The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (1966)

‘Do you believe in God?’
‘I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never been able to understand what it means, you see. It’s the most difficult idea I’ve ever heard about. And yet people seem to get results by it all the time.’
Churchill said animatedly, ‘Only people with no sense of right and wrong. No real sense of it. What would you have to be like to worship something that invented every bad thing we know or can imagine?’ He looked away. ‘Death in particular. If there were no such thing as death the whole human race could be happy.’ (p.228)

This novel is a complete departure for Amis – I kept stopping to check it really was his name on the cover. It is a lot longer than average (304 pages to One Fat Englishman‘s 170) and not funny at all for long stretches (though snips of Amis humour can’t help creeping in at odd moments). Admittedly the plot becomes a bit preposterous towards the end, but for the lion’s share of the text what is happening is compassionate, sensitive and delicate portrayals of very real people, their thoughts and feelings, captured in minute detail through interplay and dialogue.

Milieu and dramatis personae

It is set in the recent past (a scientific paper published in 1963 is referred to) in an Army camp somewhere in England set up to guard a Top Secret Weapon and prepare for a Top Secret Operation. We are introduced to a dozen or so characters, mostly of the officer class, with the occasional batman or servant or private. But for the most part it is chaps talking chaps’ talk – very different in its face value acceptance of upper-middle class values and speech from his early novels which all have a chippy, anti-posh stance. In addition there are two or three posh local women, the head of a nearby lunatic asylum and his staff.

The plot

The book opens with fine upstanding officer James Churchill, accompanied by Ayscue, the haggard padre, and an Indian officer, Mori Naidu, visiting fellow officer Max Hunter, who has been admitted to the local asylum after trying to drink himself to death. It also introduces us to the head of the asylum, Dr Best who, it is quickly conveyed, is himself of questionable judgement (ie bonkers) obsessed with his idées fixes and theories. Thus Best has diagnosed Max’s motive for drinking so recklessly as a method of avoiding confronting his repressed homosexuality. Which makes the other officers burst into laughter since Max is as openly and candidly gay as a man in his position could be in that era.

In the courtyard on the way back from visiting Max, the trio walk past a striking young woman out for a walk with a nurse: she is Catharine Casement, admitted after a nervous breakdown. (True to obsessive form Dr Best as diagnosed her breakdown as caused by her suppressed lesbianism.)

Back at the Army base we meet more characters, notably Brian Leonard, the insecure ‘intelligence officer’ who has been stationed in the unit to sniff out a suspected ‘spy’. His rather ludicrous obsession with finding reds under every bed obviously parallels the obsessive secret-motive-finding of Dr Best.

The novel unfolds slowly in a series of measured and in-depth scenes between variations on all these characters. A few scenes in we meet Lady Lucy Hazell, lady of the rather run-down local manor. She kindly and compassionately takes Catharine into her big echoing mansion, and there are tender scenes of care and compassion between them. About a third of the way in we learn from conversation between the chaps that Lady Hazell has a novel approach to love and sex: she organises evenings when three or four officers congregate in her drawing room, drinking, chatting and smoking, and then are summoned one by one upstairs to have sex with her. Churchill, the nearest thing to a hero in the book, takes us with him when he goes up and we see the thing through his eyes, see how intelligent and clear-headed Lucy is.

There is no snideness about women, none of the vulgarity or crudeness which – arguably – mars this novel’s predecessors. As Lucy explains to more than one of the officers (only officers, naturally) she has been in love before, it always ends badly; this way she gets what she wants with no emotional damage. It is what she wants to do. ‘Be sure to tell the next one to come up on your way out, there’s a dear, now.’ She is a benign and happy version of the malignant nymphomaniac figure, Mrs Gryffudd-Williams, in That Uncertain Feeling. She is treated with complete respect and dignity throughout, and all her officers worship and respect her. Can this be the same Kingsley Amis?

Jumping ahead a bit, there is a comparably respectful and humane treatment of Max’s gay love life. Early in the novel a despatch rider is run over and killed, witnessed by the trio visiting Hunter. It emerges that a common soldier, Pearce, was in love with this rider or at least very good friends. One sub-plot is that Max, restored to health after his spell in the sanatorium, makes a sophisticated play for Pearce. He wines and dines him at an expensive restaurant in the village before walking on to a flat where he claims there was a party but when they get there, oh dear, the flat is empty with a feeble note from the ‘party-giver’ saying it’s cancelled, he’s been called away, please make yourselves at home. It has all been set up by the suave and humorous Max and he begins to slowly seduce Pearce, getting as far as kissing him on the mouth when – the latter pulls away. There follows a really mature and respectful scene where young Pearce apologises and explains that he still isn’t over the death of his friend. Max responds astonishingly respectfully and walks him back to the jeep – although, life being what it is, he pops back into the restaurant under the pretext of having left his watch there, and makes a date with the rather dishy waiter who served them lunch.

