For more than just a moment Harry had the horrible feeling that he had finally lost all ability to understand why other people behaved as they did, and even to know what his own emotions or wishes were beyond a longing to be by himself indefinitely, unreachable by others, not necessarily in this room, just anywhere. (p.89)
I haven’t liked the last few Kingsley Amis novels I’ve read because of their sexist-verging-on-misogynist attitude and their convoluted, sometimes incomprehensible style. But this one I found funny and sympathetic. A lot of his stylistic and narratorial oddities are still in evidence but are outweighed by a sympathetic and quietly moving depiction of a pleasingly varied cast of characters.
Mise en scène
In and around the fictional park of Shepherd’s Hill live a ménage of modern life people: retired librarian Harry Caldecott who lives with his sister Clare, both doting on their ineffectual brother Freddie who is married to the ‘ghastly’ Désirée. Harry is twice divorced, first from Gillian and then Daisy. He has several children, notably 40-year-old son Piers. Clare married a man named Arnold Morrison who played the flute until he dropped dead, having spent almost all their money. Thus Harry very kindly invites her to come and share his big house with him. Around the same time a lesbian, Bunty Streatfield, who had been married to nice Desmond Streatfield, moves in. Bunty has a rather aggressive lesbian lover, Popsy, who she is slightly scared of and who Harry cordially dislikes.
Nearby there’s a parade of typical London shops, wine bars and bistros etc, and we get to know the proprietors of these, including a couple of Asian brothers, a bistro owner who talks like a wing commander, Kenneth the landlord of the King’s (Head?) pub who asks Harry about his decor, the regulars at Harry’s drinking club, the Irving, and more.
What happens to these characters? Well, they meet for drinks, and chats, gossiping and bitching about each other behind their backs, and generally carry on like ordinary people – well, ordinary university-educated, white middle-class people who say ‘one does this’ or ‘one does that’; a certain class of person. Quite posh. For example, this is Freddie, encountered at the barber’s:
‘If you’re not in the most absolute tearing hurry for the next few minutes I should be terribly grateful for a quick word.’ (p.134)
I think what makes this Amis novel distinct from the previous four or five is that it isn’t dominated by the point of view of one clever, angry, reactionary, sexist character – as Jake and Stanley dominated the novels named after them and were quite unpleasant company. Instead the narration is spread across incidents involving quite a large cast: it feels more like a soap opera about this particular part of London and entering into the minds of so many different characters forces Amis to be more sympathetic to them all. And so there’s no opportunity for the angry rants, for the prolonged bitterness and misogyny, which disfigure previous books, and so the overall effect is lighter and therefore the humour (which was present but, for me, swamped in previous novels) comes more to the fore. It feels lighter and funnier.
1 It opens with Bunty Streatfield making coffee and breakfast and chatting to Piers Caldecote who lives in a flat in the same shared house, before she heads down to the shops on Shepherds Hill, there encountering the two Asian brother shopkeepers (improbably named Howard and Charles), before catching the tube to Chelsea, and a posh house party. She’s barely been there a few minutes when her lover, Popsy, insists they leave. They go to a restaurant to eat, then back to Popsy’s flat to make love (always, in Amis, skirted over in silence).
2 Introducing Harry Caldecote, twice divorced and living with his sister Clare. Clare lost her husband, Arnold, a few years previously and discovered he had no money left, so her brother kindly took her in as, effectively, the housekeeper. Barking reminds them they have to look after Towser, a massive dog (a great Dane? wolfhound?) which slobbers and spills hair everywhere. Harry takes phone calls from Desmond, Bunty’s estranged husband, and Maureen, a friend who lives nearby.
3 Chris Markou, dodgy Greek from the Shepherds Hill Wine Centre, pops into the Asian shop and asks Howard and Charles if they can lend him a few hundred quid; that Harry Caldecote just came in and cashed a cheque and cleared him out. When he’s gone the brothers remark Chris is a crook, and then notice cheap, probably illegal, booze being offloaded into the wine centre. The narrator reveals it is knocked-off vodka.
