Richard Porch looks at the life of one of one of Britain’s most popular literary figures, from his arrival in Swansea as a junior lecturer, from Cambridge, in 1949, to the early days of his success and fame after the publication of his debut novel, Lucky Jim.
I would like to have been a fellow passenger on the London to Swansea train that brought Kingsley Amis (1922 – 95) to Swansea from Oxford in the dying months of 1949. He had come to take up a post as a very junior lecturer in the English Department at University College Swansea. A former student of his from Swansea recalls him being taken aback by the bomb–damaged appearance of the town and its largely derelict industrial hinterland in the immediate post-war period. The latter was a legacy of Victorian globalisation brought about as a consequence of the fortunes to be made from converting South American copper ore into wire, sheet and tube. The result must have confirmed in Amis’s mind every English prejudice of South Wales. Clapped-out, grimy and provincial Swansea may have been – yet it still wanted him and his first-class degree from Oxford. But what did he want from it?
That regeneration of the town and the Lower Swansea Valley was some way off in the future when Amis arrived in October, 1949. Its town centre had been destroyed during three nights of intensive bombing of 1941 and active reconstruction was still a good five years away. The Swansea town centre that Kingsley Amis came to know was scabbed with areas of cleared land where buildings used to be. What the bombing did was to erase the town centre’s original medieval layout of narrow streets and lanes over which had been superimposed the stone and brick buildings of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It (for better and for worse) enabled the city centre to be rebuilt as we see it today; in fact anywhere you see a modern-looking building with a date stone saying nineteen-fifty-something you can see exactly where the bombs fell in 1941.
Amis stayed at 20 St. Helen’s Crescent for six weeks until 7th November, 1949. They were not his first lodgings; those were at 134 St. Helen’s Road where the Wig (formerly The Wig and Pen) public house is now. He stayed there for a week in late October, 1949. If you go half way up Brynymor Road you will find the Brynymor public house where he also drank. It was in here that Amis announced that he had found a publisher for his first (and arguably best) book, Lucky Jim, in 1953, and bought double brandies for all his friends. The Brynymor was one of Amis’s pubs as was the Uplands Hotel (nee Tavern) and the Rhyddings at Brynmill. Alcohol had always been part of Amis’s adult life and he was what many people would now call a heavy drinker. I’m never quite sure how much weight to attach to this phrase. I tend to agree with Dylan Thomas’s definition of a heavy drinker as being any man you don’t like who drinks more than you do. Many people have speculated as to why Amis drank so much. Perhaps it was an analgesic that relaxed him after the intense intellectual stimulation of writing fiction. Or maybe it gave him the Dutch courage necessary to act in an outrageous or uninhibited way as befits a bohemian artist. That was something I think he had in common with Dylan Thomas although neither would ever have admitted to it. Like Thomas, I think Amis had an alcoholic personality. By that I don’t mean he was alcohol-dependent (at least not in the early period of his literary career); merely that his consumption of large quantities of drink enabled him to adopt another persona. It wasn’t his ‘normal’ personality but one he could summon up by drinking. I think both he and Dylan were basically lower-middle class lads who wanted to be ‘roaring boys’ but didn’t possess the required natural confidence or swagger unless in drink. I think Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) was another writer for whom drink formed an important part of his desired public persona. One former student of Amis suggested I forget all about psychoanalysing the notion and accept the simple fact that “he drank because he liked to drink”. On Saturday mornings he would meet up with friends, colleagues and students from the English Faculty at the Grand Hotel for coffee before progressing on to beer as noon approached. Another place popular with Amis and students was a jazz venue called the Cellar Club on St. Helen’s Road. Amis was a big fan of American jazz and along with his life-long friend Philip Larkin (1922 – 85) amassed a large record collection of it. When Lucky Jim was published on 25th January 1954 Amis took his wife, Hilary, (always known as Hilly), out to the Bush restaurant on High Street. When seated Amis ordered a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, the waiter with an innocent directness typical of Swansea, asked “Can you afford it, boy?”
Amis spent several fruitless weeks looking for accommodation in Swansea before Hilly came down and immediately found a flat for the family. They moved en masse into 82 Vivian Road, Sketty on Monday 19th December, 1949. This was a ground-floor flat with fourteen steps leading down to it and which he principally remembered for having to negotiate them whilst pushing a twin pram. It had to accommodate Amis, Hilly, and their two small sons; Philip (b. 1948) aged 16 months and Martin (b.1949) aged 4 months. It is significant because this was also the first place in which he had lived where he had an area (as opposed to a room) in which to write. Six months after arriving in Swansea Amis declared in a letter a desire to “shut myself up on my own…writing poems and a novel”. I think this somewhat selfish-sounding statement is key to understanding why he came to Swansea in the first place. It represented somewhere he could escape in order to concentrate on his writing and be looked after by Hilly. The only complication was that he had to bring two infant children with him. In the end of course this was a consequence of his own actions and as enduring a legacy of his libido as it was possible to have. Amis got Hilly pregnant with Philip at the age of 19 in 1947 and briefly contemplated the possibility of a back-street abortion, something that was illegal then, before deciding against it. They were married at Oxford Registry Office in January, 1948. Both were jobless, broke and living in rented accommodation. Secondly, Amis needed a job to rescue him from this situation and Swansea provided the means of escape. So Swansea not only provided Amis with his first job but also his first marital home. He needed Hilly because she looked after him and kept house; the price he paid for that was having kids. Martin Amis followed in 1949.
