Painting With Light @ Tate Britain

This exhibition has the feel of a very interesting lecture or documentary about the interplay between photography and photographers and art and artists in Britain, from 1840 to around 1910. During this period photography went through a swift succession of technical innovations, and Art itself evolved through a whole series of movements, so that the exhibition contains two distinct and complex histories intertwined, and also features many interesting biographical stories about individual photographers and artists. All very enjoyable.

As usual I’m struck by how long ago photography was invented. William Henry Fox Talbot announced details of his ‘salted paper’ process to the Royal Society in 1839 (referring back to the oldest photographic negative, taken in 1835). In the same year Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype.

Enough photographers were at work a decade later for the Photographic Society of London to be established in 1853 and come under royal patronage the next year. It continues to this day as the Royal Photographic Society.

The most obvious impact of photography was to capture exactly what is there – the truth of landscapes, bodily poses and all the details to be seen within the frame. The human eye selects and focuses, and paintings and drawings even more so select and highlight. Photographs show everything within the field of composition and preserve it as a record, to be studied indefinitely. As soon as it became available, artists began taking photographs to use as models for paintings in all genres – urban vistas and landscapes, people and poses, buildings.

The core of this exhibition is the scores of fascinating examples where the curators have placed a photograph and the work which it led to side by side, allowing us to compare and contrast the function and effect of the two media – sometimes exact copies, sometimes more a capturing of the spirit of place or person.

Photography > painting

Some of the many examples of photographs providing the basis for paintings include:

In 1843 Robert Adamson established a photographic studio in Edinburgh where he was joined by the painter David Octavius Hill. They took more than 4,000 photos of Edinburgh until Adamson died at just 26. Among them was a photographic portrait of the artist William Etty which Etty then used to directly compose his Self-portrait, after a photograph by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (1846). It’s interesting the way Etty has got rid of all the details of the folds of his jacket, especially the left arm: it has become an undifferentiated block of black which has the effect of focusing our attention on the pale face, concentrating on thought and inspiration.

Daguerrotypes are small precise images made onto polished silver plates. The artist and art critic John Ruskin was quick to take to photography, having his valet John Hobbs experiment with them. The show includes a striking contrast between Ruskin’s watercolour painting of the North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice with a daguerrotype Hobbs made of the same view in 1850. Ruskin defined art as paying attention to what is actually there:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. (Modern Painters 4, 1856)

This was the basis for Ruskin’s famous defence of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) when they started exhibiting in 1848. Although they shocked many Victorians with the ungainliness and ugliness of their paintings, Ruskin defended the PRBs’ fanatical attention to detail. Both were, by temperament, attracted to the similar recording of detail found in photography.

Ruskin used photography as a record of detail as in this photo of the courtyard of a late Gothic wooden house in Abbeville, 1868 and used them as teaching aids in his public lectures and then at the art school he set up.

Abroad In 1854 the pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt and the photographer James Graham toured the Holy Land. Graham took a series of photographs of Nazareth, which Hunt used as an aide memoire when he came to make this watercolour of the scene. The commentary points out that the photograph doesn’t fade away into the distant haze traditionally found in landscape painting, but continues to show the detail of the landscape with its tracks and terracing. Hunt copied this to create a continuity of detail extending right to the back of the painting, one of the PRB’s signature effects.

Hunt painted a number of seascapes, often with light effects from the sun or moon, and in his essay on photography the critic Philip Hamerton contrasted the depth and variety of colour possible in a watercolour like Fishing Boats By Moonlight (1869) with the light effects of the celebrated French photographer, Gustave le Gray, such as this Ciel Chargé (1857). In fact, in this instance, the photo seems to me much the superior image for its crispness and clarity.

Tourism In 1864 A.W. Bennett published a volume titled Our English Lakes, Mountains and Waterfalls as seen by William Wordsworth with thirteen albumen photographs by Thomas Ogle including one of the Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, the subject of an 1868 painting by Leeds-born artist John Atkinson Grimshaw.

In the studio Samuel Butler studied at Mr Heatherley’s Art School in the mid-1860s. He took this photograph of Mr Heatherley and then used it as the centre of his oil painting Mr Heatherley’s Holiday (1874). What makes these old photos feel so, so rich and evocative? Is it the use of sepia, the use of brown instead of black as the dark shade?

Orientalism Roger Fenton trained as a painter but switched to photography and became the first secretary of the Photography Society. In 1855 he was in the Crimea making a historic set of photos of the British Army fighting in the Crimean War. In 1859 he exhibited a sequence of ‘orientalist scenes’ including this Nubian Water Carrier. The exhibition shows how the same pose is reworked in The Song of the Nubian Slave by Frederick Goodall, who went on to have a successful career as a painter of Near Eastern subjects.

In 1862 Walter Crane exhibited his version of The Lady of Shalott, based on the extremely popular Tennyson poem of the same name. Critics weren’t slow to point out the extraordinary similarities with the photograph of the same scene created by Henry Peach Robinson a year earlier, nor to point out that the photograph was in every respect superior to the painting.

Painting > photography

Of course the influence could work the other way. If some artists used photos as the basis of paintings, some photographers used famous paintings as the basis for photographs.

Stereoscopy In 1859 James Robinson used the new technique of ‘stereoscopy’ ie juxtaposing two photos of the same scene to be viewed through special spectacles, to reconstruct the pose of Henry Wallis’s famous 1856 painting, Chatterton. This led to legal proceedings by printmakers, who usually enjoyed a monopoly on producing and selling copies of popular works and so stood to lose out with the arrival of this new invention.

Mention of ‘stereoscopy’ and ‘stereographs’ feels to me like the borderline of what you could call ‘art’. Mention of Dr Brian May’s historic collection in this area makes me feel we’re crossing the border into the realm of collecting and collectibility – Antiques Roadshow territory – close to collections of cigarette cards or period comics or historic magazines, and the like. This is a problem photography faces when asking to be considered as an art form: right from the start a large number of people have been able to do it and produce very passable results, and nowadays everyone in the world owns a camera-phone so that the number of these ‘art works’ increases by tens of millions every day.

Julia Margaret Cameron is the famously well-connected woman photographer who was good friends with Alfred Lord Tennyson and  his circle, and enjoyed dressing up her subjects in fake medieval costumes to mirror the poet laureate’s sensually Gothic poems. The exhibition contrasts her posing of models for The Passing of Arthur (1875) with a possible source in Daniel Maclise’s Morte d’Arthur illustration for the same Tennyson poem in an illustrated 1857 edition.

Cameron’s photographs are much closer to the sitter, framed and cropped to emphasise psychological acuity, at the same time exposed slightly longer to achieve a fuzziness of focus. Precise poses of the earlier period were replaced by ‘draped postures and dreamy expressions’, photographic versions of the new emphasis on Aestheticism, on a kind of spiritual intimacy which was the new thing in the 1870s, which would develop into Art for Art’s Sake in the 1880s and 90s.

Cameron had a specially close relationship with George Frederick Watts – Watts painted her, she photographed him. (I think Watts was a dreadful artist; JMC’s photograph is infinitely more artistic – better composed, framed and finished than anything Watts could manage). They discussed their respective arts and even shared sitters: May Prinsep by G.F. Watts (1867) – May Prinsep by J.M. Cameron (1870).

Dressing up for the camera An unknown photographer was commissioned to photograph the family of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in poses based on the romantic paintings of the popular late Victorian artist Marcus Stone. The exhibition brings together the photo and the painting of Two’s Company, Three’s None (1893) indicating, along the way, the depth of the Victorian fondness for amateur theatricals and dressing up.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti began Beata Beatrix in 1864 but set it aside when the model, his wife, died. Julia Margaret Cameron poses her friend Mary Hiller as Tennyson’s heroine Elaine dying of love for Lancelot in Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die (1870), possibly basing the pose on the Beata and when Rossetti took up and completed his painting in 1870 the smoky chiaroscuro of the JMC photo may have influenced him.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate.

Jane Morris In the summer of 1865 Rossetti commissioned John Parsons to take a series of photos of Jane Morris in his garden in London. It was done in a specially erected tent to make the background close to the sitter, and also to diffuse the bright summer sunlight. The photographs capture the extraordinary power of her features, the sensuous lips contrasted with the strong curving jawline, as well as the folds of the rich dress. This was the model of feminine beauty which Rossetti used for paintings like Mariana (1870).

Working life In 1885 the painter Thomas Goodall collaborated with the photographer Peter Henry Emerson on a book titled Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads which showed common folk in everyday activities. The second print was titled The Bow Net and the next year Goodall exhibited his painting The Bow Net. Discuss. Unlike the Watts/Cameron images, the painting seems to me easily the better image.

Sir George Clausen studied French realist painting in Paris before settling in England. From 1881 to 1884 he lived in rural Hertfordshire depicting the often hard lives of working people. He used a small camera to catch images and the exhibition shows several of the photos which he then worked up into finished paintings like Winter Work (1883).

I was surprised to learn that John Atkinson Grimshaw, remembered for his paintings of urban scenes by moonlight, often painted oil directly onto photographs of the scenes he was depicting. Apparently that’s the technique he used to create this amazingly realistic image of Pall Mall (1880s).

Diversity and diffusion

There are several more rooms devoted to the relationship between photos and paintings of landscape, of urban scenes, of Venice – and a sequence about the fashion for Japanese art at the end of the century, linking photos of models posing in Japanese clothes and parasols with paintings of similar scenes. In all of these I felt the connections between the photos and the art works were becoming increasingly tenuous.

By 1900 photography was old enough to have not only an established royal society and a tradition of ‘old masters’ which were published in expensive volumes, as well as a panoply of diverse techniques and approaches, but a number of breakaway ‘revolutionary’ societies promising to do radical new things with the form, as well as hundreds of photography clubs all round the country who held scores of competitions and exhibitions, with work flooding in from America, France, from all the industrialised nations. If it was an art form it was also a mass practice as well.

By the 1890s the overlaps between art and photography seem increasingly coincidental. They are both simply depicting the world around them. When the show sets the impressionistic ‘nocturne’ paintings of J.M. Whistler alongside the works of contemporary photographers from the 1890s who were experimenting with how to capture the new phenomena of electric lights, with soft-focus night scenes of London and so on, you realise the similarity between some of the paintings and some of the photos might simply be because, by 1890, lots of people were interested in the same looks and styles.

I think it was in the Quai d’Orsay museum I read that the 1890s was ‘the decade of isms’, and it might well be the decade when the sheer number of artists, designers and photographers, and the range of media they’re working in, and the sheer volume of product they’re producing, becomes unmanageable under any one heading.

Certainly the show is wise to end on the brink of the twentieth century when posters, adverts, newspapers, magazines, hoardings – not forgetting the new ‘art’ form of cinema, with its accompanying posters and still photos of the stars – will create a world saturated with photographic and graphic images, artworks, brands and logos, designs and patterns – a profusion which makes the easy analysis of the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘photography’ which characterised the earlier part of the exhibition no longer possible.

P.S. Elizabeth Eastlake

After Robert Adamson died young, his collaborator David Octavius Hill prepared a memoriam volume of his work and presented it to the President of the Royal Academy, Charles Eastlake. As it happens, Eastlake would go on to marry one of the models featured in it, Elizabeth Rigby, Hill’s friend, model and herself an art critic who wrote one of the earliest essays on photography.

The exhibition includes a copy of the memorial volume, open to a page showing this image of Eastlake, one of the 20 or so they took of her. Her turned-away posture, added to the knowledge of Adamson’s early death, and the feel of long ago costumes and people, charge it with great poignancy.

By the end of the exhibition I felt like I’d seen hundreds of photos and paintings of women, but this early one still felt special. Maybe part of the appeal of the earliest photographs is they somehow carry a sense of their scarcity, their relative uniqueness, which gives them a poise and a charge lacking from later pictures as the flood of popular photography turned into an all-encompassing tsunami.

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Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck @ the National Gallery

The germ of the idea came following Lucien Freud’s death in 2011 when heirs and curators had to deal with the collection of other artists’ works which Freud had accumulated over a long life. His collection prompted the question, What did he collect and why? And how, if at all, did the items in his collection influence his own practice? Which in turn gave rise to thinking about the personal collections of other eminent painters throughout history: How have painters drawn inspiration from the examples of their predecessors’ subject matter, treatment and style, which they happened to own?

Hence this exhibition selects eight famous artist-collectors and, as far as possible, not only explains why they collected, but gives us examples of works from their collections, along with their thoughts and writings on the act of collecting.

The eight artists chosen are, in reverse chronological order: Lucien Freud, Matisse, Edgar Degas, Sir Frederick Leighton, George Frederick Watts, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Thus the ten or so rooms of the show bring together, according to the National Gallery website, ‘more than eighty works spanning over five hundred years of art history, from Freud’s 2002 Self Portrait: Reflection to Bellini’s Agony in the Garden of about 1465′.


The first thing to notice is that only two of the list aren’t English (van Dyck becoming a sort of naturalised Englishman and Freud, though born in Berlin, taking British citizenship).

Following from this is the quick realisation, from just considering the first room, that a number of these paintings already hang in the National Gallery. A lot of these works you could see any day of the week for free. In other words, this is a canny way of displaying a lot of the NG’s collection but in a new and interesting context. On the other hand, nearly half the eighty works are on loan from elsewhere: Paris galleries for the Impressionists, from private collections and from HM Queen for some of the earlier paintings. Seen from this angle, the exhibition is a genuine opportunity to see works rarely if ever displayed in England.

In fact, the section on Lawrence goes further to make the point that Lawrence acted as advisor to several notable collectors, including Sir George Beaumont and John Julius Angerstein. Both of these men donated their collections at death to the British government, collections which formed the kernel of the National Gallery collection. So there is a side strand about the artist-collector Lawrence, who advised the aristocratic collectors, whose collections formed the basis of the collection of the gallery we’re standing in.


In a familiar curator’s conceit the rooms and artists are arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with Freud (d.2011) and ending with van Dyck (d.1641). But, being old-fashioned or unafraid of curators’ fancies as well as knowing that I prefer older paintings, I simply began at the end – with the ‘last’ room, the van Dyck Room – and proceeded to ‘do’ the exhibition in reverse i.e. correct, chronological order.

Van Dyck (1599 – 1641)

Tate and the National Gallery have a lot of van Dyck’s because, although born in Antwerp (modern Belgium) van Dyck was invited to London by King Charles I in 1632 and stayed there until his death in 1641, making a living as a very successful portrait painter of the Royal Court and aristocracy.

The curators show how Titian’s use of stone steps allowed him to create a dynamic positioning of the bodies in The Vendramin Family, venerating a Relic of the True Cross (1550?) and this lesson was well learned by Van Dyck as can be seen by his use of stone steps for similar purpose of posing the figures in Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (1632).

A rarely seen van Dyck is on loan from the Queen’s collection, which again shows the importance of classical architecture/references in this kind of painting. Here the broken column between the two men symbolises the death of the wife of Thomas Killigrew (on the left) after just a few years of marriage. He is wearing her wedding ring on a black bracelet around his wrist and a silver cross of mourning hangs on his chest.

Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts (?), 1638 by Anthony van Dyck. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts (?) (1638) by Anthony van Dyck © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

On a more intimate scale the show compares one of van Dyck’s self portraits with Titian’s Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo (about 1510), comparing the similar positioning of body (away from the watcher) with head turned back. Note the way van Dyck is turning his back and lowering his cloak, in a way which would be flirtatious in a female nude, but in this painting the gesture a) reveals his skill at catching the play of light on the folds of black silk of his shirt and b) the great big golden chain around his neck: I am a brilliant artist and I am rich.

Self Portrait by Anthony van Dyck (about 1629) Lent Anonymously © Photo courtesy of the owner

Self Portrait by Anthony van Dyck (about 1629) Lent Anonymously © Photo courtesy of the owner

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792)

Self Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (about 1780) © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond

Self Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (about 1780) © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond

Reynolds took himself immensely seriously (as you can tell from this self-portrait, posing with a bust supposedly by Michelangelo) making himself into the most successful portraitist of his day, dedicated to studying the European masters in order to raise the standards of British painting, helping to found and acting as first president of the Royal Academy. No surprise, then, that he amassed a large collection of European Old Masters to act as models and inspiration.

What comes over strongest in this section is the widespread misattribution of paintings in the past. The painting of Leda and the Swan which Reynolds thought was by Michelangelo is not now attributed to him at all. Reynolds thought a Bellini Agony in the Garden was by Mantegna; he thought van Dyck’s portrait of George Gage was a portrait of Rubens. Wrong in each case. Apparently, after his death, when his huge collection was assessed for sale, a contemporary described it as ‘swarming’ with fakes.

In a shock aside, the commentary also casually mentions that Reynolds routinely touched up paintings in his collection ‘to improve them’! That must be a risk very specifically related to falling into the hands of an artist who thinks he is qualified to ‘retouch’ a Renaissance masterpiece.

Reynolds didn’t collect many contemporaries but made an exception for his only equal, Thomas Gainsborough. A specific example shown here is the striking Girl with Pigs of 1782. Apparently, it’s a good example of the late trend of Gainsborough to paint landscapes with figures which Reynolds called his ‘fancy pictures’.

Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depict scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling. The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular. (‘Fancy picture’ on the Tate website)

So it’s the presence of the peasant girl, not the pigs, that makes it ‘fancy.

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830)

I was blown away by the big exhibition of Lawrence’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2010. Now I learn that he was a compulsive collector, amassing some 5,000 works of which 4,300 were drawings. It helped a lot that the European art market was awash with art following the disruptions of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. War > plunder. ‘Twas ever thus.

The exhibition contrasted an enormous Renaissance cartoon he owned with the composition of the three figures in his portrait of the Barings.

Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring, and Charles Wall by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1806-1807) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring, and Charles Wallby Sir Thomas Lawrence (1806-1807) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

To paraphrase the critic Richard Dorment, art historians love this triple portrait because it so cleverly incorporates references to group portraits by Titian and Reynolds. No doubt.

Going beyond the poses of the figures – which actually appeared a little clumsy to me – I was struck by the way classical pillars are included in this style of painting to add grandeur and authority – and to act as a doorway onto a distant landscape representing ‘the world’ which the rich people in the portrait are planning and controlling.

I much preferred his august and amused self-portrait, which I can’t find anywhere on Google images 😦

George Frederick Watts (1817 – 1904)

Watts is always touted as a giant of late Victorian painting but I think he’s by far the worst painter from the period. I once went on a pilgrimage to the Watts Gallery in Compton, a village near Guildford, and was desperately disappointed. His vaguely allegorical figures are mostly dark, brown and gloomy. He had a big collection and the show compares four tall slender paintings by the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot depicting four stages of the day – Morning, Noon, Evening and Night – with Watt’s own Autumn from 1903.

Autumn by George Frederic Watts (1901-1903) © Watts Gallery

Autumn by George Frederic Watts (1901-1903) © Watts Gallery

Sir Frederic Leighton (1830 – 1896)

Leighton and Watts are made to share quite a small room, which features a small self portrait by Leighton, as well as some works from his collection. In my opinion, Leighton deserves a room to himself featuring more of his work. The National Gallery has plenty as does Tate. Maybe it was too big to squeeze in.

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

Odd that the two Victorians were squeezed together in one pokey room, whereas the collection of French Impressionist Edgar Degas sprawls over two large rooms, the biggest space dedicated to one painter-collector.

Degas was notorious for his addiction to buying art. He beggared himself in a compulsive need to acquire works by his famous contemporaries, often snapping up Impressionist works as soon as they were finished. And so one room was devoted to the Impressionists in Degas’s collection, including the usual suspects such Sisley, Pissarro and Gauguin, as well as the enormous work The Execution of Emperor Maximilian by Édouard Manet (1867 to 1869) which, after it was (inexplicably) cut up into sections by Manet’s wife’s son, Degas tracked down to various Parisian art dealer’s premises and partly reassembled.

The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet (1867-8) © The National Gallery, London

The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet (1867-8) © The National Gallery, London

In the second Degas room were mainly works by the two 19th century painters he reverenced, Delacroix for his use of colour, and Ingres for line. Apparently the young Degas met the old Ingres who told him, ‘Draw lines, young man, draw lines’. A man after my own heart.

In the welter of works in these two rooms the one that stood out for me was a portrait of Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1887). I very much like the solid line drawing, the draughtsmanship and the character which is captured of this aesthete and Symbolist writer.

Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1887) © Tate, London. Photo The National Gallery, London

Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1887) © Tate, London. Photo: The National Gallery, London

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

Matisse also collected works by older masters and contemporaries. Dominating his room is the famous Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure) by Degas, which Matisse owned for 16 years or so before selling it onto the National Gallery (which is why it’s here). La Coiffure manages to be a masterpiece of both line and colour, the dark outline of the figures masterfully suggesting their corporeality and motion, but the deliberate use of shades of red and orange creating a sumptuous and dynamic image.

Away from this super-dominating image were two smaller works, which I liked. A small Gauguin, Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear (1891).

Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear by Paul Gauguin (1891) Property from a distinguished Private Collection, courtesy of Christie's. Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear by Paul Gauguin (1891) Property from a distinguished Private Collection, courtesy of Christie’s. Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

And it’s well known that Matisse and Picasso kept up a fierce rivalry throughout their lives. Thus the room contains a powerful Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar from 1942.

Portrait of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso (1942) Courtesy The Elkon Gallery, New York City © Succession Picasso/DACS 2016. Photo courtesy of the owner

Portrait of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso (1942) Courtesy The Elkon Gallery, New York City © Succession Picasso/DACS 2016. Photo courtesy of the owner

Lucien Freud (1922 – 2011)

And so, feeling rather exhausted by this embarras de richesses, the visitor arrives at what the curators intend to be the first room and which contains half a dozen works owned by the émigré German painter, Lucien Freud. Pride of place is given to Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (L’Italienne) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (about 1870), which I didn’t particularly like, finding the whole effect misjudged and drab.

And, although it’s on the main poster outside and all over the Tube, the gallery doesn’t provide for press use a copy of Freud’s self-portrait from 2002, striking, with the paint over his nose and veined hands looking as if it has bubbled with smallpox.

Having supped full of these horrors I strolled back through to the ‘end’ room to cleanse my palate with the smooth and lofty images of Sir Anthony van Dyke – though they themselves are not untainted by war and destruction. They just don’t know it yet…

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The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis (1995)

‘She told me she saw something in one of the papers about somebody called something Scott-Thompson writing something about JRP Fane…’ (p.96)

Not particularly successful forty-something literary journalist, Gordon Scott-Thompson, pitches the idea of writing a ‘critical biography’ of 68-year-old, very posh and very out-of-date novelist Jimmie Fane, to his reluctant publisher.

There follows a series of lunches and dinners with Jimmie and his pukka mates (Tommie, Bobbie), at his house, at nice restaurants, at Jimmie’s club (Grays), and entanglements with old friends and lovers of the great man, which Gordon experiences with varying levels of Amisian alienation and bewilderment.

Characteristically for an Amis ‘hero’, Gordon also struggles to maintain a relationship with his live-out lover Louise, and to manage the attentions of Jimmie’s (fourth) wife, Joanna, after she sets out – successfully – to seduce him.

Complications are introduced in the form of an ancient lover of Jimmie’s – Madge Walker – who he jilted way back during the war and is now living in genteel poverty with her deaf, ex-Navy husband; and in a prolonged visit to the phenomenally posh Duke of Dunwich in his country house at Hungerstream, which is chock-full of Lucky Jim-style comic embarrassments.

This long country house sequence is very funny. There’s no real necessity for it in the plot. It’s simply one of the many country weekends Jimmie is constantly angling to get himself invited to, and his wife Joanna suggests that his ‘biographer’ comes along and also that he brings his girlfriend Louise. In the event Gordon travels there by train, sees a bunch of other, genuinely posh guests at Hungerstream station who ignore him, a chauffeur-driven car takes them all to the enormous house and then a whole series of comic episodes ensue: from first meeting the dodgy Duke himself, to the ordeal of a formal dinner during which Gordon gets catastrophically drunk, as well as embarrassing scenes with Louise and, indeed, his adulterous lover, Joanna, and so on.

This long sequence fits the theme of the novel, which is the English class system, but mostly it is an opportunity for Amis to relentlessly takes the piss out of the really upper, British upper classes, their braying inability to speak, their permanent drunkenness, their outrageous rudeness – which all around tolerate and put up with because all around are themselves such awful social climbers and snobs.

That said, at the heart of the section is a long and curiously touching scene where Jimmie takes Gordon for a wintry morning walk in the countryside and confesses a teenage attachment to Tennyson and In Memoriam which long inspired him to write his (unpublishable) poetry.

It is also during this long country house interlude that Joanna explains to Gordon that Jimmie is planning to return to his second wife – Lady Rowena – who’s come into some money – and so to ditch her, Joanna. Which is why she began the affair, felt free to begin the affair, with him, Gordon. Gordon’s not sure how he feels about this but tells her he loves her, just in case. Lucky Jim-style, Gordon drinks himself insensible at the big evening meal at Hungerstream and so misses some kind of showdown which takes place between Joanna and Jimmie. All the cast members return to London next day in various stages of hungoverness and high dudgeon.

Quite separate from all this is a sub-plot in which Gordon wangles some money out of Joanna to pass on to Madge Walker, Jimmie’s former lover, now fallen on hard times, to help support her bed-bound former Navy captain husband. But soon enough the novel hurtles towards its denouements. In the end:

  1. Jimmie gets cold feet about returning to wife number two, after she actually shows up at the Duke of Dunwich’s, thereby forcibly reminding him how ghastly she is. So he abandons his plan, explaining it all calmly enough to Joanna.
  2. So Joanna in turn dumps Gordon and returns to the old bugger – ‘I love you darling but… let’s never talk about it again.’ Gordon takes it badly. Now he has lost both women, Joanna and Louise, and stays up watching crap TV in his rubbish flat drinking himself insensible on whisky.
  3. Gordon’s publisher doesn’t surprise him very much by telling him that the publisher has been taken over by some vast conglomerate who’ve taken a look at the books and are cutting down on anything which isn’t a copper-bottomed bestseller – starting with weedy lit crit books like Gordon’s. He, the publisher, is himself being made redundant soon. Sign of the times.
  4. And Louise, the girlfriend he dumped to have the affair with Joanna, but who Joanna asked him to nonetheless take along to the Duke of Dunwich’s as ‘cover’ for their affair? She takes the Duke’s fancy and the novel ends a month or so later with Gordon attending their outrageously posh wedding.

This is Amis’s last published novel. Its immediate predecessor, You Can’t Have Both, was lengthy and divided into just four long parts or ‘acts’. This made it a little challenging for the reader to orientate herself within what presented themselves as long continuous floods of prose.

By contrast The Biographer’s Moustache is divided into 30 short chapters. This has the effect of making each chapter address one ‘scene’ only, and encourages them to be more clipped and focused. As a result, the book is both easier to read and gives a stronger impression of pace and focus.

The style

Vague That said, Amis’s style is as weird as ever. It revels in vagueness and inconsequentiality so that none of the characters ever thinks or says anything plain and logical. To pick up an Amis novel is to enter a maze of equivocation and diffusion, with the anti-hero – like this one – likely to be stuck in an ‘everyday condition of puzzlement and unsatisfied curiosity’ (p.97), amid a wreck of bewildering and unpredictable other characters. Our man rarely understand what’s going on, what other people are doing or thinking, or what he’s meant to do next.

Or Hence, partly, the addiction to giving multiple variant interpretations of even the simplest activities, linked by ‘or’. Hardly anything is said or happens which isn’t given at least two possible interpretations:

  • The number was or seemed to be permanently engaged. (p.105)
  • When he left her after the rissole lunch she had talked without pause till they were on the doorstep, then said something hurried and unemphatic that he remembered or had interpreted as a directive to get in touch or keep in touch with her… (p.98)

There are so many usages of ‘or’ that you could sub-categorise them. Some of them are dismissive, conveying an irritable, short-tempered attitude in the author or character:

  • Jimmie explained to Gordon as they sat in an otherwise empty corner of the lounge, or whatever it might have been called. (p.68)
  • ‘He’s in Cambridge, having lunch with the Master or the Warden of somewhere…’ (p.73)

At moments like this the narrator (or characters – the same tone is interchangeable between them) seems to be saying ‘Listen, I’m just in too much of a bloody hurry to worry with the details, alright?’

At that moment she got out of the green chair and strolled towards a window or a picture or a bookcase… (p.75)

A different type of ‘ors’ seem to be trying to capture subtle differences in human behaviour, where the narrator is recording characters’ equivocation or uncertainty about their own motives.

  • This too he did, or started to. (p.103)
  • Perhaps he was in love, or was going to be. (p.179)

These give the appearance of a keen scholar of human motivation striving to find just the right definition or phrase in the way ‘the novel’ is traditionally meant to:

  • He most have been responding without knowing it, or more likely without admitting it to himself. (p.74)

So is the proliferation of ‘or’ sentences – and there are three or four on every page – the sign of a clever investigation of human nature – or just an irritating mannerism?

  • In fact he arrived at the building a few seconds before the agreed hour, just when a neurotically precise or something-like-that person would have got there. (p.107)
  • In one way or perhaps in more than one he had welcomed this. (p.118)

Whatever the precise intention of individual ‘or’ sentences, the overall impact of all of them all is to weaken and undermine the main statement. More than one creates a diminuendo effect: the more there are the more they make the power or certainty of a statement deflate like a punctured balloon. Like a lot of Amis’s mannerisms it can be funny or serious or irritating or all three at once; one thing is sure, this stylistic tic occurs numerous times on every page and is a dominant feature of his style.

  • Joanna’s voice slackened. She had the look of somebody who has said more than enough, or perhaps less than enough… (p.127)
  • She gave a long sigh, as if resigning something or the hope of something. (p.152)

Some of that Being in a state of permanent bewilderment means that Mr Confused and Puzzled is at a loss for how to handle, think about or cope with other people. When they talk to him he perceives it as being talked at and gives the impression of just sitting nodding waiting for ‘it’ to end. He – and the other characters, since all the characters share the narrator’s frame of mind and turn of phrase – use a set of frequently repeated phrases to convey this sense of having to sit through the unbearable twaddle other people are spouting: having to endure bits of ‘stuff’ or ‘that lot’ of piffle or ‘more of the same’, or ‘this section’ of whatever they’re on about, as though it’s all incomprehensible.

  • Gordon could not think of any useful reply to make to this last lot… (p.139)
  • This phase was soon ended… (p.165)
  • Cooper arrived with the tea in time to hear this last bit. (p.256)

Quite regularly the protagonist thinks he’s being assailed with a foreign language or just gobbledygook. Even regular conversation feels like a burden he has to sit through, miming appropriate expressions of happiness or understanding or interest as best he can.

Dialogue To some extent Amis’s dialogue – and there’s lots of it – makes an admirable effort to capture real people’s hesitations and evasions, repetitions and stumbles. The downside is that nobody in Amis ever seems able to get to the point, if indeed there is a point. Amis’s dialogue must be the vaguest and most obtuse of any published author.

  • ‘Of course I’m not sure that’s what he said. People aren’t, you don’t, people can’t expect to be sure of what he said any time, can they?’ (p.173)
  • ‘On consideration, something I don’t go in for much these days, I should say that the best part of me, or the least bad part of me, or the least bad part of what there is of me, or was of me… is in verse form.’ (p.178)

His characters don’t discuss something to establish its nature and come to logical decisions; their conversations are masterpieces of mutual incomprehension, games of obfuscation which the narrator or protagonist observes with bemused detachment.

  • Gordon had no chance of either improving or throwing doubt on this reading of motives in what followed. (p.189)
  • Gordon was conscious of having put his point with something less than unimprovable clarity and force. Jimmie shared this general view, or affected to. (p.265)

Abandon all hope of crisp, pithy, pointed dialogue. Relax and enjoy this world of confusion, uncertainty, vagueness and misunderstanding.

The absent protagonist The net effect of all these peculiarities is that quite often the hero seems to be only barely present in his own life.

  • He soon found himself quite unable to decide whether he had started an affair or received the equivalent of a very friendly pat on the head. (p.76)
  • ‘You aren’t one of those characters?’ he found he had said. (p.191)
  • To visit a part [of the house] he had at least seen before gave him a feeling, however illusory, of being in touch with events, even perhaps of having some influence over them. (p.197)

Mostly the effect is played for laughs but sometimes can be quite unnerving and is so consistent across the whole book that this feeling of detachment from other people even himself – of watching everything from a bubble – is one of the book’s strongest flavours.

Acting Sometimes the sense of detachment is so intense you almost think you’re in the mind of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who can’t read or puzzle out other people at all. And if you can’t read other people – if you are incapable of deducing their intentions even when they’re talking directly to you – then you have to guess what they’re on about from any available sources, maybe from how you’ve seen people behave in films or TV; and you yourself attempt to reply by adopting similar play-acting and mime, by imitating people of who do know how to respond, or at least look like they know how to respond.

