Posts Tagged ‘Kingsley Amis’

… and other tales of change & growth.

Cute coots

That uncertain feeling

“Good evening, John,” Mrs. Jenkins said, looking sidelong at me as if she wondered whether, or how heavily, I was armed.

Is reading – let alone laughing out loud at – Kingsley Amis a guilty pleasure these days?  Things have certainly moved on since That uncertain feeling (1955) was published, but will that certain feeling ever go away?

That uncertain feeling

Jonathan Burton’s brilliant cover of the latest Penguin Modern Classics edition.

It combined rootless apprehension, indefinite restlessness and inactivating boredom, as if through the action of some carefully dispensed tripartite drug.

The sort of things said about the public library, where John Lewis, our young married with two kids first person protagonist is employed, haven’t moved on much either.  The local government job interview – one of the comic set pieces of the book – may no longer be an inquisition from a serried bank of the elected worthies (or not) on the Library Committee, but, technical means aside, there remains a ring of familiarity to the questions addressed and answered (or fudged) as it progresses.

That uncertain feeling is basically a tale of temptation, fall and personal small town redemption, a rejection of the high life (or what passes for it in Aberdarcy) for a modest and faithful comfort.  It ends – you could say, oddly – not so much with a bang (though that happens too, earlier) but a whimper.  Amis père is ever held up as a bastard for the way he treated women, but even this early (it’s his second novel), his characters are more nuanced:

… I seemed to have piloted myself into the position of being immoral and moral at the same time … [elsewhere elaborated as:]
Feeling a tremendous rakehell, and not liking myself much for it, and feeling rather a good chap for not liking myself much for it, and not liking myself at all for feeling rather a good chap …

So some of the humour of this comic novel derives from its narrator’s internal ambiguity, but the externalised acerbity of his wit, though scalding, can occasionally be leavened by circumstance.  Kingsley Amis has such a beautiful way of selecting words and placing them in just the right order you can forgive much.  No-one can say he can’t write.  Consider a fellow party-goer at the sherry, and the potency of “He drank several fluid ounces from his glass …”  In the time machine there’s a nice picture of a dance hall at that culturally crucial time – “Near them a sign said NO BOPPING” – and in this dance hall a delicate reminder of a pre-Chatterly age, a wit mere literal reportage loses (even if somewhat un-democratically) when someone is told, ‘Go on, clear off.’: “Other men joined in with cognate recommendations, some of them varying the second verb.”  It has to be admitted Amis puts the boot into the Welsh somewhat; if Aberdarcy as place-name is open to debate, Abertwit  and Llansili surely are not, but justified or not, they and other jibes made me laugh.

Crack-upF.Scott Fitzgerald

Great prose stylist that he was, no-one was ever going to accuse Kingsley Amis of writing “like an angel”, as I thought Ernest Hemingway had said of F.Scott Fitzgerald.  Looking to source that quote I fail completely (though I did find the Chandler one below) and can only wonder where I got that idea from.  What Hemingway actually said, in A moveable feast, was “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.”  Whatever, Fitzgerald does write beautifully, with what Raymond Chandler described in some detail as “charm“.

Now, I won’t be seeing the Baz Luhrmann movie of The Great Gatsby and I didn’t see the Robert Redford one either – I like the book too much – but in all the hoo-ha I did dip into this little Penguin collection of autobiographical pieces and I’m reminded again of how he can be so mellifluous in exposition – these are indeed honey toned, intelligent words – and yet convey such a broad emotional swathe of enthusiasms, realism, nostalgia and regret, while being absolutely grounded in seeing what has gone down.  The self-awareness is shocking at times; the three articles that constitute The crack-up (1936) are harrowing.  I have wondered before whether greater knowledge of what happened to the Romantic poets – young and old, and their chums – might have influenced how some of my generation acquitted themselves differently.  Similarly, the magazine piece Echoes of the Jazz Age, written in 1931, should stand as an awful warning to those riding on some fresh movement or others’ crest of a wave.  It opens:

It is too soon to write about the Jazz Age with perspective, and without being suspected of premature arteriosclerosis.  Many people still succumb to violent retching when they happen upon any of its characteristic words …

It’s a brilliant description and analysis of what happened to his set of bright young things.  And in Early success (1937) we have a piece that should become compulsory reading for all the young meteors out there:

Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will-power – at its worst the Napoleonic delusion.  The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining.  The man who only asserts himself at thirty has a balanced idea of what will-power and fate have both contributed, the one who gets there at forty is liable to put the emphasis on will alone.  This comes out when the storms strike your craft.

