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

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