Jimmie’s face took on an expression of overdone and also somehow proletarian dismay. Gordon was emboldened to drop into his efficient television-cockney. (p.83)

Adrift in a world of play-acting you come to think that everyone else is also acting a role and this seeing other people as actors is a consistent aspect of Amis’s worldview and style.

  • He peered in the direction he had been going and saw Jimmie  just started on a very life-like imitation of a man unself-consciously opening the front door of his house and presently shutting it after him. (p.106)
  • Doing his best not to impersonate a schoolboy taken out for a special treat in a grown-up restaurant… (p.126)
  • Gordon sipped with pretended relish. (p.130)

Time The need to act instead of directly experience the world, is related to Amis’s odd perception of Time. Time doesn’t flow in Amis’s novels, but is always broken up into sections, chunks, bits and pieces, and the protagonist experiences his life as an endless negotiation and navigation through ‘the next bit’ or the stuff which happens ‘quite soon afterwards’, through ‘the next section’, and so on, as if incapable of experiencing the flow of time without dividing it up into units which have to be managed and coped with.

  • Just before or just after saying that… (p.48)
  • The ensuing pause was quite brief, but it was long enough for several thoughts… (p.74)
  • By way of completing this section, Gordon laughed loudly… (p.91)
  • He said the last part as he left the bedroom… (p.170)
  • Eventually the whole party had gathered in the library… and that went on for some time without detectable damage to anyone present. (p.186)
  • … but then perhaps he had slept through that part. (p.196)
  • Later, more than at any time, but not only later, Gordon thought about the duke… (p.201)
  • When the time came, or when he could put it off no longer… (p.237)
  • Without anything that could be called a delay he was taken to a room… (p.243)
  • For the moment, in fact any moment, he would have to stand up to arriving in the place. (p.276)

His relationship to Time is so odd I wonder if some kind of paper or article could be written about it, which would refer to 20th century philosophies of Time as well as psychological knowledge about the human perception of Time, in order to clarify the different tactics Amis adopts towards it, in order to investigate the problem of ‘duration’ and the fundamental challenge of understanding human experience. Although mostly played for laughs, this problem with Time and experience seems to me to be the issue underlying all his novels.

Transparent The protagonist of You Can’t Have It Both, Robin Davies, gives the impression of being fairly canny and calculating right up to the end of the book, when he’s exposed as being childishly transparent – a hopelessly selfish womaniser, who his mum and dad and wife and girlfriends can all read like an open book.

Useless Similarly in this one, Gordon is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to dealing with the suave Jimmie, his snobbish pals, his seducing wife, his sly publisher or his own capable girlfriend. You get the sense that everyone is ‘playing’ the hapless hero. In a funny moment, after their first kiss, Jimmie’s wife asks if he wants to proceed and, in that half moment, Gordon realises that he’s toppling into having an affair because he can’t think quickly enough of any way to politely say No. He is, like so many other Amis men, completely useless.

Funny Sometimes Amis escapes all his mannerisms to be just funny about the world we live in, sometimes very funny.

Wishing he had been drunk, Gordon got on a bus apparently reserved for winners and runners-up in some pan-European repulsiveness contest. (p.70)

After a short while there presumably sounded some buzzer or kindred device inaudible to Gordon and all at once Lady Rowena withdrew her attention from him so totally that he felt like glancing down at himself to make sure he was still there. (p.190)

Moments like this are like spending hours trying to tune a radio and suddenly stumbling across a clear audible signal, or hacking your way through a jungle and suddenly stumbling into a clearing and strolling across it nice and easy.

But clarity of intention and phrasing like this is rare in his work. Most of the time we are subjected to the wandering divagations the easily-distracted prose. Instead of writing the thing itself, Amis can’t stop himself writing nugatory elaborations: almost as if he’s bored of writing and has to give sentences an unexpected twirl just to keep his interest alive.

The telephone was ringing when he got back home, which circumstance made that place seem much less bleak and comfortless. (p.56)

And sometimes the combination of all Amis’s mannerism brings the prose perilously close to gibberish.

  • At the moment it was very likely not needful to say that he would have had no corresponding bias in favour of the latter. (p.25)
  • Gordon was just opening his mouth to give another and firmer refusal when he caught the sound as of a heavy body falling somewhere upstairs, faint at this distance but no doubt substantial on the spot, not perhaps an unmistakable advertisement of the duke’s presence near at hand but not mistakable enough for Gordon, who forthwith told Jimmie to lead on. (p.171)

On every page Amis bends and distorts the language but not towards the crisp expressiveness of Americans like Martin Cruz Smith – not towards clarity or modernity – but clotting together an array of old-fashioned English phrases and idioms with experiments in seeing just how convoluted a sentence can be twisted to become. If you’re in a hurry to read the plot it can be very irritating but in this novel, because of its shorter chapters and more focused presentation of character and scene, I mostly found it stimulating and amusing.


‘A hundred years ago, even up to 1939, the thing really had some teeth in it. There was an empire to run and a comparatively barbaric peasantry and proletariat to be kept down. What’s left of either of them today? The, the remnants of the class system operate in the other direction. Dukes and what-not complain that their titles hold them back, get in the way of their careers in banking or photography or whatever it may be. The British class system, as you quaintly call it, is…’
‘I know, it’s dead.’ (p.22)

I’m not generally interested in a book’s ‘themes’ since these are often so obvious and so obviously designed to be written about, analysed and discussed in book clubs or GCSE classes. But mention should be made of the way this novel very conspicuously ‘investigates’, ‘uses’, ‘explores’ etc the English class system. Specifically, the hapless hero Gordon is continuously aware of being at a disadvantage whenever he’s with Jimmie or his nobby friends at the club or with his pukka wife in bed, let alone among the posh guests of the impossibly upper-class Duke of Dunwich.

On the surface this gives rise to:

a) actual experiences of upper class snobbery, as when Gordon is blanked at Hungerstream train station when the Duke’s other posh guests realise he’s nobody significant, or is insulted by Jimmie’s pals at the club, or is intimidated by the Duke’s butler or chauffeur
b) discussions of the class system with Jimmie himself, with Joanna, with Louise, with the publisher and so on, who all give their take on whether there still is a class system in England, how important it might be, and so on

We can say on the evidence of the text that Jimmie is quite open about being a social climber and loves being invited to the houses of the aristocracy and enjoys teasing Gordon about his middle-class origins – in a running joke he’s always trying to catch Gordon out in non-U pronunciations of words like ‘often’  and ’tissue – but has an uneasy relationship with Bobbie and Tommie at the club who may be a little above him in social class – and is nowhere as lofty as the permanently drunk Duke of Dunwich – whereas his wife Joanna, although she has inherited money, isn’t as posh as Jimmie – and all this leaves Gordon’s quondam girlfriend Louise as his ally in non-poshness, although he is outflanked by his publisher who takes up with a society lady during the course of the novel and so disconcerts Gordon with reports of his goings-on with the Fane family based on Society gossip. And so on.

Money is inextricably linked with all these definitions of position in society and with the pairings or bondings between males and females – known as ‘marriage’. Joanna is aware that her family money was part of the reason Jimmie married her – and that fact that wife number two – Lady Rowena – has recently come into a lot of money is the main reason Jimmie seriously considers dumping Joanna and remarrying Rowena – until he actually meets her and remembers how ghastly she is.

So you could analyse the entire story in terms of the complex web of social class and money it creates, and declare it ‘a study of contemporary society and social customs’ etc, as if it was a piece of anthropological research.

Or do a structuralist or narratological interpretation which saw the characters as blocks or units whose overlappings and intersections create nexuses of energy and rest to which make up the dynamic patterns across the text.

Or you could inject some morality into the analysis e.g. Gordon’s contempt for Jimmie is ‘right’ and justified by Jimmie’s incurable snobbery, or is itself flawed by his own ‘immoral’ behaviour in having an affair with Jimmy’s wife, etc.

But I prefer to stick to a more stylistic analysis of the actual words on the page, of the deformations or innovations or habits or oddities of language of which the text is actually made up. From this more limited point of view the emphasis on the theme of social class has two results:

  1. It taps into a rich tradition of English comic writers taking the mickey out of the English class system going back through Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse to Dickens, and back further to the earliest comic novels of Henry Fielding. Dim, drunk, huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ types are the stockest of stock characters in English comic writing.
  2. For Amis’s more particular purposes, being a class outsider is just another (time-honoured) way of achieving the aim of most of his novels, which is to present the hapless hero as hopelessly isolated, confused and discombobulated.

The main conclusion I’d draw from the presence of the ‘class theme’ is that the return to such a time-honoured comic topic results in a novel which is noticeably more straightforward and funny than a lot of its predecessors.


I really enjoyed this book. The focused story and the use of short chapters make this a more enjoyable read than its immediate predecessors. And whereas Robin Davies really was a selfish bastard leaving an unpleasant aftertaste at the conclusion of its predecessor, in this one the central figure, Gordon, is more sinned against than sinning, more the kind of hapless nincompoop that Lucky Jim Dixon was in Amis’s first novel.

And, against all expectations, I found myself warming to Jimmie the snobbish old writer. And the long excursion to Hungerstream, the vast country pile of the Duke of Dunwich, was a refreshing change of scene for an Amis novel, so many of which take usually place in rooms in suburban houses where people get drunk or are miserably unfaithful to each other. The change of scene seemed to revive his writing making it both more funny and more moving than in recent books.

For all Amis’s weirdnesses of style and worldview, or maybe because I’m so used to them now that I positively enjoy them, I really liked this book and look forward to rereading it sometime.


The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

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 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.

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis (1994)

‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear… (p.128)

Amis was born in 1922, so he started secondary school just as Herr Hitler took power in Germany (1933) and reached manhood during the Battle of Britain (1940). He grew up in a middle-class, South London household and went to the local grammar school.

Maybe writing his Memoirs (published in 1991) brought a lot of his teenage years back. Whatever the cause, You Can’t Have Both is, for most of its length, an easy-going third-person narrative about an Amis-like boy, then young man, named Robin Davies, which is surprisingly mellow and forgiving about his parents, his chums at school and Oxford, and about the hapless young ladies he clumsily tries to seduce.

The use of a throwaway everyday phrase for the title is characteristic (I Like It HereI Want It Now) and highly symptomatic of the casual, half-baked thought processes and style of the narrator and all the characters – they sort of, kind of, in a way, vaguely, maybe did something, or not – or something, at any rate.

From his earliest novels, Amis’s prose style, and the attitude it’s built on, have always struck me as oddly detached and alienated – a style which regards everyone around the narrator as creatures from another planet whose behaviour is unfathomably mysterious and unpredictable. There are glaring examples of his bewildered attitude on every page. That said, from time to time the prose reads like the work of someone who is actually trying to be funny, and fairly regularly – in among the strange attitude and clotted prose style – succeeds.

It’s divided into four chapters:

Chapter 1

Robin is 14 or 15, at Grammar school, good at Latin, with the usual small circle of school chums. He lives with his extravagantly normal dad, who insists on having manly heart-to-heart conversations and referring to him as ‘old boy’, as well as his mum, who likes to prepare the sitting room so they can have one of their ‘chats’. When neither of them are around the teenage Robin’s acts of assertiveness or rebellion are very much of their time (around 1936?) – plugging in and listening to the radiogram without his father’s permission; smoking a cigarette till it makes him feel sick and giddy; listening to Louis Armstrong at a friend’s house (reminding me of one of the few true-feeling scenes in The Crime of the Century, where the detective and the boy hero discuss just what it is that’s so exciting about Armstrong-era jazz).

Into this stiflingly boring world comes the 20-year-old son of one of his mum’s friends, Jeremy Carpenter, who is at Cambridge, knows about jazz and smoking and poetry, and is generally a god-like idol.

In the second half of this act, Robin is packed off to stay with his father’s relatives in Wales, who are made out to be yokel gargoyles. His one clumsy attempt to kiss his much older cousin, Dilys, who had led him on a bit, ends in disaster. But then, to Robin’s astonishment, Jeremy turns up in Wales, saying he was staying with friends in nearby Shropshire anyway. Jeremy takes him out for the day, treats him to a slap-up lunch with wine, then a drive out to a sunny hillside. Here it all comes to grief when Jeremy asks young Robin whether he has any experience of ‘the other’ i.e. of boys i.e of homosexuality. Robin blushes and says no, Jeremy quickly asserts that he hasn’t either, they repair to the car, and Jeremy drives him back to his Welsh relatives’ house, before reversing the car and disappearing. Robin trudges up the lane to the cottage blind with tears, his idol-worship smashed (one of the few times I can remember any Amis character revealing a weakness or expressing any emotion apart from bewilderment).

Chapter 2

Jump forward a few years to Robin now at Oxford studying classics. Expecting some local colour or  history? Forget it. We learn almost nothing about the university, his particular college, the wider city or the period it’s set in. Instead, the text claustrophobically focuses on Robin’s consuming need to seduce a fellow student, Barbara Bates. He eventually gets her into bed where – it’s difficult to make out through the evasions and euphemisms to which the 70 year-old Amis is still prey – but it seems he performs badly, or his post-coital attitude is maladroit, and so she ends up avoiding him.

No problem, though, because in the rooms of his best mate, Embleton, at another Oxford college, he meets young Nancy Bennett, just 17 and not at the university. She works at a record shop in the High Street and they go on a few dates before he is invited to meet her parents (her dad standing behind the bar in his lounge and delivering politely menacing threats). Then Nancy is invited to spend a weekend at his parents’ house, in London.

Here they take advantage of his parents being out unexpectedly long one day, to go to bed and have full intercourse. There follows an excruciatingly embarrassing scene, when the parents return, of his dad asking Robin on his honour whether anything untoward took place when they were out. Robin lies but Nancy goes bright red with shame and then the secret comes tumbling out.

The book describes in horrible detail the embarrassed way Robin’s dad, a decent bloke really, himself doesn’t really know what to do and, after consulting his wife, decides they must ask Nancy to leave. This causes upset for all the people concerned – Robin, his dad, his mum, and Nancy – effectively blamed and humiliated – which takes some time to simmer down.

Chapter 3

The timeline jumps again to After the War (1946?). Robin had been called up, managed to secure officer rank, won a medal and, in its final stages, was taken prisoner and saw the war out in a German POW camp. In this long third section there are two important storylines:

1. His father is diagnosed with cancer and the book describes Robin and his older brother George’s efforts to deal with it, to visit the visibly failing old man in hospital, and then to organise the cremation at a dreary suburban crematorium.

2. But by far the bigger amount of time is devoted to the fact that – on returning from hearing his father’s diagnosis – Robin has fierce life-affirming sex with Nancy (who, surprisingly, he’s still going out with, years and years after the initial embarrassments recorded in the previous chapter) but – oops – she gets pregnant, a disaster at a time when abortion was illegal and being an unmarried mother carried a crippling stigma.

These is a long sequence which describes their stuttering immature attempts to think through all the solutions, given Robin’s extreme reluctance to get married, her reluctance to become an unmarried mother, and the impossibility of getting an abortion.

Eventually, via their shady landlady, they are put in touch with an abortion clinic in Wales (always Wales in Amis’s books), Robin borrows the necessary £100 from his older brother, George, and he and Nancy catch a train down to Cardiff, there to stay at a boarding house which is part of the package.

The accretion of detail – albeit filtered through Amis’s tortured prose – slowly and effectively creates an air of suspense and expectation and muted horror, both Robin and Nancy behaving and talking ‘normally’ while their unconscious minds are obviously screaming. It all builds to the climactic scene where Robin takes her to the clinic, leaves her in the room where she is to prepare for the operation – then hears her burst into tears and goes back into the bedroom to find her flung on the bed and absolutely distraught. In more or less the only decent act of his life, Robin realises he is being a selfish bastard. He packs her stuff for her, whisks her away and, in the train waiting room at Cardiff, proposes to her. Wow. Quite a turnaround.

There is then a sub-plot where Nancy’s staid mother and father refuse to attend the hurried registry office wedding which Robin has organised within just a few days, until Robin’s own mother insists on going to a face-to-face meeting with them and, surprisingly, gets them to change their minds.

In parallel to all this are several scenes where Robin visits his brother George and is witness to the appalling hell of having a child – in his brother’s case his little girl, Marian – who screams and bawls and throws food everywhere and is generally a monster all day long. Some of this is very funny but mostly it confirms Robin in his horror of fatherhood, marriage, commitment – the whole shebang.

And so to the title of the book. As he discusses in one of the many long-winded and obtuse conversations which dominate the text, this one down the boozer with brother George, you can’t have both: you can’t have commitment and marriage – and at the same time remain a footloose bachelor, free to screw around. Why? Why can’t you have both? Because you have to bloody well grow up!

After his dad’s funeral Robin and his mother have one of their chats in which he is disconcerted to realise how transparent his character is to other people – how self-centred all around realise he is, how unreliable and shifty and duplicitous. God, is it really that obvious? He’s not even a shallow character. For all his endless calculating and his smart-arse pedantry about the Classics (his own private name for Xenophon’s Anabasis being How To Fuck Up A Good Story, ho ho p.212) – when it comes to relations with other people, he is barely human.

Chapter 4

A short, 15-page epilogue, in which our hero is revealed, nine or so years later, to have becomes a Reader in Classics at a Midland University and we think we are just going to be shown his boring after-life as a respectable middle-class, middle-aged paterfamilias. And certainly we see him motoring home at lunchtime to kiss his wife, the very same Nancy, and his two rambunctious daughters, Margaret and Matilda.

But there’s a sting in the tail. For quite quickly we realise that Robin, despite being respectably married, is still having extra-marital flings. In fact he’s off to one in London now, making up a cock-and-bull story about having to go do academic work or attend a conference. And so he takes the train to the Smoke, the tube to Fulham and checks into the quiet boarding house where he commits his deeds of darkness there to await… none other than the now rather stout Dilys, his cousin, older than him and who flirted with him in Wales when he was a pimply adolescent.

They have barely finished an aggressive act of congress before the phone rings in the rented room and, when Robin absent-mindedly picks it up, it is Nancy on the other end. She is downstairs. She has followed him. In fact she’s had him tailed by a private detective. She knows everything. Has done for months.

Robin creeps downstairs like a naughty schoolboy and there has to put up with a massive harangue about what a self-centred little shit he is, Nancy alternately shouting in his face or bursting into tears. She says she’ll take him back for one last chance but if anything like this happens again, she’ll leave him and take the girls and he’ll never see them again. Then she lands him a colossal punch in the face.

This might seem like a come-uppance, and almost like some kind of moral reckoning, but it isn’t. It feels exactly like the end of Take A Girl Like You from 26 years earlier, in which northern lass Jenny Bunn ends up marrying the caddish Patrick Standish despite knowing that he’ll never change; or like That Uncertain Feeling where we watch John Lewis lured into an adulterous affair which really, deeply hurts his loving wife, and so upsets the reader. Men who have the strength of character of a goldfish.

Similarly, the worldview behind this novel hasn’t shifted a jot in Amis’s 30-year-long career. If he thinks painting a warts-n-all, brutally self-flagellating portrait of this kind of man and this kind of character somehow redeems or justifies the behaviour, it doesn’t. Some readers have found the book moving, but I found the overall affect depressing and lowering. There is no joy to this compulsive coupling: just a brainless addiction, shallow deceptions and an aftertaste of ashes.

Amis’s sort of vague & diffuse style or something

It’s a real oddity that Amis wrote many essays and at least one book about English usage, and yet his own style is so contorted and obscure as to be sometimes almost unreadable.

His central tactic is to include in the narrative prose and dialogue the kind of throwaway, ‘whatever’ phrasing that many people use in everyday life (or used – the exact diction is, of course, very dated throughout). But in his hands it has become a mannerism with half a dozen specific elements or aspects, all contributing to make the characters and narrator sound infuriatingly vague, so casual in what they’re describing that it often becomes difficult to follow, so persistently offhand as to become wilfully obscure.

The tactics include:

The pointless qualification

Adding an extra clause at the end of a sentence, ‘or something’, to any previously firm statement, in order to make it feel weaker and vaguer.

  • ‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway.’ (p.145)
  • At other times, or even at the same time… (p.149)
  • He thought he’d make me like it by being around too much when I was a nipper, or not being around enough or something.’ (p.158)
  • He assured himself, with some truth, that in wartime such arrangements, or non-arrangements, were common, or not uncommon, (p.162)
  • Actually a different accent might have done his cause some good or at any rate less harm. (p.169)
  • The temple or secular chapel or whatever it was they entered… (p.204)
  • ‘What did you make of that extract or oration or whatever it was that your brother read out?’ (p.207)

Deliberate vagueness

Almost all the perceptions and thoughts which occur to any character are deliberately vague. There is a willed blurriness about what or who people or things are.

  • If anything the last bit was a faint surprise to Robin who had vaguely supposed…
  • Robin was mildly disconcerted by this approach, or lack of it…
  • And it is my business a bit, after all…
  • He’s always been one for speaking his mind, that’s to say some of his mind…
  • Oh he’ll be as nice as pie to you, or he’ll do his best to be…
  • Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear, that he spoke largely in jest…
  • They sort of have to fall back on being very fed up…
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway…’ (p.145)

The passive voice

I hadn’t previously noticed Amis’s use of the passive voice in oddly inappropriate settings. I’m sure it’s a new tactic in his campaign of undermining the English language’s ability to state facts and convey information.

  • The half-dozen little glassed-in cubicles, known to some as audition booths… (p.99)
  • He switched the wireless on and music from a brass band was to be heard. It was not a very agreeable noise… (p.119)
  • Food was visible, but dishing-up time went on being not yet. (p.168)
  • An indifferent recording of some archaic quasi-religious piece of music made itself heard for a minute or so… (p.204)
  • No actual detritus of food or make-up was to be seen… (p.232)
  • A solitary flash of gold was to be seen among his teeth. (p.239)
  • A man’s voice was soon to be heard… (p.242)

Amis’s laboured jokes

It’s meant to be a comic novel, but Amis was never simply funny in the way Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson or even David Lodge are funny. Right from the start there was always a substantial amount of knotty, difficult or ambiguous ‘real life’ in his books. Since his novels mostly tell of unappealing characters, from another era, conveyed in his peculiarly convoluted prose, these grapplings with serious issues or unpleasant experiences aren’t necessarily the good or enjoyable bits.

Sometimes his perceptions are just funny, no effort required.

She wore a dark garment that resembled, and perhaps in former days had actually been, a page’s tabard in some historical pageant. (p.89)

He, Robin, could on his own accord have wished for nothing better in its line than the absence of Mr and Mrs B from his wedding, except naturally for their absence from his life for a trial period of say fifty years. (p.273)

But sometimes his long-winded style makes you work considerably harder before you get to the punchline, at which point you ask, Well, was it worth it?

Robin’s bedroom, even when not given over to Nancy, boasted a gas-fire of curious three-dimensional design, with gnarled black burners instead of the more familiar straight white ones, a legacy of some previous owner of the house. It probably threw out no more heat at no greater cost than more conventional appliances, but its unusual horizontalised appearance made it not a thing to be trifled with, in other words not a thing to be used except at times of imminent glaciation. (p.130)

The punchline made me smile, but note the deliberate tone of vagueness and so-whattery – some previous owner, probably more heat. The narrator – well, Amis – just isn’t very interested in the world about him, except for girls and sex, a monomaniac compulsion which becomes very boring. As Robin himself confesses to brother George:

‘As long as I can remember I’ve thought about almost nothing but getting my end away…’ (p.147)

His older brother invites Robin and Nancy to accompany him and his girlfriend to the cinema. What an opportunity that could have been for adding in the detail of the films people went to see in the 1940s, with a snappy one-liner about Cagney or Bogart, a phrase encapsulating George or Robin’s character, a flash which would make the text come alive.

Instead George throws away the remark that the movie they’re planning to see is ‘some gangster thing’. A small example of the way none of the characters nor the narrator really notice or care very much about the world around them.

Amis’s acting

Everyone is acting and performing and hyper-aware of it, timing their performances of such business as laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, hesitating, putting on a show. These performances come in blocks and chunks; instead of a flow of time the reader gets disconnected excerpts, sections, bits of stuff, sequences of performance by one or other character.

  • After doing a certain amount of laughing about something or other…
  • The tea was made, with hot water standing by but no fanciful extras like slices of lemon. Robin managed not to grin at the very unwatchful way Nancy watched for consumer reaction to what she had prepared. To be on the safe side he limited his show of approval to minor noises and faces. (p.146)
  • He tried to get reliability and and unplumbed experience into the way he tilted his head forward and over to one side. (p.178)
  • This section lasted only a short time. (p.239)
  • Silence and pretended shame seemed called for… (p.219)
  • [George got] to his feet with caricatured haste. ‘Right on cue. I’ll have to go and do some welcoming home.’ (p.221)
  • [Marian attacked her tea] in the spirit of someone registering appetite in a silent film. (p.223) (p.231)
  • ‘Beck,’ he announced, stooped over Nancy’s hand and vigorously shook Robin’s, then did some more chuckling and went on with a good imitation of ferocity. (p.238)
  • When he answered he tried not to overdo his appreciation of the justice of her diagnosis. (p.259)
  • There followed a sort of silent film couple of moments in which Mr Bennett laid his hand on his wife’s arm and she went through a hurried series of reactions, from a start or jump of sheer physical surprise through mild indignation to acceptance and gratitude. When this reached completion, he said to Robin’s mother… (p.274)
  • Jeremy showed himself in good form as entertainer, as old friend, as affectionate and attentive son but not too much of either. (p.288)
  • He had tried bewilderment shading into muddled protest just now and had cut no ice at all. (p.301)

Sometimes these descriptions of the characters’ permanent acting for each other is funny.

‘Oh yes, Mum, you did quite right to tell me,’ said Robin, hanging out situation-well-in-hand signals as he spoke. (p.152)

This is the kind of thing you read about the young Amis keeping his mates in stitches with at Oxford, and which the early books like Lucky Jim are stuffed to the brim with. But equally as much of the time it feels oddly alienated and detached, almost robotic. It feels weird.

  • Either she was doing a marvellous imitation of a girl quite uninterested in the impression she was making, or she was such a girl. The latter, he thought, and good for her. He knew it was bad luck on her to have got tied up with a chap who hardly knew what it was not to care how he seemed to other people. (p.165)
  • It was one of those rare times when he forgot to care how he seemed to other people. (p.166)

And in fact at some moments, it feels almost panic-stricken. The comedy is so close to panic fear, to a Kafka-esque level of alienation from other people, from the world and from himself, that it’s impossible to even smile, let alone laugh. In the climactic scene when Nancy confronts him with his stupid, selfish promiscuousness and threatens to leave:

A great fear of being altogether alone swept over him, as if she might take from him not only herself and their life together but everything familiar to him, all his reference points, whatever made it possible to steer through the hours between waking up and falling asleep. (p.302)

It’s ironic that Amis once or twice is quoted as taking the mickey out of continental philosophy, especially the Sartrean existentialism which was fashionable as Amis came to notice – because all of his novels, for me, far more than the superficial comedy, bespeak a really powerful terror of existence, a nausea in the face of other people and great yawning chasms of Time which cannot be faced or handled without a multitude of tricks, pulling faces, negotiating bits of time, manipulating other people, drinking and a pointless pursuit of sex. In  his way, Amis is the great English existentialist novelist.

Sections of time and bits of stuff

There’s a particular mannerism which bugs me, which is when a character gets cross or happy or delivers a speech or something – and then the narrator or protagonist or some characters refer to what we’ve just heard as a performance or, even more vaguely and demotically, as ‘a bit’, or ‘that lot’, or some ‘stuff’.

Instead of characters responding to each others’ dialogue, they just sit through it, regarding it all as ‘stuff’ that has to be endured. After Mr Davies very mildly criticises them for being indecent in his house, Nancy retreats to the bedroom to recover and Robin goes to ask if she’s alright.

‘I’m fine. I just sort of wanted to rest for a moment before the next lot.’
‘Oh, there won’t be a next lot for quite a time.’ (p.116)

  • Robin had had time to prepare some of that…. He would probably not had the cheek to blurt out the last bit… (p.154)

Time itself is broken down into sections which have to be defined and then navigated. Absolutely nothing flows naturally. Here he is in bed with Nancy and failing – I think – to get an erection.

  • The particular kind of embrace that should have come next seemed no less firmly indicated, but that was only to start with. After a minute or so he found he had nothing much to go on with, not enough, in fact. Such a thing had not happened to him since the time before he met Nancy and he was put out, though not as much as much as he might have been in the absence of anything else to claim his attention. (p.243)

Time gets tied up in knots in Amis’s prose. It is the one issue – even more than sex – which his characters are always fretting about.

  • ‘If we go along there now we can set about filling in the time to some purpose.’ (p.277)


Above all, the protagonist has a permanent, beady-eyed air of calculation, calculating the impression he’s making on people, manipulating and manoeuvring everyone around him in order to give himself the easiest ride and, above all – obsessed with getting women into bed. Even if it’s to a disappointing experience, even if it involves unhappiness and regret, it doesn’t matter – women women women, bed bed bed sex sex sex. The real world barely exists.

For the next couple of minutes, Robin’s attention was not on the shops and such about him as he walked, which surely must have changed since he last saw them but in no way that interested him or caught his eye. (p.153)

As a typical example, it emerges that – surprisingly – while on active service during the war, Robin won a medal. His friend Jeremy asks him about it.

‘Does that thing above your pocket mean you were very brave about something?’
‘No, just that I was somewhere in particular at a particular time.’ (p.157)

Everything is downplayed, underplayed, dismissed, not taken seriously, it’s just stuff to sit through and be endured while you act whatever part the tedious old shags around you require, till you can get free to have a smoke, better still a couple of jars with a mate, best of all a bunk-up with some dolly bird in a rented room.

Between then and the time fixed for Robin’s departure for Oxford the next morning nothing of great significance happened. (p.184)

Most of life apparently consisted of being in a minority of one, a status worth going to some lengths to alleviate at events like your father’s funeral. And old Emble had intrinsic merits too, seeming older than Robin, actually being richer and posher, also staid of demeanour, just the sort of fellow whom luck or good judgement could turn into a means of mitigating or even removing some minor disagreeableness like having to chat to an uncle or find an erstwhile business colleague a seat. (p.202)

In other words, his best ‘friend’ is in fact merely a convenient tool for assuaging the protagonist’s inescapable solipsism.

Feeling and meaning

Surprisingly, the text rises to a handful of moments of something like real emotion – for example, when the narrator describes the scenes around his father dying or at the climax of the abortion plotline. But I couldn’t make out whether the feeling was really in the text, or just me supplying it because I knew it was appropriate.

Certainly, most of the time, the reader has to add their own feelings to animate scenes which seem to lack any emotion on the part of the calculating protagonist. For example, to the later scenes when his mother tells him what his dead father really thought of him, or when his gay friend Jeremy lets loose a stream of 1940s prejudices about queers and women.

But for the most part I felt little or no emotional involvement with any of the characters, since I was repelled in almost every sentence by Amis’s weird prose style and his deliberately vague and alienated worldview.

Towards the end, it dawned on me that the frequent use of the passive voice has a moral dimension, too. It typifies the protagonist’s sense that he isn’t responsible for events. Things just keep on happening to him, damn it, and his only concern is how to negotiate ‘this bit’ and live through ‘the next section’ and handle the ‘stuff’ that keeps on coming his way, and do some ‘welcoming’ or ‘laughing’ or making polite small-talk, or whatever guff it takes to appease the irritating old duffers who seem to populate the world around him.

He could think of no other way of passing the next hour or so, and concluded that this was one of those times when you had little choice in what you were to do. (p.183)

Objects are seen; voices are heard; people are said to appear; houses come into view; expressions are registered. The passive voice not only indicates the strange alienation from the world of the protagonist and narrator, it also points towards his continuing evasion of responsibility. His brother George surprises Robin by saying that for most of his life his father had a nickname for him – O.O. Davies – standing for Options Open (p.220) – describing the way he can’t get anywhere near committing to anyone or anything because he is always calculating and gambling on something better coming along.

Thus Robin has a reasonable amount of self-knowledge: he knows he is self-centred, only after one thing, casually hurtful – he knows he is ‘selfish, self-indulgent, lazy, arrogant and above all inextinguishably promiscuous by nature’ (p.245) –  and the narrator doesn’t spare him, just as he didn’t soft pedal the unpleasantness of so many previous protagonists, like adulterous John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling or Patrick Standish, the compulsive fornicator in Take A Girl Like You.

This unflinching honesty may be admirable, up to a point, but it doesn’t really compensate the reader for having to wade through what is, more or less, the same kind of story about the same kind of unpleasant, selfish and, above all, unimaginative – in fact aggressively anti-imaginative – character.

The streets [of London] were not crowded, but there were enough people in them, moving rapidly enough, for Robin to become aware of his small and shallow experience of the city he had been born in, not because he had been brought up near its distant edge but inevitably, not at all exceptionally. He would live and die without having found out anything much about it, anything personal to him, perhaps nothing worth remembering about anything. (p.229)

The casual sexism and homophobia will presumably outrage the politically correct, or even averagely decent, modern reader. What upsets me far more is the deliberately and insultingly vague and obtuse vision of the world and the people in it, a wilfully unobservant, ignorant and uninterested view of life which is lamentably narrow, dull and self-blinkered, and which becomes extremely wearing far before the book reaches its end.


You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1994. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

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 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 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 – A short polemical novella in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with 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. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based 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. Was it worth it?
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 all the time, and completely failes to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31


Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37


Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

Related links

Other museums

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe (1995)

The Praelector waited in the drawing-room, staring out into the pulsating night and thinking about the May Balls he had known in his youth. They had been sedate affairs and he had enjoyed them enormously, swinging round the Hall doing the quickstep or a foxtrot and, most daringly of all, the tango with a polished liveliness and delight that was a world away from the mechanical Bacchanalia the young now seemed to crave. Not that he blamed them. They were drowning out a world that seemed to have no structure to it and no meaning for them, a monstrous bazaar in which the only recognised criteria were money and sex and drugs and the pursuit of moments of partial oblivion. (p.475)

The front cover and title page describe this as ‘A Porterhouse Chronicle’ as if it’s one of a whole series of novels about the fictional Cambridge college which made its first appearance in Sharpe’s 1974 novel, Porterhouse Blue. But it took 21 years for this sequel to appear and, in the event, there are only two Porterhouse books, this being the second and last one.

It’s a bit long for a comic novel, at 490 pages in this Pan paperback edition, and it is not as funny as its predecessor. Sharpe is still capable of rising to moments of savage farce, but they’re fewer and further between. And – crucially – the kind of swearing and sexual explicitness which felt taboo-breaking and transgressive in the 1970s, were no longer nearly as shocking in the mid-90s, and now – in 2016 – feels run-of-the-mill. Characters saying ‘fuck’ or dressing up in PVC sex outfits is no longer at the far edge of respectability.

The Plot

The fictional Cambridge college of Porterhouse has a reputation as being the most reactionary college in the university, but its finances are in a dire state. Much of the infrastructure is peeling and dropping off. The college is run by a council of Senior Fellows and the plot consists of following their bumbling and farcical attempts to drum up new financing for their alma mater. They are:

  • the Dean (a small round man with a red face, p.224)
  • the Senior Tutor
  • the Bursar
  • the Praelector (tall and thin, p.224)
  • the Chaplain – amiable, bumbling and deaf – giving rise to numerous comic misunderstandings
  • and the Master

The Master is in fact the former Head Porter, Skullion, who we saw, at the end of Porterhouse Blue, have a major stroke. In fact ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is college slang for just such a stroke. Now Skullion is permanently ensconced in a wheelchair and only intermittently capable of speech.

So off they go to find money. The Dean goes to visit Old Porterthusians around the country who, predictably, turn out to be various shades of nasty, drunk, impoverished and violent, notably the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole of Pimpole Hall, Yorkshire, who was once a gay blade but has turned into a violent alcoholic with a vicious cur.

The Senior Tutor is contacted by Lady Mary Evans, the widow of the former Master, Sir Godber Evans, who we saw dying at the end of the previous novel. Although the coroner ruled it accidental death caused by excess of alcohol and then Sir Godber tripping and cracking his skull, Lady Mary is convinced his death was murder. To confirm her suspicion she gives her dubious lawyer six million pounds to endow a new position at the college, the Sir Godber Evans Fellowship and, after some comic business with various unsuitable candidates, appoints the earnest and upright Dr Purefoy Osbert to the post. Osbert is an expert in capital punishment – author of a classic account of the subject, The Long Drop – and he’s given a remit to write the history of Porterhouse, with special attention to the fate of her late husband. She hopes Osbert will expose the murder and turn up enough evidence to convict the whole pack of Senior Fellows who she loathes.

Meanwhile, in what becomes the major storyline, the Bursar attends a conference on ‘funding ancient institutions’ where he is introduced to the slick American representative of a big TV company – Transworld Television Productions – one Karl Kudzuvine. At TTP’s shiny big London headquarters the Bursar is surprised to realise everyone is wearing an identical outfit of moccasins, white socks, polo neck sweater and shades. And when he meets the sinister head of the operation, Edgar Hartang, he learns they are all copying him.

The TV people say they love the idea of making a documentary series about Porterhouse, and will pay handsomely for using the facilities and persuade the Bursar to let them make a ‘recce’ or preliminary visit, where they swarm all over the ancient buildings, outraging the staff, and onto the roof of the chapel which begins to collapse under their weight, during an actual service, prompting a stampede for the exit in which Kudzuvine is trampled underfoot.

There now begins a lengthy sequence in which the foul-mouthed gangster Kudzuvine is put to bed by the cabal of doddering senior officials – the Bursar, Senior Tutor – while the college doctor casually injects him with a range of new drugs he’s been dying to experiment with. They set the speechless, wheelchair-bound gargoyle, Skullion, to watch over him, so that every time Kudzuvine wakes, befuddled and disorientated, he thinks he’s hallucinating and shrinks further into paranoid terror.

In this deranged state, he eventually reveals what we sort of suspected, which is that Transworld is a front for massive involvement in drug smuggling, but not actually making the shipments – TTP uses its offices worldwide and its international documentary operation to launder and clean drug money for various clients: the South Americans, the Mafia, the Russians. This line of business brings with it a serious risk of kidnapping or assassination from rivals, and it’s this which explains why the paranoid boss makes everyone dress like him – so that potential assassins getting past security in TTP’s Canary Wharf offices, will be confused long enough for him to get away.

All Kudzuvine’s confessions are taped by the wily officers. And the college solicitors send a lengthy claim for damages to college infrastructure and to the finer feelings of staff and students to Hartang personally, seeking £20 million! Obviously, his first reaction is to consider hiring contract killers to wipe out these limey motherfuckers, but he is restrained by his own lawyers, who advise actually paying up. It’s a fraction of his illegal takings. In fact Sharpe shows us the lawyers themselves taking steps to distance themselves from their criminal client.


Having established all these plotlines by half way through the book, Sharpe spends the next 200 pages detailing their increasingly out-of-control complications. This is one of the things that makes Sharpe’s novels farces – the sense of the plot developments spiralling beyond the sane, beyond the feasible, into a fantasy world of comic hysteria.

Thus the now thoroughly cowed Kudzuvine discovers that everything he’s said about his boss has been recorded, transcribed and witnessed: he can’t go back. Terrified, he is whisked away to the country house of Old Porterthusian, General Sir Cathcart D’Eath, there given work in the abattoir where – in a minor revelation – we learn the General slaughters horses and turns them into cat food. Knives and blood. Hmm. Wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some comic consequences…

At his Induction Dinner, the fellows get Osbert drunk and are worried to discover what his real mission is and how much Sir Mary already knows, or suspects. They need to curtail the fellow’s activities – but how?

For his part, once he’s settled into his new quarters at Porterhouse, Osbert discovers that the wheelchair-bound Skullion likes to lurk in a corner of the quad where he’s brought food and bottles of ale by the college chef and they have a good natter. Intrigued, Osbert conceals himself nearby and overhears their conversation. Apparently Skullion has heard rumours that the Senior staff may be trying to replace him as Master and is infuriated. No sooner has ‘Cheffy’, as they call him, gone away than the Dean strolls past and is surprised to discover Skullion hidden in this corner. Their conversation takes a nasty turn, though, when Skullion – unusually drunk even for him – reveals that it was he who murdered Sir Godber at the end of the previous book, and threatens to tell all and ruin the college if the Dean and the other Senior Fellows try to get rid of him, Skullion.

The Dean blusters that no such thought has crossed their minds and walks on to his rooms, appalled – but not as appalled as Osbert. He has discovered the the truth Sir Mary wanted revealed after only a few weeks. But what proof could he bring in court? Everyone would deny it. What should he do with this knowledge?

Now the Dean has accidentally discovered that Sir Godber was murdered, and that Skullion is the cuplrit, the Senior Fellows realise they must do something to nobble Osbert’s enquiries before he finds out. They rifle through his desk and correspondence and come across the fact that Osbert has an unrequited romance with a Mrs Ndhlovo. One night, long before and much earlier in the novel, Osbert had attended an evening class given by Mrs Ndhlovo which he thought was going to be about penal reform in Sierra Leone but turned out to be about Male Masturbation Technique. Taken aback by the explicitness of the material, the naive Osbert fell comically in love. Since then he has romanced Mrs Ndhlovo assiduously but she, in fact already married once and from Uganda, has steadfastly refused his advances until he is ‘a proper man’ with ‘real money’. This was Osbert’s motivation for taking the job at Porterhouse, despite his many reservations.

All this is revealed to the Fellows from Osbert’s correspondence and so they concoct a comic scheme – thinking Osbert has a weakness for black women generally, they commission General D’Eath to find a black woman they can lure Osbert into bed with and photograph, and then blackmail to ensure his silence. The General fails – his old soldier friends turning out disappointingly thin on black prozzies – but he is recommended the services of an ageing white barmaid, Myrtle Ransby, the married mother of nine kids who’ll do anything for cash. So, in increasingly preposterous scenes, the General finds himself dressing – or rather laboriously squeezing – her into a PVC cat suit and then blacking up the exposed parts of her body.

A den of denouements

Of course, things dramatically worsen before anything can get better.

Osbert reconciled with Ndhlovo Unaware of the scheme to entrap him, Dr Osbert meets again with his lady love Mrs Ndhlovo, who reveals that that isn’t her name and tells a long complicated story about how she and her sister were abandoned at birth in Argentina, adopted by nuns, ran away to Europe and smuggled themselves around the Mediterranean using various stolen identities until they fetched up in England, where she mugged up on sexual peculiarities and made a living lecturing about male masturbation and female genital mutilation. Now she’s bored. She wants to be married to a Fellow at Cambridge. So the odd couple come to an understanding. In fact they become an item and the reader almost comes to think of them as real characters who are a little bit in love.

The humiliation of Sir Cathcart With his honeypot scam in place, the General posts a card inviting Osbert to a rendezvous with Myrtle, who gets all dressed up in her PVC suit in readiness – but, in a comic misunderstanding, the Senior Tutor, who is not in on the plot, is handed the invitation by the porter to pass on and, in a fit of irritation against Osbert, tears it up. Therefore Osbert never gets it, never keeps the appointment, and so Myrtle spends a humiliating night on her own in the little ‘love nest’ the General has arranged – drinking a little, then a bit more, then lots – to solace herself, waking up the next day with an appalling hangover. In this raddled state, half falling out of her PVC sex suit, she phones her cousin to come and pick her up and, when the latter has stopped laughing at her grotesque appearance, the pair drive on to Sir Cathcart’s country house. Now, to ensure maximum comic impact, the General just happens to be welcoming a selection of the county’s poshest gentry as dinner guests. In full view of the county’s finest, Myrtle storms up, fat and angry and hungover with various boobs and bulges extruding out of her PVC suit and proceeds to yell abuse at the General in front of all the guests – ‘Yes, he acts all la-di-da, but he likes fat birds in PVC painted black to look like Africans – but he stood her up and now she’s here for her money’. The General’s humiliation could not be more complete. Until the police turn up and ask him to accompany them to his little ‘love nest’ in a suburban street in Cambridge where they have discovered a wealth of sex aids and a one-way mirror with a video-camera behind it. Ooops.

This is an example of the way sexual satire no longer has the same bite. In Sharpe’s novels from the 1970s, a large part of the comedy comes from the way the curtain-twitching neighbours and the police and society at large reel in shock and horror at the protagonist’s sexual misadventures. The fact that Wilt is in ownership (by accident) of a blow up sex doll has the potential to end his career. 20 years later, when this novel was published, post-AIDS, in an era when everyone was encouraged to talk more openly about sexual practices, none of this has the same sense of shock, and therefore the risk of social stigma etc to the protagonists is hugely reduced. This explains why the scene where the police show the General all the sex equipment seems oddly muted and is very brief. This kind of thing no longer had the same charge in 1996. Now, 20 years later, post 50 Shades of Grey, it has almost no comic impact at all.

Skullion’s revenge Surprisingly, given his earlier opposition, Sir Cathcart successfully persuades Skullion to quit as Master. He is promised he can go and stay at Sir Cathcart’s country house. However, it is a trap. The ambulance which comes to collect him instead takes him off to the feared Porterhouse Park, a grim boarding house overlooking the bleak north Norfolk coast, where other super-annuated college staff have been sent to eke out their last days.

Osbert, surprised that Skullion has disappeared, discovers his fate and goes to visit him with Mrs Ndhlovo. Skullion begs to be helped to escape, so Osbert and girlfriend return with a transit van and some rope, liberate Skullion and spirit him away to a safe house in the suburbs of Cambridge. Here, in exchange for his freedom, Skullion begins dictating to the historian Osbert, an ‘alternative’ history of Porterhouse College, its history seen from the servants’ point of view, a very warts and all account. For days on end Skullion talks non-stop into a tape recorder. He dates the start of the decline in standards to after the war, when all the men who came up were returning from National Service, older, less malleable, more likely to be stroppy and ‘bolshy’.

This storyline has stopped being at all funny, but Skullion’s comments are quite interesting as social history.

A drug lord as Master There’s a world of confusion and misunderstanding among the senior staff about who knows, and doesn’t know, about Skullion being the murderer, and his stealthy removal to Porterhouse Park. To everyone’s surprise the weedy Praelector emerges as the strong man in this unclear situation and travels down to London to meet with Hartang’s lawyers and then with the foul-mouthed crime boss himself. And offers him the Mastership of the college!

The Praelector shocks the College Council with his plan at their next meeting, but by bullying and blackmail manages to swing the vote to get Hartang accepted as new Master. Hartang will get cachet and safety from the various forces pursuing him. The College will get a vast amount of money. Hartang comes down from London to check out his new domain and begins to be coached by the senior fellows on the manners and etiquette that will be required. Stop saying ‘fucksake’ all the time, for example.

British Intelligence Behind all this, Hartang wonders if there are deeper forces at work, and so does the reader. Because, coincidentally, four British intelligence officers visit him at this Canary Wharf headquarters. He agrees to co-operate with them in exposing all he knows about various drug-smuggling cartels, so long as they agree to him becoming Porterhouse Master. A week later his most dangerous enemy, one Dos Passos, is found dead in a mysterious car crash in South America. Then a load of computer disks found at Dos Passos’s house turn out to be bursting with incriminating information, their exposure all blamed on the dead man – rather than on Hartang, who was the one who in fact handed them over to the authorities. The security forces have done their job well.

None of this is particularly farcical or even comic. In fact it could come from a Frederick Forsyth novel.

Comic climax

I thought the climax of the novel would be the annual May Ball. It’s a traditional big event, we learn that security men are swarming all over it – I wouldn’t have been surprised if the South American mafia had turned up and run riot through the gayly attired undergraduates, seeking to machine gun their enemy, Hartang.

But nothing like that happens. In fact, throughout the novel the undergraduates are conspicuous by their absence. They are actually there – it is term time – but not a single one is referenced by name. the plot takes place entirely among the doddery ageing dons and senior fellows.

In fact the climax comes a week or so later when there is the grand feast to inaugurate Hartang as Master. His British security minders are protecting him in exchange for the masses of information he’s imparted about international drugs operations and the college is already benefiting from his munificence, with the chapel having extensive repairs. Osbert and Mrs Ndhlovo have finished listening to Skullion’s dizzyingly disillusioning version of the real history of Porterhouse and are busily editing the manuscript into shape.

Against this background, there is this huge feast with all the fellows and students in their gowns and regalia when, at the climax of the meal, the waiters sweep through the magnificent doors of the Grand Hall bearing vast platters carrying numerous roasted boar. Now, the Senior Staff had learned from their taping of Kudzuvine’s confessions hundreds of pages earlier, that Hartang has a loathing amounting to a phobia, a real panic-fear of pigs. Even mention of the name makes him go pale and fumble for his medication. Now, as the waiters spread out and approach the High Table bearing huge pigs at him from all sides, Hartang staggers to his feet, has a heart attack, and dies. That’s the climax of the novel.


Then there’s an epilogue which ties up the various storylines.

Both Skullion and the Praelector are now seen resignedly residing at the retirement home looking over the sea.

As his last act Skullion named his successor to be the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole, the appalling alcoholic who the Dean encountered early in the book. The surviving fellows put up with his boorish manners confident in the expectation that he will soon drink himself to death with the help of the college’s bottomless wine cellar.

Osbert delivers a first draft of Skullion’s history to Lady Mary’s lawyers, who both consider it so scandalous they quietly decide to suppress it. Neither Lady Mary, nor the world at large, will ever read it.

And Mrs Ndhlovo confides in a lady friend that Osbert is just too scholarly, too kind and considerate. So she is going to quietly leave him.

That’s it.

Anti-modern and anti-American

Broadly speaking, satirists tend to be conservative and right-wing in their thinking, preferring the old ways and satirising trendy new-fangled notions. This is very much how Sharpe’s earlier novels struck me. Thinking the modern world has gone to pot is part and parcel of the performance – and so the crusty old dons lament Harold Wilson’s honours list and Mrs Thatcher’s ennoblement of businessmen, the need for hospitals to treat high-spending foreigners in order to subsidise operations for long-suffering Brits, and other iniquities of the kind to be found in the pages of the Daily Mail.

More striking is the strong vein of anti-Americanism which runs through the book. Hartang and his various trusties express themselves in a harsh barely literate mafia-speak, and evince a brutal amorality, ready at a second’s notice to ring up hitmen and assassins to eliminate anyone who stands in their way. This crude criminality is combined with, especially in Kudzuvine’s case, a repellently gung-ho American chauvinism – ‘USA! USA!’. The combination provides endless opportunities for the fuddy-duddy English college officials to tut about American ‘culture’, American violence, and then wander off to discuss recent American foreign policy foul-ups, which, it is implied, arise out of its domestic violence and criminality.

Since the book was written in the early to mid-1990s, these now seem very dated, but include:

  • the Gulf War, during which US ‘friendly fire’ shot up some of our tanks and killed some of our troops
  • the US air strikes on Libya – codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon – on 15 April 1986, which resulted in 40 Libyan civilians killed (p.208)

Sharpe punishes this crudity in the person of Kudzuvine, who starts off brashly yelling at everyone that he’s a ‘free-born citizen of the Greatest Nation on Earth’ etc etc – but is systematically reduced to a quivering wreck, at his nadir kneeling before the gibbering wheelchair bound figure of Skullion, and ending up hacking dead horses to pieces in a cat food factory. It is a deliberate humiliation of him and all he stands for – amoral billionaire American criminality.

This dislike of insufferable American chauvinism combined with its increasingly aggressive foreign policy reminds me of John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels with their growing hatred of America. Although it’s interesting, none of this is really very funny.

Sharpe died only recently, in 2013. I wonder what he made of this century’s turn of events – 9/11, the American invasion of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy triumphs. I wonder what his cast of comedy dons and duffers from Porterhouse would have made of it. I wonder whether these topics crop up in his final novels…


Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch by 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)

This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.

The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.

Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.

But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.

And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)

It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.

The plot

There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations  of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.

Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.

These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.

And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.

Cain kills Abel

In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.

During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.

A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body  there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

A Jacobson stylistics

The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.

Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.

Repetition of clauses

As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:

  • It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
  • They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
  • … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)

Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:

  • Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
  • He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
  • Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
  • He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
  • The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
  • A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
  • There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
  • All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
  • [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
  • It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)

At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.

  • Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
  • In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)

Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.

In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)

Rhetorical questions

There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.

  • Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
  • Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
  • How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
  • [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
  • You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
  • When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
  • Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
  • Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
  • What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)

The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.

What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)

2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.

Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)

Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.

Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)

However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.

What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)

Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?

Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)

That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’

Word play

Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:

  • My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
  • … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
  • The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
  • his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
  • The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
  • He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)

Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.

  • They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
  • He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
  • Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
  • He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)

The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.

That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)

The pedantic correction

A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.

  • And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
  • It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
  • His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
  • ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
  • And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
  • All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
  • I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
  • He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
  • He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
  • He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
  • She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
  • Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
  • I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
  • He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
  • In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
  • Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
  • An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
  • He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
  • She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)

The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:

Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)

Learnèd tags

The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.

There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…

On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.

as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…

Learnèd vocabulary

The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:

  • ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
  • verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
  • bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
  • collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
  • venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
  • frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
  • sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
  • feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
  • slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
  • squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
  • epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
  • funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
  • alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
  • hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
  • mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
  • nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
  • allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
  • coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
  • tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
  • ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
  • homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
  • foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
  • sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
  • fugacy – banishment.


Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.

  • You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
  • Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
  • Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
  • Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
  • What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
  • All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
  • Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
  • As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
  • Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
  • A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
  • The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
  • Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)

There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.

Rhetoric instead of character

All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.

Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.

And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations –  after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator on an extended sojourn in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

Redback by Howard Jacobson (1986)

I walked back the way I’d come at a furious pace. I needed to exercise off my exasperation. No good comes of talking to old people, especially in Australia where they strike themselves as characters. Their opinions invariably lack truth and wisdom. And when they have finished listening you are denied all the usual methods of obtaining relief: you can’t really shout at them and you oughtn’t really to knock them down. (p.325)

This is Jacobson’s third novel in a row to be told in the first person by an anxious, guilty, intellectual, hyper-literary, sex-obsessed, verbose, very funny and, ultimately, rather wearing narrator.

This one is called Leon Forelock and given an autobiography distinct in incident from the two previous heroes – Barney Fugelman (Peeping Tom) and Sefton Goldberg (Coming From Behind). Unlike them, he is not Jewish. But despite these surface differences, the actual narrative voice we experience is much the same. Wordy, prolix, effortlessly articulate, addicted to showy paradoxes and subtle distinctions, self-dramatising, obsessed with women and sex, consistently humorous in tone but only occasionally prompting actual laughter.

‘But there’s no-one else here,’ I expostulated. I’m not being wordy – that’s really what I did. I expostulated. I complained and pleaded and debated in an aggrieved manner. (p.328)

(Sefton Goldberg, anti-hero of Jacobson’s first novel, actually turns up as a character, one of a loose association of expatriate Brits Leon enjoys necking tinnys with at the pub named The Whingeing Pom, p.247. Jacobson takes those opportunities to highlight that whereas Sefton is a Jew, Leon – the narrator of Redback narrator – is not.)

A tangled plot

The plot is easy enough in outline, although, at its key turning points, quite hard to follow. Broadly, Leon Forelock grows up in the wettest town in England, Partington, caught between Liverpool and Manchester. Here he is prey to a collection of stock characters from the ‘miserable North’ school of comedy – his father an ineffectual shorty, his mother a harumphing shrew who runs a hair salon assisted by two fearsome aunts named Hesta and Nesta who, the young Leon thinks, must spend all their time shoving pillows up their fronts to produce such peculiar and ever-changing shapes, and sticking black hairs into their prominent warts the better to look like old witches.

Nesta introduces young Leon to the joys of operetta, which makes for some entertaining passages about great operetta singers of the 1940s and 50s, and the silliness of their Ruritanian plots provides an amusing thread which runs through Leon’s memories and experiences.

I vas never kissed before, sang Georges Guétary, een zat kind ov vay. I knew exactly what he meant. I loved Georges Guétary. He was my ideal musical European. A voice like Georges Guétary’s, a stage presence like Nelson Eddy’s, an appetite like Mario Lanza’s. and I would have died happy. (p.234)

Like Jacobson’s other novels, although the plot is very roughly linear – moving from Partington to Cambridge to Australia – the text is made up of innumerable flashbacks, of countless detours, digressions and divagations, as the narrator rambles forwards and backwards over his life, picking up and continuing numerous storylines at various points, as well as wandering off for pages at a time on a wide range of subjects which occur to him and inspire ad hoc meditations and musings.

From this densely-woven plethora of prose we make out that Leon’s father ran off with a posh local woman, named Trilby, and that they ran all the way to Australia, from where he receives the occasional postcard inviting him to visit.


There is a prolonged interlude as our lower-middle-class hero goes to Cambridge (as Jacobson himself did) to study Moral Decencies (unlike Jacobson, who studied the rather more conventional English Literature) at the fictional college of Malapert. There are comic memories of Cambridge, the main one being the almost total absence of women, or ‘totty’ as they were referred to. Exceptions being an exotic, probably Hindu, princess, Ankhesenamen, whose ten little toes remind Leon of scarab beetles peeking out from under her sari (p.67). There are some funny moments, but by and large Tom Sharpe is much funnier about Cambridge in his Porterhouse Blue novels.

Recruitment for a political mission

The main event is his accident with Father Dinmont Manifest aka ‘Dinny’. Despite rereading it this whole episode remains rather opaque to me: Dinny appears to have let himself be crashed into by Leon on his bicycle in order to pick him up, take him back to his church (?) and then recruit him. ‘Recruit him?’ Yes because Father Manifest works for a CIA front named Freedom Academy International, and recruits Leon to go on a mission to Australia to combat ‘Tristanism’, the odd name they’ve given to the wave of permissiveness which is allegedly sweeping the West.

On this very slender and barely comprehensible pretext, Leon sails off to Australia, where he spends the best part of the 1960s stuck in the offices of The Black Flag magazine (named because it was seeing a black flag which led the medieval hero Tristan to his death; pretty obscure stuff.)

Mission to Australia

This idea that Leon is on some kind of undercover mission opens up a set of comic references to the Australian Secret Services who he claims are keeping tabs on him, and also explains why he gains admission to the world of Australian small political magazines, to meeting other crusaders for moral values, and so on, all of whom are painted as loons and freaks of various degrees.

Leon is credited with implementing various wacky right-wing schemes, including OPERATION POM and the mildly funny idea of creating an Immigration Test based on knowledge of the obscure medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. As an English graduate who’s read (and enjoyed) Piers Plowman I got the reference, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea, but it all feels a bit of an in-joke for literary types.

Leon repeatedly insists he is not a very political person, that – as he tells us on page 197 – he is ‘a personality rather than a principle man’ – that is, his opinions are formed by people and personalities, rather than intellectual principles – and the text bears this out, as you get very little sense of any of the political or social ideas which transformed the western world during this tumultuous decade.

Leon ends up staying in Australia for the rest of his life – from around 1962 up till the present (ie when the book was published, in 1986) and he mentions various Australian politicians whose names ring a bell (Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke) but it is impressive how little sense the book gives you of Australian politics or history.

And no sense at all of Leon’s own politics. Because they are based on personal tastes and prejudices, his views are difficult to nail down, they they change as his feelings change and so the ‘Big Change’ which supposedly dominates the second part of the book – when he shifts from being a conservative to being a radical – is built up several times in the text, but actually takes place with no change of voice or attitude – because he never had very strong objective beliefs to start with.

About Australians

So off to Australia Leon sails, on this supposed mission to promote conservative values, and coincidentally to drop in on his Dad and Trilby. He’s met at the dock, for reasons I didn’t quite follow, by a Jewish academic, a humorously-titled professor of Pessimistic Philosophy, Orel Rosenfeldt, and quickly whisked back to his house.

By this stage the reader is realising that the storyline, the plot, isn’t all that important – it may even be part of the comic intention that it barely makes sense at several points. The real driver of the text is to introduce us to an unwavering line of comic grotesques and caricatures, who are often very funny indeed.

Leon’s mother – permanently hissing ‘shush!’ at the young lad – his two ugly aunts, the handful of eccentrics he met at Cambridge, all these are eclipsed from about page 100 onwards by a wall of comic Australian characters and long disquisitions on all things Australian, the food, the landscape, the culture, the lingo and so on.

The art of vilification was in its infancy in Australia when I first arrived. There was a certain rough native idiomatic vitalism around sure enough, but it was of a kind that could easily make detraction sound like flattery; it was a coarse, affectionate, bachelor style of disparagement, and it needed to settle down in the company of some cruel European contempt. I, if you like, officiated at the wedding. (p.85)

Jacobson’s basic style is a comic grandiosity, a mock pedantic orotundity, a humorously over-inflated self-importance which dresses his every thought and feeling in a grand and aggrandising rhetoric. His narrators are the superstars of their own convoluted perorations, so that one among many comic tricks is the contrast between the Jamesian complexity of their long-winded prose being brougfht down to earth with a bump by the abrupt bluntness of the external world, by some piece of Ossie repartee or the name of an obviously comic character. E.g:

Melbourne? Yes, Yes I know – it wasn’t the centre of sublunary wickedness exactly. It wasn’t Hades or Gomorrah. It wasn’t even Hamburg or Gillingham. But it had made the Festival of Light see red; it had given the world the Women’s Movement, and – no negligible claim to infamy – it had given the world Bev Belladonna. (p.300)

As his first novel was stuffed with rather dubious generalisations about Jews, so this one is stuffed with equally carefree generalisations about Australians. Most of them have enough of a germ of truth to be funny, but their function is nearly always to trigger or enable an ensuing rhodomontade of opinionated prose.

There’s no moving an Australian over forty, once his mind’s made up. (p.345)

The really nice thing about Australians is their lack of interest in finding their politicians honourable. They actually prefer them dodgy. The rougher they are – the more they pissant around where they shouldn’t – always provided they remember to blubber where they should – the more they’re trusted. In the country that idealises the ratbag and the larrikin, the scoundrel will always be a hero. (p.332)

‘Have you noticed how much time Australian men spend scratching their dicks?’ (p.202)

He was wearing one of those ascetic beards difficult Australian men sometimes take refuge in, a fringe around his face, leaving a half-moon of chin and the whole of his upper lip bare. (p.322)

Delsey pulled one of her vital-weary, arch-exasperated Australian faces – the kind that are meant to win over an imaginary third party, the sort that famous Australians employ to amuse audiences when someone else is speaking. (p.319)

Of course I should have known that Delsey had to be sitting on a pretty snazzy vaudeville routine. She was Australian, wasn’t she? All Australians – certainly all Australians of her class and generation – put a high value on snap vitality. This was part Americanisation: every girl her own Shirley Temple; and part indigenous sentimentality: nostalgia for the good old Australia of wandering shysters and mountebanks and song-and-dance men. The more serious the Australian, the more thorough-going the nostalgia. (p.313)

Jacobson published a non-fiction book about Australia, In The Land of Oz, the year after Redback (1987). It would be interesting to know whether it is any more factual, sober and logical than this fantasy, or whether it contains as many recklessly wild generalisations about Ossie life and culture.

Jacobson’s prose

Passages like these demonstrate a number of things about Jacobson’s prose. First and foremost is his ability to spin long paragraphs of comic inventiveness out of almost anything. The sheer length of the paragraphs explains why the pages look so dense – often solid blocks of text with no break or indentation – as the narrator holds forth, at length, about another thing which has just crossed his mind. There is far more comic soliloquy by the narrator than dialogue between characters. A Jacobson novel is a prolonged ‘holding forth’.

Techniques which help him spin out such lengthy prose include generalisations. Once you’ve stated a generalisation, no matter how dubious, the narrator can argue for and against it and under it and over it, and he can create characters, or whistle up conversations between characters, which also debate and discuss and digress around the invented topic. Women and Australia, in particular, come in for regular generalisations.

  • That combination of irony, tomboyishness, and country-town rawness which is to be found in all Australian women makes it difficult for them to throw themselves into public sexuality. (p.215)
  • Mind you, Australian feminists don’t need much to set them ticking, and they do make a big bang. (p.232)

Of course, the more ridiculous the generalisation, the more it’s used for comic exaggeration – the funnier it can be.

You cannot move in Melbourne, you cannot hear yourself think in Melbourne, you cannot find a spare place in a bar in Melbourne, for schoolteachers, apologists for schoolteachers, teachers of schoolteachers, and theoreticians of the teaching of apologising for schoolteachers. (p.297)

Another technique is the use of rhetorical questions. Almost any paragraph of length includes one or more:

  • Does that sound like a perfect mutuality? Well don’t forget that nothing is ever equal between men and women. It’s in the nature of their conjoining that one will always be on a more urgent mission than the other. (p.281)
  • Marriage is prostitution, Norelle Turpie made herself famous for saying. And who except Hartley Quibell would bother to deny it? (p.268)
  • Have I said enough to convey our total lack of interest both in our own and in each other’s Dreena? In that case will it surprise you to hear that when I turned up at Ruddles’s place one evening, as arranged, and learned that he was at that very moment turning up at my place, some six or seven hundred miles away, also as arranged, I was unable to stop myself taking Ruddles’s Dreena in my arms and telling her that I had wanted her ever since I’d clapped yes on her, yes, and even for some time before that? And will it surprise you to hear that although he would most certainly have been reeling with distaste from her open occidental pores, Ruddles was saying the very same thing, yes, and in the very same voice, to the Dreena who was mine? (p.190)
  • Wasn’t that what our own irregular but highly formalised arrangement implied? Wasn’t that the idea? Weren’t we meant to be disapproving of everyone except ourselves, conventional in regard to everything except what really mattered? (p.287)
  • What was before or below me now? I wondered. What did I aspire to? What was I after? (p.281)

These rhetorical and unanswerable questions create a kind of space in the text, a sort of elbow room where the narrative grinds to a halt while the narrator considers the various questions he’s posed himself and generally addresses them by asking even more questions. Some are rhetorical and don’t need answering and are left hanging; others trigger further ruminations and ratiocinations.

In fact, now I read a selection of these in isolation, I also realise they are a classic teaching method. Jacobson was a university lecturer for some 15 years and, since the time of Socrates, what has been a key pedagogic method but the posing of questions to debate and discuss? Who is the narrator asking so many questions of? His class.

Maybe this is why the tone of voice is the same in these three early Jacobson novels, despite the ostensibly different narrators: because they are all the voice of a richly and comically pontificating pedagogue.

The style of mock heroic narration, its ability to spool seemingly endless paragraphs of rumination out of very modest subjects, the rhetorical flourishes and repetitions, the deployment of grand professorial questions, maintain the narrative at a permanent level of amused urbanity. But it can, over the long run, become a bit wearing. Towards the end, as the plot grew ever more random but the prose continued at this high, rather demanding pitch, the temptation grew to skip yet another page-long purple paragraph and then, maybe, whole chapters…


The previous novel, Peeping Tom, made repeated mention of the Big Event which – it was promised -transformed his life and explains the existence of the whole narrative. It is something Big and Horrible which happened with his lover Camilla, and which affected him so badly that he is only now recovering from it. The text builds up our anticipation of this Event with repeated mentions, drumming it up to be the Climax towards which the text is hurtling and which will explain everything.

In the event, it turns out Camilla ran off with the owner of the candyfloss and seaside rock shop after, admittedly, giving him a bad fright for a few hours by pretending she’d swum out the sea and drowned. But then he discovers – No: she just dumped him.

Hmm. This isn’t quite the Great Comic Climax we had been led to expect. The rock and candyfloss man is, in fact, a lecturer in the French nouveau roman who ran away to Cornwall to start a new life and has been bitterly disappointed, which is quite funny, but being dumped by your lover is just sad, and it’s more than a bit disappointing that this banal fact turns out to be why Leon haunts the cliffs and byways of North Cornwall, alone and forlorn.

Similarly, in Redback, the title refers to a type of poisonous spider native to Australia and we are told repeatedly that, when the hero went for a poo in an out-house, a specimen of redback bit him on the testicles, causing them to swell up and our hero to be hospitalised and that the event is the Major Trigger for his change of life and attitudes, for the Big Changes which the book records, and that it will explain everything!

The spider bite is set up to provide exactly the same narrative End-Point as Camilla’s departure in Peeping Tom and, as in that novel, proves to be similarly anti-climactic, when the moment finally comes, right at the end of the novel.

First Leon dumps the synchronised swimmers he’s been going out with for years. Synchronised swimmers? Yes, apparently what persuaded two beautiful lithe athletes to agree to spend eight years sleeping in the same bed with the weedy, nerdy narrator, was his reassuringly conservative views. When – for reasons which are hard to follow – his conservative views start to crumble and he shows dangerous signs of liberalism, they dump him.

Equally inexplicably, his first reaction to being dumped by the swimmers is to seek out an Ossie woman he had sex with in Cambridge all those decades ago, and whose face he’s seen in the paper as running an all-women feminist commune in the outback. And so he sets off to find her.

He  tracks her down to a rough bar and, improbably, she drives him out to the commune and says he can stay as the resident man and fixer, so long as he doesn’t enter the actual commune building, but restricts himself to the so-called tent down the hill and uses the extremely primitive ‘dunny’, or outside loo.

These scenes around the feminist commune are very funny, particularly urban Leon (and Jacobson’s) response to the feral, malevolent Outback, with its low humming of aggrieved wildlife just waiting to take their revenge. I laughed out loud at a lot of the descriptions of the scandalised townie recoiling form the hairy, crawling critters which share his tent with him – and this kind of scandalised exaggeration suits Jacobson’s rhetorical style perfectly. But, again, it was hard to see what kind of plot logic had brought us here. It’s all very funny but seems to come out of nowhere as a whim.

In the event Leon is having a poo in the dunny when the redback spider lurking there bites the underside of his tackle. Cue fever, facial rictus and the crown jewels swelling to twice their usual size. The feminists are unsympathetic and so he hitches a ride back into town with some passing retired tourists and gets himself admitted to the local hospital. Here – in scene which takes authorial randomness to new levels – he is momentarily addressed by a British Royal Couple who happen to be visiting at just that moment, to whom he finds himself having to explain precisely what satyriasis is ie the permanent, unrelievable giant erection of the penis. They nod sagely. Unflappable, these royals.

In the last pages, a restored Leon goes to visit his father’s second wife, Trilby, the woman he ran out on young Leon for all those decades ago. Along the way, Leon’s dad has died and buried in Botany Bay. Trilby she explains that she’s going back to Blighty – she wants to be among her family. Fair dinkum, but Leon stays on in Australia and his last thoughts are about the vast jamboree which the country is going to treat itself to at its two hundredth anniversary in 1988. The Trilby scenes, his dad’s death, cast an odd shadow over the ending of this comic novel.


It’s worth mentioning how long ago the plot is set. Leon was born in 1940 (Jacobson was born in 1942), so attends Cambridge in 1958 through to 1962, which is when he’s recruited to Freedom Academy International. He spends most of the 1960s working for a right-wing magazine in Australia, launching countless campaigns against the permissive society and trying to get smutty books banned, before, some time around the end of the Vietnam War (the mid-70s?), experiencing his conversion to radical politics which is, in fact, so barely perceivable to the reader.

Although much of the novel is set in the 1960s, if you thought it will shed any light on the 1960s, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It sheds endless light on the narrator’s favourite topics- Australians, the oddities of marriage or this or that comic character, women, sex – but it isn’t a serious analysis or meditation on anything much. There are lots – hundreds – of short comic disquisitions on minor points – but hardly any sense of the social or political background. Or the broader history of the period.

Eventually, right at the end, some years after the spider bite, it turns out the menacing figures keeping tabs on him from a dark Mercedes parked outside his door which he’s spent most of the book thinking are the Australian Security Services, aren’t at all, but turn out to be the three dim Cooney brothers – George, Bernard and Shaun – part of the right-wing group he was introduced right at the start of his Australia trip. All they want is for Leon to help them pass the Immigrant Test he devised when he was a rabid right-winger, the comic one based on detailed knowledge of the medieval poem Piers Plowman.

It is this final sequence which mentions funding for the 1988 biennial celebrations of Australia’s founding. So somehow we have flown from 1958, to 1962, to the late 60s, the end of Vietnam and – whoosh! – on to the date of publication (1986) with huge amounts of comic improvisation and humorous disquisition, but very little sense of time passing or characters changing or developing, especially the central narrator, who is as bright, perky and ironically verbose at the end as he was at the beginning.

Some comic characters

  • Leon’s Dad – tiny and forgetful, he routinely takes Leon out in the pram when he’s a baby and walks off forgetting all about him, one time absent-mindedly putting him in a litter bin in a park and coming home with the rubbish bag from a picnic. Runs off with Trilby, the nearest thing Partington knows to a classy lady.
  • Leon’s mum – runs Partington’s hair salon with mixed results for the customers.
  • Aunt Nesta – keen on operetta.
  • Aunt Hesta – keen on outings to castles and old ruins.
  • Ruddles, Leon’s friend at Cambridge, who hangs around the train station on the lookout for stunning blondes but, since he is short-sighted, needs Leon to help point them out to him.
  • Dinny i.e. Father Dinmont Manifest – priest who is in fact a recruiter for the CIA-backed  Freedom Academy International.
  • Orel Rosenfeldt, Professor in Pessimistic Philosophy at the university of Wallamaloo, like so many of Jacobson’s male characters, a hen-pecked weedy specimen. His main habit is elaborately peeling apples to that the peel forms one long spiral, before carefully depipping it, and then cutting it into sections. Can takes hours.
  • Vernie Redfern and Maroochi Ravesh, gorgeous tanned pair of synchronised swimmers who become Leon’s girlfriends.
  • Frank Whiling, mewling, feeble lefty, ‘a snuffed-out volcano, an inactive activist, a sort of soporiferous socialist who argued with his own bedclothes’ (p.128), permanently lifting his right fist and feebly yelling ‘Victory to -‘, the gap to be filled by whichever cause is fashionable this week.
  • Lobelia Sneddon: her comic trait is sprinkling her speech with French tags and then elaborately translating them for his presumed-illiterate audience. But, as Lobelia would say, c’est la vie or, that’s life!
  • Alex Sneddon – her husband, committed to the sanctity of the family.
  • Norelle Turpie, one time Senior Tutor in Women’s History, later leader of the Eastern Suburbs New Hegemonists (p.86), whatever that means.
  • Ruddles Carmody, fellow right-winger who – for a while – has a girlfriend named Dreena, which happens to be the name of Leon’s girlfriend of the time, so that in a chapter created solely for this purpose, they end up sleeping with each other’s girlfriends and not really noticing.
  • Henry Dabscheck, right-wing editor of The Black Flag.
  • The Cooney Brothers, George, Bernard and Shaun, who (comically) surround anyone they’re talking to.
  • Gunnar McMurphy, primal poet who expounds D.H.Lawrence. ‘His ambition was always to refer to the most private parts of women’s bodies in the most public places that would allow him to do so.’ (p.123)
  • Doug Kiernan, Vaughan Cantrell and Hungarian Rudi, three operatives of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) who park in a Mercedes outside Leon’s flat after he converts to become a ‘radical’ (p.236). In one of the final coups of the novel, it turns out it’s not them at all, but the harmless Cooney brothers, who Leon’s been afraid of all this time.
  • Hartley Quibell, right wing conservative and owner – according to him – of the ‘last marriage in Australia’ i.e. resisting the rising tide of promiscuity and pornography.


Redback by Howard Jacobson was published in 1986 by Bantam Press. All quotes are from the 1987 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life – his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy; then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, he dumps her and moves to Cornwall and has an affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J

Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson (1984)

Review one

If being in love isn’t being terrified I don’t know what is. (p.185)

Barney Fugelman, anxious, guilty, literary Jewish layabout, aged 27 in 1967, is married to heavy-breasted numerologist Sharon, who runs a bookshop specialising in spirituality (Zazie’s dans le Metro), in Finchley. When they invite hypnotist Harry Vilbert to come and do an after-hours talk and demonstration, little does Barney know that he will end up channeling to the astonished audience the spirit of the young Thomas Hardy! This is all the funnier since Barney is an anxious, urban type who loathes the countryside and all literature which fetishises it (‘I had a dislike for the English rural tradition’ p.36). Barney goes back to the hypnotist a few more times and each time it gets clearer and clearer that he really can access Hardy’s boyhood and teenage memories – they check against Hardy’s biography – so that all things Hardian become an increasing topic of his and Sharon’s conversations, until she has the brainwave of moving down the hill and opening a new bookshop devoted just to Hardy (Eustacia’s on the Heath) which turns out to be a surprising success.

If this summary gives the sense that reading the book is a straightforward linear experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Events swirl and whirl through a maelstrom of memories, recalled incidents, conversations and arguments and generalisations about Jewish life and childhood and sexuality and literature. And a lot of the best humour is often generated by these tangents and diversions, particularly by the book’s gallery of quirky minor characters.

Barney’s father

Take Barney’s father. On the handful of times Barney remembers his childhood home life he remembers how his dad had some obscure job at Somerset House in the births department and came home each day with a collection of the cruellest names parents had given their children: Greta Warmley, Eva Brick, Ava Crisp, Carrie Waters. It’s a straightforward running gag, but still pretty funny, and gets funnier each time Mr Fugelman senior hoves into view reciting more silly names.

Monty Frankel

Barney has teenage memories of Monty Frankel, a neighbour his age who enjoyed pretending to hang himself from a gibbet in the back garden, and who slipped him surreptitious pages from Nazi atrocity books, which were the only place either of them could see naked – albeit starved-to-death – women.

Maybe we’re meant to find this shocking – maybe Jacobson is trying to transgress taboos within Jewish culture and among his wider Gentile audience. But I wasn’t very scandalised in 1984 when I first read this novel, and even less so in 2016, maybe because I was once a teenage boy and so know what they’re capable of.

Also from his teenage years, Barney enjoyed peeking out the window as another neighbour, Mrs Flatman, does the gardening, watching her female body move and heft. On one never-to-be-forgotten afternoon she and another neighbour frolic in the kids’ paddling pool with no tops on. Little Barney’s ‘putz’ grows large enough to itself peek over the windowsill and get a view. The heady mix of Jewish anxiety, Jewish guilt, and adolescent sexuality is strongly reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Eventually Barney’s dad will run off with the full-bosomed Mrs Flatman and set up house in Tooting, in – as it happens – the very building where Thomas Hardy stayed while writing a novel. Meanwhile his own mother sets up with a succession of different men, but finally settles for Mr Flatman. Through the vicissitudes of Barney’s own love life, he will at various points, come back to London to visit one or both of his erring parents, who have set him fine examples of adultery and betrayal.

Literary criticism

There is quite a lot of literary criticism lying around in the book. At times you wonder whether the author himself had written a thesis or academic paper on Hardy, and whether the novel is an inventive way of recycling large chunks of it.

The analysis is all clever, learnèd, and highly knowledgeable about Hardy but all takes rather the same psychological or psycho-analytical approach. Even in 1984, there were a number of ways to think about a text or author (historical, biographical, Marxist, rhetorical, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, and so on) with more being invented every term.

But for the purposes of this highly-sexed novel, the literary criticism always ends up discovering that sex lies at the bottom of just about anything which can happen in a novel, especially the novels of Thomas Hardy. It is quite a funny running gag that all the Hardy critics they meet – as well as Barney and Camilla his lover – are Hardy experts to their fingertips, but cordially dislike him. It’s less interesting that so many of their lengthy essays about him end up in the same place. Take this, a dithyramb from Camilla about Tess of the Durbevilles.

‘Have you even wondered why Hardy is so interested in Tess’s genealogy? Her aristocratic background is a metaphor, it’s wholly figurative. At the very moment that Angel forgives her and thereby makes her a spiritual virgin again, he has immediately to recall the historical interest of her family, the masterful line of the D’Urbevilles. Because without that, and without Alec’s seal upon her, what is she? Nothing. The wickedness that Hardy can’t comfortably indulge Tess in the present, he bestows upon her in the past. He ransacks her beginnings, uncovers her original sin – the thing he most wants to dwell upon – and hangs her up by it in the end. It’s a compulsive metaphor for intercourse.’ (p.291)

The many speculations about Hardy all dwell on his alleged psycho-sexual obsessions, and repeatedly make the rather boring discover that Hardy’s novels echo or anticipate Barney’s own personal obsession – the repeated plot device in Hardy’s novels of having weedy men introduce their beloved to hunky men who then ‘possess’ them as the weakling would like to, prefiguring Barney’s own feeble protration in front of strong women. Throughout the book, Hardy’s plot and biography are continually mixed up and compared with Barney’s own psycho-sexual ‘needs’.


For the text is heavy with the narrator’s own sado-masochism. Night after night Barney begs his wife, Sharon, to take a lover so as to humiliate him – and he is continually pushing her towards the nearest available male friend or house guest. In bed at night he begs her to call out the latest man’s name, and begs her to pretend to beg him to fuck her. Oh well. Her mother warned her men were strange. So Sharon complies to make Barney happy, but with no feeling whatsoever.

Eventually, Barney contrives to make his fantasy come true and gets Sharon into bed with their ‘friend’, Rowland Fitzpiers, a beardy science fiction expert, and he watches them, savouring the moments when:

Sharon dropped to her knees and drew back Fitzpiers’s foreskin (how did she know what to do with a foreskin?) or when Fitzpiers dropped to his knees and drew back her… (p.146)

However – as you might expect from a literary novel and especially from a comic novel – the experience turns out to be a withering anti-climax, quickly becomeing disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney had been hoping for.

Rowland Fitzpiers is quite a funny character. He’s another literary hanger-on and also-ran, who writes occasional articles for obscure magazines, and is just now going through a phase as an expert on science fiction. He has some funny riffs on how almost every famous book you can think of is in fact a precursor to – or is heavily indebted to – one science fiction classic or other.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She attacks him – he runs away. Later he discovers Fitzpiers has moved in and is looking after Sharon, and eventually becomes legal father to the little girl she has – his sci-fi influence obvious in the name they give her – Asimova Wollstonecroft Ursula. Just as well she wasn’t a boy, Barney thinks, or he’d have ended up being called Arthur C Ballard Pohl – assuming they could resist the temptation of throwing Moorlock into the mix. All very witty, if you know your 1980s sci-fi authors.

After brief affairs Barney stumbles across the pamphlet giving the address in Cornwall of a Hardy expert, Camilla, he met at a party, who was particularly rude and dismissive of him. He likes that in a woman. He likes to be threatened and dominated. So he travels all the way down to Cornwall to track her down, and thus begins the second part of the novel, all set in a small Cornish fishing village and describing his Hardy-obsessed and ill-fated love affair with Camilla.

Facility with language

The text runs over with fluent articulations about literature and sex, psychology, relationships, masochism and family ties. Jacobson’s language skills are so copious they routinely overflow the bounds of decorum and often threaten to elude sense altogether, as he makes puns and verbal plays, repetitions and amplifications galore. He likes repeating ideas in three consecutive clauses:

It was difficult for me, as I have already made abundantly plain, to show much forbearance to my forebears; my instincts were all for cursing my precursors… because I had failed her when I flailed her. (pp.205-208)

As his first infatuation with his lover, Camilla, eventually dies down, their relationship becomes stale, above all she no longer terrifies and dominates him as he wants her to, needs her to, in order to become aroused; they have become:

two masochists on a mattress, each having to abjure the thrill that can only come from thrall, the incomparable rapture of rough capture, the unslakable thirst to come off worst. (p.308)

Initially Camilla had set up a system of encouragements and rewards to try and teach Barney about his adopted countryside. (Of course it is entirely focused on sex, the only subject Barney really cares about.) If he wishes for fellatio that night, he has to collect flax, fleabane and fritillary. ‘And if I fancy cunnilingus?’ he asks. He has to identify a curlew, a cuttlefish and collect armsful of columbine, cranesbill and lesser celandine. (p.249)

Page after page has effortless puns and word plays, alliteration and rhetorical flourishes. The downside of this kind of thing is there is lots of it, and not all of it is that funny. Not only is the book 350 pages long, but it is a very dense 350 pages, many of them presenting a solid block of text, with no paragraphs or breaks.

At its heaviest, this can be experienced as an unremitting wall of words. If the upside is Jacobson’s astonishing fluency and articulacy, the downside is he can run on, become prolix, become – eventually – alas – boring. You get the quite frequent impression that his phenomenal fluency is expended on the tiniest details of a relationship which you, the reader, just doesn’t care about as much as the self-obsessed narrator.

Whatever else I loved Camilla for, whatever miraculous conjunction of spirit, word, and flesh, had found its way into my soul, I loved her most intensely for her incontestable right to be loved by others – or to put that another way, for her capacity to loose the devils of rivalry against me. She didn’t even need to whisper in my ear; she had only to stretch herself out to her full length on the bed, precisely as I have just stretched her, for me to feel that adversaries past and present, ghostly and imminent, were coming at me from everywhere. I could feel them thumping up Camilla’s fourteenth-century staircase. I could see them prising out the panes form Camilla’s tiny leaded windows. It was with an exquisite sense of inadequacy that I drew my weapon afresh each time, certain of nothing but comprehensive defeat. Barney Fugelman – love’s warrior – alone and lightly armed in the continuum. (p.280)

Fluent? Very. Urbane and amused? Yes. Self-dramatising, self-obsessed and melodramatic? Yes, but that’s appropriate for a comic novel. Funny? No, not laugh out loud funny. Slight smile of amusement funny and, if repeated over 350 pages, the slight smile risks disappearing.

Review two

The book is in a short prologue and two long parts.

Prologue The prologue introduces us to anxious, urban Jew, Barney Fugelman, forlornly tramping the cliffs of a remote Cornish village – which is ironic because he hates Cornwall, he hates the countryside and, being an urban Jewish intellectual, he dislikes the whole pastoral English tradition. So how did he end up there? Well, since you ask…

Part 1 describes Barney’s childhood and young teenage years in a north London Jewish family, and then his marriage to the hairy, heavy-breasted astrology and numerology fan Sharon, during which Barney discovers that his life has eerie parallels with Thomas Hardy, of all people, famous for his Gothic novels of rural life. Sharon rejigs her spiritualist bookshop as a Thomas Hardy bookshop, which proves improbably successful, and then – rather spectacularly – Barney is put under hypnosis as a gimmicky after-hours event at the bookshop and discovers that he can actually channel the mind and memories of the young Thomas Hardy! Progressively more detailed and convoluted psycho-sexual explorations of Hardy’s life and novels become inextricably intertwined with long passages of Barney’s own autobiography, sex life and complex sexual fantasies.

These latter take the form of the convoluted wish to be humiliated and debased by seeing his wife with another man. After attempts to coerce various male friends into fulfilling this fantasy, he manages it with a beardy science fiction expert, Rowland Fitzpiers. Barney watches them at it, then joins in. However – as you might expect from a literary novel and from a comic novel at that – the experience is a deflating letdown, and quickly becomes disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney was hoping for.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She snaps and attacks him. He flees.

Part two Barney has a few brief flings, but then comes across a pamphlet by a woman Hardy expert, Camilla, who he met at a party and who was sturdily contemptuous of him. That’s the kind of thing which excites him, so Barney takes the train to Cornwall to track her down at the ‘Alternative Centre for Thomas Hardy Studies’. Barney strikes a comic figure in his city overcoat and Bally shoes waiting on the clifftop as she comes back on a trawler full of roistering fishermen and bold, Amazonish Camilla.

A bald summary doesn’t do justice to the convoluted and wordy text, nor for the way Hardy is used as a pretext and a scaffold for all kinds of comic or literary critical flights of fancy. For many of his readers Hardy is a noted describer of the English countryside, its flora and fauna, its moods and seasons. None of that appears in this book which leans heavily towards repetitive, almost obsessive investigations of sex, sexual needs, sexual fantasies, sexual drives, sexual desires and the tortured relationships they give rise to. The text is so pregnant with ideas that there are lots of ways to unpack and interpret it, but for me three things stand out:

1. Opportunity missed The notion that Barney can, under hypnosis, tap into the actual life and memories of Thomas Hardy himself, goes surprisingly under-explored. It’s only used as a backdrop to Barney’s endless worrying about his own sexual tastes and appetites and fantasies and heritage, not least his fear that he might, in some secret way, actually be related to the old brute. In a different sort of novel, there would have been massive opportunity for Barney to exploit this previously unheard-of scientific discovery, to perform publicly, make astounding revelations about Hardy’s life and character, to appear on TV, tour the States, make a fortune. None of this happens. Instead the whole Hardy theme, present on almost every page, is subordinated to the life and very suburban times of Barney Fugelman. He fantasises about another man fucking his wife. He walks out on her when she gets pregnant. He shacks up with another woman who can indulge his appetite for being humiliated. She in turn gets bored and dumps him. That’s the plot, in a nutshell, garnished with an inexhaustible supply of descriptions of women’s breasts and pudenda.

When at last I came round I saw Camilla standing over me. She was wearing a man’s shirt (whose? whose?) which didn’t entirely conceal, not from where I was lying anyway, the thick undergrowth of her sex. (p.231)

2. The 1960s On the same issue of ‘opportunities missed’, the main narrative takes place in the late 1960s, starting in 1967 when Barney is 27 and dragging on for the next 6 years or so (1973 is mentioned towards the end). What is missing is any reference to the fact that it is the 1960s, the Summer of Love, Swinging London. No mention of pop or classical music, no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Nothing about the visual arts, no happenings or exhibitions. Nothing about drugs. Nothing about the rapid social change of the era, the legalisation of abortion or homosexuality. Nothing about politics e.g. student unrest and the events of May 1968 or how that toppled over into the terrorism of the early 1970s, for example the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

We hear very little, really, that happens outside Barney’s bedroom or trousers.

3. Claustrophobic These 350 densely-packed pages are incredibly narrow – sometimes very funny, but most of the time amounting to a very parochial, almost claustrophobic account of one man’s psycho-sexual – mainly sexual – obsessions and fantasies.

Camilla brought me toast to the table and subjected me to a long slow smile of recognition. The obscene tangle of her pubic hair, still visible beneath her shirt but less tightly curled than it had been when she stood over me and prodded me with her foot – a touch dewier now and more straggly – was on a level with my eyes. She stood dead still so that I could breathe in her aroma and see the fleshy swell of her… (p.234)

There are some lengthy analyses of Hardy’s novels, but always in the same psycho-sexual terms which the narrator uses to describe his own sexual obsessions. (The obsession with sex is very typical of a certain type of English literary novel – rereading David Lodge’s novels has surprised me with how obsessed with sex and erect penises they are). Maybe because so many professional novelists live their lives on university campuses, spending too much time with books they’ve read to death and come to loathe, and with impressionable young people at a very frisky stage in their lives. The temptations to booze and adultery are chronicled in all-too-many campus novels, from Kingsley Amis onwards.

4. Psycho-sexual literary criticism For the narrator novels and poems exist to express the psycho-sexual obsessions of their authors – certainly not to read for pleasure. (There’s a cautionary sequence early on where Barney recalls the pleasure he and Camilla derive from throwing the novels of current literary writers into the flames of their rural idyll. Or into the sea. Quite funny, but also revealing.)

Thus Camilla excites Barney by giving a little lecture to an adult education class about a Thomas Hardy short story – Our Exploits at West Poley – which describes two boys, one timid, one bold, venturing into a wet cave behind a stream and discovering that they can change the path of the stream to a completely different village.

Because I once actually did cause a flood by discovering how to open a sluice and empty a boating pond, along with some mates when I was 11, I was interested in the mechanics of how they did this. Jacobson, more predictably, has Camilla draw on a blackboard the entrance to the cave as described in the text in such a way that – voila! – with a flourish she stands back and her middle-aged lady audience see she has drawn the enfolded lips of a vagina! (p.242) The story turns out to be all about – sex! Just like all stories, in fact.

For Camilla, Our Exploits at West Poley is about the sexually bold male and the sexually timid male, with Hardy fantasising about being bold, but all-too-aware that he was in fact the timid one who never acts. It goes without saying what a powerful erection Camilla’s lecture gives Barney, skulking at the back of the class, while he compares her drawing of a vulva with the reality of her own ‘glistening cave’, which he had been merrily decorating with his seed only a few hours earlier.

It required all my powers of restraint not to leap from my desk and mount that blackboard. And years afterwards, stirred by some fugitive association, I would rummage between Camilla’s legs in search of the smell and the taste of schoolroom chalk. (p.242)

And so on and on, eventually at the risk of becoming rather boring.

There is very little about language, about how language works, about how a writer handles language, about what language can do, about the magic way language conveys and conspires, excites and incites etc. Very few ideas which aren’t to do with penises and vaginas. A lot of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny, but 350 pages about one man’s sexual fantasies is a lot and, at various points, it was hard to avoid feeling oppressed by the airless, sweaty self-obsession of the central figure.

I even tried to convince Camilla for a while that my penis had never truly risen except for her. ‘So how did you ever effect an entry?’ she enquired. I though about saying that I never had.’Either by bending it double and pressing with my thumbs,’ I decided to explain instead. ‘Or by using my index fingers as splints. It’s not comfortable but it’s better than nothing. There’s a lot more of that sort of thing going on than most women realise.’ ‘I see,’ she said. She didn’t believe a word I told here. (p.255)

Maybe we’re meant to despise Barney, or pity him, or feel for him, or laugh at him, or be appalled by him. But it is all about him him him. I began to pine for the wider world, for the range of characters and settings, for the open air and variety and imaginative freedom encountered in the novels I recently read by Robert Harris and Alan Furst, for a respite from sweaty breasts and glistening pubic hair.

It was a remarkable detail, never lost on me, that her breasts retained their full rotundity, didn’t in the slightest bit subside or spill, when she lay stretched out on her back, and that the springing hairs of her sex… scorned the usual triangular arrangement favoured by conventional women, climbing instead the slopes of her belly, straggling the soft downs of her thighs, like uncultivated vines… (p.279)

In the end even Camilla tires of Barney. It has been a running gag that, along with throwing books of literary authors into the cottage fire or into the sea, they also enjoy walking out on plays by leading contemporary playwrights. John Arden, Stoppard, Pinter, you name him, they’ve walked out after just ten minutes and spent the rest of the time in the bar discussing the insult to their intelligence they’ve just had to suffer. (After a while, you wonder whether these characters are intended to come over as curmudgeonly philistines?)

On a jaunt up to London to see a play directed by a friend of Camilla’s, they’re invited to the after-show party, and Barney finds Camilla being pawed by a couple of the dashing young cast (it is 1973 by now) who ask for a car ride back to the West Country. Grudgingly, jealous Barney drives them all West but they insist on stopping at Stonehenge which Barney, with typical ill grace, sees as simply a monument to Neanderthal ignorance. But it is here that, while he waits in the car, Camilla is ‘had’ every which way by the young bucks of the next generation, Barney eventually braving it to inch his way through the standing stones and finally see his lady love being taken in a very indecorous position by both men at once.

Probably this was meant to be the taboo-breaking central epiphany of the novel but, 30 years later, anyone can see stuff like this on the internet at a click of the mouse. I was also confused as to why Barney spends all his time fantasising about having his women screwed by other men, and yet is so devastated when it actually happens. I know reality is often different from fantasy, especially sexual fantasy. But it ends up confusing you about how you’re meant to feel about the narrator, who comes over as an idiot in only that way that bookish intellectuals can be.

Back at the Cornish cottage, life has lost its savour. Camilla kicks him out of the bed, so he sleeps on the sofa, and spends more time with the fishermen out in their smacks. Eventually he gets up one morning and she has gone. For a few panic-stricken hours he thinks she has swum out to a rocky stack out in the distance which she’s always had a yearning to swim to, and drowned along the way. But it turns out that was an elaborate ruse to pay him back. In fact she’s run off with the owner of the rock and candy floss shop (another one of Jacobson’s amusing minor characters, an academic expert on Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman) heading to the continent and a new life.

And that’s why Barney spends his time now, soulfully kicking along the tops of the windswept Cornish cliffs, moodily gazing out to sea, cursing Thomas Hardy.

The novel comes full circle, fulfilling its promise to ‘come clean’ and tell us ‘the full story’ given in the prologue. It’s been a good-humoured, lively, mildly shocking and sometimes very funny ride. But I was relieved when the book ended.


Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson was published in 1984 by Chatto and Windus. All quotes are from the 1986 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback –
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J

BP Portrait Award @ the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery has been holding an open competition for portrait painters 37 years. This is the 27th to be sponsored by BP. As the press release says, ‘Selected from 2,557 entries by artists from 80 countries around the world, the BP Portrait Award 2016 represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting.’

Of the 2,557 only around 40 portraits have been selected to be shown in the three exhibition rooms, and it’s free, so it makes an interesting, undemanding 40 minutes or so of strolling round picking out whatever takes your fancy.

My impression was that this year’s crop is better than last year’s. Maybe I felt like that because so many of them were conventional, some of them very conventional, homages to late Victorian realist style, almost copies of, for example, the burnished, sensuous realism of John Singer Sargent. There is a limit to what can be done with portraits, at least this selection suggests so.

I’ve heard friends complain that nobody does traditional, good old-fashioned oil painting any more. This crop of work suggests the opposite – plenty of artists are doing good old-fashioned oil painting.

I liked:

I didn’t like any of the first, second or third prize winners, and was amazed at the wetness of the work which one first prize.

But I do agree about Petras by Laura Guoke winning a prize, the ‘Travel Award’. This is a big piece, 1.48 x 2 metres and quite stunningly realistic, looking just like a photo, super-real. The thing that really impresses is the use of blurring to make the body look further away, while the hairs on the hands are done with hyper-real intensity. Breath-taking.

Related links

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