We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis (1991)

This is a very short novella, barely 80 pages long, written in a simple style and marketed as Puffin Teenage Fiction. I doubt it would appeal to many teenagers in 2015 and wonder how many read it in 1991. Despite its naturalistic setting, I think this is more a ‘novel of ideas’, a fictionalised pamphlet, a newspaper article with characters, because its main aim is to make a polemical point about contemporary society and culture and morality. First – the plot.

The set-up

Clive Rayner is a bored, white working class lad without a job or direction. He lives in an end-of-terrace house next to the approach road to a western motorway (maybe the Westway) with his mum and step-father, an angry man named Don MacIntyre. He hangs round with his mate Terry and two young trollopes, Marilyn and Paula who, despite their post-punk leather jackets and purple haircuts are not particularly sexually available, as he discovers when he gropes makes a pass at Paula and she smacks him in the mouth. He hangs round the house all day watching horror videos then spends the evenings at a cheap curry house with the gang. Once, hanging round the grass verge of the motorway, a police car stops and an intimidating plain clothes copper checks him over…

Clive nicks a tenner from his mum’s purse. When his step-dad gets home he gives Clive a bollocking, though his mum relents and tries to calm him down. That evening at the curry house Clive is wound up with anger and, having despatched the girls on their night bus, he suggests to Terry they break into a nearby warehouse belonging to Butterfield Brothers.

Terry is sceptical, all that’s in there is toasters and bulky electrical goods, but he goes along with it. They smash a window and clamber in, discovering a railed gantry or walkway which runs the length of the building, so they’re up and walking across that when the alarm goes off and an angry middle-aged man emerges from an office and runs towards them. He grabs Clive by the collar and they wrestle rather than fight, Clive pushing him away just where the gantry railing happens to be broken and the man falls to the warehouse floor with a sickening thud.

The scene cuts to Clive and Terry in custody. They ran into the police almost directly outside the warehouse, didn’t struggle and admitted everything. The warehouse security man, a Mr Harris, is now in hospital with a badly hurt back, possibly crippled for life.

The message

Clive now finds himself dealing with a series of adults and their various reactions to his crime or accident:

His step-dad is furious, as might have been expected.

Sergeant Parnell, the copper who checked him over from a passing police car, is the officer in charge of the case. There is a really powerful scene where he explains what will probably happen to Clive ie let off with a caution, but goes on to say, if he had his way, Clive and Terry would be sent down for five years, very hard labour. He delivers the central speech, from everything we know of crusty old Kingsley, presumably the author’s message:

‘I’d just like you to know that there are one or two people around who don’t feel sorry for you and do want to punish you and understand you already, from top to bottom. You’re scum, the pair of you, and you’ll never hear about it, except from me. I’m going to do everything in my power to see that you have a bad time. I don’t expect to succeed because this whole place, the whole system, the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and what-not who’ve forgotten two little words – right and wrong.’ (p.37)

Parnell’s prediction comes true when Clive is allotted a social worker, a Miss (inevitably) Adams. She arrives with a whole set of preconceptions and interviews Clive in such a way as to get him to agree to her agenda, that he is the product of a broken home, his step-father is ‘abusive’, his school let him down. Eventually Clive realises how she is manipulating him to fit her stereotype of the ‘victim’, and begins to rebel. ‘I done it’, he shouts, no-one else, it was me, if I hadn’t broken in the old man would still be able to walk. But she is too well educated and too drilled in her fixed world view to listen to the boy she is ‘helping’, and goes on to make the counter-argument, the one we can be confident Amis is satirising:

‘In any meaningful sense… you, Clive Rayner, are not guilty of anything at all. Anything relevant, anything that really matters. It’s society that’s guilty, the system and the people who live off it and in it and around it. We all made it happen. We are all guilty.’ (p.60)

Confused, Clive is packed off by his mother to the local church, where he expects to take a further pasting. Here he discovers a bunch of hairy people setting up amps and speakers for a rock concert and then meets the trendy vicar, ‘call me Robin’ Foster. Robin takes Clive aside and explains that God doesn’t want him to feel full of shame and guilt, God wants human beings to be full of light and happiness, God wants him to overcome his guilt and forgive himself.

Before his case comes to court, Clive is again menaced by Sergeant Parnell who explains that the wife of the crippled night watchman will make a tearful witness to the terrible thing the boys have done. They’ll get five years if they’re lucky. In the event and to his amazement, the wife doesn’t appear, the social worker makes a good case for Clive’s ‘deprived’ background and he is let off with a year’s probation and £100 fine which, looking round, he sees Robin the vicar who signals that he’ll pay that (p.71). His family and friends mill around outside the court room, clapping and cheering and shaking hands as if it’s a great victory. Only Clive himself is distraught. He knows he did it. He knows he is guilty. Why can’t he get anyone to acknowledge it.

He sneaks off and goes to the hospital to visit the caretaker, Mr Harris (previously he had been forbidden, on legal advice). The old man stricken in bed is philosophical, says the accident won’t change him. And it turns out their solicitor warned the couple that emphasising Clive’s culpability would jeopardise the case they’re bringing against his employer for negligent maintenance of the gantry railing. Clive is appalled that even the man he crippled is pressurised by ‘the system’ to downplay his, Clive’s, guilt. And then Harris’s tearful wife, at his bed-side, starts crying and saying God would want her to forgive him, God ‘wants us to forgive people their sins. It’s our sacred duty.’ (p.83)

Sickened at the way everybody is falling over themselves to forgive him, Clive spends a sleepless night before getting up early and going back to the church. Here Robin the vicar repeats the message that God forgives him no matter what, and the book ends with Chris walking beside the roaring traffic, until a wall converges with the busy road and he finds himself pressing his face and hands against it, confused and distraught. For a moment I thought he would throw himself under a lorry in his despair, but another police car draws up and a copper, not Sergeant Parnell, asks if he’s alright, sonny. The policeman is genuinely concerned that he’s OK which, in a way, makes it all worse. Yes, yes, I’m fine Clive replies. The car pulls off. Clive turns and starts walking home. The End.

The need for punishment

Some of the characterisation was a bit weak, even for a fable: Clive’s parents aren’t very strong presences and the type of the social worker with a pre-determined agenda and the trendy vicar could be dismissed as Daily Mail clichés: except I recognised the do-gooding, naive social worker and her milieu from when I went out with a trainee social worker, and was sharing a house with three women psychologists, in the early 1990s when this book was published. And I recognised the trendy vicar from the several I met and got to know when I took my children to church kindergartens and creches in the 2000s.

Whether or not ‘the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists’ I have no idea, and am not sure how you could actually find out. It sounds like the kind of thing you read in the right-wing press with which Amis agreed (and who he often wrote for) but which might not stand up to a morning in an actual juvenile court.

But leaving aside the accuracy or inaccuracy of the social ‘analysis’ and editorialising, looking at it just as a piece of fiction, I found the character of Sergeant Parnell tremendously powerful, his speech about Clive and Terry being scum, as well as his other remarks and comments throughout, to be wonderfully virile and menacing.

Similarly, although the lead character of Clive is not a terribly persuasive teenager (no drugs, no drunkenness, no sex, not much about music or fashion, instead he routinely refers to people as ‘fellows’ ie uses Amis’s 1950s lingo), nonetheless his predicament is powerfully conveyed, as powerful and simple as Gregor Samsa waking up and finding he’s been turned into an insect.

The book makes a short sharp case that teenagers, all humans, just as much as children, need boundaries and rules, and to know they will be punished if they step over them. Without rules we can do anything, and if we can do anything our actions become weightless, meaningless. Complete freedom can itself be oppressive.

‘Why did you lie to me outside the courtroom, before the case,’ Clive asks Parnell, ‘why did you lead me on that the weeping wife’s testimony would get me five years?’ Because, replies Parnell:

‘I wanted to punish you. One, because criminals deserve to be punished. Two, for my own personal satisfaction. And three, because punishment’s good for the soul.’ (p.74)

Is punishment good for the soul? Who knows whether this is ‘true’? Or true at least for some people? But this slender novella, if you accept its conventions and its teenage audience, does a surprisingly powerful job of making you believe it, at least while you’re reading it. And what else is fiction for?


We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis was published by Reinhardt Books in association with Viking in 1991. All quotes are from the 1993 Puffin teenage fiction paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s 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, alas, 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 damaged 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 in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

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