Richard Porch looks at the life of one of one of Britain’s most popular literary figures, Kingsley Amis. PART ONE looked at the time 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. PART TWO looks at the period after this success, until he and his family left Swansea.
In 1958-59 Amis was invited to spend a year in America at Princeton University as a visiting lecturer and would turn the fruits of this visit into his next book One Fat Englishman which was published in 1963.
Needless to say there are many stories (some doubtless apocryphal) about the bohemian nature of Amis’ family life. I don’t think one would have had to try too hard to be considered ‘bohemian’ in 1950s Swansea. Then as now it is on many levels a deeply conventional place where a strong sense of conformity prevails and is allied to a provincial respect or awe for anything perceived as ‘different’. With ‘different’ defined as anything ‘not from Swansea’. This would also (and by extension) translate as ‘posh’ in the Swansea mind-set. Therefore the Amis family, being both metropolitan and outsiders, would have been considered exotic and glamorous. We know from the comments of locals and students who knew them at the time that this was indeed the case. Something else which Amis brought to the town was a very active sexual appetite or libido. Quite where this originated is difficult to pin down and the temptation is to look for a psychological explanation. Maybe the answer lies in the various romantic or sexual liaisons he had during the war. Couple this to the extremely austere economic living conditions of the post-war period and perhaps Amis felt that he had some catching up to do and was owed some ‘fun’ in whatever form it took. The later fame and wealth which derived from his being a successful novelist would have only fanned the flames of this particular sense of entitlement. One person recalled to me how it was common knowledge that Amis and Hilly would go to students’ Saturday night dances together but nearly always went home separately and not always alone. Amis is often described as a serial philanderer and I’m tempted to write this off by modifying the earlier Dylan quote by saying ‘a serial philanderer is a man you don’t like who gets more sex than you do’. Nevertheless one cannot ignore the fact that Amis had a powerful sexual drive and was apparently incapable or unwilling to control it, to the detriment of his marriage and personal life. Hilly Amis had to deal with this while raising a family and developed many coping mechanisms of her own. One of which involved her in having an affair with a journalist that came close to breaking up their marriage in 1956. Amis talked her out of leaving with the children but then promptly resumed his adultery soon after. In fact, adultery would feature in many of his novels thereafter.
Like many writers before and since Amis recycled a great many of his own life experiences and put them into his books. What better way to analyse one’s own feelings or mode of existence than via the medium of a superficially fictional character? Most likely Amis and Hilly stayed together for the sake of the children and one senses Hilly must have had an abiding love for him and his very ‘differentness’ from other men. She must have been proud to be married to a successful writer too. One contemporary of his told me how her father, who worked in a car showroom, recalled that one day he sold a Morris 1000 to a woman who said her husband “was writing a best-seller”. The woman was Hilary Amis.
Hilly was an eccentric driver and had a tendency to drive straight over roundabouts and allow Martin and his brother to climb in and out of the car and onto the roof rack whilst the car was travelling along. You can imagine how this went down in provincial Swansea and probably boosted their self-image as bohemians. My contact also remembered being in a shoe-menders when two small boys came in to collect some shoes barefooted. The shoe-mender’s wife watched them go, then said, disapprovingly, “Poor little things, left to go around without shoes. They’re that Mr. Amis’s children”.
I wanted to write about Amis because of the Swansea connection and because I think he wrote two of his best books there (Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling) and it directly inspired a third, The Old Devils. I think after Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling the fame and adulation he received was a distraction. As a consequence I think his subsequent books are of an uneven quality and length. Especially the ones written between 1965-73.
In a book of Amis’s short stories published in 2011 one reviewer made an interesting comment. He speculated that the novels that Amis wrote before he became a full-time writer in 1963 were better than the ones that came later because they were rooted in direct experience. The ones written later and in his study came from themes generated in Amis’ head and therefore lacked resonance. What I think he was getting at was the plots often represented personal hobbyhorses, grievances or obsessions rather than the directly experienced early work. Another contributory factor may well have been the break-up of his marriage to Hilly in 1963, subsequent divorce and his re-marriage to the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard in 1965. Looking back, his work immediately after the break-up is more experimental and punctuated with novels that might best be called ‘entertainments’ like a ghosted James Bond novel (Colonel Sun, 1968) a ghost story (The Green Man, 1969) and a work of period detective fiction (The Riverside Villas Murder, 1973).