James and Catharine

There are roughly two narrative arcs. In one, James Churchill and Catharine fall deeply in love. No tricks, no jokes, a really heart-felt, deeply emotional love story. Lucy gets Catharine a job at a local pub, the White Hart, where both the landlord (Eames) and the other bar staff, informed of her condition and recuperation, go out of their way to be kind and considerate of her. These scenes and characters evince a lovely feeling of warmth and sympathy, I almost wanted to cry at a few moments. Can this be the same man who wrote One Fat Englishman and The Egyptologists? Churchill and fellow officers drop into the White Hart for a drink where Catharine is working, they recognise each other from that fleeting encounter at the asylum, and it is love at second sight.

Their relationship is beautifully and sensitively described and provides a central core to the narrative. There is a frankly wonderful scene where James sits at the bar through one lunchtime while Catharine is serving, then helps wipe the tables and clear away, before they are both thanked and bid goodbye by the landlord and James takes her for a drive in an Army truck up into the countryside. They park in an isolated spot, go through a small fence and clamber down to walk beside a stream to an isolated spot where they lie on the grass and make love.

It is made all the more powerful because in the pub, after the last customer had left, Catharine revealed the secret of why she had her breakdown: it was her abusive and violent husband who, she slowly realised, could only have sex with her if she was hurt, wounded, injured and crying in pain. The gentleness with which James coaxes this out of her, the horrid plausibility of the brutishness of some men, and the support and love he gives her, are as if written by a completely different man, in a completely different tone.

Catharine came out of the pub. She looked so beautiful in her white dress and white shoes and white hair-band that Churchill had an instant of sincere puzzlement at the way the passers-by went on passing by, the farmer climbing into his estate wagon over the road failed to reverse the direction of his climb and come pounding across to cast himself at her feet, the man laying slates on the roof of the barber’s shop managed to stay aloft. Churchill put his arms around Catharine and kissed her. (p.170)

It comes, then, as a shock when James feels a lump in her breast and advises her to go to a doctor straightaway. Things move very fast and she is diagnosed with breast cancer while James is on an exercise and he is devastated. She is taken into hospital and he goes into a deep depression.

The Anti-Death League

Churchill and some of the others, especially after the accident with the despatch rider, and given that one of their number is the padre, Ayscue,  have occasional conversations about God and the meaning of it all, in which Churchill and to some extent Max are revealed as vehement atheists, despising a God who created so much suffering, though there is comedy when the more robust of them point out that they are in the Army, old chap, whose job is to dish out rather a lot of Death when called upon.

Out of nowhere there are two mysterious events: the padre had announced he was going to start up a magazine to try and keep morale up and one day someone leaves an upsetting poem on his desk, titled To A Baby Born Without Limbs which is fiercely anti-religious. Then carbons of a notice are pinned up everywhere informing everyone about the creation of the Anti-Death League, incorporating Human Beings Anonymous. It lists three appalling tragic deaths and says all you have to do to be in the Anti-Death League is be against horrible pointless deaths. There are no fees or rules but if you want to find out more, be at the Base Hall next Thursday.

The ‘meeting’ is a complete anti-climax as four or five of the officers we’ve got to know, plus the camp commander turn up expecting to see the originator of the notice, but there’s no-one there except a handful of bored squaddies who, after a grilling, are let go. It gives the novel its title but nothing else really happens about it, there are no members and no conspiracy and no big revelations. This is true of a number of Amis’s novels which promise Big Things which then peter out. I found it very hard to tell the tone in many places: not funny for long stretches, but not deadly serious, not as thrilling as a spy novel, not as imaginative as a science fiction novel, not as solely about emotions and feelings as, say, D.H. Lawrence – but with elements of all of these mixed together.

