The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)

The area had once been called Monmouthshire but because of a decision taken in London was now called Gwent, after an ancient Welsh kingdom or whatever it was that might have formerly existed there or thereabouts. Anyway, it was Wales all right. (p.60)

Overview

A long novel by Amis’s standards, at 384 pages, The Old Devils is set in South Wales and describes in gory detail the daily lives and routines of half a dozen, heavy-drinking old men (one is said to be aged 61, another implies they’re closer to 70) and their middle-aged, heavy-drinking wives. Booze, booze and more booze, in restaurants and bars, round each other’s houses, down the pub, knocking back the whisky or wine, lighting up another tab and endlessly moaning about each other.

Into this little pool of alcoholic mediocrity arrives one-time poet, media celebrity and professional Welshman, Alun Weaver and his wife Rhiannon. He’s had enough of being a B-lister in Hampstead and wants to storm back into his native country, look you. In fact there is little or no description or attention paid to writing, broadcasting or thinking of any kind in these long 400 pages (the one exception being Alun revising the manuscript of a novel he knows is rubbish for a bit from page 284, and showing it to Charlie who candidly tells him it’s garbage).

Instead, the return of boy bach prompts a flurry of inter-marital liaisons: Alun has barely unpacked before he is bedding one of his best friend’s wives, Sophie, and then moves on to shag Gwen. Rhiannon, for her part, has a moving reunion with her first love, Peter Thomas, now grotesquely and unrecognisably fat, before allowing herself to be taken for a drive out to a formerly romantic church down by the sea by the hopelessly boring old sod, Malcolm Cellan-Davies. The main players are:

  • Boring Malcolm Cellan-Davies, married to Gwen
  • Fat Peter Thomas, married to cold Muriel (grown-up son Robert)
  • Philandering Alun Weaver, married to the attractive Rhiannon (grown-up daughter Rosemary)
  • Scared of the dark alcoholic Charlie Norris, married to Sophie
  • Victor, Charlie’s gay brother
  • Tarc Jones, landlord of the Bible and Crown

Decrepitude

Plenty of time is spent on unflinching portrayals of the physical and mental weaknesses of age. The first section opens with Malcolm struggling to instal his dentures and battle against his failing body to get dressed. Later we start the day with Peter Thomas (‘a bloated, beaten-up old slob’ p.346), so fat he can’t bend over enough to cut his toenails, his wife refuses to do it, so they grow long and snaggy and tear his socks, the ones with the elastic to keep them up over his varicose veins (pp.157-58).

Another chapter opens with Charlie Norris in the single bed he’s been exiled to by his wife because he is a full-on alcoholic, woken by the nightmares and visions caused by delirium tremens, and only managing to heave himself out of bed after fortification with tea and whisky.

A sequence of scenes

The plot amounts to a sequence of scenes: Three old buddies getting pissed in Charlie’s gay brother’s restaurant (the ‘Owen Glendower Tavern and Grill’). Their regular daily piss-up session in the Bible and Crown, landlord Tarquin ‘Tarc’ Jones. Charlie drinking so much before breakfast he is completely pissed by the time he arrives at the unveiling of a statue to the great national bard ‘Brydan’ (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas?).

There’s a party for oldies at the gold club where Gwen gets pissed enough to harangue Alan for being an adulterous shit. Charlie, Alun and Malcolm are getting pissed in a pub somewhere and talking loudly enough about how shit everything is to provoke three younger men to push their table over and punch harmless Malcolm on the nose. There’s quite a touching scene where all the blokes storm into Malcolm’s house and paw his priceless collection of 1930s 78 rpm jazz records, leading to moans about modern (ie anything after 1936) music; men drinking, smoking, playing their favourite records.

