every opportunity. And he is in America, somewhere in New England, a guest of the fictional Budweiser College (ho ho ho), where he loses no opportunity to:

  • insult his hosts
  • become painfully, offensively drunk
  • lecherously proposition almost every (married) woman he meets

his mind packed to overflowing with vitriolic abuse of America and his genial hosts, as well as casually insulting thoughts about Jews, blacks, gays and Asians.

There is a whole separate category for his insulting and manipulative attitude to women (an entire blog post could be devoted to the subject) who he approaches in a faux-military attitude, deploying a range of strategies and tactics all designed to avail himself of one thing only, amid infuriatingly casually-expressed outrageous sentiments.

Roger relatively seldom hit a woman unless he was really angry or at least very drunk, and already his anger had begun to fade into puzzlement… (p.127)

He is, in other words, a hideously recognisable caricature of a man, of an Englishman, of a xenophobic Englishman, of a xenophobic, dipsomaniac Englishman, of a xenophobic, dipsomaniac, rude, racist and grotesquely sexist Englishman.

So this novel is scandalously funny at regular intervals – but just as often wince-inducingly embarrassing.

Plot

Fat drunk lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene attends a number of parties where he a) gets drunk b) really obviously eyes up married women. He is trying to arrange golden time with Helene Bang, the wife of a Danish linguist, Dr Ernst Bang, who he has already slept with (wildly improbably), but she puts him off making numerous excuses, ‘oh the kids are due back any moment’ etc etc. But – why does she see him at all? Completely smashed at the end of a party he vaguely remembers propositioning another woman who – equally improbably – has given him her address. Next day he travels to meet her and she (improbably) drives them with picnic blanket out to an isolated spot, where she lets him make love to her. As Amis would say – Why? She’s the one who comes out with the quote I use above, that he resembles a fat grizzly bear. Yuk.

The novel had opened at a party beside a swimming pool, where Roger expended great effort in a comic attempt to see Helene in a swimming costume. Here it is that he meets his nemesis, the young Jewish novelist Irving Macher, who observes him with sardonic detachment, even while Roger drunkenly insults him. Roger wangles an invitation to Helene and her husband’s house where he uses every opportunity to pester her with propositions.

A whole chapter is devoted to Roger trying to persuade Helene to have sex with him while her husband is out, when that fails then to arrange a date when they can have sex – all continually and comically interrupted by her insufferable little boy, Arthur. Later that evening Roger is at the drinks party preceding a Big Lecture he has been invited to give about the state of publishing (the idea of a drunk man’s lecture going badly wrong echoing the climax of Lucky Jim). Worse the wear for drink, Roger opens his briefcase only to find – his speech gone and replaced by a copy of Mad magazine! Furious, he drunkenly tells his hosts he is not going to speak; they try to persuade to give an informal talk, after all hundreds of guests have been invited, but he storms out and back to Helene’s house, where he drunkenly accuses her son Arthur of stealing his speech. Ernst, the husband, points out that the Mad magazine has a stamp from the college library. It wasn’t little Arthur. It must have been someone in the faculty pulling a practical joke.

Chapter 11 opens with Roger quoting Latin verse and anything else that comes to mind to distract him because he is having sex with Helene and wants to delay his ejaculation. Candid? Ground-breaking in 1965? Maybe. It’s certainly gross. They’ve barely finished when they hear a vehicle coming up the drive and a knock at the door – prompting traditional bedroom farce panic thinking it’s Ernst the husband – until they realise it’s only the postman delivering a package, addressed to Roger. When he opens it he discovers his speech and a covering note from Macher, warning that this is the first in a planned string of ‘Treatments’. Incensed, Roger throws Helene off and insists on ringing every number he can in order to track down the Dean of Budweiser College and report the malicious Macher, but to no avail.

There is another party, this time on a boat heading out to an island in a lake. A jazz band is playing aboard and it is packed with faculty and staff. Roger chats to a pretty student called Suzanne who tells him a bit more about Macher, how bored he gets, how he likes to stir up trouble, how he gets it from ‘those French writers’, Sartre and Laclos. Last year it was mescaline and pot. — Interesting insight into student/Bohemian values in the very early 1960s…

Then Suzanne is replaced by Mollie Atkins, the woman who drove Roger out to a picnic spot a few days previously and let him plook her. Now she takes him into a dark corner of the boat (it is night time), he is expecting a nice kiss and a grope but she bites him very hard on the shoulder, his howl of pain heard even over the wailing of the jazz band. Once the guests are disembarked on the island, Molly manoeuvres Roger into a dark copse and again bites him, making him really angry. Also angry because he had rejected the overtures of Suzanne on the boat – only to get bitten by this mad woman! And angry because he thinks he sees Helene watching them from a group of drinkers, thus not improving his chances with her. Damn.

In fact, it becomes plain that quite a few people are kissing people they shouldn’t in the dark island, sparsely illuminated only by the lights of the river boat. One of the faculty waves at him as he passes, encouraging him to have a good time, with your wife or someone’s wife. It dawns on the reader that Roger isn’t alone in his delinquency, that this is the much more liberated, free and easy America of John Updike’s early novels or John Cheever’s short stories. Although Roger is in a class of his own when it comes to disgusting grossness.

Roger crammed the last of the bread into his mouth and dunked it with so much whisky and water that a thin jet of it played from between his lips as he munched, but he craned his head forward and most of it missed his clothes. (p.124)

Somehow they all get back onto the boat, though Helene’s husband comes running up just as it’s leaving, has to take a running jump onto the boat’s deck, landing badly and breaking something in his foot. In various cars the guests make their way back to Strode Atkins’ house (husband of the Molly Atkins who seduced then bit him), everyone is drunk and behaving badly. Roger finds himself hauled out front of the house because of some disturbance: a man named Joe is slowly, systematically destroying his own sports car with a wheel iron, first one headlight, then the other headlight, then the windscreen, while his wife stands by screaming at him to stop and several other guys try to reason with him. Roger staggers back inside for more booze. The whole book is like this, one long drunken picaresque…

At a couple of these parties, one of the many guests had been a Father Colgate, an incredibly handsome young priest who speaks in high-minded clichés and instantly gets Roger’s back up. Surprisingly, Roger is himself a Catholic, though his prayers are mainly about getting women to agree to have sex with him. Now, at this car-smashing party, extremely drunk, he suddenly remembers something important. While he had been in bed with Helene at her place, the phone had rung (before the car coming up the drive proved to be the postman) and it had been Colgate, telling him his soul was in danger and he needed to make himself right with God. Roger had put the phone down on the bedside table when the postman knocked, taken time to open the package containing his missing lecture and read the note from Macher, become infuriated and started shouting, and made his way shouting back to the phone — to find Father Colgate still speaking his high-minded rot, at which Roger had slammed the receiver down on him.

Having made an arse of himself with women at this island party, and somehow feeling disturbed by Joe smashing up his car, Roger asks if Helene can drive him somewhere downtown and she improbably agrees. They get into the car and he is in the middle of giving her directions when someone speaks from the back seat and Roger nearly jumps out of his big fat skin. Not only is there someone there in the back, but it is his nemesis, Macher, with the result that they fence and spar all the way to the destination, Roger devoutly insulting him, Macher effortlessly parrying and infuriating Roger even more by telling him how much he respects him and enjoys his behaviour: it is so spontaneous.

Roger emerges drunkenly from Helene’s car and walks up the steps of a nice town house and begins banging on the door and shouting for the priest to come out, the good-for-nothing, lay slack-a-bed, Come out here Colgate! Eventually the door is opened by a tall black man who points out that the priest he’s looking for lives across the road. Roger shambles across the road and recommences the knocking and shouting on Father Colgate’s door. When the priest finally lets him in, he harangues him for a few minutes, and then drags him bodily over to a pretentious aquarium the Father has in the corner of a room and – forces Colgate’s face down first to touch the water, and then actually into the water.

Roger stirred the tank vaguely with C0lgate for a moment, then took him away and dropped him on to a sofa. Colgate coughed and gasped. ‘Good night, Father, and thank you. You’ve been a great help. Pray for me.’ (p.142)

Things move to a conclusion in the next chapter which opens with Roger having been phoned by the Danish linguist, Ernst, and gone to the latter’s house at his request. Ernst is upset because Helene has gone off for the weekend without telling him where (and Roger is upset because Helene had promised to spend a dirty weekend with him in New York. Damn).

Roger had not really been surprised. It just showed up the inherent snag about all dealings with women: that they involved women. (p.144)

It is a little disconcerting but fits with the permissive tone of the book and of the relaxed wife-swapping  milieu it depicts, that Ernst calmly accepts that Helene has affairs; he is only upset when he doesn’t know where she is, when she goes off without telling him. Who could she be with? In a flash, Roger replies: Macher. Ha ha, now he’ll get his revenge.

In fact, Roger now recalls through the alcoholic haze, Strode Atkins telling Helene she could have the keys to the Atkins’ New York apartment, ostensibly for her tryst with him, Roger. Now Roger rings Atkins, thinks up a pretext to get some keys himself, and sets off to surprise the two lovers!

However, even this ‘climax’ falls strangely flat. He locates the apartment, lets himself in, confirms a couple have slept there but are currently out, rifles all the cupboards and drinks everything alcoholic he can find. Waits and gets bored and recalls Helene saying something about jazz. So he calls a cab and asks it to take him to a jazz club.

There follows a sequence which feels as if it’s just been wedged into the novel for no very good reason except to use up Amis’s notes and impressions on visiting New York’s jazz clubs. These tend to be downstairs, hot and sweaty, and fronted by black men with pencil-thin moustaches wearing shades. All the musicians wear shades and it is very loud. Amis makes a sort of jazz joke by saying that one band in a club Roger visits is led by Daz O’Rooney, another in another club by John Colvoutie. Presumably these are parodies of the famous modern jazz virtuosos, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. The reader is staggered that Amis might have seen Gillespie or Coltrane live, and a little saddened that the experience gives rise only to this half-cocked joke.

Having drawn a blank in his search, Roger heads back to the flat where he rifles through more drawers and discovers an old book which he recognises as a diary kept by the Victorian poet Swinburne, about his notorious sexual preferences (being whipped). At a few of the parties, among the chit-chat, people had mentioned rumours about someone purloining this from the library in England where it belongs. Roger realises its value and shoves it in his pocket. Just about then Macher and Helene arrive. There is a big argument but not that big, all things considered. Helene says she’ll walk out if they have a fight. Macher gives up and goes for a shower. When he returns Roger and Helene are still arguing. Roger insists it’s too late to catch a train back to New England and – in a comic climbdown – the others agree he can simply stay in the spare room, so he does. No fight, no sex. Damn.

The final chapter cuts to Roger aboard a cruise liner set to sail back to England (he hates flying) as Helene’s husband thanks him profusely for tracking her down and persuading her to return to him. Of course, none of this was Roger’s actual intention, but he is happy to take the credit, and as Ernst goes back to the quay and the boat pulls out, Roger feels quite happy with the sex he managed to have and his other florid adventures; he now has a plan to offer to publish Macher’s first novel and then kill it with lack of reviews and distribution ha ha – and he taps the copy of Swinburne in his pocket, knowing it will fetch a tidy sum from a suitably unscrupulous buyer. Not too bad, old boy, not too bad.


Amis’s Titles

Every novel of Amis’s I read confirms how deliberately chosen the titles are to be common-or-garden phrases and how accurately that reflects the common-or-garden, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the subject matter. Compare and contrast with the titles of, say, William Golding, who began his published career in the same year as Amis (1954) and whose titles are laden with symbolism and fraught with significance: Lord of The Flies, The Inheritors, The Spire. Amis has I Like it Here, I Want It Now, Ending Up, novels with such deliberately everyday, forgettable titles that quite a few of them have, in fact, been forgotten.


Amis tricks and techniques

… or something Deliberate bloody-mind vagueness, about names of people or places or household machines or anything, a permanent ‘whatever’, talk-to-the-hand attitude of solipsistic indifference.

A bird called outside, an ugly and unfamiliar sound. A blue jay, or one of the other local sorts they kept on about. (p.48)

Helene, her back to him, was busy making some spread or whip or paste stuff. (p.58)

Roger met an alternative image when the taxi got on to one of those throughway or turnpike things. (p.64)

This occurs in all Amis’s books and must have seemed a striking departure from the high-minded tradition that Writers write about Serious Themes and are Experts in Life. On the contrary, Amis’s novels portray ordinary people in a hectic hurry bombarded with the stimuli of modern life who can’t be expected to know all this bloody stuff.

Ending a paragraph with a question It doesn’t happen all that often but it is a real Amis characteristic to describe something incongruous and then end the paragraph with an exasperated ‘Why?’ Of the Halloween celebrations going on in the background one evening:

On either side of the road were houses festooned with multi-coloured lights and orange-coloured turnip ghosts. Now and again ragged groups of people or children could be seen cavorting about. What did they think they were celebrating? (p.64)

Making faces, choosing voices One of Lucky Jim’s distinguishing features was the ways its protagonist pulled funny faces (each of which had a special comic name) and mimicked all kinds of characters and accents, at wildly inappropriate moments. None of the subsequent novels pack in such manic comic energy, but his protagonists all do this thing of having an array of facial expressions and tones of voice which they artfully select and instal as appropriate – instead of just having expressions or just speaking. He is much, much more self-conscious than that. On meeting Molly Atkins sober:

The smile she gave him was cordial enough… He gave a much better smile back, with more eye-work and a quiet hello. (p.70)

‘Very good to see you,’ he said, packing sincerity in. (p.70)

When Helene’s husband, Ernst, asks Roger whether her abrupt disappearance is out of character:

‘Most emphatically I agree.’ Roger tried to put on the expression of a practiced and sincere fact-gatherer. (p.143)

It is not quite continual play-acting: more a continual awareness of ‘others’ (what Sartre called l’autrui) and calculating how to play to them, a continual self-conscious situating of oneself vis-a-vis l’autrui.

Military metaphors Amis was in the Army during the war (as we know from the three war stories in My Enemy’s Enemy) and one regular comic routine is to have his male protagonists think about generally trivial ways of handling mundane things in comically exaggerated military metaphors.

He took up an offensive position by the refrigerator. (p.56)

Making hurried excuses why Helene can’t visit his apartment:

Letting [women] enter one’s base of operations was to be avoided whenever possible. (p.78)

Of the pleasure steamer, when it reaches the party island:

The disembarkation was carried out efficiently and with the sense of common purpose characteristic of a task force which, though so far unopposed, expects to make first contact shortly. (p.124)

In its jokey invocation of military strategy it overlaps with the hero’s jokey deployment of voice and face as tactics in the never-ending war with other people, with the world at large.

Insults The mind of the ghastly hero is awash with inventive and often very funny, and sometimes just offensive, insults. Molly Atkins is the woman he propositioned at a party when he was so drunk that the next day he can’t remember what he said or what her name is or even what she looked like – a few days later he finally meets her:

Then they were face to face. At this range she looked a little better, but not much. A complexion that appeared to have been left out in a violent hailstorm for about ten years was her most signal drawback. (p.70)

To a woman who tactlessly raised the subject of Roger’s own divorce:

‘Say no more,’ [he replied]. Or else stand by for a dose of grievous bodily harm (Roger thought to himself), you women’s-cultural-lunch-club-organising Saturday Review of Literature-reading substantial-inheritance-from-soft-drink-corporation-awaiting old-New-Hampshire-family-invoking Kennedy-loving just-wunnerful-labelling Yank bag. (p.23)

Reflecting on his enemy, Macher the young novelist:

Never call a Jew a Jew unless you can be sure of making him lose his temper. (p.86)

Of a Japanese student who talks with him:

… a girl of Oriental appearance who would have been quite acceptable if she had had eye sockets as well as eyes.

To Father Colgate, down the phone:

Roger spoke three words into the mouthpiece, of which two were ‘the Pope’, and rang off hard. (p.116)

Sometimes funny, sometimes gross. If you are Jewish or Japanese or a woman, a couple of these ‘jokes’ might be enough to put you off Amis for life.

Anti-Americanism The influence of America, especially of its free and easy cultural exports, is something which hangs heavy on the minds of Keith Waterhouse, Amis, Lodge and Bradbury, prompting awe and a certain resentment in their characters in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Their characters begrudge American imports, the flashy films, the white goods, the brainless advertising, the loud rock’n’roll ‘music’ etc. But only Amis takes the resentment to the extremes seen in this novel.

For sophomores or seniors or whatever the hell they were of Buddweiser College, Pa., they seemed not hopelessly barbarous. None of them was chewing gum or smoking a ten-cent cigar or wearing a raccoon coat or drinking Coca-Cola or eating a hamburger or sniffing cocaine or watching television or mugging anyone or, perforce, driving a Cadillac. (p.81)

In numerous other places he dislikes specific American qualities (their architecture, their design, their clothes, their accents, their attitudes) and in a way the entire novel is a calculated insult to America and its genial, affluent hospitality. Of course, the central character being pilloried is an English man – and lots of English qualities, including his pointless snobbery, his affected speech, his revolting habits (taking large amounts of snuff and then picking his nose in company) are relentlessly savaged – but despite his grossness, being so intimately inside his head makes it hard not to sympathise a little with the horrible monster, especially when he is – despite everything – very funny. 

But I wonder if the overall contempt for America, and the specifically anti-American comments which litter the text, permanently damaged his reputation in the States.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of One Fat Englishman, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of One Fat Englishman, illustration by Arthur Robins

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

PS LS Caton

On page 159, while rifling through the drawers in Atkins’ New York apartment, beside the Swinburne Roger stumbles across a letter from one ‘L.S Caton’ asking a publisher if he would consider his book about South America. Now this is the same L.S.Caton who promised Lucky Jim Dixon he’d publish his academic paper in a new journal, but then fled the country, the journal collapsed, along with Jim’s reputation, and Caton was rumoured to have decamped to South America. His name subsequently crops up in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Standish’s school in Take A Girl Like You, and now in this novel as well. I hope he is mentioned in every Amis novel.

My Enemy’s Enemy by Kingsley Amis (1962)

Meanwhile I put to myself the question whether the removal of all social workers, preferably by execution squads, wouldn’t do everyone a power of good. (Moral Fibre)

Amis wrote short stories throughout his career, often experiments for, or by-products of, the longer fictions so that the Complete Short Stories is 550 pages long. This is an early collection, published in 1962, of stories from the 1950s, the first three all based on Amis’s wartime experience in the Royal Signals Corp, several others referencing characters from the contemporaneous novels, and the final one – unexpectedly – showcasing Amis’s enduring interest in science fiction.

My Enemy’s Enemy (1955) A rather complicated story about British soldiers in a wire maintenance unit during world war II. When Oxford-educated Thurston hears that a line engineer he respects, Dalessio, is being set up by the jumped-up Adjutant to fail an inspection of his rooms by the General, Thurston knows he ought to tip him off but doesn’t. In the end, Dalessio is tipped off by another officer, his quarters are spotless, the Adjutant is furious blames Thurston, despite the latter having done nothing – and feeling bad about it.

Court of Inquiry (1956) Another Army story, with some of the same characters from the Signals unit featured above. During a move from one base to another, a soldier mislays an out-of-date power charger, and his superior takes the opportunity (unnecessarily and vindictively) to hold a court of inquiry about it. This, however, fails embarrassingly when one of the witnesses admits it was his fault, not the man being blamed.

I Spy Strangers – The third Army story set in the Signals Corp and featuring some characters from the above. Starts one week before the 1945 General Election which swept Labour to power and one of the officers has set up a dummy ‘Parliament’ in which the men take sides and debate the issues at stake in the election. The issues arising here (the men ranging from Communist to proto-Fascist) become entangled with personal conflicts and resentments between seven or eight officers which, to be honest, I didn’t really follow. The story progresses to the night of the Election when it is clear Labour has won its historic landslide and this prompts a drunken confrontation between some of the officers, one of whom is knocked off the stairs, breaking his arm.

Having just read David Lodge’s first novel, The Picturegoers, with its priggish revulsion from the contemporary world (his comments on 1950s rock’n’roll are amusingly short-sighted but especially the brutality of National Service – the latter of which goes on to be the subject of his second novel, Ginger You’re Barmy) I realise that, while the young Lodge (b.1935) prissily spurns modern life, cleaving to his high-minded Catholicism and to ‘Literature’, all evinced in an oddly formal prose style, Amis (b.1922) had the impact he did because he embraced the reality of life as it was lived in the mid-1950s, and did it in the prose style, the stroppy speaking voice, of his contemporaries.

[The unit debating club] resettled itself sulkily, feeling and muttering that it was always the bloody same: the moment you got a decent row going, some pernickety sod piped up with some moan about order. Might as well be sitting in the billet reading last week’s paper. (p.56)

Why Amis was publishing stories about the weeks before the 1945 General Election, in 1955 and 1956. Was it just a question of being famous and publishable and so clearing out his backlog? Did they actually date from the 1940s? The theme of all three is the petty bureaucracy of the Army and how the military environment gives perfect scope for people to cultivate petty rivalries, jealousies and vindictiveness.

Moral Fibre (1958) John Lewis, the protagonist of The Uncertain Feeling (published three years earlier in 1953) is living in shabby digs with his wife, Jean, in the south Wales town of Aberdarcy. A friend of hers is the self-righteous social worker, Mair, and John gets dragged in to her ‘treatment’ of a local delinquent, Betty. Betty has twin kids by one man, is shacked up with another (a Norwegian sailor) and at one point, when the sailor is away, goes out on the streets as a prostitute. –Throughout the story John is driven by the characteristic bolshie male idea that Mair the social worker and all her works are awful, but is uneasily conscious that he doesn’t have any alternative. The outrageousness of his attitude and his seething dislike of Mair made me laugh out loud.

Interesting Things (1956) A short short story about young Gloria Davies from the tax office, being asked out by old Mr Huws-Evans, twice her age, on a date at a cinema. As in David Lodge’s contemporary novel The Picturegoers (1960), the cinema is depicted as a kind of Sodom of snogging couples and people stuffing their faces noisily with peanuts and sweets. Huws-Evans bores her with speeches about tax affairs, takes her back to his house so he can have a shave (there to be met by his disapproving mother), then into a park where he makes a very clumsy move to kiss her and she realises in a flash that, for all his knowledge of personal tax allowances, he is in fact an unattractive sad old man. They continue on to the swanky party he’s been invited to where she immediately takes up with a young attractive man.

The most interesting part of the story is its references to other Amis texts: to an Italian restaurant called Dalessio’s – a Dalessio whose Dad runs a restaurant in south Wales is a key character in the first story in this collection, he is the man the Adjutant tries to get dismissed; and Huws-Evans describes the party they’re going to as featuring posh folk, including a dentist with an, er, sort of friend. This must be the dentist who keeps a mistress who hangs around with the ‘fast set’ attending the parties given by Mrs Gruffydd-Williams in That Uncertain Feeling.

Glimpses like this, of interconnections of characters across novels and stories, give a pleasing (and comforting) sense of the interconnectedness of stories and – we wish – of the world.

All The Blood Within Me (1962) A gloomy story about two men aged around 64 who catch the train to a town a bit north of London, there to attend the funeral of a woman, Betty, they were both friendly with. Slowly it emerges that the mousy, unsuccessful one of the pair, Alec Mackenzie, had – he thinks – a thirty-year-long, unexpressed but deeply felt, love for Betty. At the funeral service and at the burial, Alec is transported by fond memories of her but at the wake in a nearby pub, drunk, he foolishly has a bit of a go at the Italian man who married Betty’s daughter, Annette.

This prompts Annette to follow Alec outside when he goes for a fag, and to give him a piece of her mind. She dismays him by laying into her mother, into Betty, revealing that she was a spiteful mother to her and her brother who couldn’t wait to escape home, that she disliked the Italian husband, that she disapproved of the grand-children because on their Italian blood, and that she maliciously and cruelly dangled Alec himself on a chain, all the time laughing behind his back. His saintly image of his beloved shattered, Alec is devastated.

Maybe the moral of the story is the unknowability of ‘other people, Amis’s fundamental subject.

Something Strange (1960) Out of the blue, a science fiction story. Two couples are isolated in a metal sphere millions of miles from earth. Their monotonous routine of fixing equipment has recently been interrupted by strange happenings, sightings of objects speeding towards them, the suddenly enclosing of the sphere by an unknown substance etc. I was totally captivated and in the story when…

… they see a new ‘happening’ as if a door is opening and human shapes are approaching. Who unlock the sphere and lead them out. And reveal to the dazed and uncomprehending foursome that they have been part of a long-term psychological experiment, carried out by a fiendish regime which has now been overthrown by the chaps liberating them.

Like a lot of science fiction it is powerful and disturbing in the way it directly invokes basic fears and archetypes – yet silly and superficial at the same time, in being so easily explained and resolved…


Tricks and tics

Whatever Amis’s habit of writing ‘blah blah blah or something like it‘, ‘… or something’, ‘or whatever’. Deliberate posture of shrugging his shoulders, it’s too complicated, I’m a normal-bloke-not-a-ruddy-expert.

Ordinary speech The narrating voice has the ring of ordinary speech even when that involves clumsiness and repetition. He has the confidence to write down what people actually say: not all the time, but often enough to be striking. (Compare and contrast with David Lodge’s style which is always studied, limpid, classical and often a little dead.) It is light, flexible, funny.

The first person he saw on entering the dining-car was Bob Anthony, wearing a suit that looked like woven vegetable soup. (p.141)

Tones of voice Amis is extraordinarily sensitive to tones of voice and the countless ways there are to adjust tone and register for different situations or phrases. His lead characters, the narrator-substitutes, are phenomenally self-aware, full of words and strangled emotions but often speechless while they agonise about precisely which of the many available tones to say it in. They are also super-acute at noticing similar shifts of register in the people they’re listening to, detecting and categorising them with the precision of a collector.

The man spoke again. He was plainly drawing to a close, and now the hint of a new tone was heard, the detached disgust of a schoolmaster reading out some shameful confidential document he has snatched from the hot hand of one of their number. (p.151)

(I like ‘hot’. Adds precise detail to the thought.) But the main point is that, as Alec listens to the vicar’s long elegy for the departed Betty, he not only hears the words, he registers the changes of tone with which the vicar delivers them. Similarly, when her daughter is criticising the dead woman, Alec notices acutely how her voice changes.

At the mention of anger, anger itself returned to her voice, which had softened in the last minute or two. (p.163)

Bewilderment His heroes are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by life. There is a particular shape of Amis paragraph which describes a person or activity in acute detail only to end, ‘Why?’ Why? Why does he say that? Why do they do that? Why does he wear that? etc.

Alec found nothing to say; his attention was like a weight too heavy to move from where it had landed, on Bob’s suit. Why was he wearing it? He must have others. Where were they? (p.143)

An air of permanent amazement at other people’s sheer inexplicability – sometimes blank, serious and unnerving, but on many other occasions giving rise to a kind of hilarious exasperation, the fundamental tone and worldview of Amis’s fiction.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy's Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy’s Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Picturegoers by David Lodge (1960)

First Hilda, then Damien, then Mark. Hilda’s life was ruined – she was a complete neurotic. Damien was all queer and twisted because he had thought she liked him when she didn’t. And Mark – he would never make a priest. He would end up as another frustrated religious failure like herself and Damien. Religion had ruined him. Religion had ruined them all. (p.208)

David Lodge’s first novel, published when he was 25. Short and powerful, it confidently establishes techniques and themes which will dominate his later writing.

Multiple characters The most obvious feature is the technique of featuring a dozen or so characters and continually cross-cutting between them. The novel is divided into three parts but within them there are no chapters, no sense of moving between big blocked-out scenes. Instead there are a hundred or more relatively short (sometimes less than a page) sections of prose, each devoted to one or a pair of characters, their dialogue, thoughts, decisions, actions, feelings.

This is a very economical, snappy approach. Compare and contrast the directly opposite approach of his friend Malcolm Bradbury who, in his debut novel Eating People Is Wrong for example, opens one chapter with a page-long description of the ‘moral’ development of one of the characters (Emma Fielding), as if rewriting a Jane Austen novel. Unlike Bradbury, Lodge is actually in the 20th century and realises that cutting between short cameo scenes means you don’t have to give yourself the labour of writing – and the reader the burden of reading – long establishing sequences. Bang! You’re there!

The title, The Picturegoers, is not as mysterious and cryptic as I initially took it to be: the book literally describes a cast of picturegoers ie a group of (generally young) people who, on the evening described in part one, all converge on their local, run-down cinema in the fictional town of Brickley, and for whom the cinema flickers in and out of the warp and weave of their lives over the next few months.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Maurice Berkley, one-time manager of the music hall which declined, was shut down, and replaced by the new cinema, which he sadly manages, lamenting the passing of the glory days.
  • Mr Mallory, kind-hearted middle-aged man, head of a vast Catholic family, eyes the cinema-going young girls in their tight dresses, but warmly loves his wife.
  • Patrick and Patricia Mallory, two of their younger children, who bicker and argue their way to the cinema; when Patricia leaves early a middle-aged man moves next to Patrick in the dark and puts his hand on Patrick’s thigh – there is a short description of the panic of a pubescent boy at being touched up before Patrick is brave enough to get up and flee the building.
  • Clare Mallory – only recently arrived home after abandoning her vocation as a nun, still full of piety and innocent emotions, good and honest and pure and who immediately bewitches the new lodger, Mark.
  • Mark Underwood, recently arrived with the Mallorys as their lodger, is a lapsed Catholic who unexpectedly finds himself responding to the Irish Catholic atmosphere of the Mallory household, initially because he fancies the beautifully innocent Clare. He is a would-be writer, depressed at having his stories rejected for publication, and so presumably the representative of the ‘author’ in the text ie a more educated, ironical observer of the life around him, and with more space than for other characters devoted to his early life, his upbringing in a stifling lower-middle-class household in the respectable suburb of Batcham.
  • Damien O’Brien, cousin of the Mallorys over from Ireland, rat-faced, intensely pious, seething with jealousy over the casual way Mark Underwood asked Clare out, takes her to the pictures and has generally become her boyfriend – exactly what Damien obsessively wants to be.
  • Father Martin Kipling, naive and innocent, is on his first visit to a ‘cinema’, in order to see the pious Song of Bernadette. He trips over feet in the dark, wants to chat to neighbours and then is appalled at the scantily clad ‘actresses’ on the screen whose sole purpose seems to be stirring up lascivious passions in their audience. He woefully discovers the Song isn’t on this evening, instead he is watching the legendary Hollywood actress Amber Lush in a variety of scenes which show off her taut buttocks and pert bosom.
  • Len, working class man, in love with Bridget, is frustrated by both his poverty and the knowledge he is about to be called up for National Service.
  • Bridget, Len’s girlfriend.
  • Doreen the usherette who dreams of having the kind of life those stars up on the screen enjoy and sort of fancies the older, married, Mr Berkley.
  • Harry, a wound-up, monosyllabic, very angry youth, dressed in black, who fantasises about hurting everyone he meets, carries a flick knife and – very spookily – follows Bridget home down dark roads and across bombed-out lots so that I was beginning to worry I might be about to read a rape scene, but no, she gets home just in time, making herself a cocoa with her hands shaking. Makes me realise that in all the other Lodge novels, in the Amis novels and Bradbury novels which I’ve been reading, there are few if any actual criminals – men obsessed with sex in every one, sure, as the authors themselves seem obsessed with sex; but men who break the law, through theft or vandalism or violence ie a type of man who obviously exists in the real world in large numbers — none.

