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Gareth Jenkins

Why Lucky Jim Turned Right

An Obituary of Kingsley Amis

(March 1996)

From International Socialism 2 : 70, March 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When Kingsley Amis died last year at the age of 73, the general verdict was that he had been the greatest comic novelist of his generation. After making his mark with Lucky Jim (1954) he never looked back, as one comic novel after the other flowed from his pen. Such was the continued acclaim for his work that in 1986 he won the Booker prize for The Old Devils. As a contributor to The Spectator put it, ‘He was above all quick-minded, verbally agile, terribly funny, a vigorous persecutor of bores, pseuds and wankers and a most tremendous mimic.’ [1]

Yet many have wondered just how funny and critical Amis, particularly the Amis of the later novels, really was. After all Amis became notoriously hostile to progressive causes and a political supporter of Margaret Thatcher. He was rewarded with a CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1990. Far from being a vigorous persecutor he seemed to have joined the ranks of bores, pseuds and wankers. The heroes of his novels appeared more and more to be the mouthpiece for Amis’s pet hates, uttering a never ending stream of extremely unfunny and narrow- (rather than quick-) minded attacks on gays, nuclear disarmers, women’s libbers, and so on. What, it might be said, is the point of reading these novels when a visit to the local pub and an interview with the bar bore would yield the same reactionary rant? Perhaps, though, this is too simplistic a dismissal, one which stems from confusing creator and character. Shouldn’t we instead put aside what we know about Amis’s personal opinions and value the novels for holding up a mirror to the unpleasant realities of our society? This is the view of the liberal minded literary critic Malcolm Bradbury:

In later works, like Jake’s Thing (1978) and Stanley and the Women (1984), he examined the growing gender conflicts between men and women and their impact on the family and on male psychology. And his prize-winning The Old Devils (1986) showed his cantankerously mortal sensibility, still sustaining what was now the long dark comedy of life into later years, in which the once angry young man had turned into a yet more angry and mortal old one. [2]

So, a justification for Amis’s novels can be to detach them from the ideology of their author and to read them against the grain – in much the same way as the novels of (say) Evelyn Waugh can serve as critical commentary on what they describe, despite their author’s intentions. Where Waugh can expose the limitations of upper class society (particularly, for example, the behaviour of top army brass in his war trilogy), Amis can expose sexist limitations in the drunken self indulgent middle class section of society he chooses to focus on as it advances into middle age.

Can this justification be sustained? Clearly it is possible to benefit from reactionary novelists and there is a long Marxist tradition which refuses to see good literature as simply the expression of a ‘correct’ political viewpoint. But in Kingsley Amis’s case the justification cannot be sustained. The case against Amis rests less on his manifestly reactionary views than on the limitations of the fiction itself.

Kingsley Amis was born in 1922 in south London, the only son of lower middle class parents. The Memoirs give some sense of his family and background – ordinary, suburban, with all the minor class and political prejudices one would expect. Though Amis recalls conflict over taste in music, there is little sense that this conflict challenged the acceptance of a mild, pervasive philistinism in respect of culture. The only other tension reported in the Memoirs is over sex, with young Amis being warned that masturbation would ‘thin the blood’ and cause insanity. Later, when he had left home and was in the army, his father tried to tell him off for having an affair with a married woman. [3] After a period of school in London and Wiltshire (where he had been evacuated to on the outbreak of war in 1939), Amis won a place at St John’s College, Oxford, in 1941. His university education was interrupted by service in the army between 1942 and 1945. The army made quite an impact on him, as it did on many others in that period. His Memoirs bring out the bewildering absurdity of it as an institution:

The British Army has been compared to many other institutions – school, lunatic asylum, prison and so on – but one parallel which has never been drawn before, I think, is with a society of the kind you read about in some science-fiction stories, a world much like our own in general appearance but with some of the rules changed or removed, a logic only partly coinciding with that of our own world, and some unpredictable areas where logic seems missing altogether or to point opposite ways at once. [4]

To get some sense of what the army meant to him politically one needs to look at the few short stories he devoted to the topic. [5] They provide graphic illustrations of the arbitrary power senior officers exercised and the pressure to conform at the expense of betraying one’s peers. The best of these stories is I Spy Strangers. It focuses on a mock parliament, in which soldiers play the political roles of Tory versus Labour (the soldiers representing Labour are real left wingers and on the whole sympathetically presented). This becomes real for a moment when the procedure used to clear parliament of unauthorised persons (I Spy Strangers) is used to expel the unpleasant, bullying major, who thinks he has a right to interfere when the argument doesn’t go his way. The story ends with a reference to the shock he and fellow Tories, believing they were born to rule, experience with the reality of Labour’s electoral landslide in 1945. This seems to be the extent of Amis’s radicalisation, though the sense of the army as some kind of science fiction conspiracy to puzzle and confound individuals could be said to have a wider resonance in Amis’s fiction. It is present in his two fantasy novels, The Alteration (1976), in which Amis imagines a situation in which the Reformation never happened in Europe and the Vatican rules the continent in a way strangely reminiscent of Stalinist Russia [6], and Russian Hide and Seek (1980), in which Amis imagines a future Britain under Russian occupation. [7]