Amis’s second book That Uncertain Feeling was made into a film starring Peter Sellers and was shot extensively on location in Swansea in May, 1961. Although a fair amount of the action was supposed to take place in a library, offices in the Glynn Vivian Gallery opposite were used. I don’t think Amis wrote anything as enjoyable or as successful until The Old Devils, which again had a Swansea setting. This book won him the Booker Prize for fiction in 1986 and was made into a two-part drama programme by the BBC, which brought his work to a new and younger audience. Amis continued to return to Swansea for 3-4 weeks each year from 1982 until shortly before his death in 1995. He was made a trustee of the Dylan Thomas estate; which was somewhat hypocritical as he was no fan of the ‘Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’.
Uncharitable souls have suggested that the real reason he came to Swansea was that his club, The Garrick, closed for three weeks every August and that was why he came back to the city where his rise to literary fame started. By this stage of his life Amis was in the grip of a great many personal phobias and one of them involved not travelling anywhere alone. This was certainly true by 1986 as was confirmed by Anthony Powell in his Journals 1982–1986. As a consequence his daughter Sally would have to collect him from his home in London and put him on the train at Paddington. She would then have to ride with him to Swansea and drop him off at the home of Stuart and Eve Thomas who lived in Mumbles. Stuart Thomas was another Trustee of the Dylan Thomas estate and a solicitor. In his memoirs Amis indicated that the idea for The Old Devils came as he was dressing to leave for a lunchtime drink at the Bristol Channel Yacht Club with Thomas. When Amis’s sojourn was over Sally would have to make the return journey all over again in order to collect him and bring him back to London.
When I first started to research Amis and the Swansea connection, exactly why he came here was something of a mystery to me. When he came down from university there were (and still are) three principal career routes for a graduate armed with a first-class degree from Oxford. He could go into teaching, the media/publishing or academia. Given that Amis was a Londoner by birth and given his aim of being a writer, one would have thought that he might have gravitated into journalism or publishing in the capital. But no, he left it until the last possible moment before recruiting finished for that academic year (1949) before applying to Swansea and was accepted. His friend Philip Larkin, who also graduated with a first from Oxford, left there to be a librarian firstly in Shropshire (“handing out tripey novels to morons”) then Leicester University before leaving for Belfast University. It was while he was a librarian at Leicester and with Amis staying as a guest that the latter got the idea for the book that would eventually become Lucky Jim. Larkin stayed in Belfast for five years before becoming the Head Librarian at Hull University where he stayed for the last 30 years of his working life. Larkin hailed from Coventry and Amis from unfashionable Norbury in South London. Both might therefore be considered ‘outsiders’. Larkin’s father worked in local government ending up as Treasurer of Coventry Council, while Amis’ father was a clerk in a mustard factory. One might have thought that Oxford, even war-time Oxford, would have given them metropolitan ambitions, but apparently not. Both of them went on to effectively exile themselves to the ‘Celtic fringe’ in Belfast and Swansea.
The reason why of course was that they both wanted ‘space’ in which to write and chose occupations that would guarantee free time or at least unsupervised work time. Had they come from further up the social scale and been born perhaps 50 years earlier then maybe they could have existed on some small ‘competence’ from rich parents and survived without jobs. But they didn’t. The Oxford they attended in the mid-1940s was hardly the Oxford of the ‘Bright Young Things’ twenty years earlier, but one would have thought their next step was London.
In Larkin’s case he was by no means a ‘people-person’ and so would not have sought the bright lights anyway. One of Amis’ former students pointed out to me that Larkin also suffered from a pronounced stutter which in 1950s Britain would have gone largely unremediated and hampered his prospects as a teacher or lecturer. However, Amis was a more gregarious creature and ambitious for his writing so the move to Swansea seems odd. Zachary Leader in his magisterial The Life of Kingsley Amis thought it was odd too; but put the lack of offers from potential employers down to Amis being perhaps poor at interviews. I’ve always thought this a tad disingenuous and that the real reason was maybe he came across as obnoxious and opinionated. So Swansea was not his first choice. He had previously applied to Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Liverpool, London and Manchester. So the answer to why he ended up in Swansea was that no-one else wanted him. In his subsequent letters to Larkin and others of his circle of friends in the period 1949–61 he could be scathingly rude about Swansea and the people he came into contact with. This led to him being not tremendously popular except within his own small coterie of admirers of which he was the central attraction. Perhaps the apparent antipathy he had towards Swansea was a deep-seated and unacknowledged resentment because it was the only place that wanted him. I suspect he would have been like that wherever he’d pitched-up.