Scribal home and away

Scribal June 2013June’s Scribal Gathering seems a long way away now, but it was a musical belter.  David Goo – solo tonight, but doing material featured by his wittily named band The 150 Friends Club -(put ‘150 friends’ into Google) – amazed with his manual and verbal dexterity, complex guitar moves and not exactly straightforward vocals delivered at one and the same time and it actually meant something.  Probably the biggest applause anyone’s had from a Scribal audience.  How to describe? – honed Zappa, jazz chords, poetry for starters.  Following that, local self-labelled ‘latino-punk’ trio The Zeroes kept the ball in the air with an acoustic set (which means the drummer sat on one of those wooden box things).  They, um, celebrated the new Latino Pope with a song of the same name and did a Cure song complete with an ably employed harmonica harness.  Meanwhile familiar friends shone.  Each time lately I’ve seen The Last Quarter they’ve added another member, and this week it was a drummer; Big brown bear a welcome addition to the repertoire (that’s a song, not the drummer).  And The Screaming House Madrigals have lost a cello and gained a bass player – the same shy, retiring poet as The Last Quarter as it happens – and surrendered none of their subtle power.  Now that I know they read this, I may have to abdicate in Waterside 2013the matter thereof.

And at the weekend, the gang’s all here again, hosting the Scribal marquee, aka the third stage at the annual Waterside Festival, in all weathers.  The Box Ticked – who already have a bassist of their own, thank you very much – were catapulted onto the main stage at the last minute on Sunday and took to it like ducks to water, or indeed, to the manor born (for those not living in the great metropolis that is MK, Great Linford does actually boast a manor house).  Here’s a link to Daydream, the song they dedicate to us Radio4 listeners – in Lillabullero‘s humble opinion an absolute stone classic of intelligent pop-rock; though, rest assured, they can be harder than that.

Monkey Kettle 39 And I bought the latest Monkey Kettle at the Monkey Kettle stage, from which much fine music also could be seen and heard.  (Monkey Kettle – another MK).  And if I haven’t mentioned The Sucettes then here’s a photograph.  I’ll give compère, roadie, shy retiring bass player and poet Mr Richard Frost a name check too, just because.

The Sucettes

In conclusion …

… I’d just like to say I’ve been watching the Al Jazeera news channel of late (83 on Freeview), refreshingly free of all the royalist propaganda (Citizen not subject!) and celebrity nonsense (that’s not news!).  And finally, after all these years, I can reliably distinguish between campion, ragged robin and herb robert (they’re pink wildflowers for those that need to know); thank you, Andrea, for your patience.


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Life after lifeSadness is what I got from Life after life (Doubleday, 2013).  For all the joys of reading and writing (the flash and filigree of her prose, the dazzling one-liners and glorious tangents) that are Kate Atkinson‘s stock in trade, compassion and an undercurrent of sadness are never far from breaking through, even in – nay, especially in – the Jackson Brodie sequence of books.  They are there in pretty much all the surprises sprung on us here.

Although not devoid of the quality, Life after life isn’t as much fun as her previous novels and that’s not just because Ursula Todd, her main character, keeps dying (or as “the black bat” descends) as the spelling out of the crucial role of simple contingency in human affairs – the what ifs and what if nots (when the snow storm hits, how deep it lies, falling in love, pregnancy, a falling wall’s reach) –  is cascaded out.

It’s that Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors spread over a lifetime with serial mortality added rather than Groundhog Day.  The rubric ‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?‘ from the back cover (and something her favourite brother Teddy says) does not really apply to Ursula Todd’s many lives, though she does discuss reincarnation with her therapist and the book is pretty much book-ended with two episodes set in Germany in 1930 – a dimension I’m not going to expand on here – which rather beg that question.  The what-ifs are intriguingly personal, familial and global.