And so, pissedly, grumpily, on, just about this side of despair, though frank despair occasionally breaks through:

With a conviction undimmed by having survived countless run-offs he felt that everything he had was lost and everyone he knew was gone. (p.107)

Funny

Some of this is so grotesque it’s funny: Charlie tottering at the grand unveiling of the statue stands out for its dazed humour, for its Amis-like taking the piss out of a supposedly solemn occasion. Then again, quite a few moments make you shiver with horror at the prospect of getting old and bald, with varicose veins and bad-fitting dentures, subject to fierce pains in the side, all kinds of physical limits and ailments, unable to bend over or even stand up by yourself.

Offensive

Lots of it is deliberately offensive, what the reviewers call ‘Amis on the rampage’ ie Amis attacking the same old targets as in his previous novels: horribly modern pubs, all cheap mirrors, pointless old photos, disgusting beer and awful pumping rock music; modern roads rammed full of ghastly modern cars; young people, wandering round half-naked, speaking in their long-haired argot.

And of course, where not so long ago it had been hake and chips, bottled cockles, pork pies and pints of Troeth bitter, these days it was canneloni, paella, stifado, cans of Fosters, bottles of Rioja and – of course – large Courvoisiers and long panatellas, just like everywhere else. (p.79)

Misogynist

Women come in for scathing, bitter criticism throughout, by all the men, for being incomprehensible enemies liable to make emotionally wounding attacks at any moment.

Part of men’s earlier average age at death than women’s, perhaps a substantial part, might be traceable to wives driving husbands to coronaries single-handed by winding them up with anxiety and rage. (p.166)

Amis doesn’t make any pretences or excuses: the anger and resentment at women is nakedly connected to the men’s consuming fear, fear of women’s irrationality, of their bewilderingly obtuse thought processes, fear of being ganged-up on. Peter’s wife, Muriel, starts having a go at him in the car and he

thought as many times before of a film he had seen about half a century earlier. In it, a sadistic sergeant broke the spirit of a soldier in a military prison by beating him up at systematically random intervals, from more than a day down to a quarter of an hour, so that the victim never knew when the next attack was coming, never felt safe. Life with Muriel, it seemed to Peter, had over the last seven or eight years turned into a decreasingly bearable version of that. There were times, it was true, and this was one of them, when you could be morally certain a drubbing was on the way, not from anything she said or did but because you had spotted something disagreeable to her, either in itself or in its associations, drifting to the surface over the past few minutes or so; that was enough for her. For some strange reason, though, this kind of early warning did little to soften the eventual impact. He actually felt the sweat break out now on his forehead. (p.57)

I read these passages with a mixture of discomfort and indulgence, indulgence because I have heard, or used to hear, men making the same points in conversation; why shouldn’t these views be recorded in a novel, it is part of the human condition, it is how men of that generation (presumably) thought and spoke? Discomfort because these old bastards express their views about women far more crudely and angrily than anything I remember.

‘Once you’ve – Christ – relinquished the perverse, pig-headed expectation that women should mean what they say and say what they mean except when they’re actually lying, this sort of thing gets to be all in a day’s work.’ (p.246)

This cantankerous railing against the modern world, against women and pop music and modern pubs, and no-one fixes anything any more and no-one knows how to dress properly, it does capture a generation, an attitude, a grumpy, small-minded, ungenerous complaint which I associate with (some) older relatives.

But from the standpoint of 2015, it feels as if we came through the psychological and economic depressions of the 1980s into a less angry fraught world in the 1990s: one benefiting from the collapse of communism and the ‘peace dividend’, the release of Nelson Mandela, the Good Friday Agreement and so on; and then that the advent of digital technology, the internet, the transition to a gender-neutral service economy, not to mention the tremendous influx of immigrants from all nations, have made for a modern, globalised, cosmopolitan culture, an open rainbow culture, which makes the tight little nationalist and sexist world of Amis’s fiction feel as distant as the Middle Ages.