4 Opens with the ghastly Désirée meeting with her dim husband Freddie and his brother Harry in the King’s. Over beers she loudly describes Freddie’s prostate operation, then goes on to explain that ever since he’s become an animal in the sack. Harry asks Freddie to get drinks and, in a comedy moment, has to explain to his idiot brother how to go about the process. He finds himself alone with Désirée for five horrible moments during which he realises she completely mistakenly thinks he has a crush on her, God how can the woman be so wrong? She starts to explain that, thanks to Harry’s encouragement, Freddie is thinking about writing poetry. Inspired, Harry insists that Freddie be given complete peace and quiet to do so and on no account must be interrupted or must he show or share or discuss his work in progress with Désirée. She reluctantly agrees. The phone rings and the landlord calls Harry over. It’s another landlord, of the Rifle Volunteer in Blackheath. There’s a Miss Fiona almost passed out on the floor, drunk, after causing a lot of havoc: he’s ready to call the police, but she claims Harry’s her father. Harry says he’ll be straight over. Back at the table he explains to Freddie and Désirée he has to leave, though the latter clarifies that Fiona is his first wife (Gillian’s) sister’s daughter ie his ex-wife’s niece, his niece by marriage. Nonetheless, for obscure reasons, Harry feels responsible for her.
5 Desmond meets is ex-wife Bunty in the Shepherds Crook bistro where, despite being distracted by the super posh owner and a string of noisy diners, Desmond says he still loves her and can’t they just, you know, somehow, does she want to come back to his? At which she very gently and meekly tries to withdraw, saying he knows it’ll end up with kissing and him trying to get her into bed and that just isn’t going to happen.
6 The huge dog Towser is pining and scratching at the front door when Piers arrives, Harry’s grown-up son. Clare lets him in and they chat until the purpose of the visit becomes clear and he asks if she can give him a loan, just to tide him over, like. She writes a cheque and he leaves and Clare is alone with her memories, her feelings about her dead husband. She goes to look at his collection of antique and valuable flutes, almost the only things he left which are worth hanging onto and which she has gathered into an alcove, a shrine to his memory.
7 Fiona Carr-Stewart, the posh alcoholic Harry went to rescue from the pub in Blackheath, surfaces in her manky council flat, hauls bags of rubbish to the bins under the disapproving eye of her 70-year-old neighbour and tries to establish order in the flat’s filthy interior when a young, surly man arrives to read the gas meter. I’m not sure but I think she then seduces him or performs a sexual act, after which he leaves promptly. She drinks more then makes her way to Linda’s house where a gang of other reprobates are, there’s more drinking then they’re at a pub, where there’s more drinks, the lights are spinning, the music is loud, her friends seem to have left, a taxi is called which refuses to take her, somehow she is home and someone is helping her up the steps to her flat, muttering at what a disgraceful state she’s in and it not even ten at night yet. This is a grim and persuasive description of someone getting completely, horribly hammered.
8 Harry gets out of a taxi and the Shepherd’s Hill Wine Centre where he has an unpleasant, insulting exchange with Popsy. Harry takes a taxi to Maureen’s house, she’s married to Leonard, who’s hardly ever there. They drink gin, flirt and then have sex on the sofa.
9 Harry takes a taxi home, arriving in time to help his sister Clare finalise preparations for dinner with their brother, Freddie, and wife Désirée. Things go well until Désirée returns to the theme of Freddie’s new-found sexual prowess after his recent prostate operation, at which Harry politely demurs prompting Désirée to become bitchy and sarcastic, ‘Oh is there anything else we are not allowed to discuss at your chaste table’ etc. At which point Clare intervenes, genuinely upset, asking her to shut up. The party winds up soon after and Harry is sorry if the whole subject upset Clare and made her think of her dead husband.