The powerful core of this splendid book is a tale of Londoners living through (or not, as the case may be) the Blitz.  This – the people she shares a house with, the people she works alongside in the rescue squads, the aftermath of the raids – is going to stay with me a long time.  We arrive there through various twists and turns of fate in what starts out (after the false starts of early death) as a conventional upper middle class home counties family saga with an acknowledged touch of the E.M.Forsters.  For me this dragged a bit until the appearance on the scene of Lizzie, the aunt who’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, who brings with her a sprinkling of scepticism and the Atkinson prose sparkle and then we’re well and truly off.  The family dynamics over the years are beautifully portrayed.

In previous novels of Kate’s you could almost pick a bon couple of mots or a witty one-liner off practically every page for quotation, but as I’ve said, in respect to the subject matter, such delight is not exactly falling off the trees here.  But it’s there, nevertheless, along with her penchant for invoking Eng-Lit – she does not talk down to her readers.  Dickens, Jane Austen, John Donne, John Keats, even Charlotte Brontë’s dog, all get a mention, and there’s a nice running trope about the moon Keats and other poets saw.  In one particularly unfortunate life of Ursula’s, she marries a monster – “She had married a Casaubon, she realised” – and in failing one tragic morning, even she has “… to admit that the egg she presented for Derek’s breakfast was a sad sight, a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die.”  And if you like the idea of someone confusing a quote from Pindar with something found in Pinner, Middlesex, then you’ll love the child’s confusion of Nietzsche’s notion of Amor fati – the acceptance of fate, the embracing of fate, as her therapist tells her – with being fat.  If not as profuse as previously, it’s still there.

If I do have a problem with Life after life it’s a small annoyance.  I think Kate Atkinson has always enjoyed playing with the idea of the novelist as participant in the action of a book, making her presence known, and at least with the stop/start again structure here it’s obvious.  But I have to say I am disappointed with the hints, the deja vu and second sight moments, the “little flicker in time” here, the “Oh, Ursula said. I’ve been here before” there, that Ursula experiences in the course of her lives and which strike a false note with me.  If it’s a nod and a wink it’s an unnecessary one.

But back to the sadness I started with.   At the age of 57, in 1967, the Ursula who survives longest gets to review the satisfactions and disappointments of her eventful yet ultimately unfulfilled life.  It’s a lovely chapter; it sings.  The social changes she has seen and played a small part in are factored in alongside what has been lost, what gained, what needn’t have happened, what’s still to be done.  I made a note of a quote – I’m not sure if it came from here (the book’s gone back to the library) – but it fits: “She made fast her heroine heart.”  Reading that testimonial now, 46 years on from when it’s set, was an overwhelming experience.  And a huge achievement from the pen, or word processor, of our Kate.  From whom one last quote, that took me straight back to her marvellous Human croquet where a wych elm is almost a character in its own right:

She thought about Dr Kellet and his theories of reincarnation and wondered what she would like to come back as. A tree, she thought. A fine big tree, dancing in the breeze.

Tim Hardin

Tim Hardin

Sadness compounded.  As it happens 1967 was the year Tim Hardin‘s first two albums (Tim Hardin 1 and, er, Tim Hardin 2) were released.  I’ve been listening to a compilation which – sadly – doesn’t include his most optimistic and well-known song – If I were a carpenter – but does contain some of the finest (and shortest) odes to melancholy of the past half century.  The yearning of Black sheep boy is just the starter, the exquisite ache of How can we hang on to a dream hard to bear at times.    Sometimes all you need is two minutes.  I wish a few more could learn that lesson.  Why, only this week it was pointed out to me that it only took Fats Domino 1 minute 47 seconds to walk  to New Orleans.