Part one

All the characters converge on the knackered old Palladium cinema, bringing their hopes and fears into its sweaty, smoky interior, as per the thumbnail sketches above.

Part two

Six months later. We learn that the serio-comic result of Father Kipling’s visit to the cinema was a fervent sermon he gave denouncing film as the work of the devil and announcing he would be moving the Thursday Benediction to Saturday nights, as an alternative, and launching a crusade against the Cinema. Six months later, a mere 12 parishioners are turning up for it and he ruefully regrets the enmity created with the cinema manager, who complained to Kiplings bishop about the boycott, the bishop then, embarrassingly, over-ruling Father Kipling and saying there was nothing ungodly about the cinema.

Meanwhile, the Mallory’s lodger, Mark, who started out pretending to be religious in order to seduce Clare, really has undergone a conversion back to his boyhood Catholicism and, ironically, now finds himself the pious one in the relationship, while Clare herself has completely redirected her libido towards him – with tearful results.

Damien is the furtive watcher, the ‘creeping Jesus’, who is always spotting them in the street or kissing in a doorway or overhears their endearments on the front doorstep, as his crush on Clare curdles into hatred and contempt.

The old cinema manager Mr Berkley is now having an affair with the once naive and innocent usherette Doreen, happy now to strip off in the manager’s office and climb into their makeshift bed for office sex, before they get dressed again, he drives her home and then returns to his wife.

Harry, the would-be rapist, takes his stalking of Bridget to another level, lying in wait for her in a bombed-out lot near her house but – to our relief – miserably fails to assault her; he’s barely got his hands over her mouth before she bites his fingers down to the bone and screams her head off, sending him running off down the street.

Central to this part is the evening when a number of the key characters converge on The Palladium to see The Bicycle Thieves, the 1948 Italian Neorealistic classic which Mr Berkley is showing as part of an effort to liven up the cinema and draw in a new crowd. In this it is a complete failure, a depressing and inconclusive movie which reminds most of the visitors of their own cramped lives, except for Mark, of course, who incisively and intellectually analyses it for Clare, who understands nothing, but nods approval in her doomed infatuation.

Part three

Two months after that evening things have moved on for all of the characters. This third part again features an evening at the cinema; after the failure of trying contemporary European movies Mr Berkley has booked the latest Rock’n’Roll movie, blaring with its Bill Haley soundtrack. This time there are queues around the block of Teddy Boys and their pony-tailed, bobby-soxed girlfriends. And in this final 40-page section Lodge winds up the stories of our ten or so characters:

Clare and Mark have a painful showdown in which he declares his wish to join the Dominican Order and try his vocation. Clare is furious at him leading her on, leading her to abandon the last of her religious feelings which she transferred to secular love, only to be dumped.

Mark walks back to the Mallory house where he is mortified to discover Mrs Mallory has stumbled over some of his scribblings about love and Clare and sex, explicit notes and thoughts jotted down for a story. She thinks he’s revealed himself as immoral when, ironically, he is reaching the height of his religious faith and completely disavows the writings. He offers to leave immediately and makes his way, disconsolately but firmly back to the stifling purgatory of his suburban home, determined to apply to a religious order.

Devastated after their final argument, Clare wanders the streets in a daze, passing the cinema and its huge queue of jitterbugging rockers but, with no money to spend, ends up, ironically, in the local Catholic church. Here – as it happens – she is press-ganged into being a witness to the rushed wedding of Len and Bridget.

After the sad service she finds herself in the church alone with Father Kipling and realises for the first time how feeble and unsatisfactory he is, and how sadly conscious he is of his shortcomings as a priest. Depressed, she emerges to find Len and Bridget having cheap photos taken and then is further press-ganged into accompanying them to the nearest Lyons Corner House for their wedding ‘reception’.

As she listens to their tale of poverty – nowhere to stay, Len’s poor widowed mother, his miserable time doing National Service in the Army – Clare is overcome with compassion and writes them a cheque for £5 to pay for a few days’ honeymoon at Margate or somewhere, and promises to talk to Father Kipling about a little church flat which she knows has become empty because the old lady who was living in it has gone into hospital.

These scenes could hardly convey a more depressingly miserable, black-and-white, cramped, austere, limited, narrow ration books and National Service existence. How awful the 1950s sound.

If the two main characters, Mark and Clare, end in disarray, minor characters have unexpected epiphanies. Harry, the would-be rapist, hanging round outside the cinema, finds himself drawn in and then the Teds and Rockers who are packing the place start getting out of their chairs and dancing to Bill Haley in the aisles. To his amazement a pretty little blonde girl asks him to dance and he turns out to be able to do it and it makes him smile and even laugh, for the first time in years; later that night he walks her home and, after a quick peck on the cheek, makes an date to see her at the Monday night hop.

We eavesdrop the thoughts of Mr Berkley, the cinema manager – initially happy at the big box office takings then concerned at the way the Teds are getting out of their seats – as he dismisses rock’n’roll for being unmusical, simple-minded etc. He predicts it will only last a year then be replaced by the next fad. But we have seen, in the story of Harry, that simply dancing, that music and dance and physical expression, can liberate the soul.

At the end of Part Two Lodge showed us Mr Berkley having sex with Doreen in his office, for the first time not using a condom as he had run out. Now, two months later, Doreen is pregnant. Mr Berkley knows his (Catholic) wife will never divorce him in that guaranteed-to-make-everyone-as-miserable-as-can-be way of theirs, so he gives Doreen a load of money and the address of a boarding house in Newcastle where she can go to have it. In almost the last scene we see her confidently on the Newcastle train getting into conversation with a likely cockney lad also going the same way. Might love be about to blossom…

It is a multi-stranded ending to a multi-stranded novel and a triumph, unexpected, moving, insightful, poignant.

Themes

David Lodge’s three themes are Catholicism, sex and Eng lit academics and all are present here.

Catholicism In the point of view and thoughts of the priest and every member of the Mallory family (Dad, Mum, Patrick, Patricia, Clare) as well as the reconverted Mark and the Irish cousin Damien – that’s seven characters who all provide different perspectives on faith and belief and sin and the rest of it, so we have the thoughts of the cradle Catholic, the convert, the zealot, the lapsed Catholic, the teenage Catholic, the ex-nun, and so on. Enough Catholicism for most tastes.

The common mistake of outsiders, that Catholicism was a beautiful, solemn, dignified, aesthetic religion. But when you got inside you found it was ugly, crude, bourgeois. Typical Catholicism wasn’t to be found in St Peter’s, or Chartres, but in some mean, low-roofed parish church, where hideous plaster saints simpered along the wall, and the bowed congregation, pressed perspiration tight into the pews, rested their fat arses on the seats, rattled their beads, fumbled for the smallest change, and scolded their children. Yet in their presence God was made and eaten all day long, and for that reason those people could never be quite like other people, and that was Catholicism. (p.173)

Pilgrimage A long section at the end of Part Two describes how Mark, in the grip of his new Catholic fervour, undertakes the pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk; it is referred to by other characters and Mark gets out and rereads his diary of the experience which suddenly gives us a blast of full-on first person narrative. This is the first mention of the pilgrimage theme which will also be present in Lodge’s later novels, in comic form in Small World, and more seriously in the concluding sections of Therapy.

Sex Mark starts out simply wanting to seduce Clare. Damien is obsessed with Clare but sublimates his feelings into fierce religiosity. Clare was expelled from the convent where she had been a novice nun, for her passionate/lesbian involvement with a teenage girl pupil, and now finds herself actively wanting Mark’s masculine touch. Old Mr Mallory enjoys watching the pretty young things dolled up on a Saturday night, but also enjoys making love to his plump wife. He is disappointed when Mr Berkley experiments by showing contemporary foreign films, namely the depressing The Bicycle Thieves.

Where were the luscious slave-girls with swelling breast and buttocks like ripe fruit, on which he could feed his harmless, middle-aged lechery. (p.130)

Mr Berkley enters Doreen in his office. Len, on their wedding night, blissfully ‘broaches’ Bridget, Damien sees couples in the sunny park, men’s hands up girls’ dresses, driving him wild with anger/frustration.

I am, I hope, an averagely-sexed middle-aged man and no prude, but I find the relentlessness of the Male Gaze in all Lodge’s novels a little hard to take.

[Mr Berkley] stood at the back of the packed auditorium. There were people standing all along the back, and down the sides. He watched with interest a young girl in front of him in tight trousers. Her buttocks were twitching rhythmically to the music. On each alternate beat a hollow appeared in her left flank. (p.226)

In a touching scene the confused 17-year-old Patricia, who has a crush on Mark, has a chat with him about how isolated she feels in the family and how she wants to run away from home. All very sensitive apart from one false note. She’s wearing a faded old dressing gown buttoned up to the neck, but: ‘Beneath the faded material was a figure full of promise.’ (p.169) Who makes this remark? Not Mark, who is in his newly moral religious phase. Not Patricia herself. It is the narrator, the creator, the author, creating all sorts of women whose shapes and naked bodies he can then lovingly describe.

[Patrick, 16] had slipped into a rather alarming habit lately of looking at every girl or woman he encountered to see how big her bust was. Bust. That was a new word he had just discovered. There were several words that meant the same thing. Bust, bosom, breasts…  (p.136)

All the way back in 1960 I wonder if Lodge’s novels were praised for their frankness and honesty and lack of shame about sex. I can see the merit in his not shying away from the fact that sex does indeed dominate lots of men’s thoughts lots of the time. But it is a bit like the food in a certain restaurant always being a bit too salty or spicy or oily. Lodge is great at what he does, but the relentlessness of the sex sex sex, and the way it’s always the horny male view of sex, sometimes gets a bit too much.

Literature Mark is a would-be writer, still very young, self-conscious and unpublished, he keeps a notebook which he fills up with bons mots and insights, is constantly on the lookout for material, feelings and incidents which he can turn into a short story, and he is considerably more intellectual than the other characters. He shares his sophisticated insights into The Bicycle Thieves, into the warmth and piety of the Mallory household; he gets the lengthy theological passages tossing to and fro about the religious life and sin and redemption and forgiveness etc, in this respect the precursor of all the other Lodge protagonists who will agonise over Roman Catholic faith, sometimes at very great length. Most 20th religious novels document the painful fading of a character’s religious faith – I thought it original enough to see a young man following the opposite trajectory.

Humanity Lodge’s style is cold and blank, not deliberately heartless but always factual, clear, unambiguous, unsentimental. For example, he describes Clare’s feelings when Mark dumps her, but doesn’t really wring the reader’s heart; same for Mark’s increasing sense of devotion, specially in a Mass he attends. But if there aren’t extremes of emotion, not emotion in the language, anywhere in his work, there is often a kind of cool, limpid humanity; an implicit sympathy for the sadness of so many people who life has let down. Thus Clare, after being dumped by Mark, finds herself observing Father Kipling as if for the first time, as if for the first time really understanding something about other people and their pain. Without any comment from the author it dawns on me that she is possibly finding within herself the compassion and charity for others which she was too young to experience when she was a novice nun.

[Father Kipling] stooped over the sink, leaning heavily on locked arms, and staring at his hands, flattened against the bottom of the bowl. The sense of failure which haloed his bowed head made Clare conscious for the first time of his identity as a person. He had never been an impressive priest –  dispensing sacraments, sermons and whist-drive announcements with the same patient ennui, like a weary shopkeeper who has forgotten why he ever started to sell. But now, at this moment, she understood his inadequacy in personal terms, realised what it meant to him not to be able to move people, not to be able to find the encouraging word, the inspiring slogan. (p.217)

With its understated humanity, with its confident handling of the multi-character cast, in its quiet way I think this is a very good, a very powerful and moving novel – and quite amazing considering it was his first.


Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – Ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, amid numerous lectures on artificial intelligence, cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s. Tiresomely predictable.
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

The 247th Royal Academy Summer show and about the sixth one I’ve visited. Maybe familiarity is dulling the impact but nothing here really set me alight, as I’m sure it has in the past. The reverse: I am getting used to seeing the same names, styles and approaches cropping up year after year, which gives it rather the feel of a local school fete, with all the usual stalls, manned by the usual enthusiastic volunteers.

Still, with 1,131 items on display, in almost every conceivable medium, in every size and covering a vast range of subject matter, most of them for sale at prices from bargain basement to outrageous, there is plenty to like, dislike or say ‘My God, how much?’ to.


In the courtyard, an enormous metal assemblage of rusting metal girders arranged in Vorticist rectangles, cubes and geometrical shapes – The Dappled Light of The Sun by Conrad Shawcross RA (b.1977). The sun came out and did, in fact, dapple us as we walked under it.

Inside, the steps leading up from the foyer to the main galleries had been painted with crazy day-glo stripes by Jim Lambie (b.1964). Looks good from above.

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015  © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015 © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Part of the hang is, apparently, to have painted the rooms in bold colours – turquoise, magenta – which I thought were simply the kind of Farrow & Ball pastel backdrops you get at any exhibition until I read about them. Each of the rooms is allotted to a different curator to make a personal selection and all have a wall panel explaining the thinking behind the selection and layout. Though some of the rooms have a distinct feel – a few felt empty apart from a small number of large works, the sculpture room felt cluttered with objects on racks, plinths and the floor, the architecture room was filled with tables supporting utopian cityscapes – for the most part the wall panel explanations bore little relationship to the actual sensory experience.

I liked, or at least noticed, the following:

In the first room, the hexagonal Wohl Central Hall, centrally placed on a plinth is a life-size replica of a Greek statue made out of slices of coloured plastic – Captcha No.11 (Doryphoros) by Matthew Darbyshire (b.1977). Above it hung Liam Gillick’s Applied Projection Rig, the use of bright colour and plastic, in this, the statue and the painted stairs, all feeling a bit 1960s.

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The second room was painted a shocking pink. Above the door were hung half a dozen fluorescent tubes shaped into circles with writing, as pioneered above American diners in the 1950s – Homo Bulla (Man Is A Bubble) by Michael Landy RA (b.1963). The writing was in a cursive script so neither of us could read what they said, but they were pretty.

On the left, in the photo below, you can see Untitled (Watch) by Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA (b.1941). Craig-Martin specialises in turning ordinary objects into highly stylised square-on line drawings, slightly like the precise technical drawing style of the later Tintin cartoons, filled in with bright unshaded primary colours. Later rooms featured Fragment Coffee Cup (screenprint £3,000), Fragment Briefcase (£3,000) and so on.

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

A small panel of arrow shapes in a rigid geometric lines and bright colours created an optical illusion. Thorns 11 (£6,000) was one of a series of related works by Tessa Jaray RA (b.1937), which also included Borromini’s Balustrade (£12,000) and Light 2 (Diptych) (£18,000). Jagged, entrancing.

My son liked a big painting of a red tree, Tree No.7 by Tony Bevan RA (b.1951), visible on the right in the pink photo above. In a later room I liked Cork Dome by David Nash OBE RA (b.1945). A few years ago an exhibition of his large wood sculptures was hosted at Kew Gardens, where they fitted right in. This one would have sat better in a large room full of similar works.

I liked A Fall of Ordinariness and Light by Jessie Brennan (b.1982) which looked like a charcoal sketch of a 1960s Brutalist council block but is in fact a treated digital print, but had then been rumpled and creased. I’m a sucker for any painting or image which has been degraded, has fraying edges, bits of newspaper, card or wood or real-world detritus stuck on it, a key characteristic of Modern Art since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Picasso and Braque pasted newspaper fragments onto canvas, but which always excites me. As if the work is reaching out of its frame into the real world. Or is infected by the universal crappiness of the dusty, diesel-fume, swirling-litter-and-peeling-posters-on-broken-hoardings reality of the cityscapes which imprison us.

I write a blog about walks in the country on which I take photos of landscapes and buildings, generally adopting the same square-on approach, carefully framing the subject so it has equal space above and below and to either side. Which explains why I warmed to Red Roof (£345) a photo by Rachel Mallalieu. You can hear the sea and feel the cracking of the shingle as you walk across it.

Waiting for Spring (£525) a linocut by Louise Stebbing, charming prints following in the footsteps of Ravilious and a thousand others hymning the English countryside. Follow Louise Stebbing on twitter.

My son particularly liked this atmospheric oil painting of what you see in the car headlights alone at night in the middle of nowhere – the kind of scene you see in movies hundreds of times but rarely see depicted in ‘art’ – Luther Road by Donna McLeanwho was also represented by Sarah Lund.

Round the corner, in the relatively small Gallery I, hung an enormous tapestry by everyone’s favourite cross-dresser, Grayson Perry CBE RA (b.1960). Julie and Rob is a large cartoon, is it not, a deliberate reduction of line and colour to an almost Simpsons-like level of simplicity. A snip at £69,600, but then – it is enormous!

Julie and Rob (2013) Grayson Perry CBE RA Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Julie and Rob (2013)
Grayson Perry CBE RA
Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Hanging on the wall next to the tapestry, my son really liked Window With Screen No.2 (£10,000) by David Tindle RA (b.1932). He thought it was nice and relaxing. Near it was a watercolour of the small figure of a man walking across burning fields, Fire Burnt The Land Like A Language (£5,000) by David Firmstone MBE. I like Modernist angularity in paintings and sculptures, and a certain amount of dirty realism ie showing the world as it actually is, and I liked the poignancy of the smallness of the human figure.

In the same spirit I liked Forsaken in acrylic and pen (£1,000) by Deborah Batt. It has the squareness I like and the realism of a graffiti-covered world but transmuted into something clearer and simpler, on the way towards the style of a graphic comic, maybe.

Liking objets trouvés and applied to the surface of a work, I liked Periscope Dazzle (£450) by Stuart Newman, a round hollow metal cog used to frame the image of a battleship as seen from a U-boat periscope. I liked the tarnished rust effect round the outside of the cog.


The Architecture room

There’s always a room devoted to architecture which I humorously think of as the Room of Shame, where high-minded fantasists create utopian cityscapes made of perfect loops and shapes, completely ignoring the reality of the dirty, polluted, congested cityscapes they have so far managed to create for us lowly proles to actually inhabit.

For example, Silicon Roundabout is the title of a shiny photograph by Grant Smith of the Old Street roundabout in London, centre of a lot of hype about London becoming a hub of digital/internet technology as important as Silicon Valley in California. I commute via this tube station twice a day and walk along the side of the hoarding in the centre of the photo which has the words ‘White Collar Factory’ printed on it, and the experience is one of jostling overcrowding, diesel pollution from the endless buses, and grit, sand and dust filling eyes, nose and hair from the permanent building sites surrounding the roundabout. This photo makes it look stylish and modern but it is a horrible, anti-human space. How many of the other shiny photos, architects designs and ‘artists’ sketches’ in this room conceal similarly degraded realities.

On the walls and liberally displayed on angular tables were the usual science fiction fantasies of vast air terminals or futuristic cities (some of which have actually been built in China or some such far-off places). In addition, this year, the walls were lined with the wise sayings of various architects and critics. Far more than artists, architects fancy themselves as gurus, as designers of life, as creators of whole ideal environments for people to live in (strangely heedless of the traffic-dominated, windswept, plastic-shopping-centre nightmares most English towns have become under their guidance).

‘Where people meet, ideas collide and inventions begin,’ was the contribution from Richard George Rogers, Baron Rogers of Riverside, CH, Kt, FRIBA, FCSD, HonFREng (b.1933). Next to it these words from Piers Gough (b.1946): ‘Of course, architecture is really inventive land escape.’ The ‘of course’ says everything, everything you need to know about the lofty, de haut en bas, guru-to-his-disciples spirit in which World Architecture and its superstars operate. The play on words in ‘land escape’, well…

The funniest thing about the Room of Shame was the way these engineers of the human soul, these people who claim to understand human nature intimately and deeply enough to create entire city and townscapes catering to our every need, had designed tables holding their fantastical designs which featured gaps between the models at about bum height…

Since this was the fifth or six room in the show, quite obviously a number of visitors had done the entirely natural thing and leant or even perched on these empty bits of table. With the result that big signs had had to be fixed to the tables in every possible perching space shouting DO NOT SIT – beautifully epitomising the failure of groovy modern design to understand the most basic of human needs, the need for a bit of a sit-down and a rest. Reminding me of the NO BALL GAMES, NO PLAYING signs on the green spaces of a thousand council blocks I’ve seen over the decades. ‘We have designed these masterpieces of philosophical architecture,’ the signs say: ‘Now don’t you dare mess them up by actually living in them’.

My son – who is studying biology – really liked the Urban Flora Propagation Field Box (£4,000) by Laurence Pinn, Ben Kirk and Andrew Diggle, and was genuinely upset by the strident DO NOT TOUCH sign next to it. God forbid children should get interested in science or try out, test and play with a bit of scientific equipment. Our work is to admire, not to use.

In the same spirit we both liked the chess set where the pieces were miniature versions of famous buildings and – we realised – black represented modern buildings (the Shard, the Gherkin, the Mobile Phone) and white represented old (Tower Bridge, St Paul’s). Franklin’s Morals of Chess (Jade) (£1,960) by Karl Singporewala, a nifty reworking of the perennial theme of the Battle of Ancient and Moderns. But which, inevitably, had a big sign next to it saying DO NOT TOUCH. God forbid people should actually play a game with it…

Explore more images from the architecture room


Back to art

Oddly for a room of architecture designs, on one wall hung 40 etchings of the Galapagos islands in the distinctive black-and-white and easily enjoyable style of Norman Ackroyd CBE RA (b.1938). Birds wheeling, guano-covered cliffs, crashing waves. His etchings appear every year but are usually seascapes of the Orkney and Shetland islands and, sure enough, in another room are works with titles like Whitby, Gannets on Flannen, Thirsk Hall in winter, Morning Sunlight Bempton. Priced from £500 to £1,000 these would be lovely objects to own.

In the next room was an example of the instantly recognisable style of Cathy de Monchaux  (b.1960) – Asylum (£28,000) – a kind of shallow vitrine containing a miniature scene constructed from copper wire, medical plasters, pigment, feathers and silk, the delicacy and medieval fantasy subject matter – apparently some unicorns in a wood – contrasting vividly? poignantly? strikingly? with the metallic modern-ness of the materials.

My son liked what looked like two big boards or sides of wooden crates, onto whose visible grain small images had been painted – Noon Fishing and Dawn Fishing by Mick Moon RA (b.1937). So did I for the reasons outlined above about enjoying the involvement of rough or raw materials in art.

Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941) who I mentioned earlier, has always seemed to me the artistic father of cool Young British Artist Julian Opie (b.1958); whereas C-M applies a hard-outlined brightly-coloured approach to objects, Opie creates large bright cartoon-style images of people, most famously in his cover art for the Best of Blur album back in 2000. This year he is represented by Tourist with Beard (screenprint with hand painting) (£8,600) and Walking in the Rain, Seoul (£23,500).

Julian Opie  Walking in the rain, Seoul  From Walking in the rain (2015)

Julian Opie – Walking in the rain, Seoul
From Walking in the rain (2015)

Allen Jones RA (b.1937), recently the beneficiary of a major retrospective at the RA, featured with some of the yellow, cartoon-like, soft porn paintings he does nowadays – Second Thoughts and Salome. Writing ‘cartoon’ reminds me of the Craig-Martin and Opie and, indeed, the Grayson Perry. Is it a trend to treat objects and the human figure as if they were idealised shop window mannekins?

Anthony Green RA always appears in the show, with six of his quirky, cartoony (that word again) portrayals of domestic life (often his own) – a kind of ruder, hairier, male version of Beryl Cook. The Birds: A Second Marriage and The Bureau: Afternoon Sun give you the flavour of his comic realism, often with the canvas or surface itself cut out around the shape of an object in the image, like the artist’s face or glasses. Maybe there is no trend. Maybe I’m just realising that I like cartoons. Cartoons and photographs.

Professor David Mach RA (b.1956)’s enormous sculpture of a gorilla made from coathangers was the outstanding work of the 2010 show. This year he was represented by six works of which I only noticed Sunimi and a golden Buddha, both a tad pricey at £29,500. (Article about Mach)

Because I like novelty, sculpture and harsh subject matter, I immediately liked Margaret Proudfoot’s War Work (Ypres), a three-yard-square map of the field boundaries of a patch of the Ypres battlefield made entirely of barbed wire (£3,500), striking, original, entirely fitting, horrible to contemplate (or touch) yet totally fragile, the photo doesn’t do its scale or its delicacy justice.

In front of it was an over-lifesize dominating sculpture by Michael Sandle RA (b.1936) – As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap: An Allegory (Acknowledgements to Holman Hunt) – a parody or spoof of Holman Hunt’s famous 1853 pre-Raphaelite painting, The Light of The Worldin which the figure of Jesus has been dressed in modern fighter pilot outfit and helmet, clutching the decapitated heads of the innocent children he’s bombed to death, and with Hunt’s illuminating lantern converted into some kind of death ray machine. It’s almost as if the artist is telling us that War is Bad.

On the wall, to the left of the pilot’s head, you can see I Just Want To Be Held, a c-type print by Deborah Brown (£700) a photo of the torso of a (lean shapely) young woman with what appeared to be the hairs or shoots of cactus buds emerging from her smooth skin. My son liked the title, I liked the smooth contours, we both liked the ‘conceit’ or ‘concept’ or ‘gag’. In the past I’ve complained to my companions about the prevalence of boring old painted nudes at the show: mention of this example prompts me to comment there were surprisingly few, if any, full female nudes this year.

My son liked two photos of ruined buildings with incongruous objects in them – Chaise in Morning Room (£495) by Sara Qualter & Bill Baillie, and Thicket by Susanne Moxhay (£795). I know what he meant, but they were a little too stagey for me. Room IX might have been my favourite, with the barbed wire, the cactus nude, and a whole load of striking photos, including two by Robin Friend – Gaewern Slate Mine (Abandoned 1970) (£8,500) and Exit Test (£5,500).

Back in room II, the guide highlighted (among many other works all hung close together) three portraits – of Simon Cowell, Damian Hirst and Grayson Perry (see below). I thought they were all dire, and indicative of the very wide range of ability, success and failure, which is always on display here. You pays your money and you really does take your choice.

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The final gallery (X) is entirely dedicated to a work by Tom Phillips titled A Humument: he has spent thirty years systematically decorating, defacing and redesigning the pages of an obscure second-hand book, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. We are invited a) to understand this, and then b) to examine 40 or 50 of the the fairly small (6 inches by 4 inches?) pages thus artified. According to the website linked to above, he has completed some 367 pages so far, and still hasn’t finished. This is how they were hung.

And after this, the Exit and the brightly-lit Shop, full of all sorts of attractive merchandise.


The Summer Exhibition Explorer

For the first time the RA has made all 1,131 items available to view via the Summer Exhibition Online Explorer, which you can explore by gallery or by artist, where you can take tours or sample selections. This allows a completely new relationship with the art because you could, for example, surf every single piece before you go, and seek out ‘in real life’ what you fancied as a 2-inch-square photo. Or, after visiting, you can check back on something you thought you liked to see if you still do. You could just surf the images and decide you’d ‘done’ the show but this would be a mistake, as works of art a) are (obviously) all much bigger than depicted on a little computer screen b) have an impact in real life, to do with size and texture and presence and feel, which can only be felt in their presence.

What surfing it did for me, after returning from the show, was made me realise just how many pieces I hadn’t really seen or engaged with because, in any one visit, you can only notice so much, be engaged with so many works. Made me realise I should probably go back, in a different mood, at a different time of day, and I would probably enjoy a completely different selection of the vast array of art on show.


 

Related links

Eating People Is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury (1959)

To Treece, the existence of people, of liberal intellectuals, like himself was infinitely precarious, infinitely unsure, and infinitely precious. The kind of intellectual purity he stood for was a tender blossom that had little or no chance in the bitter winds of the world. Sometimes you could do no more than thank God that there were people such as he, thought Treece in no spirit of self-congratulation; he simply meant it. But those who live by the liberalism shall perish by the liberalism. Their own lack of intransigence, their inevitable effeteness, betrayed them. Already liberal intellects like his own found themselves on the periphery. The end was coming, as people like him had less and less of a social function, and were driven into an effete and separate world of their own, to the far edge of alienation. (p.210)

This is one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. Pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, wordy, mealy-mouthed, repetitive, under-imagined, 290 pages of high-minded but hollow rhetoric, the lofty tones of a bloodless spinster channeling E.M. Foster at his most old ladyish and pointless.