Atomic rifles

The other main strand in the novel is the slow revealing of the Big Project the Army unit has been created for and which the officers occasionally mention in hushed tones. For two thirds of the novel I was in suspense wondering if there was going to be the revelation of some Grand Science Fiction Technological Secret Weapon, that that would justify the rather rambling directionless feel to the narrative. About page 230 it is revealed that the big secret weapon stored in the ‘special building’ D4 is a new kind of rifle which fires ‘atomic bullets’. They look normal and require only lightly amended rifles. Load and fire in the normal way and whatever it hits a miniature atomic explosion vaporises. The third part of the novel features a large-scale demonstration of the rifles involving trucks of soldiers accompanying the officers to a firing range accompanied by helicopters overhead etc.

It is here that a number of themes collide, specifically the Brian Leonard spy theme and bonkers Dr Best, for Leonard has become convinced Best is the spy he’s after and that this exercise will flush out the ‘spy’. His worst fears are confirmed when Best is indeed spotted making his way to the perimeter of the exercise, whereupon Leonard feverishly brings all his forces into play, telling his men to pull back and lure Best into a trap. Unfortunately half way through Best literally disappears; and when, after the demonstration of the atomic rifle’s awesome powers, the lorries are trundling back to camp, one of them has an accident and bursts into flames, and in the ensuing confusion, one of the rifles goes missing!!!

This prompts a full-blown panic with all soldiers formed up to scour the countryside and tear the camp to pieces looking for it, and also the arrival of a Man from the Ministry, plump, scruffy, posh Jagger.. He is a little like the Fat Englishman, immediately demanding cold beer, so fat he struggles to get out of a chair and so on. But he appears to be meant to be the real thing, smart, clever decisive. Is this satire? Does this mean it’s turned into a spy novel? Or a (very low-key) science fiction novel? Or both?

Whoever stole the atomic gun terrifies everyone by letting it off later that night and blowing to smithereens a local (already ruined) priory.

Next morning Leonard is tipped off by his men that Best is back in his office at the asylum and the rifle is with him. Leonard and Max tear off there in an Army vehicle with Jagger hiding in the back seat. They gain admission to the asylum and then up to Best’s office where Leonard attempts to arrest Dr Best for espionage and breaching Official secrets etc. To which Best smirks and replies that, on the contrary, his expedition to the test site has confirmed his suspicions that Leonard is mad and he flourishes a sectioning order countersigned by the two other doctors in the room. And so there’s a stand-off as they both stand there shouting that they’re arresting the other: a satire maybe on the fatuousness of human concepts, of law, of authority, of power and legitimacy.

A stand-off solved by brute force for when one of the doctors enters with hypodermic syringes to tranquilise Leonard and Max quite a big complicated fight breaks out with bottles smashed and cupboards knocked over, until Best takes quite a heavy blow to the head. And in a not funny but genuinely weird development he freezes and starts to spout a kind of spy comic narrative: ‘They contacted Dr Best. Only you can save the world from the death rays. Best said he’d do what he could. He recruited his best agents and set off.’ He has gone into a kind of bizarre comic strip psychosis. The other doctors are astonished and sedate him. Max and Leonard return to the base.

The real spy

Leonard returns to his room to be astonished to find his valet, Deering, going through all his things, with all his Top Secret reports open on the bed. Deering attacks him in another prolonged fight which ends with Leonard unconscious amid the wreck of a mirror. When he comes to he dashes down to the officers mess, has the alarm sounded but at that moment a heavy machinegun goes off and the soldiers are rallied round the roof of D4, the Top Secret building, where Deering has coshed a guard and is letting loose. There follows some hair-raising action in which Max Hunter shows himself to be something of a hero, climbing up to the roof, having to duck the bullets, before distracting Deering long enough for him to be finished off by Jagger, not just a fat Englishman.

Operation Apollo

So Leonard had been briefed correctly, there was a spy in the base. It does, however, look very bad that it was his own batman. Jagger says they’ll go gentle on him, he’ll be quietly court-martialled and given a dishonourable discharge, but then quietly slipped some cash. He also confirms that Best was never a spy, his madness was a pure coincidence.

