Amis & Co
Blame British weather and not Alice’s topsy-turvy logic for celebrating the monarch’s birthday in June. The pristine king, Charles III, was born in November. But he blew the candles out on June 17th, this year, threatened by summer, not autumnal, rain. His First Birthday Honours List accompanied the cutting of the cake after the 70-aircraft flypast, the 41-round gun salute and his appearance on horseback, a 2023 animal, one hopes. The birthday list included Martin Amis, named a Knights Bachelor, along with worthies, like a professor or Thoracic Medicine and a prominent master of Dentistry.
Martin, safely dead since May 19, could scribble no more slurs on the realm. He had been tamed like his truculent father, Sir Kingsley, who was an OBE, a member of the Chivalrous and Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
But the end did come. When a longstanding local business closes, we nod, understanding. We aren’t too sorry. It served its time and lately the offerings have been unexceptional, a tad stale. Or maybe we had a sneaking feeling that everything else, ourselves included, should pull down the shutters in good time, and so we were not displeased to see the literary enterprise of Kingsley and Martin Amis close its doors. The Amis father and son duo got more unserious attention from the media than any serious British writers ever before. The fun is over.
It all began in WWII. Kingsley, a Londoner from a well-off family, was called up by the army in 1942, interrupting his studies at Oxford till he returned and finished them in 1945. To him his brush with army hierarchy was a bad joke. He shared the egalitarian taste that the wartime social mix stirred up and joined the Communist Party in 1941. Clement Attlee’s Labour government arrived postwar like a new beginning. Kingsley began to teach at Swansea, a “red-brick” university, so-called to distinguish its like from the prestigious, “Oxbridge” sort.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley’s first novel appeared in 1954. It gave youthful rebellion a formula with more wit and edge than anything else at the time. The hero lectures in a lacklustre university with only middling respect for what he professes. Confronted by snobs and stuff shirts of various tailoring, he manages, not without low-blows, to win, if not the boss’s daughter, at least the man’s promised daughter-in-law. The novel had an immense success, would eventually appear in twenty-two languages, and sell a million and a quarter copies in the USA alone. It also set in stone Kingsley’s public persona. He would have one foot in the academy and the other kicking out at anything unworthy of a plain, down-to-earth Englishman.
The voracious British press herded together the young 1950s rebels in the arts as “The Angry Young Men”. But the most they had in common was abhorrence of any class distinction that worked against them and conventions in the arts they found stultifying. To call them Leftists would be too much, though they leaned in that direction. Society was moving that way. The English spoken on the BBC was no longer only the consecrated lingo that, in fact, nobody spoke at home. Provincial and class accents crept in along with more vernacular touches. In short, the young men in question tended to disapprove of most of what a pre-war stalwart like W. Somerset Maugham stood for. He said of them: “They have no manners, and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public bar and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious. They are scum."
Change in the arts had arrived. John Osborne’s 1957 play, The Entertainer, marked the pivot. No one more than the actor Laurence Olivier stood for the stately pre-war style. His acceptance of the role of an unsavoury music-hall comic in Osborne’s play marked a decided re-routing of his career. He finished the detour by divorcing his wife and marrying his leading lady. The play was about national decline and the post-Empire blues. It would be filmed with Olivier in 1960.
Meanwhile Kingsley objected to being pigeonholed with the young angry brigade although Lucky Jim had been one of its foundation stones. With hindsight we can see his aloofness as an intimation of his move toward the cartoon figure of the Right he would end at his death in 1995.
Kingsley left the Communist Party in 1956. For some years his vote still went to Labour. But then, under the wing of his friend Robert Conquest, he turned in a tizzy fit rightwards. Conquest was a professional anti-Soviet intellectual. Britain was struggling to keep out of the disastrous American war against the Vietnamese. Kingsley, waving the domino theory like the Union Jack, insisted that the Russkies would threaten his favourite Hampstead pub if Vietnam won independence. In 1967, he and Conquest signed a letter to The Times backing the US government in the Vietnam War. On the home front, he decried subsides for the arts and supported Mrs Thatcher, reporting to Philip Larkin on meeting her: “I thought her bright and tough and nice, and by God she doesn’t half hate Lefties.”
The arc of Kingsley’s writing stretched across a half-century. He was the multi-tasked ever-present British litterateur. A series of novels followed Lucky Jim, but none served up the same spirit of the times. His interests ranged widely but always hit a brick wall he couldn’t get through. He loved science fiction and called attention to its value. He loved jazz. But when science fiction got serious, beyond the comical, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, he claimed it had been ruined. Jazz too had gone down the drain of years when it strove to get past its ‘hot’ phase and Dixieland with the help of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
His mindset fit his plain-Englishman swagger and his uneasiness about anything that might be ‘continental’, ‘heavy’ or, heaven forbid, ‘intellectual’. He touted the distinction between a drinker—him—and a drunk, the other guy. But his friend Christopher Hitchens said: “The booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health.”
Kingsley’s everyman impersonation took an increasing macho turn. There were antisemitic remarks and blatant misogyny. Promiscuity he saw as proud maleness, freedom. His wife Hilary summed it up on his broad back as he slept on a beach in Yugoslavia. She wrote in lipstick, “1 fat Englishman—I fuck anything.”
Kingsley’s The Old Devils won the Booker Prize in 1986. The award is hard to understand. Was it in recognition of his omnipresence and staying power, or simply an attempt to file Kingsley away at last and forget him? After all, the short list of that year included The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel since hailed as a classic.
After Kingsley’s death Martin let his filial piety gush forth. His father’s greatest achievement, he said, was The Old Devils a book that “stands comparison with any English novel of the twentieth century”. But anyone led to read it will be disappointed. Its author in his sixties took as his subject a swarm of retirees that indulge in all his personal delights—drinking, adultery and scoring points of spite while never forgetting to beat the drum of his pet peeves—gays, assertive women, and enthusiasts for high culture. There isn’t enough authorial sympathy to offset the monotonous scenes of grasshopper sex afloat in alcohol. The reader can’t help forming a desultory picture. It’s of Kingsley with his morning hangover sitting down like a convict to turn out his five-hundred words. It was his pride but not always our pleasure. No stylistic charm balances the high jinks of these tired specimens. Irony has fled along with the playful naughtiness we remember from Lucky Jim.
Which leads to another picture, Kingsley as pater familias. It shows the writer in exuberant mood, raging like the north wind over three crouching figures, his children from his first marriage to Hilary Ann ‘Hilly’ Bardwell. Oversized dads tend to capsize their kids. Sally, third child, perished from alcoholism at forty-six after a squalid existence. Martin, middle child, said, in philosophical middle-age, that she was “a victim of my father’s power and presence, perhaps,” adding that there was no perhaps about her being, “pathologically promiscuous”. He thought the turnover in sexual mores of the 1960s-70s was to blame, while his mother, Hilary, inculpated Kingsley’s neglect.
Philip’s, the oldest child’s survival strategy, an opting out, worked for him. He refused to compete with the old man and after a youthful measure-up with little brother Martin, withdrew into absent-minded exile within the family. An earth-hugging profile was Philip’s secret to a long, unnewsworthy life. He never made the tabloids.
Martin was little, literally so—five feet six inches—which led to his father, five inches taller, dubbing him “the little shit.” Kingsley’s laughter, when he was attending, often hit a spiteful note. Martin grew up without much supervision, mildly unsettled by family travel, as his father’s reputation and volume of voice swelled. The boy seemed to be taking Philip’s path, neutral, non-literary, withdrawing from the family joust, letting “Kingers”, as everyone called him, reign. However, in later life, Martin tells another story. He was a writer from the first. Nothing seemed more natural to him. In a chef’s household a son could fry an egg; in a writer’s he wrote.
Kingsley didn’t notice until, boyish romping over, Martin finished his degree in English brilliantly at Oxford. His father saluted Martin’s first novel, The Rachel Papers of 1971, with a shrug, momentarily irritated as by a passing housefly. He himself in the twenty years since Lucky Jim had become more than a literary figure, he was a celebrity. The popular press had its eye on him, reporting his slurs and outrageous positions with glee. Martin was dragged into the spotlight. Satirists pictured him riding forward on Kingsley’s shoulders and reduced his height from its true, brief, five feet six, by two inches.
In fact, though doubtless able and talented, Martin’s job itinerary depended on Kingsley’s connections. Barely into his twenties, he wrote for The Observer and The Times Literary Supplement. At twenty-seven he became literary editor of The New Statesman. Access to publishers was smooth and a string of his books followed, fiction and criticism.
Kingsley couldn’t much help being Martin’s stepping stone. But he wasn’t going to belong to his fan club. True to his plain man’s stance, he felt competition among males, especially within the family, was a prime fact of the natural order. When Martin published Money to acclaim in 1984, Kingsley never read past the page where Martin entered the story as a character. That touch offended Kingsley’s ironclad ‘realism’. It was “breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself.” He threw the book across the room and was finished with reading his son’s writing.
Martin played down his father’s distaste for his work. It was an old man’s foible. “He can't finish my stuff. I tell him he carries incuriosity to fanatical extremes.” But, in truth, beyond any father-son conflict raised, what the Amis pair put before us were two opposed recipes for novel writing. Kingsley held to the traditional: you believed the story was actually happening. Martin’s new rules, on the contrary, didn’t demand that disbelief be suspended. You admitted you were making it all up.
Martin stuck to his own vision and postmodern approach. Five years later he dedicated his novel, London Fields, to Kingsley who refused to read it. Little Martin had clearly presented a filial challenge that had to be obliterated.
Kingsley called Martin’s politics “howling nonsense” and refused the national Portrait Gallery’s invitation to be photographed with him.
Martin didn’t appear too bothered, but beneath the surface something happened. The son could not help but be a son forever. That’s how he had been made, shaped. Nor could he throw off the family gene that made him a comic writer. He found himself another father, Saul Bellow, the American Nobel Prize winning novelist, together with a palsy uncle in writer Vladimir Nabokov. It was no surprise that Kingsley countered in print by insisting that Bellow’s literary importance was much exaggerated. As for Nabokov, his influence, said Kingsley, had made for the "terrible compulsive vividness” that ruined Martin’s style. Besides, Kingsley hinted, the Russian shared his Lolita character’s taste for schoolgirls.
Money showed Martin’s inventive brilliance with language. Reviewer James Atlas wrote, "Money is gross, hectic, smart-alecky, but it's one of the funniest novels I've read since Amis senior's Lucky Jim.” Its main character, John Self, is a drunken English nihilist—a total slob—who moves toward irretrievable collapse between London and Los Angeles. Martin had always insisted that life was a “process of losing”, i.e., entropy. His gift was clearly to describe it.
After 2000, however, he had seemed to feel that a serious writer should treat more solemn and weighty themes. He began writing about the crimes of Stalin, Hitler, and—God save the mark!—the Prophet Muhammad. But Martin was no historian, and it was late in the historical day for his musings. The books reanimated his detractors, both tabloid and those who should have known better. As a young man he had been accused of cronyism, then mocked over his expensive dentistry, condemned for the huge advance —$1.6 million—he had demanded for one of his books, denounced for various betrayals and generally ridiculed for his spoiled-child’s whingeing in print.
Martin and his character, John Self, can be seen along with his fealty to Bellow and Nabokov as an attempt to cosy up to America. Kingsley in his visits to God’s Country in the 1950s and 60s had seen it as semi-barbarous and spent his time reflecting how Brits and their ways, despite the temporary setback of national ruin, were superior to its lunkhead inhabitants. Martin saw America differently, more like an inexhaustible theme park overgrown with material for a novelist, especially for one with a taste for the grotesque and preposterous. His second wife was an American citizen, and he went to settle with her in the posh part of Brooklyn. However, his impersonation of an American was never convincing, although he did manage the very native last act of going to Florida to die.