10 Explains the location and setup of the Cafe Cabana, the bistro owned by Desmond Streatfield, Bunty’s ex-husband. After she moved out he got Philippa, a bit more working class, to move in, but she turns out to be a limited cook and a nag. We see him supervising the 17-year-old black kitchen assistant Sandra and fobbing off the dodgy wine dealer, Clive, before the scene shifts to Desmond sharing a few drinks with Harry at the pub. Here they mull over trouble with girls and both agree that old Brahms had it sorted, seeing the same prostitute once a week for twenty five years, at which point he switched to her daughter. Women, eh! Tsk. Bunty turns up, the men had invited her, but she is instantly on edge and after a few innocuous comments from Desmond, rounds on him, asking why they are always trying to run her life for her. At this moment Popsy appears, drinks half the Campari Harry had bought for Bunty and says, ‘Right! Off we go Bunty’ and they leave the two men to prop up the bar wondering what it is that lesbians actually do.
11 Fiona. She doses herself with drinks as she delivers shopping to various customers in council flats, posh Rob, an old boy named Roger Greenhough in the flat next to her who has the temerity to suggest ways of helping get her off her ruinous alcoholism. Humiliated she stumbles back to her flat and toys with slashing her wrists with the bread knife.
12 Fiona meets Harry in the King’s and he is kind and concerned and listens to her explaining that she’s been on the wagon for six whole days. She tells the anecdote about her sister, Elspeth, the one who died when her car hit a wall, telling her she’d been looking through family albums and saw a great-aunt who was the spitting image of her, Fiona, and had died young of alcoholism: is it hereditary? Is Fiona doomed? Harry tries to cheer her up, and when they part she makes her way through London streets back to her flat where she starts on a bottle of White Nun, reminiscing about her father (or husband?) the Right Honourable Iain Menzies Carr-Stewart. She is a very posh alcoholic. The doorbell rings and it’s a taxi driver who she asks in for a moment. It’s not totally sure but I think she is servicing almost all men who call on her. Hence the references in the text to her reputation spreading far and wide…
13 Harry is getting his hair cut at Andy’s Hair Bar when he spots brother Freddie. They stroll along to a nasty greasy spoon where Freddie explains Désirée thinks he takes a cab to St James’s to get a trim at a super-classy salon, whereas he gets it cut round the corner, spends a happy hour eating fat food, and generally feels like he’s escaping the clutches of his all-controlling wife. Which he has also done by starting up a stamp collection. Désirée co-opted the last one, so he has found a stamp dealer tucked away in a side street and spends free time admiring, sorting and buying new stamps to add to the collection he proudly shows Harry.
14 Harry’s disreputable son, Piers, meets him at his club, the Irving (a parody of the Garrick, round the corner) where he is phenomenally posh, ordering all the right champagne, wine and port, before asking Harry to front him £50,000 for a cast-iron, copper-bottom, can’t-fail business venture. Harry demurs. As they’re walking out they bump into a publisher who amazes Harry by telling him he’s going to make Freddie an offer for the long poem of his which Harry showed him. Obviously it’s crap, but they can package it up in their European Political Testaments series and lots of earnest foreign intellectuals will snap it up.
15 Harry, Clare and Freddie take a taxi to their mother’s house, a rundown brick mansion in derelict grounds. This is sort of funny as Amis describes the knackered lawns, ruined greenhouse, then the musty smell inside, his mother’s affected tones, and then the ghastly lunch served with undrinkable plonk. Harry discovers Piers has been cosying up to Freddie, discussing money (obviously intending to dun him) and has also sent their mum a nice letter, brown-nosing and asking for an investment. After lunch Harry happens upon Clare and mother looking at photo albums and stumbles across the same photo of Great Aunt Anne which Elspeth had told Fiona about. Looks nothing like Fiona; Harry must tell her, to bolster her morale. While Freddie is tripping over a ladder in the hall, Harry rips the page with the photo out of the album and stuffs it in his pocket.