A world away from Kingsley Amis or Keith Waterhouse with their irreverent protagonists, short punchy novels and their vividness of prose. Although Bradbury (b.1932) was younger than either Amis (b.1922) or Waterhouse (b.1929), this – Bradbury’s first novel- feels like the work of a much older man, in fact a much older woman, a maiden aunt. I imagine this is what the Mapp and Lucia novels are like, with lots of tea parties and characters feeling the world is all changing a bit too fast, and ‘in my day we really believed in something, young people these days…’ etc etc. There is a moment when someone puts a lump of sugar in Treece’s tea but he doesn’t like sugar in tea, but he doesn’t want to cause a scene, so he drinks his sugary tea trying not to grimace. Wow, high-powered comedy. Wow, this is living all right.

And God, it is so dull, so prolix, so wordy, lacking any kind of wit or sparkle or edge or turn of phrase or precision. The language lies formal, dead and inert on the page. Just horribly second rate characters endlessly discussing their feeble souls.

‘The trouble is,’ said Emma, when the waitress had gone, ‘that, with one’s behaviour one doesn’t know what to believe.’ Believe, believe, who said believe? Treece’s eyes seemed to say; here in my universe there is someone who talks of believing!
‘Do you believe?’ asked Treece.
‘No; I don’t believe; I just do things,’ said Emma. It was only men, Emma considered, who believed in things; women recognised that being a woman was way of life enough.
‘Do you believe?’ asked Emma.
‘I believe, I suppose, in my way; I believe in scrupulousness in the face of action. You know, I’ve spent all my life trying to understand the relationship of action and consequences. I wonder if I shall ever learn – I find myself singularly obtuse. But the two seem in such different sphere – actions are in time and consequences are in suspension.’
‘I know what you mean, and in a way I’d say the same,’ said Emma. ‘But at the same time you aren’t really saying anything, are you? Not about the world. I mean, where do you take your values from, and how does this apply to other people?’
‘But it doesn’t, said Treece, ‘and it isn’t a valuable position. You mistake me if you think I’m trying to elevate it into a public philosophy. All I’m saying is that I don’t believe in public philosophies, that I want to live according to my own lights, and that I don’t want to change anyone else.’
‘But you did, with me,’ said Emma.
‘That’s true,’ said Treece, ‘and I’ve repented. But… if people can believe in God, so much the better; they have a code they can, and ought, to live by.’
‘But you cultivate your own garden.’
‘My avant-garden,’ said Treece.
‘And how do you determine what’s scrupulous?’
‘The same way as you do,’ said Treece ‘I try to examine what lies before me in all its complexity and to bring to bear on it all the moral resources at my disposal.  That is what life is, as far as I’m concerned.’ (p.96-97)

My avant-garden. Ha ha. You see what he did there? It is all this lame, precious, pretentious and empty-headed.

There is no plot just a sequence of half-arsed events, which come to an abrupt and brutal halt. We are at some provincial university and introduced to Stuart Treece, ‘congenitally a person who is always served last’ (p.175), an English professor pushing 40 who, next to Lucky Jim or Billy Liar, looks like a fossil from a bygone era. He has published one dull book about A.E. Housman and keeps crapping on about the 1930s and how the world is going downhill and agonising about his moral scruples and his scrupulous morality and the morality of art and the ethics of morality and What Is The Point of The University in The Era of Television and so on. All at a succession of bloody tedious ‘parties’ (tea and cake, gin and port) with a selection of deeply boring colleagues, male and female, against a backdrop of inane students getting drunk and being unfunnily ‘witty’.

He is wet. He is inept. We watch him fail the driving test for his motorised bicycle. Twice. Attend faculty and student parties, generally ending up in a corner reading a critical magazine, justly ignored by everyone. Dim, timid, feeble, ineffective, Treece is the lead character and a pitiful loser.

‘I’m nearly forty and I can’t even cook myself a proper meal. (p.253)

‘I feel that when they made me, they botched it.’ (p.278)

‘Really Stuart,’ said Emma, ‘you’re hopeless.’ (p.257)

He has nothing interesting to say and says it at great length. What a depressing, demoralising character. He has no energy or life, no insight or ideas, just a cold porridge of worrying and the ability to talk for hundreds of pages about his values and moral scrupulousness and the end of liberal values and, oh dear, what is the world coming to.

Literary theory (absence of)

Never did a professor of literature have less to say about literature or books. He has no ideas beyond worrying about ‘morality’, no theory, no system, pattern or interpretive principles, no notion of hermeneutics, of reader reception, of Marxist or psychoanalytical criticism. David Lodge’s novels, when they feature academics, always contain useful, sometimes inspiring, précis of their theories, sometimes entire lectures outlining them are included in the text. Although this novel is entirely dedicated to a professor of English literature and the small circle of his fellow academics and students, there is absolutely nothing of intellectual substance to get your teeth into, just reams of spinsterish worrying.

For Treece literature’s function lay here: as a humanist he pursued the record of experience as he pursued experience itself, seeking to distil from it more searching exploration of the human fabric, to chart new worlds in the universe in which human sensations are played out; he looked searchingly into the ocean to see what sort of channel was made by the human passage across the world. (p.249)

A) This is a rubbish definition of literature, which is much more various, anarchic and inspiring than this dull, old-fashioned prospectus. B) But even on his own narrow terms, he is a vast and epic failure: he doesn’t distil anything (except mousy navel-gazing), he doesn’t seek any new worlds, he emphatically doesn’t look out searchingly into any ocean. He is a self-deluding coward.

On one, yes one, occasion he lets himself be persuaded to leave the college to go out into the town, taken by the university’s sociology professor on a tour of clubs, pubs and espresso bars, and is appalled at the crude energy, the loud adverts, louder music, the shouting and drinking of the working class – relieved to scurry back to the safety and security of the little tutorial room where he can discuss Moral Values, happy like a hamster in its cage.

As far as I understand it, all the characters parrot a particular strand of washed-out English liberalism derived from G.E.Moore’s Principia Ethica as popularised by the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s, ie that personal relationships are the be-all and end-all of existence; mixed with a fifth-form awareness of the best quotes from Keats’s letters (‘O for a life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’), underpinned by the pervasive influence of F.R.Leavis that Literature is important because it is about Life, about feeling Life, it helps you to understand Life and live Life more intensely. That’s it.

‘Surely, [Viola said] vitality of personal relationships is all; it’s all there is. Life is catalysed by knowing interesting people. That’s where the vivid moments come from.’ (p.193)

The whole pack is a dreadful advert for higher education, giving the impression it is populated by feeble inadequates who, beneath all their high-mindedness, think about sex all the time, do nothing but attend parties, and then spend days afterwards agonising about the tiniest friction in a social encounter or an accidental harshness of conversation, because of the ‘moral’ issues they throw up. ‘Yes, maybe one was a little sharp with that new sociology student, but oh, it is so difficult to act with moral probity all the time.’ The university as a kind of refuge for the socially inadequate.

In the first half or so there are only two characters with a pulse – an African, Eborebelosa, who already has four wives and propositions all the women on the campus in search of a nice white woman to be his fifth. This promising comic character disappears around page 60, only to make a page-long reappearance towards the end when he is beaten up by some Teddy Boys simply for being black. Not so funny any more.

Louis Bates, the working class loser

The other is a repellent hulking caveman in a long raincoat named Bates whose monotonous role is the whiningly obsessive pursuit of the pretty but oh-so-sensitive post-grad student, Emma Fielding. To my dismay, Bates goes on to become the dominating presence of most of the book, screwing up every social situation he appears in, making the comfortably middle-class characters dislike but pity him, and helping to make the book the long, dire, dreadful dirge it is.

Bates is meant to be some kind of portrait of a working class adult student, in which case he is a grotesque travesty and imaginative failure. Instead of learning anything about the challenges facing men of his class in this era trying to better themselves through adult education (a potentially interesting subject), we are subjected to hundreds of pages of the altogether easier-to-write and desperately-irritating-to-read trope of him whining why nobody likes him, and pursuing Emma like a stalker. He is clumsy, ugly, smells and has no social graces. By half-way through the book I wanted to scream every time ugly Bates appeared because I knew it would lead to another 5, 6 or 7 pages whining at Emma, ‘Why won’t you love me, or kiss me, or sleep with me, or go out with me? Is it because I’m working class? What have you got against the working class? I know I’m a bit clumsy but I love you, Emma. Why won’t you go out to me? Can I come to your room and we can talk? I have so much to say to you? Why won’t you go out with me, Emma?’

On and on and on and on and on and on, at the same level of whining importunity, for nearly 300 pages, with no real insight into his character or motivation, no development or change in his situation. Reading this novel is like being in prison.

When you consider this was the era of the Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerRoom At the Top and numerous other novels dramatising working class life, as well as all those classic new Wave movies – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar – it is a scandal that this thin, dull, self-satisfied failure of a shallow under-imagined cartoon was ever published.

Moral claptrap

Dire, dull, heavy and boring, with no plot and no characters worth getting to know, this novel is made almost intolerable by the reams of high-falutin’ and utterly meaningless rhetoric about ‘morality’ which dominate all these effete ‘intellectuals’ thoughts and lives. They fart out their petty tastes and their little opinions but insist on dressing them up as Moral Principles and Grand Insights, when they are nothing of the sort, – as is demonstrated by the way these Principles have little or no impact on their actual behaviour.

‘The trouble is one does like charming people better than good people; it’s a moral corruption’ (p.159)

Yes, whether to like charming people more than ‘good’ people, it is a Profound Moral Dilemma.

It seemed as if his special human situation had somehow sapped him morally, in the plain sense of the word moral, which demands a sound and simple capacity for living life itself… The moral passions can drive one too hard until, as with Gulliver, home from his travels, ordinary life is hardly to be borne… One can’t use one’s illnesses as a kind of moral lever…

One can’t, can one? What does that mean, what does that even mean, if anything? High-minded, grand-sounding bollocks. At yet another party, we are briefly introduced to a minor character – a ‘morose, barrel-chested artist named Hermann’. This is solely so the author can point out that he has a partner, ten years older than him, who works as a prostitute to support them both. And this is solely to prompt yet another ‘moral’ discussion between radical young Viola who thinks the girlfriend is a ‘saint’ and elderly librarian Miss Enid, who is horrified:

‘Viola, dear, if she walks the streets, how can you call her that?’ ‘But she’s giving herself because of something she believes in, his work, and because she loves him,’ said Viola. ‘She’s spending herself.’
‘But why, Viola dear, do you call that saintly? I know I’m an old-fashioned thing; but you know a lot of saints got their promotion, so to speak, because of their chastity. You talk as if she’s doing something very moral; I can’t see how she is even by your standards.’
‘”Even by your standards” isn’t very kind,’ said Viola, ‘but it is moral, in the sense that she’s living life worthily.’
‘I suppose sex has just ceased to be a moral issue,’ said the librarian.
‘No,’ said Viola, shocked. ‘Oh no. It’s just a different morality. I think sex is full of moral problems; luckily, I like moral problems, and I think that’s the difference. People are prepared to have moral problems today, instead of shying away from the places where they came up.’
‘I insist,’ said the librarian. ‘You aren’t moral about personal behaviour…’ (p.102)

And so on for 290 pages. Wading through reams of piffle about ethics and morality and the morality of ethics and the ethics of the morality of ethics, made me realise this is the kind of thing people talk about at length, when they haven’t got anything interesting to say, but are convinced that they have.

They know they are special. They are really convinced they are special. But they are nervously aware that they don’t have an original thought in their heads. They don’t understand the times, they are hopelessly cut off from the culture around them, but – aha! – what they do have is their moral insights!

Yes, despite being cut off from the world around them, failing to understand anything happening in the wider society, despite being puzzled by the motor bicycle and unable to operate a payphone, incapable of cooking a meal, despite disliking this new ‘rock and roll’ music, despite not liking ‘modern’ art and despising the new fashion for ‘coffee bars’, despite in every way being marginalised and irrelevant losers, this cohort of characters keep their spirits up and persuade each other they are doing something valid by dressing up their inconsequential thoughts and insignificant lives (‘Oh should I kiss Louis just to cheer him up? Is it the moral thing to do?’) in the grandiose rhetoric of Morality and Liberal Values.

‘Humanity is hung around everyone’s neck, but we seek ourselves to live in a kind of moral and human suspension.’ (p.264)

Oh how precious and saintly and fine and sensitive their moral vibrations are. Or do I mean: Rubbish. Empty words signifying nothing but their self-love.

The pitiful thing is that all this talk about morality doesn’t – as per usual, as so often in ‘real life’ – actually make any difference to anybody’s behaviour. As Bob Dylan said, people do whatever they want to and then find fancy reasons to justify it afterwards. In a classic example, Treece spends 150 pages wondering about his soul and his moral scruples and feeling old and like his day is passing, the narrator describing on scores and scores of occasions each little flicker of moral scrupulosity his pathetic brain farts out – and then goes ahead and sleeps with one of his students anyway, pretty Emma, the postgraduate Louis Bates is obsessed with.

Ah, but what makes them so precious, you see, is that the sleeping together makes him (Treece) and Emma unhappy – their big achievement (which they confuse with being thoughtful or insightful) is to transform every aspect of human experience into over-analysed misery. And they discuss their unhappiness at great length, taking comfort from it, taking solace from the way they can’t even have sex without complicating it with pompous and ineffectual hand-wringing.

Suicide (the only way out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel)

And when Louis finds out, when Emma tells him flat out NO she will not sleep with him because she is having an ‘affair’ (the word of choice of the ineffectual, the self-deceiving, the self-dramatising – she has clumsy, inevitably unsatisfying sex with the man who can’t even ride a bicycle in a shabby single bed in her dingy rented room – once – but darling, it wasn’t sex like those ghastly working class people have, it is an affair because we talk about D.H.Lawrence and we know foreign languages, it is an affair because we spend hundreds of hours worrying and agonising over whether we have betrayed our Values, whether it is a Moral Action or merely a satisfaction of Animal Lust, and in these Fallen Times of ours, after all, darling, what can An Intellectual like me do: would you like to listen to us discuss the meaning of our one act of sex for hundreds of pages?) Louis tries to kill himself.

This crude, violent (and typically depressing, sterile) event happens very abruptly at the end of the book. After 200 pages of whining at Emma and being rejected and refusing to let that stop him, of asking ‘Emma, why don’t you love me?’ every time he meets her at every party, reception and drinks which make up the ‘events’ in the novel – ‘is it because I’m working class? But I love you Emma,’ on and on and on and on, when finally confronted by her conclusive rejection, he abruptly swallows a bottle of aspirin and is rushed to hospital.

We know this because Treece is already in hospital because of stomach ulcers he’s been suffering which have been leading to haemorrhages, loss of blood, weakness etc. The novel isn’t really developed enough to have symbolism or pattern or meaning to it, but it seemed entirely appropriate that Treece’s body is bleeding away into a physical inanition perfectly reflecting the wordy vacancy of his mind and his self-pitying sense that his Values are no longer relevant in the world.

I was surprised when I read Bradbury’s most famous book, The History Man, trailed as one of the great comic novels of the 1970s, to find that not only is it not funny, but it opens and ends with a character at one of the Kirks’ ‘famous parties’ gashing their wrists on the perennially broken window in the spare bedroom. It is not only not funny, it is actively bitter and miserable.

So both Bradbury’s first and his most famous novels conclude with characters trying to commit suicide. Can’t help feeling this is what they are really about: 200 pages of humour-free ‘comedy’ and then the real point: ‘I may have read all these books, my mutual admiration society thinks I’m so clever – but God, I am sooooooooo unhappy. Help me.’

Mal mots

My teenage son and his friends are ruthlessly critical of each other’s gags and routines. Pointing both hands at someone like a cheesy American game show host and saying, ‘Ha. Ah ha. I see what you did there,’ is a favourite way of indicating obvious, laboured and contrived attempts at humour. This novel has a steady trickle of mots you feel the author has laboured over long and hard and which fall lifeless to the floor.

‘But you cultivate your own garden.’
‘My avant-garden,’ said Treece.

‘It must be wonderful to be educated. What does it feel like?’
‘It’s like having an operation,’ said Treece. ‘You don’t know you’ve had it until long after it’s over.’ (p.141)

It is wit not humour, in that you don’t laugh. It is designed to prompt a knowing smile. Oh how clever. Ha. Ah ha.

Over at the table beside the bottles a serious literary conversation was taking place, Treece found. ‘How is your novel?’ asked a brittle, cultured voice. ‘My novel, did you say, or my navel?’ replied someone. ‘Your novel, old boy,’ said the brittle voice. ‘Well, they’re both suffering from lack of contemplation,’ said the second voice. (p.153)

‘Ah,’ said Jenkins, shaking a waggish finger in a very Continental way, ‘you want to have your cake and eat it.Why not, of course? It’s an absurd proverb. I always have my cake and eat it. It’s the only wise thing to do.’ He ate several cream pastries with great rapidity. ‘You expect too much,’ he said finally, sucking his fingers. (p.202)

‘A lot of water has flowed under Robert Bridges since then… ‘ (p.194)

Boom boom.

Academics are idiots

Like pseudo-intellectuals everywhere, Treece and the members of faculty he bumps into at parties and receptions all think the intellectual life of the world officially ended when they and their friends say so – that culture has gone down the pan, that the Great Tradition is ended, that – in their case – the arrival of television and advertising spell doom, the Life of the Mind is over, darling, I have lived on into a Philistine Age, what is the point of our possessing such Fine Moral Sensibilities?

It is 1959. On the eve of the 1960s and the vast worldwide explosion of entirely new modes of seeing, writing, making music and art and fashion and design, these dull, shallow, blind provincial, petty intellectuals see their feeble lines of though puttering to a seedy end – and knowing or understanding nothing, absolutely nothing, about the world they live in, they draw the self-deluding conclusion that the world is ending, when in so many ways, it was just beginning.

‘But then there is no English culture left, is there?’ (p.178)

… Here there were, really, no heroes and no vital men, and one simply filled in time… (p.179)

‘But there are no rich cultures left, are there? It’s a seedy world.’ (p.187)

‘How can I explain it to you? I do bad things. I lack the energy to carry through any process I conceive. And when I look at all the people in the modern world, and at the way things are moving… then I trust nothing. I simply have no trust or repose anywhere. All is change for the worse.’ (p.207)

What an imperceptive idiot. What a truly dreadful novel this is.

Related links

Malcolm Bradbury’s novels

1959 – Eating People Is Wrong – a dire, heavy, boring and tiresome portrait of a bunch of effete dullards at a provincial university, pitifully obsessing over the tiny outpourings of their feeble minds.
1965 – Stepping Westward
1975 – The History Man – Howard Kirk is a repellent sociology lecturer.
1983 – Rates of Exchange
1987 – Cuts: A Very Short Novel
1993 – Doctor Criminale
2000 – To the Hermitage

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)

‘The trouble with you, cocker, is you’re a pathological bloody liar,’ said Arthur. (p.43)

Billy Liar

William ‘Billy’ Fisher lives in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. He is 19, still lives at home with his mum and dad and Gran, and works at a local undertaker firm, Shadrack and Duxbury. He is a pathological liar and the novel opens with his lies having got into several fixes:

  • when tasked with sending calendars publicising the undertakers to every other firm and important person in the town, Billy hides them under his bed in order to keep the postage money for himself
  • his mum asks him to post a letter to a radio programme but he keeps it, opens and reads it himself
  • he is carrying on with three local girls, Liz, Rita, the Witch and promises them all he’s engaged to them, recycling a cheap ring to each in turn
  • he has lied fluently and creatively to the mum of his mate, Arthur, telling her that he (Billy) has a sister called Sheila, who’s married to a market trader named Eric, who has three shops, they have two children, Norma and Michael, the latter born with a deformed foot which was miraculously cured by one Dr Ubu, an Indian at Leeds University – all completely untrue, so that Billy is petrified of Arthur’s mum ever meeting his mum and finding out
  • he’s told his friends, his employer and his family that he’s been offered a job in London, script-writing for comedy entertainer Danny Boone – but he hasn’t

The novel chronicles the Saturday – starting with being roused out of bed and following to last thing at night, after the Saturday night dance – when all his chickens come home to roost, when all these fixes are exposed, his enemies gather round him, his girlfriends find out about each other, and Billy must face the reality behind his fantasies.

Billy’s fantasies

All this would be the stuff of a gritty 1950s kitchen sink novel but it is transformed by – the text is completely dominated by – Billy’s bright, vivid and hilarious fantasies – his mind is an unstoppable producer of amazing fancies and visions, comic scenes and scenarios, soaring far above the disappointing limits of ‘real life’. They come in a prolific flood of sketches, routines, phrases, gags, one-liners and extravagant visions.

Probably the largest is the well-worked-out alternative country of Ambrosia, where Billy is President, King, decorated war hero, whatever his mood requires, building a brand new capital city, celebrating Ambrosia’s recent triumphs in war. He carries (in his imagination) an Ambrosian machine gun which can be pulled out at the drop of (an imaginary) hat to slaughter anyone and everyone who is frustrating his day or looks like exposing his various scams.

Then there is a large number of ‘routines’ he can go into, merging seamlessly with ‘normal’ conversation and situations:

  • the trouble at t’mill routine, with Arthur taking the part of Olroyd and Billy the wayward son
  • the two Yanks in a drugstore routine
  • the Winston Churchill routine
  • the (impersonating his elderly Yorkshire employer) Duxbury routine
  • the Bible routine (‘And a voice spake…’)

Encompassing

The marvellousness of the novel, still fresh and laugh-out-loud funny after all these years, is due, I think, to two factors:

The faultless comic timing of these sketches and routines, the way one encounter, conversation or event effortlessly spawns witty one-liners or larger routines, all weaving in and out of Billy’s permanently-wired consciousness.

My heart missed a beat, and I wondered quickly how many beats it had missed this day, and whether it could only miss so many before you were dead, and if so how far was I off the total. (p.88)

And the fact that almost everyone is at it – the entire world is involved in the comedy. His workmates, his bosses, passersby, shop assistants, his three girlfriends, his family, everyone is reciting lines and playing parts and working routines.

The Witch turned away with a quick movement of the head, bringing tears to her eyes without difficulty. I suspected that she had perfected the whole action in front of a mirror. Its point was to make it quite evident that she was turning away and not just looking away. (p.99)

It is an embracing vision of a world completely transformed to become an endless source of humour and wit:

Stradhoughton was littered with objects for our derision. We could make Fascist speeches from the steps of the rates office, and we had been in trouble more than once for doing our Tommy Atkins routine under the war memorial in Town Square. Sometimes we would walk down Market Street shouting ‘Apples a pound pears’ to confuse the costermongers with their leather jackets and their Max Miller patter. (p.41)

The three apprentices at the undertakers carry on various high-powered sketches, and everybody at the Kit-Kat cafe knows routines or is performing their particular ones. The old jossers in the pub have their secret conversations, the local masons have their rituals, even the old prostitutes in the railway station late at night have a well-rehearsed patter for chatting up the soldiers. The novel portrays a world where everyone is performing one or other comedy sketch (even if they don’t realise it).

Everybody I knew spoke in clichés, but Rita spoke as though she got her words out of a slot machine, whole sentences ready-packed in a disposable tinfoil wrapper. (p.47)

Word cloud (Words and phrases throughout the text supporting the theme of play acting and putting on voices):

raillery, the high-pitched university voice, primitive verbal by-play, mechanical badinage with lorry-drivers, his Western brothers voice, the standard ready-to-use repartee, a pantomime of amazement, the grandiloquent voice, speaking the phrase as if it were a headline, the robust voice… his rich, so-called Yorkshire relish voice… the low voice… her icy voice… I went into the hard voice… from the hard voice into the matter-of-fact voice… I said in the bitter voice… I put on the intellectual act… in the light voice I said… I spoke in what I hoped was the low, husky voice… I gave them the deprecating smile… the cracked phonograph voice… the studied, indifferent approach… I said in the high-pitched voice, ‘I cannot tell a lie’… I put on an elaborate mock-sheepish act… I struck the farewell attitude…


Amis and Waterhouse

Age Amis born 1922, Waterhouse 1929, so Waterhouse is the younger man and got his first novel published at a younger age – Amis’ first novel Lucky Jim, 1954 (aet. 32) Waterhouse’s first novel There Is a Happy Land, 1957 (aet. 28).

Writer’s block In chapter two, bored at work, Billy gets out the manuscript of his play, The Two Schools at Gripminster – which has barely progressed beyond the stage directions of the first scene – and stares at it, unable to write a word. This reminded me of the scene in I Like It Here where the protagonist, Garnet Bowen, stares at the manuscript of his unfinished play, and spends a couple of pages of the novel agonising over just one sentence of dialogue. Which itself reminded me of Lucky Jim Dixon’s efforts throughout that novel to write anything meaningful for the hour-long public lecture he is doomed to give.

Writers writing about the difficulty of writing. But it’s not the only thing the two authors have in common:

Funny voices Lucky Jim and, to a lesser extent, Amis’s other early novels, feature protagonists much given to making funny faces and doing funny voices, to relieve the tedium of existence, to dramatise their boring lives, to cope with the antagonism of other people. It is striking to come to Billy Liar and find a novel which is entirely about a young man who spends every waking hour doing funny voices, living out sketches and routines, inhabiting fictional characters and fantasy worlds. Lucky Jim on speed.

One of the habits I was going to get out of was a sort of vocal equivalent of the nervous grimace, an ever-expanding repertoire of odd noises and sound effects that I would run through in time of tension… I would begin to talk to myself, the words degenerating first into senseless, ape-like sounds and then into barnyard imitations, increasing in absurdity until I was completely incoherent… I began to repeat this sentence in a variety of tones, stresses and dialects, ranging from a rapid Mickey Mouse squeak to a bass drawl, and going through all the Joycean variations… (pp.67-68)

Was there something in the air or the water? Were all young men in the late 1950s doing silly voices? There is, of course, the possible influence of The Goon Show (1951-60)…

Teenage attitude Another notable aspect of the Amis novels is the pride in dismissive vagueness, ‘Dr Johnson or whoever it was’, ‘the burgundy or whatever it was’ etc. It is a kind of insolent, disrespectful attitude which says, ‘You people think this is important, but it’s just a load of crap.’

The same attitude is prevalent throughout Billy Liar:

St Botolph’s… was the home of a Ladies’ Guild, a choir and some mob called the Shining Hour… [Maurie] was interested in youth work and all the rest of it… The long bar was where the members of the Ancient Order of Stags or whatever it was gathered on Saturday nights… in the middle of them was Councillor Duxbury, wearing the chain of past grand warden or something… [The Roxy nightclub] was supposed to be a suburban amenity or something… [Arthur at the microphone] looked like Danny Kaye or somebody doing a relaxed season at the Palladium… If [Gran’s] fit recurred it was meant to be serious or something… life and death and all the rest of it…

It is a stylistic tag or tic, emphasising how the hero’s values are different from the boring adult, official world, that he doesn’t give a tinker’s toss about their shagging orders or amenities.

Loneliness In the Amis novels the Amis protagonist is essentially alone in a sea of fools – something which gives them an occasional desperate edge. In Billy Liar everyone is portrayed as acting out one routine or another, everyone is playing a part, or struggling to:

I was trying on expressions, as though I carried a mirror about with me and was pulling faces in it. I tried to look stunned, because after all there was the material for it, and I tried to assemble some kind of definite emotion that I wasn’t putting on or concocting. (p.108)

But what the Amis and Waterhouse have in common is they are all playing a part in order to escape. As in Amis, the comedy conceals anxiety. For example, the only one of his three girls Billy has any feelings for is Liz, and it’s because he feels safe with her, because her presence is like a ‘refuge, her beaming comfortable presence protecting me from the others’ (p.129).

There is the same underlying fear of other people which I noticed in Amis’s comedy.

The idea of ever seeing Stamp again, or indeed anybody, filled me with horror. (p.154)

Was it just these two, or was it a broader cultural theme, the loneliness and alienation of young people in the 1950s? The sense of not being real? The sense of being bombarded with alternative realities and personas, all of which can be sampled like a menu, but none of which really fit?

Plot part 2

During the day Billy’s fantasies unroll with a wonderful carefree quality, he knows he’ll be in trouble with all sorts of people if the truth comes out but manages to keep all the balls in the air. We see him:

  • joshing with the guys at work, his friend Arthur and his enemy, the boorish Stamp
  • coping with his aggressively chavvy girlfriend who serves at the local coffee bar
  • dealing with his ponderous boss, Mr Shadrack (in a great scene Billy is in what he thinks is the empty undertakes office and starts saying ‘Shadrack’ in funny accents, until he is yelling it at the top of his voice – at which point Mr Shadrack emerges from the downstairs toilet)
  • ignoring the thundering criticism of  his parents and shouty Gran
  • slipping the frigid Barbara a couple of so-called ‘passion pills’ and then trying to grope her in St Botolph’s churchyard

All good comic material. But as the day turns to night, things become more fraught:

  • Billy bundles up the incriminating calendars and is smuggling them out to the ashpits on the outskirts of town when he has a tense and puzzling encounter with the senile older partner at his work, old Duxbury
  • he has a spot to perform a bit of stand-up at the local working men’s club and goes down like a lead balloon, not least because  his Dad turns up unexpectedly, only to turn his back in shame and embarrassment
  • the evening is set around the one night-club in town, the Roxy. Here Billy encounters all the characters in his scams who humiliate him in one way or another
    • the two girls he’s proposed to – chavvy Rita and frigid Barbara (aka the Witch) – meet and spot that one is wearing the other’s engagement ring and their St Nicholas necklace – which kicks off a big fight
    • his boss, Shadrack, lets him know they’ve twigged about the calendars and him stealing the postage money and he is not required back at work on Monday
    • his friend, Arthur, performs a song they co-wrote, along with a smooth band, the Rockets, and it is clear Arthur is actually achieving something compared to all Billy’s fantasies
    • to avoid his fighting fiancées, Billy takes the one girl he has real feelings for, Liz, out for a walk beyond the slag heaps on the edge of town and into the woods where, to his amazement, she lets him undress her and they appear to have full-blown sex – unfortunately, just after ‘the moment of satisfaction’, Billy hears rustling and sniggers from nearby bushes, leaps up and discovers his enemy from the office, Stamp, has watched the whole thing along with two drunken friends. Billy chases them off, then returns to collect Liz and they traipse back to the club in humiliation
    • when he finally arrives home after an eventful evening, it is to discover his Gran, taken ill earlier, has been sent off to hospital in an ambulance along with his Mum. Billy has a stand-up fight shouting match in the hall with his Dad, not only about his irresponsibility, but it comes out they’ve broken into the chest under his bed and discovered the stolen calendars and the letter his mum wrote the radio station which Billy was meant to post but instead opened and hid
    • disgusted and humiliated, Billy packs his things in a suitcase and takes a taxi to the hospital to be with his mother. His Gran dies while he is there. He and his mum sit there mouthing empty conventionalities. Once again, he is oppressed with the sense that not just he, but everyone is acting – the doctor, the nurses, his mum. He just wants to run away from the oppression of their inauthenticity.