Wales

‘Wales is a subject that can’t be talked about. Unless you’re making a collection of dishonesty and self-deception and sentimental bullshit.’ (p.373)

The novel is set in Wales, all the characters are Welsh and there is a great deal of chat about Welshness, which is treated with varieties of cantankerous affection, with a running theme about whether the poet they all pretend to revere – the Dylan Thomas figure, Brydan – was a genius or a selfish, drunken charlatan, and whether he was really Welsh at all.

I’ve no idea what a Welsh person would make of it, or what its reputation is among the Welsh, and I’m not qualified to comment.

Old age

Amis would have done us a favour if he had produced a penetrating novel about old age since we now, in 2015, are more aware than ever of the coming boom in numbers of the elderly, living longer, dominating our society, requiring expensive healthcare and support.

But this isn’t that novel. It is dominated by the characters’ Welshness (4.8% of the UK population), by their universal drunkenness, and by the almost complete absence of thought or reflection, the space where it should be filled with rancorous, cantankerous, grumpy old git moaning and complaining and bitching about each other.

Put another way, the ostensible subject matter of this novel – old age – should make it more relevant, a more compelling read, than ever before. Instead I think it, and Amis generally, were never so marginalised and forgotten. His earlier novel about old age, the cruelly black comedy Ending Up, is more penetrating and a lot shorter.


Style

These grotesques and their dismal affairs are painted in prose which is slack, repetitive and aimless. It is like reading soggy cardboard. In my review of Stanley and The Women I itemised features of Amis’s late style and hoped they were in fact exaggerations designed to characterise the first person narrator of that novel, Stanley. But no. They are Amis’s late style.

1. Dangling clauses at the end of sentences, making them weaker and vaguer. Afterthoughts, second opinions, demotic tags and fragments, just one more bit, after all, in the end, so to speak, at the end of the day, in general, more or less, and all the rest of it, or part of it, or something…

But they were soon past there now and on to where she had not been for at least ten years, probably a good deal more. (p.205)

But when it came it was fine, in the same style as before, covering rather more ground, not much though. (p.212)

[Performances like that] brought out your awkwardness and almost your resentment of each other, or some if it. (p.218)

‘The fact you minded so much about not remembering, that’s worth as much to me as if you had remembered, very nearly.’ (p.225)

Gwen gave him a farewell twiddle of the fingers and stylised simper that made him feel sorry for Malcolm, but only in passing. (p.2540

2. Or Instead of stating something confidently and clearly, it has become a real mannerism for Amis to use ‘or’ to tack on an extra interpretation or two to even the most banal action, thus weakening and undermining countless sentences. In my Stanley review I said this has at least three effects:

  1. A wavering of meaning, a permanent uncertainty or inability to express himself which is almost senile.
  2. If there are several ‘or’ alternatives, the effect tends – explicitly or implicitly – towards a concluding ‘or whatever’, a throwaway dismissal of the attempt to be clear; a sod-you, who cares attitude, sometimes open contempt.
  3. Possibly an attempt to recreate the running-out of steam of a drunk who just doesn’t have the energy to finish a sentence clearly but runs on in a diminuendo of pointless rambling additions.

Either way it is the opposite of clarity of thought, precision of language.

In a flash Malcolm knew or as good as knew… a row of men in hats standing outside a thatched cottage in Ireland or some such place… none of his audience showed any sign of responding, then or at any future time… someone else pronounced a few phrases of thanks or thanksgiving or anyway termination… Charlie’s first breath or sniff of air brought some redolence or other… when the pain or series of pains began… ‘Mario’ or very possibly Mario… Garth’s laughter was heard again faintly, or fairly faintly… there would still be times like tonight, with her too pissed, or about to become too pissed, to drive… He poured himself a treble, or another treble…

On leaving Malcolm’s in a mood of heavily qualified satisfaction he had happened to find himself passing, or as good as passing, the house of an old friend. (p.265)… Although he often said where he was going, or might have been going, he never said where he had been. (p.269)