Amis resumed his studies when peace came in 1945 and left Oxford, already married and with a family, in 1949. For the next 12 years he taught English at Swansea. Amis evidently disliked both the snobbishly aristocratic cultural ambiance at Oxford and the antiquated English syllabus he was forced to study (it is clear from the Memoirs that he did not much like teaching English either). Army experience – and age – gave him the confidence to stick two fingers up to the sacred traditions of high culture. He shared his dislikes, together with his love for jazz, with a fellow student and close friend, the poet Philip Larkin. But his rejection of what he saw as an effete Bohemian culture did not go much beyond swapping obscene verses with friends and mocking poets like Dylan Thomas, whom he met at Swansea. It was not particularly political. [8] There was, however, a more serious artistic side to this protest. Amis made his literary reputation initially, not as a novelist, but as a poet. He was part of the post-war revolt against Modernism, the movement which had dominated poetry in the earlier part of the century. The ‘New Movement’ in poetry (as it was called) rejected the internationalism and artistic experimentation of Modernism in favour of modest and ironic exploration of ordinary situations. Amis and Larkin were much the leaders in this. In Poets of the 1950s, edited by D.J. Enright, Amis claimed that ‘… nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems’; and Larkin, who was the acknowledged leader of the Movement, asserted that he had ‘no belief in “tradition” or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets’. [9]

The targets here are Auden and T.S. Eliot, as well as Dylan Thomas, whose densely surreal, oratorical and metaphor packed style was the dominant presence in post-war English poetry. The desire to move on was understandable – no artist can continue to repeat the old formulae – but the radicalism of this attack is debatable. It is one thing to want to puncture reputations (particularly Dylan Thomas’s); but rehabilitating the ordinary, the provincial and the commonplace (which is what the Movement was attempting to do) can quickly become philistinism, pure and simple. We now know, thanks to Andrew Motion’s recent biography of Philip Larkin, just how reactionary that philistinism was capable of being: Larkin emerges as a nasty little racist bigot.

A similar process can be seen in the way the early fiction of Amis developed. His first novel, Lucky Jim, which was dedicated to Philip Larkin, came as a breath of fresh air in the stale world of 1950s fiction, much as two years later John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger did the same for the staid world of genteel drama. It identified Amis as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the period – irreverent and iconoclastic, in revolt against the establishment and its culture. Just as he rejected Modernist experimentation in poetry, so too did he in respect of fiction. [10] The determination to avoid experimental oddity shows in the lean and unpoetic ‘realism’ of Amis’s first novel, as well as his choice of central character, the anti-hero, Jim Dixon, who is a lecturer in mediaeval history at a provincial university. Jim is presented as an ordinary bloke with ordinary tastes, up against the snobbish, Bloomsbury style culture of his academic superior, Professor Welch. Jim is more at home in the pub than at the ridiculous musical soirées given by the Welches. He also competes for the favours of the girlfriend of the ghastly son of the Welches, the pseudo-artist Bertrand, whose affected speech provides much of the comedy of the novel. Lucky Jim is a satire on the aesthetic and artistic establishment of the day, its metropolitan entrenchment and contempt for anything provincial (at one point Jim is accused of being a ‘shabby little provincial bore’). [11] Down to earth reaction against pretentiousness, dilettantism and toadyism is seen as a good thing, whether that involves playing practical jokes on creeps, giving one’s opponent in love a good hiding, or confessing (as Christine, the girl Jim has set his heart on, does) to a liking for brown sauce – a liking at odds with the breakfast arrangements at the Welches.

In the end Jim gets the better of the twisters, snobs, bullies and fools by whom he is surrounded. He wins out in two ways. First, there is the public lecture he has been forced to give by Professor Welch, the subject of which is Merrie England. As a mediaeval historian Jim is expected to provide a eulogy for the past – in line with Welch’s contempt for the vulgar culture of the present (’sham architecture’ … ‘the Light Programme’ … ‘the Yellow Press’ … ‘the best-seller’ … ‘the theatre-organ’). [12] Instead of this he ends his disastrously drunken lecture with the exact opposite message: Merrie England was ‘the most un-Merrie period in our history’ contrary to what ‘the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto’ [13] crowd believe. Secondly, although he loses his lecturing job he gets Christine and a job with the girl’s uncle, Gore-Urquhart, in London into the bargain.