And so Billy sees his mum into a taxi home and then walks to the railway station. He buys a ticket to London. He’s lost his job and will quite possibly be prosecuted for theft, he’s been shown up as a rotten stand-up, he was humiliated at the most important emotional moment of his life (with Liz), his best friend quietly despises him, his family are through with him…

He stands under the big clock at Stradhoughton station, the ticket to London in his hand, watched by the three old prostitutes trying to pick up drunk soldiers and realises that, for once in his life, he must make a real decision.

Can he? Will he? What will it be?

Conclusion

These final twenty or thirty pages significantly alter the mood of the novel. A lot of the joyful fizz expires like old champagne and, with the death of the Gran, in particular, something like the reality of life creeps over the text like a grey pall. His Dad is still the blustering bully and his Mum is still the shallow nag, but for a moment he realises they are people too, they too feel and suffer.

The sex-with-Liz scene had also been strangely anti-climactic – not only in the obvious sense that it was ruined by Stamp et al eavesdropping – but that, when it came to it, even at this moment of what should have been genuine emotional fulfilment, Billy feels empty, he stares beyond her into a void.

Shame the book has to end like this, on a downbeat. There are lots of earnest books about existential anxiety, about being a hollow man, in fact the twentieth century is lousy with them. There are far fewer genuinely fizzing, bubbling comic masterpieces – far rarer, far more valuable.


The movie

Made into the classic English ‘new wave’ Sixties movie, directed by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, released in August 1963. The film is beautifully directed, the locations (in black-and-white Bradford) wonderfully evocative, and the central performances buoyed up by great support from Leonard Rossiter as Shadrack and Rodney Bewes as Billy’s friend, Arthur.

But what it gains in visual style it loses in comic sparkle. The book is dominated by – is composed of – Billy’s endlessly joking, fantasising consciousness, carrying us on a roller-coaster in which other people are merely material for comic riffs. The movie, in contrast, has to show the reality of the other characters right from the start, has to give them realistic dialogue and so make them more real and sympathetic, which has the effect of drastically damping down the comedy. Beautifully made, nonetheless it brings out the grimness of the environment and Billy’s torturedness much more than the novel.

Related links

I Like It Here by Kingsley Amis (1958)

It would be very easy, cheap and pleasant, Bowen often reflected, to drink oneself to death in Portugal. Perhaps he would try it some time. (p.85)

Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’  in London, married with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to do the unthinkable and go ‘abroad’ – you know, where foreigners live, babbling their incomprehensible languages, cooking their oily food, imbibing their undrinkable concoctions.

Although Portuguese beer tasted much less of bone-handled knives than other continental beers, it still wasn’t as nice as English beer. (p.73)

The hero as philistine

This is Kingsley Amis’s third novel and the third to feature a protagonist who makes a virtue of working in the humanities (lecturer, librarian, writer) but cordially loathing them – mentioning classics from the Iliad to Aaron’s Rod only to dismiss them as mind-erodingly boring, mentioning contemporary authors (Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch) only to explain how tired even thinking about them makes him feel (Conrad is memorably dismissed as ‘that crazy Polish scribbling sea-dog’ p.155). If he does betray any cultural knowledge (a quote from Dr Johnson, fondness for Henry Fielding) he immediately downplays it as an accident, immediately vowing to disown it if anyone repeats this slur on his manhood.

He expresses the same attitude for all the other arts. Frank Sinatra is singing on the radio but he cuts him off in mid-yowl. Dismisses Tchaikovsky and all the rest of that boring rot.

Oh, how he loathed architecture. He would have liked to see it all done away with. (p.39)

Bowen was thinking what a dreadful thing the theatre was… (p.96)

(Bowen is struggling/pretending to write a play during his stay in Portugal and there are several extended and very funny passages about how ghastly the theatre is and actors are.) Other people are tiresome craps or awful sods, to be avoided as much as possible. As to being specific or precise about things, listen I can’t be bloody bothered.

Later they had Three Coins in the Fountain, a song – taken from an American film about some place in Italy… They also had A Pulha or whatever it was… (p.66)

Whatever. Something or other. The thingummy. Many writers make a show of their precise knowledge, especially of foreign phrases, places, customs. Amis goes out of his way not to be bloody impressed by foreigners and not to give a stuff, alright chum?

Sitting drinking away under a tree in an important-looking thoroughfare called something like the Avenida da Liberdade, Bowen tried to feel full of fun. (p.163)

Bowen drank up his whiskey-soda thing, of which he knew nothing except that it contained no whiskey or soda and was bloody good. (p.164)

I thought the title should be pronounced ‘I like it here’, evincing a soupçon of enthusiasm for the foreign location – but now realise the ‘here’ refers to England, London, his house, where he likes being, thank you very much – and so the title should be pronounced, ‘I like it here, right here, alright? why should I have to leave for bloody wogland’?

Plot

This amusingly grumpy travelogue is injected with a rather spurious plot. Over a boozy lunch in London, Bowen’s publisher tells him a famous old writer, Strether, who ended his career with a swan song novel a decade earlier, has suddenly popped up with a new manuscript. He lives in Portugal, had always kept an ultra-low profile and dealt via a literary agent out there. Could Bowen track him down and ascertain that it is the actual Strether, that he’s still alive and that he wrote the manuscript now sitting on the publisher’s desk in London. Would that be alright, old boy? We’ll make sure our man in Lisbon, Oates, is there to meet you off the boat and he can probably put you up at his place for a while…

The great bulk of the text is made up of Bowen’s anxieties about going abroad, and the awful practicalities of organising going abroad (all the people you have to deal with), descriptions of the lengthy sea voyage and then all his impressions of arriving in Lisbon and going to be put up in the badly-kept, uncomfortable household of Carlos Oates, half-Portuguese.

He and his wife pay a brief visit to this man Strether, from which it is impossible to work out whether he is a fraud or not, and then the novel concentrates on the parties and socialising at Oates’ and in bars and restaurants around Lisbon. At one particularly drunken outing they meet an ex-pat couple, the Bannions, and get themselves invited to stay in their spare villa, thus departing the insalubrious Oates stables.

Some more days pass lazily drinking and eating before Barbara is suddenly called home by a telegram saying her mother is ill, and another message arrives from the writer, Strether, asking if Bowen would like to go and stay with him a little. Which he does, getting to know the civilised old man over a couple of days, but also witnessing his problems, viz. the visit of a smooth young buck who, Bowen decides, must be blackmailing him. The Buck is accompanied by a young beauty and when both buck and Strether encourage them to walk down to the village bar for a drink, Bowen finds himself wandering through the woods with her, then stopping in a clearing and kissing, then lying on the dry grass and moving into a compromising position when – he is stung on the leg by a hornet, jumps up and runs round the clearing yelling! This and the drunken outing to a restaurant in Lisbon, earlier on, are probably the two most deliberate comic set pieces. The moment is ruined and Bowen accompanies the beauty to the local bar where the young buck arrives to collect her shortly afterwards.

Bowen had noticed bad feeling between Strether and his smartly uniformed young chauffeur and late that night he is awoken by bangs and bumps and sounds of scuffling downstairs – he stumbles down to see Strether on a heap on the verandah which a fit young man leaps over and disappears into the night. For a moment I thought he might be dead and this novel take a complete change in tone, but he is just a bit beaten and hurt his leg falling down some steps. Bowen wraps him up warm, fetches him a whiskey and drives off to get a doctor.

The text cuts to Bowen having another boozy lunch with his publisher back in London, giving a brief summary of his trip and explaining why he’s come to the conclusion Strether is the real thing, is the long-silent writer. Bowen ends with a few more thoughts about how abroad is different from home.

Without the thin Strether sub-plot, this would be in effect an autobiographical account of what the reader strongly suspects was an actual holiday the Amis family enjoyed in Portugal, complete with drunken evenings and minor comic complications.

Analysis

This is a broadly comic novel in that the tone is always light and humorous and, quite apart from the (fairly rare) comic set-pieces, is full of light-hearted phrases and moments, often deploying the device of ‘the incongruous comparison’. After struggling to make any progress on his stalled play, Bowen

got up and stumped round the room for a bit, clawing like a science-fiction monster at the flies which wove about him their delicate flight-patterns. (p.97)

When the fleas began in Portugal Bowen felt, as one who finds Mont Blanc impressive or sees a knife drawn in a Shanghai bar, that tradition was reasserting itself. (p.86)

There’s a really funny description of a Portuguese official on the phone, trying to sort out a refund for Bowen’s sea tickets, once Barbara has been summoned to fly back to England to see her mother – and the way he use every part of his body to back up the sometimes wheedling, sometimes threatening, sometimes devastated tones he deploys down the line.

Pop culture Amis’s tone and approach go out of their way to avoid the grandiose, the literary, the well-mannered style, and instead rummage around for comparisons and metaphors drawn from the popular culture of the day. Cricket, booze, the radio, the latest novels, magazines. Lots of times Bowen catches himself, or realises someone else is, acting just like someone in the movies. When Strether is beaten up by the chauffeur, Bowen comes to his rescue, sees off the assailant, then wraps Buckmaster in a blanket, brings him whiskey etc. It’s a potentially serious moment, but Strether

looked, with the blanket round his shoulders, like an old Red Indian, the wise one who keeps saying that the white man is his brother and there must be no more blood. (p.175)

An important element of the Amis style is the constant use of rather boyish cultural references, this one brings to life a TV Western or maybe even a boys’ comic.

Comic characters: He is as acute as ever in seeing and quickly delineating the comedic in everyone around him, in  his hands everyone becomes a comic character.

For example, Oates’s two Portuguese friends, de Sousa and Bachixa, always seen together arguing fiercely and both extremely proud of their shiny motorcycles.

– The extraordinary Mr Bannion, retired banker who served in India and issues forth a continuous stream of Gilbert & Sullivan parodies of various nationalities, n’est-ce pas, Danke schön, here’s looking at you kid, quotes, songs and speeches to everyone’s bewilderment.

– A tight-arsed disapproving Welsh couple, the Parrys, who appear in the drunken-night-out-in-Lisbon scene:

[Bowen] wondered if you could have so much the air of going round looking for something to put a stop to unless you really were going round doing that…The circle [round the table] expanded to thirteen persons. Mrs Parry stared round it as though it was composed of card-sharping perverts. (p.120)

Panic That said, a lot of the comedy in the novel is based on the same sense of panic I noticed in its two predecessors. Other people are not only ghastly, they’re often completely incomprehensible. ‘What? What did he just say? What does he want me to do?’ – are common thoughts for the bewildered Amis protagonist.

There’s a particularly humorous scene where de Sousa proudly shows Bowan every inch of his shiny, well-maintained motorbike, pointing out bits and looking up expectantly for Bowan to say something appreciative, but Bowan knows nothing about motorbikes and can’t speak Portuguese, and his mounting exasperation comes just this side of desperation.

Lots of Amis encounters take place on this delicate border between hilarity and hysteria.

In fact, it occurs to me that the Amis hero copes with the problem of other people by turning them into comic types. People haven’t been around much before he’s pointing out their funny hair, or mannerisms, or habits of speech, thus neutralising their ever-present sense of threat. Comedy as a coping mechanism.

He-man According to the etymological dictionary, the phrase ‘he-man’ dates back to the 1830s in America. After the war, Charles Atlas-style American body-builders became a prominent cultural meme. According to Atlas’s Wikipedia article, adverts showing an 8-stone weakling having sand kicked in his face by a bully on the beach but vowing to do a body-building course in order to take his revenge, were very widespread in boys’ comics in the 1940s and 50s. An enduring cultural presence.

A key element of these novels’ proposition is the permanent sense of the hero’s inadequacy. It’s always exaggerated for comic affect, but it feels real nonetheless.

I am exactly the kind of man for this not to happen to, he thought. (p.172) He hoped there was nothing still to come tonight which would find him wanting. There were plenty of things which would to choose from. He was that sort of chap. Quite a number of his actions and attitudes had in the past struck him as unworthy of a man of his alleged sensibility, or a man of his age, or a man. (p.175)

Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim is uneasily aware of failing in every way – professionally, intellectually, artistically, romantically. The naive librarian John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling is not adequate to the task of mixing with Mrs Gruffydd-Williams’s posh, cultured friends or of coping with her advances. Similarly, in an unexpected amorous encounter with a gorgeous young Portuguese woman, Bowen experiences the characteristic Amis feeling of male inadequacy. What the devil should he say or do in response to her advances?

He wished, as often in the past, that he was a really mature man who ‘knew’ things like this ‘by instinct’. (p.151)

It is typical that Bowan’s memories of wartime service include stalling a motorbike which promptly fell on top of him and crashing his jeep into the back of a lorry (p.178). Inept. Inadequate. Found wanting…

Hatred And the other side of the coin to this crippling sense of inadequacy is an emotional backlash, a reaction, of resentment or hatred. After all, lots of comedy derives from negative feelings but generally siphoned off, redirected or sublimated into exaggeration, parody etc. Here the negativity is often on open display.

For example, Amis takes a page to explain that almost all Bowen’s creative ideas stem, at some level, from his loathing of his mother-in-law. He wants to write something which will express his detestation:

Christ, what a book it would be. A gorgeous, star-shot, blood-red, awesome pall of hatred. (p.98)

Later, the squalid conditions of the Bowen family stay at ‘that bleeding insect-vivarium Oates called a house’ build up to a climax of frustration:

Bowen had waited for Oates to change his suit jacket for his pyjama jacket – a habit of his on hot evenings – because he could hate him more thus attired. (p.133)

before giving his notice to quit. Hatred and resentment are like the below-decks engines of the comedy.

Fear And underlying the entire attitude and persona, as in the previous novels, Amis is quite explicit that the basis of the protagonist’s character is fear.

He had thought in the past that a binary system of laziness and conceit accounted fully for all the motions of his life, but of late its orbit had shown perturbations from a third component. This additional body seemed to be fear, and abroad, of course, was what took him to perihelion. (p.134)

He is afraid of other people, of new situations, of being anywhere strange – of ‘encounters with the unmanageable’ (p.140) – and controls his fear and anxiety with deeply ingrained routines of ridicule, criticism and insult.

It is difficult not to see the entire text as a fascinating set of variations on all the possible ways, at every conceivable level – from overall plot, through incident and character, down to the choice of metaphors and similes, and even to individual words – in which these defence mechanisms against his fundamental people-phobia can be embodied and deployed.