Leonard is then debriefed by a minor character, the stern and logical officer, Ross-Donaldson. He explains briefly that the atomic rifles are an impractical weapon and could never be used in combat. A selected cadre of officers had been told they were taking part in Operation Apollo: this would involve being sent to the Himalayas in pairs with the equipment to spread a lethal new plague among the Chinese Army which intelligence suggested was considering invading India. The teams of officers were to capture and infect Chinese troops, releasing them to go infect their comrades. It wasn’t really expected that any of the officers would return. But this plan was a bluff. HQ had hired an inexperienced and incompetent ‘intelligence officer’, told him to promote his own existence among the men, and to guard the atomic rifles, all the time counting on his incompetence to let the information about the deadly plague be stolen and reported back to China. This has now successfully taken place. The Chinese will be frightened off; the invasion of India will be called off; the Operation was never actually about the plague: it was about Leonard’s incompetence. He is a broken man.

(In an entertaining side scene, fat Jagger – he struggles to get out of chairs or off a bed – corners Hunter, the hero of the hour who took on Deering behind his heavy machine gun nest: Jagger prompts Hunter to confess all – it was he, Hunter, who wrote the poem against God, who posted the note about the Anti-Death League, and who stole the atomic rifle, with the sole intention of blowing up the Priory as a deliberate snub to God. Since he is a hero Jagger says he will forgive and forget, ‘unless you’re planning to do the same kind of thing again, old boy.’ He advises Hunter to leave the Forces and settle down with a nice someone (his homosexuality acknowledged and accepted), but Hunter surprises himself and us by saying he rather enjoyed being under fire, real combat, real bullets – he might volunteer for a genuinely dangerous tour of duty.)

Having learned all this, Leonard realises there is still some good he can do. He drives with Naidu out to Lady Hazell’s mansion to visit Churchill, by now comatose with despair about Catharine’s cancer, lying in a darkened bedroom. They both have speeches about God and life designed to knock James out of his stupor: Leonard saying Operation Apollo is off – it was never on – it was always a ruse to frighten the Chinese – anyway, there is no God to be angry with, Naidu saying he must learn to transcend his own greed and selfishness in order to come to learn to love the world as it is (p.268).

Neither works, so Leonard hacks off in his car and returns an hour later with Catharine, extracted from hospital against her doctors’ advice. She takes him in her lap and pleads with him to return to her, to be a man again, to be there for her. And like the sleeping princess, suddenly he responds, he answers her. He returns to life.

Conclusion

A puzzling blend or confusion of genres. Amis’s style remains quite detached and factual ie rarely becomes emotional and also lacks colour, lacks simile and metaphor, in this respect rather like David Lodge’s. His attitude is capable of flashes of satire and social comedy at almost any point, and all the scenes that include Jagger are more or less funny.

After a couple of abortive tries and a bit of shrieking Jagger pulled a loudly ticking watch out of his top pocket and glared at it. (p.285)

But the vast majority of the text isn’t trying to be funny and it’s quite a puzzle trying to define what it is trying to be, in the end. There’s a continuous thread of chatter about God, about life and the meaning of it all, but hugely inconsequential. Like most novelists, Amis is most profound or thought-provoking about the weirdness of existence, about the mystery and impenetrability of life, when he’s not tackling it head on but dramatising it in strange incidents or conversations or moments which reveal the disjunctions between our cosy expectations, our familiar chat and conventions, and the bizarre biological and psychological ‘reality’ which underlies it.

And this is what novels, literature, texts, do more than any other genre. They can be puzzling, unexpected, quirky and odd in the way film or TV can’t. For me the sci-fi scenes didn’t really convince and the spy plot wasn’t even persuasive as a spoof – much though spy spoofs infested the mediascape in the mid-1960s. The most vivid scenes for me were the long pub-to-streamside walk between Catharine and James, and the equally mature, responsive account of the attempted seduction of Private Spencer by Max. They’re the scenes which will stay with me, and are reminders of how powerfully Amis could write about real human beings and their feelings when he wanted to.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Arthur Robins

I love these cartoon covers of the old Penguin paperback editions of Amis’s novels. They were done by book illustrator Arthur Robins, who is still at work illustrating mostly children’s books. Visit Arthur Robin’s website.

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 – and Caton is last heard of setting off for South America.

He 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 The Egyptoloists 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.
  • In this novel he is booked as a guest lecturer to talk about the military in South America and he actually arrives at the Base ready for his talk at just the moment the Chinese spy Deering goes on the rampage, letting loose with a heavy machine gun from the roof of the secret building. To my horror Caton, being driven through the front gates at that instant, is the only victim of Deering’s rampage, a direct hit in the face, instant death (p.279). My God. Is that really the end of this entertaining joke. Will it turn out to be a case of mistaken identity? Will he be miraculously resurrected in the next novel? Hope so.
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