Jim’s triumph is meant to be the triumph of the ordinary and basically decent person over the pretentious hypocrites who occupy positions of social, moral or sexual authority. Even so, the novel’s praise for ordinariness and decency raise a number of problems. First, there is the question of the reaction against artistic pretentiousness: Jim’s notorious comment about ‘filthy Mozart’ [14] might be excused in the context but points to a strand of philistinism which remains unchallenged from within the novel. Secondly, there is what one might call Jim’s view of the world. He counters Bertrand’s right wing attacks on soak the rich policies with the comment, ‘If one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has got to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns’. [15] This redistributionism remains politically vague. Jim’s anti-Welchness never becomes a pro-Labour or socialist argument. What Jim finds objectionable about Bertrand is not so much his attitudes as Bertrand himself, his way of talking or behaving. It is almost as if Jim reaches for any argument that will get under Bertrand’s skin simply because he, Bertrand, represents the Establishment blocking Jim’s social and sexual advancement. Jim’s philosophy is summed up in his theory that ‘nice things are nicer than nasty ones’. [16] This is certainly undeniably true; but it is crushingly banal. It is also completely abstract. Individuals are always social individuals, for whom ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ vary according to class position. As a world view it does not help decide what side one is on in the pursuit of the ‘nice’ in preference to the ‘nasty’, given that they mean different things to different classes. Anyone holding to such a position could easily swing – as Amis did – from left to right.

In the 1950s, this individualist philosophy of common sense might pass muster. [17] The enemy was the old effete political and cultural establishment, identifiable by its style rather than its content. But style says little about the forces involved. A provincial accent, such as Jim is said to have, is not necessarily more radical than an upper class drawl and the modernity which Jim valued above Merrie England is not necessarily at odds with the long term interests of the Establishment, or, to be more precise, the ruling class. [18] Lucky Jim’s radicalism can work just so long as the Establishment itself doesn’t shift. The ambiguities can be passed off as acceptable. So, for example, Jim’s getting the job with Gore-Urquhart that Bertrand thought his by right can be viewed as his triumph over the Establishment, a triumph for the common man over privilege and snobbery, of the provincial over the metropolitan. On the other hand – and in a sense truer to the developments in the period – it could be seen as his entry into it: he does, after all, gain a place in the despised metropolis. Gore-Urquhart has a nicer attitude towards Jim but the novel leaves untouched the question of whether he will be a better employer than Welch.

The novel which followed Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling (1955) was recognisably the same terrain: the target this time was the Welsh establishment and their pet bard (a parody of Dylan Thomas). [19] The next novel, I Like It Here (1958), represented the beginning of a shift. The target is still cultural pretension (the novel features an expatriate novelist, Wulfstan Strether, who writes in the exaggeratedly complex style of the early Modernist novelist, Henry James). But the tone – as suggested by the title – shades into being anti-foreign. Has the champion of ordinariness, of provincial life turned into a little Englander? Perhaps not quite: the hero of the novel likes the cheapness of Portuguese booze, but on the whole thinks the country would be improved if it were closer to somewhere like Eastbourne. The final novel in the ‘filthy abroad’ mode was One Fat Englishman (1963), where the target is America, in particular American as opposed to British linguistic forms. Arguably, none of these novels’ heroes represent Amis [20], but rather the prejudices of a certain kind of Englishman – particularly, insecure Englishmen by virtue of their sexual weaknesses and (in the case of One Fat Englishman) physical unpleasantness. Amis might be said to have played up the philistinism, the better to criticise the limitations of the central characters’ responses. In short, authorial comment which would guide the reader is deliberately missing, the better to get the reader him- or herself to react to the limitations of the central characters. The reader who takes the lack of authorial guidance for endorsement is therefore missing the point. The argument is not convincing, partly because there is so much gusto put into the philistinism that any disclaimer that it is not being endorsed is suspect (one is reminded of the comedian who insists that the racist or sexist jokes he tells do not amount to belief in racism or sexism). More importantly the argument is not convincing because the novels themselves are not structured in a way which ‘place’ or act as a counterweight to the central characters’ reactions. The structure of Amis’s novels, for all their ‘realism’, is seldom objective. It is the central character’s subjectivity which colours and shapes the material despite the fact that the novels are told in the third person. The effect of this is to allow subjective reaction (i.e. philistine prejudice) to pass itself off, by and large, as objective comment (i.e. as analysis of how things really are).

The limitations in Amis’s revolt, then, begin to become clear. The philistinism of sticking up for ordinariness and the philosophy of individual common sense (nice things are nicer than nasty things) became an accommodation to right wing ideas. [21] With Labour in office for the last six years of the 1960s and with the rise of progressive ideas (particularly in education), superficially it looked as if a new, lefty Establishment had replaced the old one. Where cocking a snook, taking the mickey, insults and name calling had once got up the noses of the right-wing establishment, now the target was progressivism in all its forms. The Angry Young Man turned into the angry young reactionary. Why Lucky Jim Turned Right was the title of his own 1967 essay.