A bit of politics

Just a whiff. Not too much. Bowen feels in some vague way ‘for the poor’ and is certainly against anyone more successful or hoity-toity than him. In Portugal, their host, Oates, turns out to be a supporter of the dictator, Salazar, listing his achievements (schools, hospitals). But then Bowen and his wife meet a man in a bar who is a staunch opponent of the dictator and depicts all of Portuguese society as based on corruption and graft, the hospitals and schools built in a few obvious places to palliate Western allies (the Americans) on whom the dictator relies for support and money.

In an interesting passage Bowen compares this corrupt set-up to the dismal politics of Blighty, where sleepy old Macmillan slogs it out with dire Hugh Gaitskell, while the unions strike for more pay; and contrasts both with the situation in France, where the communist party has a real political presence and the country is tearing itself apart over the Algeria Question. In Paris Sartre and Camus; in London Amis and Osborne.

Conclusion

A reliably funny comic novel, replete with all the Amis comedic effects, but rather thin on plot, and unusually short (180 pages).

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis (1955)

We moved together towards the entrance-hall. I felt I was walking in an absurdly unnatural way, like a school-boy on the stage for the first time in his life. Did I always swing my arms as if I were carrying a pair of empty buckets? (p.21)

Amis’s second novel (he was 33), told in the first-person by John Aneurin Lewis, a frustrated, poor young married librarian in (the fictional town of) Aberdarcy, south Wales; this is the comic tale of how he is seduced by the sophisticated wife of a local businessman, but learns his lesson!

Self-consciousness

As in Lucky Jim, a lot of the comedy stems from the narrator’s hyper self-awareness. He is continually onstage to himself, playing a part or, more accurately, numerous parts copied from an amusingly wide range of sources, to alleviate the boredom of his job and his endlessly roving self-consciousness. That Uncertain Feeling is a good summary of the book’s worldview; Lewis’s consciousness is awash with feelings but he is never very certain what they mean or what he should be doing about them.

A huge bewilderment settled upon me (82)…

I had just started to tremble a little bit and to feel, on the whole, like a new boy at a large and prosperous school. (p.115)

Bolshie

As in Lucky Jim the protagonist mutinies against stifling provincialism – albeit in an essentially innocent overgrown schoolboy sort of way. He sticks his tongue out at a painting of the founder in the library, he confuses a local woman seeking to renew her library ticket, like Jim he makes funny faces behind people’s backs, and odd noises of triumph or despair when he thinks he’s alone.

When nothing’s going on or likely to start going on, which is a lot of the time, I start practising certain poses and tones and phrases, for no very clear reason. (p.10)

He thinks of himself as a bit of a rebel. When he’s invited to a posh party at the big house of Mrs Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams he is determined to stand up to ‘those people’ – her well-to-do friends – and not be talked down to. He’s not going to be impressed by Schubert and other craps or by so-called art probably laid on the canvas with a trowel or by the ‘reproduction of some rotten old tapestry’ in a pub, and he only reads books if he hasn’t got a new copy of Astounding Science Fiction magazine available.

He spends a lot of time wondering who to be rude to and how much. He describes the prolonged campaign he’s been waging against the downstairs neighbours who won’t let him or his wife go through their kitchen door so as to use the garden to hang out their washing: in response John refuses to take mail when they’re out, misdirects callers, leaves rubbish on their doorstep and so on.  Angry with Elizabeth, he fantasises about shouting abuse at her down the phone. He fantasises about bursting into one of her posh dinner parties and cartwheeling round the room dressed in traditional Welsh outfit with SOD THE LOT OF YOU sewn on the back. A life full of fantasies.

Because, like Jim Dixon’s, John Lewis’s (generally well-hidden) rage against the world is actually the reaction of a man who is deeply afraid of other people. Instead of standing up for himself and ‘the workers’ at Elizabeth’s posh party, he quickly retreats to the safety of the loo, happier to be hiding from clever, articulate upper-middle-class people. Chapter Four opens with a character- defining sentence:

It was wonderful in the lavatory. (p.48)

‘Panic’, ‘unmanning’, ‘afraid’, all occur within a few pages. Several times he envies people their ‘whole-heartedness’, obviously afflicted with the self-conscious sense of somehow being a fake. At a dance, when Elizabeth is more or less man-handled away from him by some toughs and he tries to intervene, John is in danger of getting pummeled, and is only saved by the intervention of his downstairs neighbour’s son, a genuine hard case. When he is caught snogging Elizabeth at her house by the unexpected return of her husband and friends, he ends up making a sharp exit from the bedroom window. He is a confirmed runner-away.

‘Don’t you feel you’re running away, though?’
‘Yes, I do, thank God.’ (p.245)

In other words, Lewis comes across – despite his marriage and two small children – as an overgrown schoolboy and is therefore a pushover for the sophisticated Mrs G-W who takes him to a dance, takes him to a ghastly modern play, kisses him, then drives him back to her place where there is some partial stripping off, in order to, as she explains, get him hooked. She is more amused by toying with this naive fool than by having an actual ‘affair’.

But all this is not cost-free for Lewis or his wife, Jean. The book is leavened by the real hurt and pain this rather pointless affair causes her. She can see right through him, see the look of lust on his face at Elizabeth’s party, is hurt when he comes home after the pubs have shut the night of the play: it is all too obvious and she despises him for his feeble excuses.

Now don’t stand there giving me that little-boy face, you’re getting too old for it. Try it on her, she’s not so particular. Go on, get out. (p.161)

Key events

The pace is slow and even and ‘realistic’. Entire chapters can be made out of a married couple chatting on the sofa or Dixon talking to the professor or a student. There is a lot of dialogue in Amis novels. With the result that there is only a handful of really memorable scenes:

  • Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams invites John Lewis and his wife, Jean, to a party of posh upper-middle-class people at the mansion of her rich businessman husband, Vernon Gruffydd-Williams. It is to escape the smug superiority of the other guests that Lewis ends up hiding in the toilet.
  • Elizabeth invites Lewis to a dance at a club a little outside town. They dance and flirt. Lewis, instructed to turn on the lights in one of her posh friends’ cars, appears to let the brake off and it rolls backward into a ditch. While drunk revellers are pushing it out, Elizabeth first kisses Lewis and he realises he wants it to happen; he wants something to change in his life and this could be it.
  • Elizabeth invites Lewis to the performance of the ghastly play in blank verse, The Martyr, by pretentious playwright Probert. Half way through they sneak out and drive back to her place (her husband being out) and, after numerous drinks, progress from snogging on the sofa to lying on the bed in a state of undress, when a car crunches up the drive. Hubby’s home!
  • Probably the most obviously comic set-piece in the novel, Lewis stumbles into an enormous closet which he discovers to be full of fancy dress outfits. Stuck in it while he overhears husband talking to wife and walking up and down outside, in a typically motiveless whim, he puts on a traditional Welsh woman’s outfit, complete with red jacket and tall black bonnet. When the coast seems clear he sneaks out and down the stairs but then more revellers arrive and he is forced to hide in the pantry, and so on. Eventually he escapes out the bedroom window and walks the long road back into town but now, every attempt to sneak off into a dark field to take the costume off is foiled, and he ends up catching the last bus home dressed as a little old Welsh lady, keeping his head well down (especially when the conductor asks his fare), and is quite close to his house when he is molested by a drunk man.
  • When Lewis finally arrives home, Jean is sullen and sulky. She knows something is going on. Lewis is called for an interview for a more senior job at the library. Waiting outside the interview room with three other candidates merits an entire chapter of conversation as we get to know the other types. Then he is called in for the interview which is a comic shambles and merits another entire chapter.
  • He is invited to another ‘party’ by Elizabeth, this time out at their ‘place’ by the sea. A lot of her drunken crew are there, as the sun sets, becoming completely inebriated, passing out, throwing up, disappearing off with each other’s wives. Lewis tells himself he loathes these rich smug craps, but when Elizabeth takes him by the hand and invites him to go skinny-dipping he obediently strips off and goes. And then, once back out of the sea, they finally have sex among the sand dunes.

The post-sex conversation turns nasty when Elizabeth raises the matter of Lewis’s interview for the library job. She reveals that her husband, who was sitting on the interview board, had made his mind up before the process even began, to hire Lewis, purely to irritate the Head of the Library. Lewis is humiliated, and asks her if it is not also because he is her fancy man, was it some kind of posh fix-up between them? Is he just a pawn?

He ends up telling her to stuff her job and storming off. Elizabeth runs after to catch him up and offers to drive him back to town in her car. But on the way she has a kind of fit, becoming hysterical and as Lewis reaches across her to the wheel the car crashes. From one of the cars which was coming towards them emerges her husband, Vernon. Together they extract the unconscious and bleeding Elizabeth from her wreck, transfer her to Vernon’s car and he drives home, dropping Lewis at the edge of town, and tells him in no uncertain terms never to contact his wife again.

When he arrives home he is drunk and dirty and it is 2am and his wife has stayed up incongruously accompanied by the dire Welsh playwright, Proberts. When the latter leaves, the couple have a blazing row, Jean knowing, with feminine intuition, that Lewis has finally had sex with Elizabeth, and announcing that their marriage is completely over, but says what has made her absolutely furious is that he has the lack of morals to be unfaithful but then the misplaced scruples to turn down the job and extra money which his wife and two young children so desperately need to move to a place of their own.

In a strange sequence he goes out roaming the empty streets of Aberdarcy looking for something bad to happen and is heading towards the sea when he comes across the downstairs neighbour’s son, drunk and unconscious in the street with a bad head wound. He helps him home to the effusive thanks of the mother. He goes upstairs resolved to be a better man.

Themes and variations

Resentment Both Jim and Lewis are disgruntled lower-middle-class young men with a grudge against anyone and everyone more educated, arty, literate, richer or posher than them. In a very vague way this is supposed to be some kind of ‘up the workers’ attitude, but is really envy and resentment.

My familiar embarrassed defensiveness at talking to a member of the anglicised upper classes… (p.14)

I felt my role of proletarian spy slip away a little… (p.115)

Pusillanimity They are mice fantasising about being lions.

The last few weeks I’d been enjoying myself no end, practising the role of the truly strong man, the man superior to things like sex. (p.15)

I felt as if something had happened which had made me feel very frightened, and that I must do something which would make me feel even more frightened if I was ever to get rid of the first frightening thing. (p.231)

Plights Amis often makes brisk comparisons of his heroes to men in realistic but challenging situations. In their day they were probably hilarious comic exaggerations but now they read like homely metaphors from a more innocent age.

As I got nearer I felt more and more like a man going in to bat in his first Test Match with the score at nineteen for three. (p.198)

Close observation of others Part of Amis’s sometimes painful self-consciousness, is his acute other-consciousness, captured in hundreds of detailed descriptions of other people.

When she asked a question I noticed that she spoke with her teeth together but with her lips moving very freely. This gave her voice a harsh resonant quality which I thought suited her looks. (p.17)

A man in the late forties with a dark red face and thick lips came by degrees into the room. Every straight grey hair in his abundant crop seemed the same length as if it belonged to a little furry animal or shaving brush. (p.18)

His mouth, which had all the mobility of a partly-collapsed inner tube, was incompletely surrounded by a brownish grime of stubble; his greying hair came horizontally out of his scalp and projected in two stiff, inorganic shelves over  his ears. (p.38)

Funny voices His own which he puts on, and noticing other people’s.

‘Have I read this one?’ she began by asking – a popular query, this, and spoken in the tone of high-level business executive to confidential secretary. (p.23)

I went out on to the landing. ‘Is there someone calling?’ I asked in my special cultured accent, which I retained for the whole of the subsequent dialogue. (p.100)

My voice sounded oddly near at hand, as if I was muttering directly into my own ear. (p.118)

‘Hello dear people,’ I said, mimicking the generic accent of the Gruffydd-Williamses and their pals… He was now giving a strong, hairy-eyebrowed stare. He said in his film-Welshman’s voice… (p.221)

Funny faces Hardly any compared to the epidemic of them in Jim.

This would be a good time, I decided, to try out a new smile, featuring the lower lip and nostrils, which I had been practising that week. (p.53)

Showy philistinism You can’t fob me off with all that hoity-toity crap!

Earlier that day I’d been led by what must have been exceptional boredom to look into a book about Dr Johnson, of all people… (p.42)

Military metaphors It is a standard comic trick to apply advanced military terminology to humdrum domestic situations, a kind of comic exaggeration, but the terminology was also presumably very familiar to Amis’s generation who either served during the war or did National Service. Thus he is taking Elizabeth through the hall of his shared house, when the dire Mr and Mrs Jenkins emerge, and they back away:

A patrol encountering a vastly superior enemy force should avoid contact and retire at once before suffering any casualties. (p.18)

I went to the window again and saw her come out on to the pavement, glance quickly to and fro as if fearful of snipers, and hurry off across the road… (p.96)

The Davies incident this evening had been no more than patrol activity, successful from my point of view, but limited. the war had been begun by Mrs Davies… By a long and resolute campaign… she’d converted her kitchen door into an obstacle as impassable as an anti-tank ditch. (p.103)

Much of the garden was thickly planted with trees and shrubs, like a mimic jungle for infantry training. (p.114)

She at once got up with a fair show of decision and began a careful flanking approach to the door, securing her rear by sliding with her back to the tall box-like couch. (p.155)

Aggression and violence Jim and John, in their minds, are prone to sudden bursts of rage and hatred, triggered by almost anything other people say to them. The thing is, they are never expressed, remaining always bottled up internally, thus conveying the sense of comic frustration and impotence.

I had a rude word ready to say to her, but suppressed it.. (p.63)

Where she went just a wee bit wrong was in assuming, as she gave every sign of doing, that if she stayed another few minutes I might suddenly spring at her with a hatchet, or possibly not bother to fetch the hatchet and just sink my canines into her jugular. (p.153)

A condition of rage wasn’t perhaps a bad starting point… (p.163)

Conclusion

The last chapter makes a big jump in time and space to a completely new town, a mining town where John has taken up a post in the office at the mine. He and Jean are fully reconciled and they are seen walking across town to a party, nodding and helloing everyone they see, quite obviously more in touch with their Welshness and their lower class roots than in the falsely English and posh Aberdarcy. Comic novels should end happily, but I was puzzled whether this was meant to be some kind of morality tale. Are we to conclude that adultery in a ‘fast set’ is not only immoral but hurts the ones you love most, and always ends in tears as that kind of person is always damaged? Is that what the book was ‘about’?

I couldn’t believe it appeared to be as straightforward and tritely moralistic an ending as it appeared.

That said, I liked this more than Lucky Jim, maybe because it doesn’t carry the weight of its predecessor’s fame. It’s a jobbing novel from its era, humorous throughout with some very funny scenes, but also with the oddness of the married-woman affair and Lewis’s strangely passive acceptance of the situation, and the upsetting scenes with his wife. All a bit more unnerving and thought-provoking than Jim‘s more standard boy-gets-girl happy ending.

Related links

The movie

It was made into a film in 1962, renamed Only Two Can Play, directed by Sidney Gilliat and starring Peter Sellers and Mai Zetterling. This clip of the opening ten minutes keenly conveys the poverty, the crampedness, the narrowness of life in post-war Britain.

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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