16 Harry is at the Irving listening to some fart of a Cabinet Secretary or other bore the other members into a coma when he’s called to the phone to have the old lady who lives in a flat in the same house as Bunty tell him that Bunty’s husband, Desmond, has turned up, very drunk and shouty and Bunty has barricaded herself into the bathroom. Harry takes a taxi to the house, in a dodgy area, and succeeds in talking Desmond down. He pathetically clings to the notion that Bunty can be talked out of her lesbianism. Harry says she really likes Desmond but he just happens to be the wrong sex for her, nothing anyone can do about it. He leaves Desmond to make up with Bunty and takes a taxi home where he finds his sister Clare distraught because she’s lost a valuable piece of chalcedony from the antique flute collected by her deceased husband. Aha, thinks Harry. Bet Piers nicked it.
17 Next morning Clare is still looking for her chalcedony while Harry has breakfast and opens a letter from the Adams Institute in north-west USA which is looking for an experienced librarian and has had him recommended by a colleague. This gives Amis an opportunity to sound off about how ghastly Americans are, before there’s a phone call and a prim nurse from some kind of private hospital informs him that Fiona has been taken into their care. She refuses to give more details, leaving Harry worried. After his lunchtime trip to the pub he returns to get a message from Clare saying Bunty had called asking for a spare bed for the night. Have she and Popsy split up? It’s all getting a bit fraught.
18 A short chapter in which the two Asian shopkeepers, Howard and Charles, natter about developments in the neighbourhood, namely Chris the conman disappearing with a load of money, the unnatural relationship of Bunty and Popsy coming to an end, and Harry such a ghastly snob floating through it all…
19 Harry ponders his life and his options before getting a taxi round to Maureen’s for another companionable afternoon screw. She obliges but he notices the carpet is up, all the pictures in the hall on the floor and other signs. She explains she’s moving back in with her husband, Leonard. She’s never really liked the sex they have, like many other women she only does it for the companionship and she doesn’t get much of that, to be honest, so she’s giving her marriage a second chance. Harry is flabbergasted and even more so when a few minutes later Leonard, the erring husband, himself arrives and invites Harry to a slap-up lunch, as an old friend of the family.
20 Freddie reflects, in his dim way, on the way his wife Désirée moved into his life and took it over twenty years ago, leading him almost immediately to start uselessly wishing ‘she could somehow be smaller, quieter, further away, less there all the time’ (p.208). This chapter describes his incredibly regimented life, the hand-knitted socks, the pills at precise times throughout the day, the set meal-times and organic wholemeal food, the fixed chairs in which to sit and read books he was long ago bored with, the dinner at fixed time and then, periodically, the compulsory and always-the-same sex.
21 Harry and Clare have dinner at Odile’s where they discuss whether he should take the job in the States. It is an odd, like all Amis, but at bottom very decent and affectionate evening. They walk back to their house and, in the drawing room, agree Harry is not going to take the job but stay with her and his little group of friends and dependents. At that moment the doorbell rings. It is Bunty, her dress torn, slapped, bleeding a little. Popsy beat her up and threw her out.
22 Another nightmare episode for Fiona’s degradation. She invites the minicab driver in for a quick shag (so that is what she’s been doing to random men, and confirms the ‘reputation’ she’s described as having acquired), although he ends up telling her off for being such a degenerate. She stays in getting drunk, then Sean and Brendan are suddenly in the flat telling her she’s disgusting and saying this is the end. Then they’re gone and she’s drinking more and it feels as if her face is melting. And light through the window means it’s morning, so she drinks a bottle of sherry to help her cope and then feels really peculiar and rings Sean who tells her to lie still till he can be over. All told in blurred, rushing prose.
23 Harry is phoned by the Asian brothers who say he’d better come quick, Fiona’s had an accident. When he and Clare get to the shop they find a crowd gathered round Fiona who is on the ground, having a fit, lying in a pool of blood from a head wound. Charles explains a van drew up and she was thrown out the back without it really stopping. It was those Irish guys (presumably Sean and Brendan: why would they do that?) Explaining that the ambulances round here take forever, Charles and Howard very kindly volunteer to take Fiona, Harry and Clare to the nearest A&E in their cars, and do so. Harry holds Fiona’s hand in triage as a doctor pokes and prods her, then leaves. Harry finally gets to say his piece about Fiona not looking like her alcoholic great-aunt and has the photo to prove it. She is not doomed by alcoholic genes. She can change her life. All this seems human and kind, like the affection we saw between brother and sister in the previous chapter.