The Vivian Road basement flat was basic as places tended to be in those days and make-do-and-mend was very much the order of the day. For example, Martin slept in a drawer while an airing cupboard (useful for drying out non-disposable nappies) was fashioned from a tea-chest lined with towels and heated by hot-water bottles. Hilly cooked on an electric stove that gave off electric shocks when you tried to fry anything on it. To make ends meet Amis and David Sims; a colleague from the English Faculty, marked examination papers. Between them they marked 800 scripts with an average length of 16 pages; this took two weeks with a nine-hour working day for which they were paid the princely sum of £55.00 each. These were not marked at 82 Vivian Road but at David Sims’s mother’s house in New Tredegar. Amis’s salary at this time was £300 a year payable on the 30th of every month, and was set to rise by annual increments of £50 to £1,100. A quick calculation shows that at that rate it would take a junior lecturer 16 years to rise to the top of his pay scale, unless promotion or death intervened. In addition the family got £50 in child allowances too. After a party once, a former student of Amis’s remembered him taking empty beer flagons back to the Uplands Hotel, so that he could get the deposit money on them. In his memoirs Amis remembered this perhaps half-jokingly as his only way of saving at the time. Amis had his limits though; when his local newsagent offered him £3.00 per week packing children’s annuals for the Christmas trade he politely declined. A former student of his that I talked to remembered Amis as “very formal, good but not an outstanding lecturer…not flamboyant, sober, clear and very friendly”. Still another who was at Swansea in the period 1957-60 remembered him as “extremely precise, exam-orientated and considered”, he was keen that students got through their exams.
Between January and May 1950, Amis and family shared a house with David Sims (1922–89) who was a fellow lecturer at the University from 1946–84 and his family at 11 Haslemere Road, Sketty. This enabled Hilly and Amis to live in a house and pay half of the rent, although the drawback was that the house rang with the noise of not only Amis’s two young children but also that of Margaret Vakil’s (Sim’s partner) too. By May 1950, the Amis family decamped yet again this time to a flat at 644 Mumbles Road, in Oystermouth. This still exists and it is now part of an apartment complex. It was while here that Hilly began to work most evenings washing up at the nearby Tivoli cinema. This building can also still be seen although now it is an amusement arcade. Funds were tight in Austerity Britain and Hilly used to ask her boss for scraps and bones to take home allegedly for a pet dog. There was no dog and with those ingredients she made pea soup for the family. She also got tips which often added up to enough to buy Amis a bottle of beer which he drank with his ‘scraps’. By late 1950 Amis had been taking stock of his career as a writer and had typed out all the poems he had written since 1945 (numbering forty in all). He had published a book of poetry Bright November, co-edited an anthology of poetry and written a novel called The Legacy which he could not find a publisher for. Philip Larkin by contrast had by this time published three books; two novels and a book of poetry, albeit to little critical or popular approval. By 11th October, 1950, the Amis family had moved once more; this time to 382 Mumbles Road, West Cross. Just off the main road and behind the rugby club it was and is very much in the heart of what residents call ‘the Village’. They stayed here until January, 1951 when they moved back to the Uplands and 24 The Grove.
The Grove is set back from the main road that runs through the Uplands. One walks up to it via Uplands Crescent and passes a sequence of residential housing built in a pleasing variety of styles. All are what might loosely be termed ‘suburban villas’, which is to say they are spacious family homes designed and built around the turn of the 20th century for the families of middle class professionals. The approach to Amis’s first home takes you past the eponymous Grove. In reality a small wedge of land, it is dotted with perhaps a dozen mature trees presumably left over from when The Grove really was a grove of trees on some estate. This diminutive feature spatially lifts what would otherwise be just another suburban side road and functions as something akin to a very diminutive village green for the inhabitants. Number 24 is not unimpressive to look at from the kerb-side, with its upper floor and ground-floor bay windows, and is part of a terrace which ends in a cul-de-sac handily facing Cwmdonkin Park. Inside it is spacious with numerous rooms on the first and second floors accessed by steep flights of narrow stairs. That the Amis family could move here was due entirely to Hilly inheriting a legacy from a relative and for which she was paid £2,200. It gave Hilly and Amis their first family home and his first bona-fide study in which to write. I’ve seen it, and it is tiny. Perhaps no more than 12’ x 7’ it has a cast-iron fire place in one corner and a single window looking out across to the blank wall of a neighbour’s house about 8’ away. One imagines an Edwardian live-in maid lodging in it. Nevertheless it was big enough for a table, a chair and a typewriter and it constituted a writer’s study. Martin Amis recalled being sent there at the age of six or seven by Hilly to be smacked for stealing cigarettes and money from her handbag. Not that the family was encouraged to bother him when he was in there. For the first time since moving to Swansea, Amis had achieved what he set out to do, which was to have a room to himself in which he could write poetry and novels. With the balance of the legacy Hilly furnished and decorated the house as well