In any event, Swansea’s provincial idiosyncrasies would help fuel his first two novels. His job as a minor academic was low-status but it provided him with long holiday periods, albeit with an attendant low rate of pay. However, I think a combination of a young family, there never being quite enough money, and his philandering, contrived to make his life more complicated than it needed to be. All of this would be grist to his mill as a novelist though.
I’d often wondered whether Amis mixed much with Swansea’s other great poet, Vernon Watkins, and contacted his widow Gwen to find out. She said,
Vernon was a very unjudgemental man and though Kingsley and he had little in common, he was prepared to be friendly with any newcomer to the literary scene, especially when we lived at the top of Glanmor Road and Kingsley and Hilly lived halfway down. Our number was 31, but I don’t remember theirs (53). KA was newly famous and newly well-off and they gave a number of parties. We went to one, and after an hour people seemed to disappear behind sofas and screens (in couples not necessarily their own). George Fairly the painter and his wife were there and I noticed them signalling to us from the hall. George said, “We seem to be the only people upright here – time to go I think.” So we did. Not our scene. When we moved to the West Cliff in Pennard, Kingsley would come out in his new car, ostensibly on a friendly visit, but really to get information from Vernon about editors, friends and programme makers at the BBC, etc. But we never saw much of the Amis’; Vernon could not afford to drink much, also he had to be at the Bank six days a week at 9.00am without a hangover. KA made his opinion of Dylan Thomas quite clear and often caricatured his poetry, which did not go down well with Vernon, so the acquaintance gradually lapsed.
It has to be said that Amis was consistently rude about Watkins, at least behind his back (referring to him once as “Twatters”) as is evidenced in his letters to Philip Larkin in the late 1950s, apart from a hypocritical goodbye letter to Watkins dated 22nd September, 1961. This is a great shame as Amis saw himself as a poet as well as a writer and Vernon Watkins was after all the ‘Bard of Gower’, but Gwen Watkins confirmed that their paths did not cross much. They did once, though. Gwen Watkins related to me what happened;
We did once lunch at the same pub with friends, when KA began to denigrate Keats* to his coterie. Vernon spoke his opinion loud and clear and KA was annoyed. That was why he used to call Vernon names in his letters to P. Larkin and tried to prevent Philip seeing Vernon when he stayed in Swansea.
I wrote to Amis early in 1995 to ask if I could interview him on the assumption that he was attending the City of Literature celebrations in Swansea during that year. I got a perfectly civil reply from him dated 23rd March, 1995 saying: “It is very kind of you to offer to interview me when I re-visit Swansea. Unfortunately, I will not be involved in the literary celebrations”. As to why he was not involved I have no idea, I’m sure he would have been invited. By this time though Amis had cultivated a formidable reputation for both drinking and curmudgeonliness and I suspect would have had no time at all for a festival of this kind. In August of that same year and while staying with friends in Swansea, Amis had a fall and a suspected stroke. After a spell in Hospital in London he went home, however on September 6th he was re-admitted to hospital and eventually died on the morning of 22nd October, 1995.
Amis was at times uncharitably cruel about Swansea and some of the people in it when he first arrived. Conceivably he saw himself as too good for the place, without being quite able to reconcile why he was there. However, by 1991 he would write movingly about it in his memoirs. Even allowing for an old man’s ennui, I suspect Swansea ‘grew on him’ the way it does tend to grow on you. Partially it does it via an engaging mixture of the different environments that the city presents you with. These vary greatly from the industrial archaeology of the Lower Swansea Valley and the ghostly remains of the various copperworks to the seaside charms of Mumbles village. And then there are the people. In this resolutely working class city they tend to possess an unaffected and guileless charm which is at its root, good-natured and almost completely devoid of reserve or snootiness. Put people and place together and what you end up with is somewhere with a relaxed homeliness and conviviality which is what I suspect worked on Amis.
A commemorative blue plaque was unveiled on April 15th, 2015 at 24 The Grove to celebrate Amis’s residence there in the period 1951-56.