Nowhere was this truer than in the field of education, where Amis was a key figure at the centre of the notorious Black Papers which appeared at the end of the 1960s. The authors’ argument was that the advent of the comprehensives under Labour in the mid-1960s had brought about a dramatic decline in standards of literacy and numeracy. They were concerned not just to reverse the process but to conduct a campaign to save liberal values from the totalitarian threat of revolutionary ideas (the late 1960s had seen a mass student movement challenging authority in the universities and many of the contributors to the Black Papers clearly saw that as the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it). They weren’t just anti-Labour: they were also against what they saw as the softness of the Tories’ response. To them the capitulation to fashionable cant about ‘progressive’ methods had affected even the Tories. Theirs was a crusade to stop what they saw as betrayal on a grand scale. Much of the argument was Cold War rhetoric about the threat from the Soviets, who in any case, as the Black Paper authors pointed out, did not themselves practise the dangerous egalitarianism which had so infiltrated British thinking on education.

By the late 1960s, when the Black Papers appeared, Amis was associated with Cold War politics. He had become a close friend of Robert Conquest, who wrote three books on Stalin’s reign of terror from an anti-Marxist viewpoint, and collaborated with him on a novel called The Egyptologists (1965) and on editing science fiction anthologies. Amis’s Memoirs suggest that they shared a similar taste for smutty limericks and practical jokes. In those days, Amis claimed, ‘I was some sort of man of the Left’ while Conquest belonged to the libertarian right.

Some time later he was to point out that, while very ‘progressive’ on the subject of colonialism and other matters I was ignorant of, I was a sound reactionary about education, of which I had some understanding and experience. [22]

Amis’s claim to have been progressive on the issue of colonialism needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt but his boast about his attitude towards (but not his understanding of) education is true enough. Even in Lucky Jim, one of the sympathetic characters complains about the ‘outside pressure to chuck Firsts around like teaching diplomas and push every bugger who can write his name through the Pass courses’. [23] In 1961 Amis notoriously claimed that ‘more will mean worse’, by which he meant that expansion of numbers going into higher education would entail an increase in cultural illiteracy – or what H.J. Eysenck, mocking the idea of meritocracy, termed the ‘rise of the mediocracy’. By 1969, when he and Conquest contributed to the second Black Paper, the argument about the expansion of higher education was tied to horror at student revolt (they refer to the London School of Economics, but without further explanation, presumably because right wing lecturers being prevented from speaking by student militants was too obviously the result of expansion to require further comment) and the growth of sociology courses (‘not a suitable undergraduate subject’) [24], an objection which now looks quaint to us but which at the time seemed self evident to the right: wasn’t sociology part of the student demand for ‘relevance’ and wasn’t it partisan propaganda for Marxist change thinly disguised as an academic subject?

The strongest feeling that comes across from their contribution to the debate is the sense that they are part of a beleaguered group of people, smeared as fascists for wanting to uphold standards in the face of a new, authoritarian establishment of ‘progressives’ who are leading us to disaster. So, if there is a move on Amis’s part from being a ‘man of the left’ to ‘a sound reactionary’, there is also an element of continuity: he is against what he takes to be the Establishment. In the 1950s it is the cultural establishment of pompous old bores, with their aristocratic manners; in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it is the trendies, the lefties, the politically correct, psychiatrists, women’s libbers, and so on. No wonder, then, that Amis came to be a political supporter of Margaret Thatcher. Characteristically his Memoirs dwell on her appearance and manner (’never forget she’s a bloody woman with the rest of them’ [25]) rather than her politics, about which he claims to know little more than any other newspaper reader or bar chatterer, except in the field of education where he is disappointed that her government has undermined education as education, ‘the free pursuit of knowledge and truth for their own sake’. [26]

Amis’s philistinism could be considered a fairly minor sin compared with his attitude towards women. The generally reactionary mood of his later novels extends to his presentation of the relationship between the sexes. The male characters are unremittingly chauvinist in the way they view women. The question we have already raised in connection with the philistinism of his major characters needs to be raised in this context: is the chauvinism simply an unpleasant side of characters who are meant to be unpleasant? We can approach this by looking at the justification sometimes advanced, namely that his view of women was the product of the unenlightened times in which Amis started his writing career and that it continued to mark his fiction as a consequence. It is true that in 1950s and 1960s culture one pervasive theme is the ‘woman problem’. It is all the more jarring in that the tolerance of backward views about women often coexists with a refusal to accept the status quo in respect of other values. The reason for this was that one element of revolt was a revulsion against being tied to home, marriage and domesticity. Given women’s traditional identification with this area of life, antagonism (by men) towards the social order often tended to involve a more or less conscious element of antagonism towards women. Social conflict became expressed as a battle between the sexes. [27] Of course, real political understanding would have resolved this antagonism and shown that women’s identification with the family was a sign not of their being on ‘the wrong side’ but of their victimisation at the hands of society. But in the less political 1950s such insights were rare. Not surprisingly, therefore, given the generally unpolitical nature of Amis’s revolt against the Establishment, the perception of women is ambiguous from the start.

On the one hand, there is the rejection of the (hypocritical) sexual codes preached by the Establishment. Jim’s pursuit of Christine in Lucky Jim is part of his fight against the world of the Welches. She is won from being ‘dignant’: a condition which is a product of consorting with the enemy and one which distorts her ‘natural’ feelings. Though this is presented as being liberatory for her, given the perspective is Jim’s, it is very much liberation on his terms: she seldom rises above the stereotypical blonde. But the other woman in Jim’s life is treated much more harshly. She is shabbily treated, first courted, then shunned by Jim as he pursues Christine. This could have made for a fairly complex picture of tangled emotions. But instead Margaret’s neurosis is revealed as self-created. Her previous boyfriend, Catchpole, appears at the end of the novel to prove to Jim that her suicide attempt at the beginning of the novel was a total fake. Catchpole states:

… Quite soon I realised that she was one of these people – they’re usually women – who feed on emotional tension. We began to have rows about nothing, and I mean that literally. I was much too wary, of course, to start any kind of sexual relationship with her, but she soon started behaving as if I had. I was perpetually being accused of hurting her, ignoring her, trying to humiliate her in front of other women, and all that sort of thing. [28]

Absolved of all responsibility, Jim is reassured by Catchpole that not only is it too dangerous to help her any more but that she doesn’t need any help either. His pursuit of Christine is therefore totally justified. What is objectionable is not so much the situation itself – sexual treachery has been the staple of the novel virtually from its inception – as the way in which Amis rigs the fiction to get the result. Catchpole is a character solely designed to give the desired outcome without its in any sense arising from the objective structure of the novel itself. Margaret is manipulated authorially into becoming a monster, an enemy – part of the conspiracy to stand in the way of Jim and the realisation of his desires. Catchpole’s comment, quoted above, is delivered as an unchallengeable truth.

The only thing to be said in mitigation is that the earlier depiction of Margaret in the novel is much less manipulative – even sensitive (within limits). Any such restraints disappear in Amis’s later novels: the women are much more crudely portrayed, tending to be divided into sex objects or manipulators – or both. Men may be predators, in the sense that they take every opportunity to pursue women, and that may be the source of tension and unhappiness for their long suffering wives or girlfriends, and indeed for the men themselves. But the message is that this is the nature of male desire, a frailty that in the end can be resisted but not conquered, forgiven but likely to be repeated. That, at any rate, is the message that comes across in Take a Girl Like You (1960) and its sequel, Difficulties with Girls (1988). The long suffering girlfriend is Jenny Bunn who marries handsome womaniser Patrick Standish, and the two novels feature his infidelities and adulteries and his attempts to atone. It could be argued that by making Jenny Bunn one of the central characters Amis was at least trying to understand from a woman’s point of view what being the object of sexual pursuit is like (the perspective in most of Amis’s work is overwhelmingly male). But Jenny comes across as a woman hopelessly unable to cope with the sexual attention she receives and irrationally fond of a man she knows to be a shit. In other words, she conforms to a fairly typical male chauvinist stereotype of what ‘normal’ women want. She is contrasted with Anna, the independent, strong woman – who turns out to be a pathological liar and manipulator: even her lesbianism is a fraudulent attempt to gain attention.

The crudeness of the portrayal of women goes with another kind of crudeness – that of social setting. This is sketchy, more a parade of social prejudice than anything else. Jenny Bunn herself is meant to be a northerner, from a working class background, down to earth but a bit unaware of the devious ways of the big city. But Amis hardly bothers to establish this except in the most perfunctory way. Her father, down with his wife to visit Jenny and Patrick, is ‘proved’ to be genuine working class because he is against ‘chaps with beards and silk scarves marching to and fro with their banners and petitions’ (having Aldermaston protesters wear inherently unlikely silk scarves is presumably a way of insinuating they are all middle class trendies) and forces Jenny’s penny pinching but Labour supporting landlord to buy his round of drinks. [29] In effect, in this and others of Amis’s later novels, we seldom move out of a world constructed out of reactionary fantasy. The most extraordinary example comes from Stanley and the Women, in which progressive psychiatry is ‘disproved’ by having its practitioner, Dr Trish Collings, pursue Stanley in a manipulatively sexual manner. The novel has a strong element of paranoia about it. Stanley seems to believe that there is a plot to get him and that women really are mad. [30]

The final element to consider in Amis’s view of sex is homosexuality. For a writer so committed to red blooded male heterosexuality, there’s an awful lot of ‘it’ around. No novel is complete without its ‘pansy’ or ‘queer’. The final image in Lucky Jim of Welch and son is of Gide and Strachey, i.e. posing effeminates. It is as if Jim’s masculine right to Christine has to be confirmed by what is perceived to be a lack of masculinity. In Difficulties with Girls Patrick’s marriage to Jenny is paralleled by his neighbours’ homosexual ‘marriage’ (complete with traditional roles and ‘feminine’ tantrums by the ‘wife’ – always called ‘she’). Although there is never any attempt to see male homosexuality as other than deviant, there is nevertheless a peculiar kind of tolerance for it (as of some different species). [31] Indeed, perhaps the justification for its tolerance in the novel is that it can absolve the ‘deviancy’ of Patrick’s philandering ways. If ‘queers’ can’t help their deviancy, neither can ‘real’ men. At a key moment in the novel, Eric, the ‘husband’, who has had problems of jealousy with Stevie, tells the other husband, Patrick, who is in trouble with Jenny because of his infidelities:

… you and I are by nature, by our respective natures, males who are irresistibly attracted by a non-male principle. In your case, straightforward, women; in my case not straightforward, not women – but, non-male, except anatomically. And it’s the clash between male and non-male that causes all the trouble. They’re different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person. [32]

Like Catchpole’s comment in Lucky Jim, this is delivered as truth and the basis for the acceptance and forgiveness which marks the reconciliation between Jenny and Patrick at the end of the novel: men can’t help themselves and women can’t help being emotional. Stripped to its basics, this amounts to no more than reactionary conventional wisdom about the relationship between the sexes. The only intriguing aspect is the way in which the attempt to create a male definition of individuality (women are ‘non-male’; like children they are not real persons) is perpetually undermined by the question as to whether some men are really men at all. Ironically, masculinity has to include its destabilising opposite, the male homosexual. What one might call the exclusive male club view of the world is plagued by the suspicion that there may be traitors within. [33]

Whatever this may reveal psychologically about Amis’s depiction of male-female relationships [34], it does not make for satisfactory literature. The deep vein of misogyny in his writing is not compensated for by fictional subtlety. On the contrary, as we noted earlier, the subjectivity masquerading as objective analysis produces artistic crudeness. The novels increasingly become a vehicle for reactionary prejudice.

How can we sum up Amis’s career? One explanation is that he is a product of his period. The revolt against the Establishment never got much beyond a repudiation of high culture. Without any positive pole of attraction the revolt remained essentially negative. If we compare him with George Orwell, there are, of course, differences of background. But there are certain similarities. Orwell’s dislike of upper class life and espousal of common decency are shown in his pre-war novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. There is also a tendency to philistinism: the sweeping rhetoric against cranky radicalism, for example, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which mars his personal commitment to change for ordinary people. What essentially saves Orwell is both the keenness of his exposure to the misery created by the depths of the slump and, more importantly, the searing experience of revolution in Spain (though by the end of the Second World War the confidence that things can be changed has given way to a pessimism that allowed his work to be co-opted by the enemies of socialism, despite his own continuing personal commitment to change). No comparably radicalising events were available to Amis. He was too young for the 1930s to have any real effect and the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s – the period of his maturity – were mostly bereft of any historically significant upheavals (in the West, that is). That left only his experience of the army to have any impact on him – enough to make him look at the post-war world with a jaundiced eye and poke fun at its shibboleths, but little more. Hence his revolt is largely individual and personal: a fight for the right to do what one wants. There was nothing to take that revolt in a left wing direction. The movement was to the right – partly because an increasingly successful career left less to be cynical about, partly because the left wing politics he espoused (vague at the best of times, but useful as a stick to beat the cultural establishment with) became less meaningful – or so it appeared – in the context of the ‘affluent society’ and the Cold War characterisation of Stalinism.

Another consequence was that there was less to explore. His ear for voices, for mimicry of a certain type of speech, gave his early fiction – particularly Lucky Jim – real energy. But even here, with Amis at his best, there is not much sense of an objective social dimension to the novel. Of course, one doesn’t necessarily read a novel for its ability to tell us something about the world in which it is set. But there are limits to the number of ways in which the form can be fruitful if its prime virtue is the ability to impersonate a certain kind of consciousness, however brilliantly that is done. The social world of his novels becomes increasingly stuck in a narrow realm of pubs and parties. The outside world is no more than a distant echo, an understanding of it no more than a parade of unthinking and reactionary reflexes. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the world is reduced to a sexual battleground, with little concrete sense of the social determinations of sexual conflict.