24 A week or so later and the new landlord of the King’s celebrates his first year there by having a little party, a handy way to bring together Harry, Clare and Fiona who is a) still alive b) proudly shows off that she’s drinking soft drinks. Bunty has a little chat with Clare who insists she moves in with them permanently. In a very funny moment Désirée gets Harry in a corner and horrifies him by suggesting the real reason he chose not to take the American job was because he’s in love with his sister. Really in love. Sexually in love. Harry is so outraged and bolts so fast he bangs the table and knocks over loads of drinks, but can see the bright side which is that, in future, he’ll be able to hate Désirée with a clear conscience! Desmond summons up the courage to tell Bunty he understands now, after Harry explained it to him, why she doesn’t want and will never want to sleep with him; but can they still be friends, can he meet her regularly and take her for dinner etc? She is relieved and pleased. Piers arrives with his newly announced fiancée, Priscilla, who it turns out Fiona was at school with. They are very posh together until Fiona takes Piers aside after they both spot the vile Popsy lurking at the other end of the bar. Piers wishes he could do something to remove the threat of Popsy and Fiona says she knows some unpleasant men who could put the frighteners on her if Piers has the money. They do a deal to arrange it… Then Piers saunters over to Uncle Freddie and we learn that Piers’ dodgy business deal, the one about illicit vodka which Harry refused to invest in, well it came off and not only is Piers suddenly affluent but he repaid his investors eg Uncle Freddie, who now has a tidy sum stashed away in the bank. And, Freddie tells an incredulous Piers, the local stamp collector company has given Freddie his own cubicle to take out and peruse his albums in. He is happy as a kid. And then it’s all back to Harry’s where Clare and Désirée and Bunty prepare a big salad lunch.
25 After the lunch party is dispersed, Clare is standing in the peace and quiet of the house looking out the window, remembering the special look Arnold used to have when nobody was looking at him, and knowing she had enjoyed real love, true love, which so many people never really know. And at that moment a ray of sunshine penetrates the clouds and she sees the gleam of the missing piece of chalcedony, tucked down by the wainscoting, where it fell out when the cleaner was dusting and accidentally dropped the ancient flute on the floor. Clare restores it to its place in the old flute, and the flute to the alcove which is her shrine to her beloved husband.
It is a luminous ending to a rich and satisfying (if oddly written) novel.
The characters and narrator are never quite sure of anything. Or never quite finish anything. Amis is addicted to presenting alternatives to almost every description or fact. Things are something, or something else, or maybe something else. Amis uses ‘or’ a lot to present two or three or four ways of looking at any situation or bit of dialogue: is it intended to be a more precise rendition of quavering human thought; or in order to defocus and blur perceptions? Hard to tell, but no train of thought is ever clear or finished. More can always be added. Or appended. Or something (p.141). Or whatever it is (p.159). Or thereabouts (p.211). Or whatever it’s called (p.214)
With it she wore no jewellery or other ornamentation, not out of good taste or any of those but because everything she had ever had in that line had been sold or stolen or, most often, lost. Or as good as lost. (p.124)
‘I see,’ said Harry. He did too, or partly did, or might for the next five minutes or so. (p.154)
One of the things he came up with was that probable or possible or very short or only rather short (versions varied) affair that Harry and Désirée had had in the long ago. (p.210)
She gave him back a special glance or moue or wrinkling of the eyelids or all of the three that he knew he would see again whenever they met… (p.238)
Amis also deploys lots of conditional phrases, fillers, to hedge around and defocus perceptions and descriptions –
‘On the whole, maybe, in other words, on the off chance, in some way, perhaps, up to a point, so to speak, sort of, indeed, really, more or less, literally, as it were, after a fashion, at any rate, you know, in so many words, mind you, what do you call it, not to say, when you come to think about it, no doubt, such as it was, quite well enough, to put it mildly, for the most part, not by a long chalk, in a way, on the face of it, at all, actually, if you follow my meaning, and suchlike, and all that, and more besides’.