Short of that, she would most probably have Rosemary with her, back from her evening out (or somewhere) with William Thomas, who seemed to have been around since first light or thereabouts. (p.267)

‘You must be tremendously relieved, or a bit relieved rather.’ (p.292)

‘There are plenty of people about who talk like that for real, or semi-real…’ (p.305)

It is the opposite of alertness, curiosity, keenness of intelligence. It is in love with blurry, drunken, half-arsed incuriosity and everything’s going to hell. There are half a dozen passages which begin to capture the run-down, depressed atmosphere of South Wales in the decade when coal mines, steel and other heavy industries were being decimated by Mrs Thatcher, glimmers of something which might become interesting but then… fade into the characteristic Amis ‘something or other’.

With the end of its function as a port and the closure of the metal works and the silica quarry, Birdarthur had shown marks of unemployment, but none were visible now that the town had been designated or turned into an enterprise zone and the unemployed had gone away somewhere else. (p.279)

Oh well. It’s all a mess. Too hard to think about. Who’s up for another drink?

3. Pointless qualifications

It was miles and miles away from saying she was beginning to grow reconciled to what had taken place, what had almost failed to take place, between herself and Alun. (p.260)

From his earliest novels I noticed Amis’s tendency to produce sentences so full of qualifications, equivocations and slangy parentheses (after all, in a manner of speaking, certainly, at least, one had to admit, for instance) as sometimes to border on gibberish.

It was not very good, though surely better than nothing, and he had done his best to sound quite pleasant, at any rate for him, but nobody seemed to hear much and nobody came over, not even Dorothy, until Sophie brought him a gin and tonic, offering to fetch ice which he forbade. (p.56)

Much of the book is this badly, this contortedly and meanderingly written.

Quite a lot of time had indeed passed, but so far to surprisingly small effect. What he had said to Sophie just now about her appearance and so on was of course untrue, though it would have been much untruer, one had to admit, of most other people he had known that long. But in a general way, applied to experience, it had a bearing. All sorts of stuff, for instance what had been taking place a little earlier, seemed much as before, or at any rate not different enough to start making a song and dance about. This state of affairs might well not last for ever, but for the moment, certainly, the less it changed the more it was the same thing, and the most noticeable characteristic of the past, as seen by him, at least, was that there was so much more of it now than formerly, with bits that were longer ago than had once seemed possible. (p.100)

This is shit writing, isn’t it? Long-winded, saying nothing, full of pointless qualifications which give an impression of thought, of pausing for careful consideration where, whenever you look at it closely, there is absolutely none. Clumsy, hobbled sentences delivering nothing except rancour and unhappiness, 383 pages of them.

On the upside

From this great mass of verbiage there do emerge characters depicted with consistency and a cold eye, there are insights into the tribulations of old age, there are funny and outrageous scenes where old farts behave like naughty teenagers. You are drawn into their lives, their little kindnesses, their colossal rudeness and unhappiness. There is even an unexpectedly moving finale where wrecked old Peter and Rhiannon, at the wedding of their respective grown-up children, are reconciled, after a lifetime of being in love with each other but married to the wrong partners, and the book actually finishes on an upbeat note, with these two old lovers moving in together, smelly socks, dentures and all… There are moments of real tenderness and sweetness among the insults and blether.

The Old Devils is a long, very thoroughly imagined novel and there is much here to consider and savour and sometimes really enjoy. But God it is such a struggle, sometimes an almost physical ordeal, to wade through the strangely mannered gloop of Amis’s late style in order to see it.


TV series

The Old Devils was dramatised by Andrew Davies for the BBC in 1992, directed by Adrian Mourby and starring John Stride, Bernard Hepton, James Grout and Ray Smith. It isn’t available on Amazon or eBay and this is the only snippet on YouTube. Not, one deduces, a particularly sought-after item.

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 infant 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 and 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 and sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym 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 – A short novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, 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 and implausible 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 – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving him at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver.
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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