Is the force of this argument that Amis was necessarily going to be limited because of the period in which he lived? That would be grossly reductionist. The 1950s may not have been a fantastically productive period as far as the novel was concerned. But one should not conclude that only an Amis was possible. Other novelists in the period give the lie to such determinism. Take, for example, Angus Wilson, a novelist who also had an acute ear for dialogue, who moved in a similar social world, whose career spans much the same period and whose fiction was as resolutely unexperimental and as satirically funny as Amis’s. There is an objectivity in his writing, quite at odds with Amis’s subjectivity: a breadth of interest in the social world of his period, and an attempt to understand its impact on individual destinies in the modern world. Sadly, all this is missing in Amis. His undeniable skill was harnessed to an increasingly reactionary and limited view of the world. The talent that had the power to satirise the pretensions and foibles of official culture became a talent to offend only the victims. Comedy became comedy in the service of reaction – and so ultimately of that world he had started his career by mocking.


1. Eric Jacobs in The Spectator, 28 October 1995, p. 28.

2. Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (Secker and Warburg 1993), p. 324.

3. One suspects that a somewhat idealised version of his suburban existence – particularly its musical interests and sexual activities – is recreated in his 1973 novel, The Riverside Villas Murder. Even the form of the novel itself, a detective thriller, is a kind of homage to 1930s middle class culture and the novel is saturated, obsessively so, with detail designed to locate it in its period. There is never simply dance band music on the wireless, always an exact enumeration of a band and its members. No one ever simply smokes a cigarette – it is a Turban or a Weights or a Woodbine. The cereal is never simply cereal, but Farmer’s Glory wheat flakes. The effect is one not so much of nostalgia – there isn’t enough emotion for that – but of pastiche. There is no analysis of this world: it is background, faithfully realised, to the main character, the adolescent hero with a precocious capacity to solve the murder clues who is also initiated by an older married woman (an idealisation of the young Amis himself?).

4. Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (Penguin 1992), p. 78.

5. My Enemy’s Enemy (1955), Court of Enquiry (1956), I Spy Strangers (1962), all to be found in the Collected Short Stories (Penguin 1980).

6. There are two minor figures, police agents called Foot and Redgrave who do the system’s particularly dirty work. Amis was never one to stint on paranoid slurs about the revolutionary left.

7. Amis tried to get his hero, Margaret Thatcher, to accept an inscribed copy at a party he attended at Number 10. On being told by the humble adorer what the novel was about, she crushed him with the comment: ‘Can’t you do any better than that? Get yourself another crystal ball!’). See Memoirs, p. 318.

8. The Memoirs claim that when he returned to Oxford after the army he refused to rejoin the Communist Party he had briefly belonged to during his first stay at the University (p. 37).

9. Quoted in Charles Tomlinson, Poetry Today, in The Modern Age, Volume 7 of the Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. Boris Ford (Penguin 1961), p. 458.

10. See Rubin Rabinowitz, The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950–1960 (New York 1967), for a useful account of this.

11. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (Penguin 1992), with introduction by David Lodge, p. 158.

12. Ibid., pp. 204–5.

13. Ibid., p. 227.

14. Ibid., p. 63.

15. Ibid., p. 51.

16. Ibid., p. 140.

17. David Lodge points out that Amis’s style ‘owes something to the “ordinary language” philosophy that dominated Oxford when Amis was a student there’ (Lucky Jim, p. vi). Such a philosophy presupposes that there is nothing very important to talk about except the way we talk about the world. Such a view is only possible on the assumption that as things have been so they will remain – except for some tinkering at the edges.

18. Harold Wilson skilfully exploited this ambiguity in his pre-1964 campaigning against Lord Home in the name of a technological revolution. Culturally, the satire of Private Eye and the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was also rested on an ambiguous response to the way in which the Establishment marginalised talent. Many satirists had a genuine desire to attack privilege; but some used it as a road to advancement (David Frost, Bernard Levin ...).

19. Dylan Thomas is also the target, under the name of Brydan, in The Old Devils. This much later novel has a broader aim. Brydan/Thomas represents the temptation to literary bullshit and more general dishonesty (including sexual dishonesty) which besets the central character, Alun Weaver. Weaver is a London based TV pundit who has made a career out of being a professional Welshman (as Dylan Thomas could have been accused of being) and who has now retired to his native country (the better to go on dishonestly bullshitting and in the process messing up the lives of his former friends). Arguably, this is one of Amis’s better late novels, perhaps because it represents a revisitation of earlier material, though the offensiveness quota remains high.

20. Amis always protested that given his political support for the US he could hardly be accused of being anti-American.

21. Where individualism in the 1950s could be anti the Tory establishment, Mrs Thatcher (and the monetarist right) used it as an ideological assault on corporatism, welfarism and the rest. Giving back to the individual what the state had taken from them was her rallying cry. Needless to say, only a certain number of individuals benefited. But clearly Amis happily adapted to this right wing individualism. The shift is shown by comparing Jim’s commonsense reaction against Establishment codes with the praise poured on by the stolid and sensible policeman in Stanley and the Women: ‘Misprize common sense at your peril is my motto,’ he says, having rescued Stanley’s schizophrenic son from a spot of bother with a Middle Eastern embassy (mad Arabs, this time, rather than mad women) – Stanley and the Women (Penguin 1985), p. 247.

22. Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (Penguin 1992), p. 146.

23. Lucky Jim, p. 169. If, of course, the complaint is correct, then those who make the same criticism in the 1990s, and look back to the 1950s as the era after which standards fell, have some explaining to do.

24. Black Paper Two, ed. C.B. Cox and A.E. Dyson (Hull), p. 157.

25. Memoirs, p. 317.

26. Ibid., p. 319.

27. To give just a few examples from the culture of the period. Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) has its hero resist being forced to marry because he fears losing the freedom which the relatively good pay from his mindless factory job allows him to enjoy (the film version brings out the suffocating respectability of his girlfriend’s mother). Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter rails against his upper class wife, whose perpetual ironing and silence he takes to be part of what’s wrong with the world. Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) manages (just about) to reconcile his hero to being trapped into marriage by his girlfriend’s pregnancy.

28. Lucky Jim, pp. 235–236.

29. Take a Girl Like You (Penguin 1962), p. 178. He is also anti-semitic, imagining Patrick’s real name is Schtundisch. He warms to Patrick, however, because Patrick is prepared to stand his round and shows he is not a ‘Jew’ with his money. Amis’s depiction of Jenny’s father is so caricatural, so Alf Garnett like in seeing workers as patriotic bigots, as to be laughable.

30. The novel features Stanley’s son’s violent schizophrenia, so Stanley’s paranoia could be said to reflect the theme of the book. Significantly, though, the only sane and sensible psychiatrist is a man, who despises his radical female colleague, Dr Collings.

31. Part of the subplot revolves round a friend who is experiencing sexual difficulties in his marriage. He has been told by his psychiatrist that he must be subconsciously homosexual and so is determined to be ‘queer’ though he doesn’t feel any desire for a man. He simply isn’t the type: you either are or aren’t ‘queer’ and that’s the end of it. This is yet another appeal to common sense. (Fear of not performing sexually with a woman and so fear of not being a real man suggests a side to Amis that only a Freudian would dare explore.)

32. Difficulties with Girls (Penguin 1989), p. 256.

33. The preference for all male company – and a paranoid fear that there may be a plot to infiltrate and undermine the institution – is an abiding element in Amis’s work (perhaps derived ultimately from his experience of those very male institutions, his Oxford college and the army). See The Egyptologists for a fantasy version of this theme. An obsession with plots could also be said to be a Cold War theme. Paranoia for Freud was linked with fear of homosexuality; whether that applies to Amis is beyond the scope of this writer.

34. It may be that that idealised version of Amis’s childhood suburban existence, The Riverside Villa Murders, says more about Amis than he would have cared to reveal. It contains a psychologically intriguing triangle. Young Peter, the hero of the tale, is the subject of the sexual interest of both a married woman, who seduces him, and an avuncular ex-military homosexual, who self denyingly does not. He is flattered by the attentions of both, since both confirm his sense of self: the woman is proof, so to speak, that although he enjoys mutual masturbation with a school friend, his orientation is not towards men; the homosexual colonel is proof that he is an adult (the colonel treats him as an equal by making him a co-partner in solving the crime). Peter’s real object of desire, however, is Daphne, the girl next door. She baffles his every move to get her to go out with him, trapping him in adolescent uncertainty. Seduction by the married woman gives him confidence but is implicitly problematic (the need for secrecy, the threat of scandal – to say nothing of the Oedipal implications). The threat is eliminated when she is unmasked as a neurotic and sexually predatory murderess by the colonel and again when she is persuaded to do the decent thing and commit suicide. He, Peter, is now free to impose on Daphne, the implication being that he knows her true feelings better than she does. We have here a pattern which often emerges in more veiled form in his fiction: the idea that the hero becomes a real person by release from helplessness induced by involvement with a sexually manipulative woman. The suspicion that this rejection of things feminine involves being uninterested in women can be countered by giving space to the homosexual (that embodiment of lack of sexual interest in women) as something one most definitely is not – or as we saw Patrick doing, in Difficulties with Women, making the homosexual a chaser after ‘women’ of the non-anatomical variety – in other words, an honorary man.

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