Any one example looks innocuous on its own, but there are two or three on every page and they have the effect of steadily, continuously chipping away at the clarity and conciseness of sentences, making them seem conditional, unsettled, blurry. I can’t decide whether Amis has his narrator and all his characters use them liberally as a satire on the bad useage of his day or because he’s keen to capture modern useage, in all its sort of, like, kind of casualness.
And he enjoys using words in unlikely combinations, especially phrases which take prepositions where he can butt them up against other prepositions and create odd jarring effects enjoying creating sentences which teeter on incomprehension or force you to read them twice.
Fiona spent most of her days and a lot of her nights looking forward to getting towards the end of whichever bit of either she happened to be in, but this was one she would have let go on as long as it liked. (p.125)
Clare put all she had, instead of being absolutely marvellous about the way she was putting all she had, into concealing the fact that she had given up hope that it would ever be found. (p.182)
Or just deliberately jar. Why?
Harry followed both these suggestions and when he came back found Clare looking nearly normal and sounding completely it. (p.221)
A long time ago this might have been funny. From one point of view it’s almost experimental – an anti-Modernist’s experiment with stream of consciousness, with getting inside people’s heads; or just for the fun of playing with the language.
On the table stood a bottle of White Nun with a glassful or so out of it and there was more, much more than enough more, where that had come from. The glassful or so was inside Fiona. (p.130)
But for a long time these three or four mannerisms, taken together, are Amis’s Late Style, ensuring you are continually stumbling over sentences which puzzle and perplex and give the text a sense of light-headedness, as if it is permanently tipsy, not quite making sense.
‘Of course, he’s very fond of you, you know,’ he said, trying not to make this sound like a good or any other sort of Harry’s marvellousnesses. (p.103)
If there could ever have been truly said to be more of something where something came from, the two at present conversing had run across it. (p.195)
Amis’s misogyny is more restrained in this novel for the simple reason that he covers a wider range of characters and at least three lead characters – Clare, Bunty, Fiona – are not only women, but sympathetically portrayed. Nonetheless, given half a chance, his men start in on the same tiresome sexist comments about women being incomprehensible, mad etc which characterise most of his previous novels.
In the human or material sphere the nearest comparable disparity was between the number of words that women said and the number that would have to have been said about what they had said in order to produce a full or clear or straight account of any matter. (p.103)
But, as I’ve said a) there’s a lot less of it than before b) Harry is given several passages where he realises he is a trial to live with and that women, in fact, deep down, are the ones who end up cooking and cleaning and tidying and looking after the sick and generally making the world go round and c) regardless of these trivial views, held by some characters on a surface level, the novel itself shows the warmest empathy and compassion for its women characters, for dependable Clare, for nervous Bunty, for poor wrecked Fiona. Not perhaps for ghastly Désirée, but it isn’t a political tract, it’s a novel about all sorts, and it is Amis’s most balanced and enjoyable for years.
He became conscious that Désirée was sort of staring at him. He smiled encouragingly, instead of asking her what she bloody wanted. (p.84)
But in the midst of all this there are some really funny moments. The full description of the old fart boring members of the Irving is supplemented by the description of the hypnotically stealthy approach of one of the doddering old servants. Some of the dialogue escapes from Amis’s circumlocutionary style to have a real punch and sparkle. His dislike of rock music, London traffic, and greasy spoon cafes are all conveyed with a kind of brio that made me smile. Brother Freddie being so dim he has to have it explained to him twice how to buy a round in a pub made me laugh out loud, it is phrased with such energetic frustration. Lots to enjoy.
The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis, published by Hutchinson 1990. All quotes from the 1991 Penguin paperback edition.
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 ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. 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 his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small 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 school teacher Patrick Standish, who is 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 its scholarly meetings, but 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, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching 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 actually 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 which 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 somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country 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 is 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 selected for the great honour of being 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 poor old Stan 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 magnum 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. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache