Ronnie… sat on the opposite side of the deck with some people called Sir something and Lady Saxton and, a yard or two further off, Chummy Baldock, who was drinking a glass of beer and, to all appearances, sneering at the sea. Ordinarily, Ronnie despised the sea himself: it was a part of scenery and therefore a waste of time, and today it was at its most boringly smooth. But no element that caused Baldock to show so many of his top teeth and look down his flexible nose could be all bad. If he were to fall into it, then he, Ronnie, would be on its side. (p.67)
A return to familiar Amis territory after the strange experimentalism of The Anti-Death League. From that long, complex novel with a fairly large cast exploring multiple themes with unexpected sensitivity, this is a shorter (204 pages) novel with a smaller cast, focused on the picaresque adventures of one young randy ‘hero’, who is, in the time-honoured Amis manner, continually calculating how to manipulate and manage people using a variety of tones of voice and ‘faces’- which has a serious side and serious moments but which are pretty much swamped by his breath-taking cynicism and hilariously heartless commentary.
Even the title is a return from the mock portentous – The Anti-Death League – to the deliberately casual throwaway phrase which is Amis’s normal style. It not only sounds like the kind of phrase someone might say, it actually is a direct quote (compare One Fat Englishman, which is how one of his American lovers describes the fat hairy anti-hero of that novel). Here, on page 24, the young female lead, ‘Simon’, demonstrates her unbalanced egotism by suggesting to the hero at a posh house party that they have sex and when he says, Sure, come back to my flat, she says, No, ‘I want it now’, which epitomises her entire spoilt attitude to life.
Part one – London
35-year-old TV presenter Ronnie Appleyard is ferociously ambitious and relentless in his pursuit of success and sex. Fresh from humiliating a Cabinet minister on his current affairs show, he shares a cab with a hated rival – Bill Hamer – to a swanky party given by a top business lawyer where he meets a bohemian young woman who disconcerts him by asking him to take her upstairs for sex immediately. ‘I want it now,’ she says sulkily. This prompts an argument with the posh hostess who a) Ronnie had chatted up and has the fury not only of a woman spurned but spurned for a younger woman b) knows the girl’s mother and is therefore able to act doubly scandalised.
Having left the party under a cloud, and out on the street the girl, Simon Quick, catches up with him and insists on coming back to his flat where she is quick to hop into bed but where things go badly wrong. She is either a virgin or terrified or really disturbed but she freezes and (even) Ronnie can’t go through with the deed. He tells her to pack her stuff and clear out and strolls to the pub across the road to phone up his standby bird, Fat Susan.
But when he gets back to his flat Simon is still in his bed, so he forces her to get dressed and is on the verge of booting her out when she mentions how rich her parents are. Her mother has had several filthy rich husbands and is currently married to the well-known Lord Baldock. Ding! A lightbulb goes on in Ronnie’s mind. Money. Wealth. Power. He resolves to go out with the scrawny screwed-up Simon and ingratiate himself into the bosom of her family. [He is that heartless and calculating.]
So he walks her back to her parents’ swanky house in Eaton Square, where they walk in on a very grand evening party. There is a scene in the library where the red-faced, middle-aged man Simon had been talking with at the first party bursts in and shouts at Simon for rejecting him and then nearly hits Ronnie for taking his place, before being asked to leave by the very superior Lord Baldock.
(This has all taken place on the same evening, a typical Amis handling of time ie the continuous real-time description of events as they happen.)
Ronnie goes into overdrive to ingratiate himself with Lady Baldock, flirting more than a little with her but also presenting himself as the sensible, professional man who can look after her poor, wayward daughter. As reward he is invited to go and stay for a week or so with them on their ‘little villa’ on a Greek island.
Part two – Malakos [Greece]
The villa is, predictably, on an epic, luxury, Cleopatra scale, as are the guests and the ‘light meals’. By this stage I’m realising the book is as much if not more a satire about the rich, the international rich, who namedrop Princess Margaret and Onassis, as it is about one lowly TV presenter. Ronnie’s sexual predatoriness has been swallowed, as it were, by the bigger theme.
During this trip Ronnie’s relationship with Simon becomes deeper. One hot afternoons they go to bed and it is now he elicits from her the fact that, although she’s slept with numerous men, she has never enjoyed it, in fact it has traumatised her. So Ronnie, surprisingly, sets about a very slow process of ‘sexual healing’ ie beginning with just gentle touching in ‘safe’ areas, over a series of afternoons, designed to make her less uptight and ‘frigid’, as the 1960s terminology had it.
There are a number of humorous outings and lavish meals which all provide scope for Amis’s withering commentary on the selfishness, greed and petty rivalries of the rich. But t his section climaxes with a lot of the rich standing round at the drinks part of the evening while Lady Baldock systematically humiliates her daughter in front of them all. Ronnie now realises that Simon’s problem is she has been crushed and destroyed by her wicked mother who, all the time, pretends to ‘love’ and ‘adore’ her daughter. So he stands up to Lady Baldock, interrupting her diatribe and saying that, No, Simon is sensitive and caring. ‘Do you claim to know my own daughter better than I do?’ says Lady B in best Cruella de Ville mode, and a whole lot more, ‘I invite you to my house, I lavish food and blah blah and you stand there and insult me blah blah’. So Ronnie has to pack his bags and leave.
Part three – Fort Charles [USA]
Three months later and somewhat improbably, Ronnie has been invited by Lady B to her other house in the Deep South of America. Among other things, this gives Amis the opportunity to satirise the really revoltingly racist Deep South Rich who at any opportunity start spouting about the Glories of the Confederacy and the only way to manage the ‘negro problem’ is to ‘keep them in their place’ etc.
Ronnie has been invited because Lady B wants to make contact with his colleague, Bill Hamer, who has a higher-profile TV show than him. She wants to appear in the TV show Hamer has been planning about ‘the Rich’. This, again, is all rather improbable. In terms of plot, it allows Ronnie to meet up with Simon again, only to discover she has now been paired off by her evil mother with a particularly unpleasant Southerner of impeccable wealth which allows him to sound off as much racist twaddle as he likes to everyone, while taking another drink from the tray held by the black servants.
Ronnie realises that he has been invited not only to introduce Hamer, but also to rub his nose in the fact that Simon is now affianced to this Yank; and a little later realises it is also to rub Simon’s nose in the fact that she has lost him for good. Ie it has multiple levels of snub and malevolence, something the subtle rich are so good at.
More or less the same happens as in Greece, ie Ronnie is just getting somewhere with Simon again, despite the opposition of Lord and Lady B, as well as everyone else in their circle, when he completely blows it by not being able to stand yet another tirade by the ghastly fiancé on the Glory of the Confederacy and the degeneracy of black folks etc, and just tells him to shut the **** up, that he is talking unpleasant, offensive balls. Once again Lady B takes a high hand and insists he leaves. And once again Ronnie packs his bags and takes a cab to the airport but, rather surprisingly, they are nearly run off the road by a fast car which swerves in front of them and turns out to be driven by Simon. They transfer his luggage into it and she drives him to a cabin in some forest park hundreds of miles away.
She has realised, from Ronnie’s intervention and his sheer presence there, that he really does love her, and she has begun to see that her mother is not her protector but her oppressor and so, for the first time, they make love in something like the normal way and she almost enjoys it, or at least isn’t horrified and disgusted.
Unfortunately, she had left a hint where she was going with a relative to avoid a real panic occurring over her disappearance, and this was just enough for Lord B and the local police to track them down and burst open the cabin door. The cops and a smooth Southern lawyer point out that he has broken various Federal and State laws about carrying women over state borders for immoral purposes. Ronnie puts up a fight, but it is made clear that even if a good lawyer got him off, the publicity would end his career.
Within five minutes Lord B, the cops and Simon are gone and Ronnie drinks the rest of the bottle of whiskey and passes out. Next morning he catches his flights back to London.
Part four – London
Months later and Ronnie is back presenting his TV show as sparky as ever but, off camera, finds his mind wandering. He can’t get Simon out of his head. He has tried to track her down but her family move promiscuously to Cannes and Africa and America and all over.
The climax of the novel is also pretty improbable. Hamer tells Ronnie he has finally organised the TV discussion Lady B wanted him to organise. The guests will be some expert on the rich, her Greek billionaire friend and herself. But, Hamer explains to Ronnie, he’ll say the fourth member of the panel dropped out at short notice and that he asked his colleague Ronnie to help him out at the last minute – and together they’ll stitch her up. Why are you doing this, asks Ronnie. Because, explains Hamer, he in fact got to have sex with Lady B in America (!) but despite this, on several occasions, she described him as a filthy upstart and a jumped-up nobody. And also because she is evil.
And so Lady B appears on Hamer’s live studio discussion TV programme in which she is duly humiliated. Hamer allows Ronnie to make general comments about the selfishness of the rich which become obviously applicable to her and a number of her guests – unbearably posh characters we’ve been introduced to in earlier scenes – themselves speak out to confirm that, yes, she is a selfish manipulative bitch. Even the Greek billionaire, when appealed to, confirms the general opinion. Why did she want to appear on the show? It is only the sleight of hand of fiction which can conceal – while you’re reading it – the utter unlikeliness of such a smart calculating woman allowing herself to walk into such a trap. Also, in 40 years of watching, I’ve never seen a TV show which was obviously set up solely to humiliate one of the guests. I think it would be illegal, as well as career-ending for Hamer and Ronnie.
Lady B retaliates and starts getting pretty personal about Ronnie, ‘I welcomed you into my home but like the ungrateful reptile you are you seduced my daughter…’ and plenty more climaxing with – ‘and all the while you were just after her money.’ Which prompts Ronnie to finally lose his temper and say, Yes, he was after her money and social contacts to begin with, but he has fallen totally in love with Simon and doesn’t care if she’s cut off without a penny to her name, in fact it would be better for all concerned. The programme closes in uproar as the loud Confederate fiancé emerges from the audience to protect the honour of Lady B, and is manhandled by studio security. Punches are thrown, chaos ensues. — This isn’t like TV in the real world, it is a cartoon version.
Afterwards Hamer and Ronnie share a drink, the former happy with the ratings boost and the way the punch-up will put him back on the trend of ‘urgent’, ‘confrontational’ TV. Ronnie goes sadly home to his poky little flat and is just considering that he really must move when a car pulls up and there’s a knock on the door.
To his amazement it is Lord Baldock, the man who has spent the entire novel looking down his nose at Ronnie, sneering at him in company and insulting him in person. Now, with wild improbability, he claims that Ronnie’s declaration live on air that he doesn’t care about Simon’s money has converted him, made him see that Ronnie is the real thing after all. And so he has got Simon outside in the car, does he want to see her?
Ronnie rushes outside and he and Simon are reconciled on the spot. Over a quick snifter in the pub opposite Lord B explains his motives a bit more then says you’d better pack your bags, go somewhere secret and get married immediately. He clears off and Ronnie and Simon prepare to head off into the Happy Ever After.
I have got used to Amis novels being strong on individual sentences, comic and witty insights, outrageous characters, but weak on plot and plausibility.
The first half or so of this novel was the funniest stuff he’s written, I thought it was going to turn out the best book he’d done, I laughed out loud on almost every page. But the humour drained away a bit as the love affair with Simon became more serious, the psychological roots of her depression or despair became more real and earnest, and the satire on America and the rich became darker and from angrily humorous became just angry.
And then the whole plotline of Lady B inviting Ronnie to the States solely to meet Bill Hamer solely to appear on his television show, stretched the bounds of plausibility to snapping point and beyond, as did Lord B’s last-minute conversion from sneering toff to fairy godfather.
The first half is comedy gold which I’d recommend to anyone… but then the issues I’ve listed in the second half make it an increasingly problematic read, and I finished it feeling puzzled and unsatisfied.
Maybe I understand now why Amis was such a presence when I started reading novels in the mid-1970s – because his stroppy, tell-it-like-it-is tone of voice and his numerous comic tricks and techniques are so effective and infectious, because he churned out a novel every year or two plus scads of articles and reviews and media appearances and poems and anthologies – but also why it’s difficult to pin down just one or two definitive novels to give to someone and say, ‘These are his masterpieces’. Because all his novels are, like this one, flashing with brilliance, humour and insight but wildly erratic and wayward in structure and plausibility.
Kingsley Amis books
1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache