Kingsley Amis always claimed that his fiction was not based on his life, and he worked hard and quite successfully at obscuring the autobiographical threads that run through his novels. But they exist, and Richard Bradford traces the channels between Amis's experiences, his states of mind, and his fictionalized versions of both. Bradford's biography shows that it is impossible to offer a comprehensive picture of Amis the man as husband, philanderer, friend, father, jester, son, boozer, agnostic, pseudo-socialist, and club-land Tory without also considering how each dimension of his life tested and extended his literary skills. Sometimes he remodeled the present, particularly during the 1950s when his books reflected his double life as family man and prolific libertine. He revisited the past in novels such as The Riverside Villas Murder, a detective story that tells us much about his early relationship with his father. Less frequently he took revenge, notably with his cruel parody of his second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard in Stanley and the Women. Readers of Amis's books often feel as if they have had a personal encounter with a shadowy presence behind the words, and Bradford's biography embodies this shadow.
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About the Author
Richard Bradford is professor of English at the University of Ulster. He previously has taught in the universities of Oxford, Wales and in Trinity College, Dublin. He has written 12 books on a variety of subjects, including two critical monographs of Kingsley Amis.
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Kingsley Amis was born in a south London nursing home on 16 April 1922. It was Easter Sunday, an early spring day of characteristically English temperament: torrential rain driven by cold winds. He was an only child, and from infant to late teenage years he lived with his parents, 'Peggy' (Rosa Anne, née Lucas) and William Amis at 16 Buckingham Gardens, Norbury, London SW16.
Shortly after The Old Devils had won him the Booker Prize in 1986, the BBC commissioned Amis to do a kind of televisual autobiography, with the camera following the distinguished author through the important sites of his previous six decades. Buckingham Gardens and indeed the whole physical environment of suburban Norbury had not changed very much, and Amis on camera seemed to find a peculiar satisfaction in the fact that Number 16 was one of those houses that beggars architectural description the kind of post-First World War semi-detached that would be immediately forgettable had it not been reproduced thousands of times in suburbs all over England. And he appeared agreeably amused that the present resident, while pleased to have her home on television, was obviously puzzled by why exactly its previous occupant deserved to be accompanied by a BBC camera crew.
Amis did not say very much, but his sidelong glances at camera invited speculation on what he was thinking. The air of timeless boredom offered by Norbury and the lady's friendly ignorance must have struck him as a sardonic and very apposite commenton his own memories.
Comedy was an ever-present and unobtrusive feature of all of Amis's fiction. He wrote novels about age, murder, the afterlife, Christianity and totalitarianism, and he could capture the habits and moods of contemporary society with crisp veracity, but his signature, his trademark, was the thread of humour that ran through everything he produced. He came to believe that fiction that was not slightly irreverent was the equivalent of philosophy in disguise. When reading his novels, we are continuously aware of a presence which hovers behind and around the narrator, always ready to pounce and never willing to allow a piece of dialogue or a solemn proclamation of intent to get past without first puncturing whatever pretension to absolute validity it might carry with it. Nash, a psychiatrist in Stanley and the Women, his most depressing and least amusing book, allows us a glimpse into Amis's most essential literary precept: 'The rewards for being sane may not be very many but knowing what's funny is one of them. And that's an end of the matter.'
So when the Booker-winning author returned to his childhood home to find he had become anonymous, we witness a sardonic smile beginning to form; he could have written this himself. Moreover, the incident might also have reminded him of aspects of his time in Norbury. His experiences, before going up to St John's College, Oxford, aged nineteen, were largely unremarkable, but normality and routine were frequently attended by degrees of absurdity and farce.
He began school at St Hilda's, within walking distance of his home, and his enduring memory was the sense of shock at finding himself in the presence of so many other people who were apparently the same age and size as himself, some of a different sex. Before that, as an only child with distant cousins, he had imagined that children were single units attached only to larger groups of adults. And his new-found peers turned out to be unfathomable perversions of their elder counterparts. On the first day in the playground a boy called John Skelton bit him on the arm. And within a few weeks he was introduced to fundamentalist religion by a Roman Catholic boy who informed him that God was everywhere, under chairs, down the street and always watching him. His parents, non-practising Baptists, had never mentioned this.
Amis's parents were an intriguing couple because, when compared with the rest of their respective families, they were astonishingly normal. Amis's account in his Memoirs of this 'other' family, beyond the comfortable routines of Norbury, is tinged with disbelief. For the child, these figures must have unsettled any standard perception of conventional adulthood.
Kingsley's paternal grandfather was called officially Joseph James Amis but was known to the family, 'perhaps with a hint of satire', as 'Pater' or more frequently 'Dadda'. Dadda lived in Purley, about an hour from Norbury, with his wife Julia ('Mater') in an upmarket Victorian residence equipped with two maids. Amis would be taken there for meals at Christmas and for family birthdays.
Amis can never recall Dadda addressing him directly, but he can remember being obliged to kiss both of his grandparents who apparently had an almost equal preponderance of facial hair. He also remembers how Dadda would sit at the head of the table, napkin stuffed into his shirt collar, and between savage bouts of eating and drinking tell jokes which combined the vulgar with the surreal. The actual presence of Dadda would have been disturbing enough, but this was later supplemented by William's account to the teenaged Kingsley of how Dadda had effectively ruined the family business. J.J. Amis & Co. were glassware wholesalers, and Dadda had on one occasion become convinced that he had access to a brand of unbreakable plates, glasses and related domestic paraphernalia. To test his thesis, or perhaps just to entertain the family, Dadda once crept into the drawing-room and hurled one of the items at the stone fireplace, a performance he repeated for potential clients in the company office. He was on all occasions apparently both surprised and disappointed when these products disintegrated. Mater was equally peculiar but far more disagreeable. Her legendary meanness involved the leaving out of only two matches for the maids to light the gas in the morning and the substitution of grocer's bags for lavatory paper.
Amis's mother's sister, Dora, went mad, officially. Amis remembers, aged about eleven, sitting with her in his parents' kitchen. She kept asking him to move his chair away from the window so that she could 'see if there's anyone out there'. This sense of anticipating something quite dreadful, apocalyptic but never clearly specified, attended Dora's entire existence, and eventually, in 1941, she was committed to a mental hospital. Apparently she flourished in this environment, virtually taking over the running of the kitchen from the employees. On the day she heard of her mother's death her neurotic symptoms, already in abeyance, disappeared for good, and within a year she was taken on as a middle-rank administrator in the same hospital.
Amis's father's brother, Leslie, replaced Dadda as manager of the ailing J.J. Amis & Co. Glassware and after Dadda's death was responsible for the increasingly unpleasant Mater. Amis liked Leslie and was saddened by 'his horrible life'. In his late teens Amis was approached by his father with some apparently disturbing news. Leslie had told his brother that he wanted to go to bed with men, and William had advised him to 'see a doctor'. No one knew if Leslie's homosexual instincts were real or hypothetical, but in any event when Mater died everything changed. Leslie sold the business premises and invested his inherited capital in a world cruise, during which he 'fucked every female in sight'. Two years later he was dead.
Freudians would no doubt have had a field-day with all of this, but we can leave its effect upon Amis to common sense. His aunt, mother's side, and his uncle, father's side, had reconciled themselves to their own identity only after the death of their last parent. Amis, by the time he left home, would know that he had already embarked upon a very effective strategy of independence. '[A]s I came to sense the image in which my father was trying to mould my character and future I began to resist him, and we quarrelled violently at least every week or two for years' (Memoirs, p. 14). Amis in the Memoirs concedes, if only implicitly, that his father did play a vital role in the shaping of his tastes and character. He operated as a foil, a testing ground, for enthusiasms and inclinations that Kingsley would acquire independently.
Music was a constant source of conflict. William regarded Duke Ellington's jazz as evocative of dark-skinned savages dancing round a pot of human remains and much classical music, without the human voice, as a form of grandiose self-indulgence. Amis Senior preferred Gilbert and Sullivan. Kingsley's early encounters with Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and, particularly, American jazz were instinctive and unfocused. But after fractious exchanges with his father he took on the role of learned polemicist, which he never really abandoned.
William was once a Liberal who turned into an arch-Tory after the Great War, an affiliation strengthened by the General Strike and the emergence of the Labour Party as a serious contender for power. Amis himself, summarizing his father's view of him, became a 'bloody little fool of a leftie' and an avid supporter of Joseph Stalin. Unlike his love for music, which was transparent and unflagging, Amis's political opinions were always reactive, shifting, often self-contradictory, a condition that owed something to his early instinct to rebel against anything his father espoused.
Their arguments were on Kingsley's part rooted in a level of self-willed alienation. 'What my father wanted me to be was, of course, a version of William Robert Amis, a more successful version ...' (Memoirs, p. 17). After war service spent tending airships in Scotland, William Amis had joined Colman's, the mustard manufacturers, as a junior clerk, where he stayed, gradually acquiring seniority, until retirement. Kingsley never regarded his father as a failure, but he hated the idea that success involved, at least for people of his own lower-middle-class origins, a future in the higher regions of banking or commerce.
Amis's early life was an assembly of adult narratives, stories of a potential future, all of which he strenuously avoided and rejected. But what was their alternative?
At St Hilda's Primary School Amis was introduced to literature by a Miss Barr, a 'tall, Eton cropped figure of improbable elegance'. He cannot recall the texts promoted by Miss Barr, but after moving to Norbury College, a local state school with ambitions, he encountered Mr Ashley who employed what was in those days a radical method of teaching English. Ashley made them read Shakespeare and then had them contrast this with almost contemporary poetry, mostly the verse of the Georgians. He also believed that for his pupils to properly understand and appreciate literature they should attempt to write it. Aged ten, Amis had written ninety-nine lines of blank verse and a 300-word short story, published in the school magazine, on Captain Hartly, a 'veteran hunter' of rhino.
In 1934, aged twelve, Amis went to the City of London School, an institution of solid academic reputation which took boys of various backgrounds. His father and his uncle Leslie had been pupils. William paid for his first year there, gambling on Kingsley's securing of a scholarship, which he did in his next year. At the school middleclass fee-payers mixed with a large number of scholarship boys, and for Amis his six years there were like university and often better. He was taught Latin and Greek poetry in a way that encouraged him to enjoy its distant beauty and to recognize that poetry per se transcended linguistic difference. He discovered Housman, whose verse he would treasure, even more than his friend Larkin's, for the rest of his life. And he talked with the Reverend C.J. Ellingham, a unequivocal Christian, of how Housman's agnostic inclinations mattered little in comparison with the sheer quality of his verse: 'so I saw for ever that a poem is not a statement and the poet "affirmeth nothing"'. A Mr Marsh would lend out editions of verse by Auden and MacNeice; Eliot and Pound were talked about by masters and pupils.
With his peers Amis discussed sex, radical politics, French verse, Fats Waller, Delius, Charles Morgan and sex. Fifteen per cent of the boys were Jewish, but Amis claims to have never encountered anti-Semitism nor even its polite middle-class version.
The City of London School provided a cosmopolitan contrast to Amis's family life. His parents had little time for 'serious' literature. His mother, Peggy, enjoyed the work of contemporary novelists such as Ursula Bloom, Norah C. James and Ann Bridge, which, in Amis's view, were not 'the classics but not "slop" either'. When Kingsley seemed to have little else to do Peggy would encourage him to 'do a bit of writing', although he was never quite certain of what she imagined he would write. William read detective novels 'by such as R. Austin Freeman, Francis Greirson and John Rhode from the middle part of the spectrum'. The only member of his family whose interests corresponded with Kingsley's growing awareness of mainstream literature was his maternal grandfather, George Lucas. Lucas died before Amis was old enough to talk with him about books, but Peggy provided her son with an anecdote which must have seemed consistent with the tragi-comic mythology of the rest of his extended family. His grandfather would read out his favourite passages to his wife, who, when his head was lowered to the page, would make faces and gestures at him indicating various expressions of boredom, ridicule and contempt. This, says Amis, 'helped to make me hate her very much'. And we might recall that this was the woman whose death had caused her mad daughter to regain almost instantaneous sanity.
It would stretch credibility to cite too many direct channels of influence between Amis's early life and his writing, but some parallels are evident enough. Housman became his favourite poet and he also, at CLS, discovered the novels of G.K. Chesterton. Characteristically, Chesterton would use witty and often disturbing paradoxes to startle his readers, to disrupt the comfortable expectation of what a character was really like or what would happen next. Amis's favourites, from his early teens onwards, were The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). Both novels defy easy categorization. They mix the genres of fantasy and science fiction with political diagnosis and a style that reflects contemporary habits and locutions. Amis in such middle-period novels as The Green Man (1969) and The Alteration (1976) would do something similar, but his attraction to Chesterton ran much deeper than that because his childhood was in itself not unlike a mixed-genre narrative. His world seemed to be comprised of not quite compatible segments of experience, but he found that he was able to drift between them without much effort or distress.
In only two of his novels did Amis engage directly with his pre-Oxford life. The first of these, The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), is ostensibly a detective story set in the mid-1930s in a suburban area not unlike Norbury. At its centre, however, is the relationship between Kingsley the teenager and his father, recollected a decade after the latter's death. You Can't Do Both (1994), Amis's penultimate novel, is more transparently autobiographical, focusing on the significant events of his life from childhood to the early 1960s. In this he implicitly acknowledges that in his previous accounts of his relationship with his parents his mother is always in the background. This, to his regret, is how he tended to recall her, given that the hostilities between father and son would always feature as the most memorable contrast to the otherwise unremarkable routines of life in Norbury. In fact Peggy Amis, in an albeit unassertive and almost diplomatic manner, played an important part in Amis's early years. Throughout his life Amis had a fear of complete darkness, made worse when he was alone. It began when he was about eight, and Peggy, with a good deal of shrewd and tolerant understanding, would help him through what in modern parlance are called panic attacks. She would also function not exactly as a referee but more as a counterbalancing presence, a friend to both parties, in the disagreements between Amis and his father, a day-to-day activity that would prepare her for the more demanding role of negotiator. Two events, the first involving his affair with a married woman and the second the pre-marital pregnancy of his eventual wife, would cause William to ostracize his then adult son. Peggy brought them back together, and in You Can't Do Both Amis repays the debt.
Amis's first period away from his parents was caused by the war. Months before it was declared, the CLS had made arrangements to evacuate its central London premises in expectation of the city becoming the target for German bombers. Marlborough College in Wiltshire agreed to share its buildings and grounds with CLS, and in late August 1939 staff and pupils, the latter allowed one large suitcase each, boarded the train from Blackfriars Station to Paddington and there changed to the Taunton Express.
Amis recalls the experience as both sinister and exciting. War would not be officially declared until 3 September, but most people were aware of its inevitability. The famous 'Walls Have Ears' posters advising everyone to remain discreet about practically everything, given that Hitler's agents might be listening in, would not appear for a year, but CLS pre-empted them. Apart from the senior masters no one knew where they were going. The train made an unscheduled stop at Savernake, a few miles from Marlborough. They had arrived but, until later that day when officially informed by the masters, Amis and his friends did not know quite where they were.
Amis never made use of the actuality of these events in his fiction, but one suspects that his remembrance of the atmosphere created by them informs the texture of his mid-period novel The Anti-Death League (1966). In both, the metropolis and the comfortable home counties are visited by a blend of secrecy and subdued anxiety.
Autumn 1939 to early summer 1940 at Marlborough was Amis's final year at school, and it influenced his adulthood in a number of ways.
For the first time in his life he had the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to properly get to know people outside the family home. Leonard Richenberg, then head of CLS school, shared a room with Amis in a decrepit, unheated farmworker's cottage just outside the school grounds. Richenberg, together with Peter Baldwin, George Blunden, Cyril Metliss and Saul Rose, became Amis's closest friends. He had, of course, known them before, but all were now detached from their families; they spent their days and evenings in each other's company. Marlborough was for Amis a rehearsal for Oxford. He became the figure whose intelligence was respected by his peers but who seemed intent on making everything a lot less serious, more absurd and amusing than it might appear to be. The recollections of his friends are both affectionate and accurately inconsistent. Blunden remembers him as someone who 'set the standards of cultural and intellectual activity ... the intellectual star', Metliss as 'a great mimic and full of fun' (Jacobs, p. 60).
When interviewed by Eric Jacobs, all five of Amis's school friends stated that when they read Lucky Jim it was as though they had been returned to the atmosphere of Marlborough, with Amis the at once iconoclastic, hilarious and confidently clever leader of their group. Amis the man would, reinforced by Marlborough, become a puzzling combination of an intellectual and an anti-intellectual farceur, but it was fifteen years before he realized that this blending would be the essence of his early success as a writer.
Marlborough was one of England's senior public schools. Its pupils, then all fee-paying, came from a class above Amis and his CLS pals; they were the sons of QCs, landowners, rich, socially aspirant businessmen and minor aristocrats. The CLS boys were treated by their hosts with a mixture of arrogance and condescending politeness. While Amis and his friends were from comfortably-off homes he felt that the tension between themselves and the haughtily distant pupils of Marlborough was like something out of Dickens, people who existed in the world mixing uneasily with people who thought they owned it.
It was Amis's first real encounter with the pre-war English class system. His family, Norbury and the CLS incorporated various strands of lower-middle-class London with relatively slight variations in lifestyles, speech patterns and levels of income. His own accent was inherited from his father. It was what used to be referred to as 'BBC English' involving an unflamboyant attention to 'correct' grammar and habits of pronunciation. It was neutrally middle class, suggesting a comfortable enough background but invoking no clear affiliation to a particular region nor any obvious political allegiance. As such it became the ideal foundation for Amis's talents as a mimic, a bare canvas on to which he could project all manner of caricatures and representations. He began to perfect these at Marlborough.
The evacuation of CLS had created something like a bizarre socio-linguistic experiment. The college was not attached to a town of any size, and outside it the quaint verbal mannerisms of the West Country predominated. A regiment of middle-class Londoners had suddenly created an unusual counterbalance to the stark contrast between the upper-class drawl of most of the college boys and the differently relaxed burr of the surrounding district. Amis thrived on this. It made him more aware than he had previously been of how the way people sound is as much a feature of their perceived personality as the way they look and what they actually say. He started paying closer attention to how vocal habits merged with temperamental and physical attributes, and his unnervingly accurate imitations of the CLS masters had his co-evacuees in stitches. As a means of becoming one of a crowd his talent would prove very useful in Oxford, but more significantly he would eventually recognize it as not incompatible with his intellectual astuteness, and out of this Jim Dixon would be born.
More predictably, the class divisions of Marlborough encouraged Amis's affiliation to Marxism. Despite the fact that both schools now existed in the same place, he could not remember anything resembling a conversation with one of the Marlborough boys their choice apparently. He recalls that they behaved as though their privileged part of the world had been invaded by individuals who, simply because of their background, did not deserve to be there. The officer/other ranks structure of the army would a few years later further provoke his anger.
This was his last year at school. His masters knew that he would go to Oxbridge and that he was capable of winning an exhibition or scholarship. He had to, given that his parents could not afford to pay his fees. There were far more classics prizes available than for any other single humanities discipline, and Amis was recognized as the best classics scholar in CLS. But he chose to read English Literature. There were few English scholarships at either of the old universities, and his choice caused him to spend a year after leaving school at home with his parents. Competition was fierce, and he would not secure an Oxford exhibition until 1941.
Excerpted from Lucky Him by Richard Bradford. Copyright © 2001 by Richard Bradford. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.