as buying a car, refrigerator and a washing machine. Hilly was the home-maker and all the domestic duties including all the painting and decorating fell to her as Amis took no part in such matters and had little interest in his surroundings. The legacy transformed their lives on a material level and took considerable financial pressure off Amis at a time when it was putting a real strain on him and his marriage. Another strain on his marriage was caused by his philandering with both female students and other men’s wives whom he pursued assiduously. Not for nothing did mature female librarians at the University sagely admonish any female newcomers to “never be caught in the stacks with Mr. Amis”. It was said the sound of his crepe-soled shoes squeaking along the parquet flooring towards the library would send young female librarians scattering for cover. One wonders how much being rescued from financial impecunity mattered to Amis. He was pre-eminently a ‘man’s man’ and I’ve often speculated how he coped with being financially rescued by his wife rather than by dint of his own talent or hard work. It definitely got him off the hook until he could write Lucky Jim and then his own literary momentum took over. In a 1991 BBC interview he said:
I like to represent myself as a writer who forced his way up inch by inch, grinding, contesting every inch of the way. In fact in the previous year when I hadn’t got a room to myself, living down in the Mumbles, my total output was one poem and not a very good one at that. So I didn’t know when I’d have got down to Lucky Jim if I hadn’t come into this money via my wife. So I was very lucky.
The legacy also meant that Amis would no longer have to write occasional letters to Philip Larkin to cadge a fiver to tide him over until the next payday. Nor would he have to make his cigarettes from cheap herbal tobacco and he could also afford to keep drink in the house on a permanent basis. In other words it bought Amis both the space and the creature comforts that would enable him to complete Lucky Jim by late 1952. The work would not only establish him as a writer in Britain but eventually be translated into 20 languages including (unlikely as it seems) Hebrew and Korean. A further 22 novels would follow, as well as poetry, non-fiction and much journalism. The fame and all the trappings that followed would subsequently transform his life, for better and for worse.
Whatever he was, Amis wasn’t stuffy and mixed with his students outside the university inviting them back to wild parties at The Grove. This at a time when the norm was that lecturers didn’t fraternise with their students socially. Perhaps this made Amis a pioneer of ‘the Swinging Sixties’ and a whiff of the sort of social change to come. His students also liked him because unlike most other lecturers ‘who toed the party line’ he was highly opinionated and attacked established canons of critical thought. He rubbished literary icons of all periods and made no secret of his views, which of course endeared him to impressionable young minds. Throw in the fact that he was by all accounts a remarkably good mimic who could, in the appropriate social setting, summon up a very good imitation of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan call and you have the perfect recipe for a popular lecturer. Philip Larkin came and stayed for a short break in the summer of 1951, a visit which more or less confirmed in him the desire to never start a family. In the course of a chaotic visit he would suggest re-naming Lucky Jim ‘The Man of Feeling’ which Amis would reject as being too ‘literary’. Larkin supplied valuable editorial and critical guidance to Amis whilst the latter wrote his first published novel. That this went largely unacknowledged by Amis stored up some bitterness for the future on Larkin’s part. Nevertheless when Amis’s first son was born he named him Philip after Larkin. Amis and Larkin must have made an interesting couple and are perhaps best understood as two distinct halves of the same coin. Poignantly, Larkin had conceded he would never write a novel that would satisfy him critically by the summer of 1953. At around this same time Victor Gollancz was considering Lucky Jim for publication. By January, 1954, the novel would be accepted and Amis’s career as a novelist was underway and that was that. Two novels later and by the late 1950s it would make him a good example of that very modern phenomenon, the celebrity writer. Amis quickly became a media personality on radio and on what little television there was available. I think one of the key utterances he ever made was in a letter to Larkin dating from this period when he wrote:
What I want, Cully, is a chance to decide from personal experience, that a life of cocktail parties, cars, weekending at rich houses, wine, night-clubs and jazz won’t bring happiness. I want to prove that money isn’t everything, to learn that pleasure cloys.
In many ways, nearly everything he did subsequently was to test this statement to destruction. As if to prove this, the next three books were noticeably shorter as celebrity and the distractions that went with it tightened their grip on Amis’s talent and time. It was at The Grove (which Amis once sarkily referred in a letter to Larkin as “The Grave”) that the midwife delivered Sally Myfanwy Amis in the early hours of 22nd January, 1951. The last of Amis’s three children, she had an unhappy life due to alcohol addiction and died in 2000. Philip Larkin wrote a moving poem entitled ‘Born Yesterday’ in honour of her birth. The Amis family lived there until April, 1956 when they moved for the last time in Swansea to 53 Glanmor Road. Still in the Uplands they remained there until Amis left to take up a post at Cambridge on 10th September, 1961.
Next week in Part Two, Richard Porch looks at the final years of Amis in Swansea.
(Photos credited to the author)