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.
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