Lucky Jim - Nicholas Bentley

Lucky Jim

Meanwhile, back at the reading group I was in a minority of one when it came to Kingsley Amis‘s Lucky Jim (1954).  I think it’s the third time I’ve read it and it still has me chortling out loud (and will do again, no doubt).  The others (all women) all more or less hated it while (some of ’em) giving grudging credit to its language and comic timing.  OK, he wouldn’t get away with the women these days but it’s one of the great comic novels.  You can’t take away from timing and the precise wit.  Prime scorn, here exercised at the right targets and some of the best drunken literature – “He was already beginning to feel a little splendid” – to be found anywhere.  Who has not encountered the equivalent of a Beesley – “bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis” – or suffered ” … the familiar mixture of predicted boredom with unpredicted boredom …”

What a difference two or three strategically placed words can make in “The amateur violinist nodded the top half of his body and, supported by the local composer, burst into some scurrying tunelessness or other”  while who can deny “how inefficient a bar to wasting one’s time was the knowledge that one was wasting it“?

And who could possibly argue with this classic statement of political reasonableness?:

If one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns.

That’s a rhetorical question.





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A double take was necessary here.  Trees can do some pretty odd things in the Lake District (clinging to crags, falling over & choosing to continue growing at 90°) but with this one – no, these two – it was just a happy chance perspective.  Now, let’s bring on the literature.

Despite what he’s saying half the time, I enjoy reading Kingsley Amis‘s perspective on life, even when a fair amount of the bile and spleen is aimed in my direction (not me personally, you understand – just anyone younger than himself and a lot that I take for granted;  plus, some of my best friends are women).  Hard to believe that back in the day (well, 1958) Amis had two pieces in an anthology called Protest which paired the UK’s Angry Young Men and the American Beat Generation – it included Howl and Mailer’s White negro – as if they had something in common.

Nevertheless, I laughed out loud reading Amis père’s Jake’s thing (1978).  Over to my friend Chris:”The presumption that we all share certain goeswithoutsaying views […] provides a guilty pleasure of recognition.”  The thing is, in Jake’s thing, womanizer and chauvinist Jake is neither hero nor tragic victim, simply an anachronism, given no gloss save the scabrous wit.  He’s lost his mojo and his time and neither are coming back, while his wife, of whom he is still fond, abandons him for a man Jake considers a buffoon, whose own wife, who Jake abhors, takes it upon herself to keep Jake practically provisioned (and there’s no euphemism in that at all) out of pity;  the therapy he joined up to for his malady, that he quickly held in contempt, has been his wife’s liberation.  Action switches between a jaundiced North London and varsity Oxford, where Jake’s college is doing its best to delay the inevitable admission of women.  One of the funniest passages involves some male dons sharing student horror stories (specifically at one point feminist undergraduates and a claim that Hamlet is actually a woman), while there is an account of an out of control dinner date and the morning (and afternoon) after that you can only call a classic of drunken literature.

You could take Jake’s marriage as another case study in the absorbing Good wives? Mary, Fanny, Jenny and me, 1845-2001 (2001), wherein Margaret Forster examines the shifting ideas of what it has meant to be ‘a good wife’ over the last century and a half, by examining in some detail, using journals and letters, the lives of three wives of famous men and comparing her own experience with theirs.  Total obedience and subservience is represented by Mary Livingstone, who died being one, killed by her explorer (and missionary) husband David’s reckless willingness to put everything in God’s hands.  Fanny Stevenson covers the health and sickness corner nicely, protecting writer Robert Louis (annoyingly called Louis throughout) through choice, while politician Jenny Lee (married to Nye Bevan) presages the big change to what transpires today, with everything open to negotiation.  All three stories involved sacrifice, albeit for differing reasons.  They are not exactly a load of laughs (not even the dealings with their husbands’ parents) but they are leavened nicely by the author relating her subjects’ experiences to her own, right from her horror as a bridesmaid of the marriage vows and seeing her mother’s situation, to marriage to boy friend from school-age Hunter Davies up to the millennium.  These insightful, sometimes wistful and highly amusing thoughts and recollections round things off nicely.  (Another book I wouldn’t normally have picked up but for the Reading Group; as the only male in the group I look forward to the discussion with some trepidation).

As it happens I meant to mention a book by Margaret’s husband in my last post about a week in the Lake District.  Given “I don’t like being referred to as ‘my wife’ and I don’t like saying ‘my husband’ I suppose I should apologise, but Hunter Davies‘s chatty The good guide to The Lakes (now in its 7th edition, 2008 and bring on the 8th) was the only guide we took with us this time; it served us well (and it doesn’t weigh as much as the branded others).

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