… and other tales of change & growth.
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?
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.
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
June’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 the 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.
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.
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.