John Summers


Interview with Kingsley Amis

by John Summers, published in the Mandrake column of the Sunday Telegraph, 1965 under the headline ‘Anti-Death League’

It’s hard to realise it, but more than ten years have rolled by since the Angry Young Man burst hilariously upon an unhappy world.

Lucky Jim – the original Angry Young Man – “the masterpiece of Angry Young Man writing,” as Lawrence Durrell describes it, was the harbinger of the mode, and Kingsley Amis gave a special Mandrake interview to look back, over an Angry Young Man decade, though not, in his case, with much anger.

“When I wrote Lucky Jim it all seemed to start going – the Angry Young Man stuff. I didn’t exactly like being tagged as the original A.Y.M., but if everybody else says you are, what on earth can you do about it? I was an impecunious young English literature lecturer – cum writer – when I wrote it. I write on anything, backs of old envelopes, bus tickets, anything.”

Amis found fame overnight with his very first novel, luckily hitting the bookstalls to make Lucky Jim and “Redbrick,” synonymous with the new debunk intellectualism. “Yes, I suppose it’s possible that it opened a lot of doors for the Osbornes, Pinters, and Sillitoes to follow Lucky Jim through.”

With the first splurge of publicity as Fleet Street took up the A.Y.M. cult., the handsomest A.Y.M. of ‘em all found his girl students at Swansea University embarrassingly chalking up slogans on his lecture room blackboard, like Bel Amis. But in 1963 Amis said goodbye to all that and the academic life, forever.

“But you can’t imagine how much I miss the intellectual stimulus of teaching English literature to young people. More than I ever realised – I do miss it.”

Hair lightly greying, Kingsley Amis still prefers green shirts with sunflower yellow ties but after his first spell as “a full-timer in the literary game” he has come back home again. For Good.

“Tried living in Majorca for a while (‘the only man who makes me sick – with laughter’ as Robert Graves describes him) – but now I’ve come back to cold old Britain again.

“Because I’ve changed, I’ve changed. Since my Lucky Jim days.” Kingsley Amis downed another glass of stout and said:

“I’m being more – serious.”

Crouched behind a typewriter in his Hampstead artic, he said: “In Spain – I found I missed people. All that sun and wine stuff ... but you miss people. And after all that’s what I write about. People.

“I’ve been terrible. Last few days I’ve been feeling terrible.” Mr Amis’s fingers to his hair. “Because I knew it was time for me to start writing a new book ... Yes. Lucky Jim was a shock for me too, I never expected it to make the stir it did.

“It’s all been a fairy story really. There I was lecturing in a redbrick in Wales. I was lucky getting Lucky Jim published – I didn’t get much money out of it to start with though. Only got £2000 for the film rights, believe it or not ... Well,” Mr Amis tasted his stout, “it sounded a lot of money to me in those days. Yes Lucky Jim was to a certain extent autobiographical ... but Jim, the young university lecturer; always falling out of windows and setting fire to his bed sheets while giving English lectures, he isn’t really me.

“The only actual resemblance between me and Jim is I really do make funny faces just like Lucky Jim did.

“Did I ever tell you about this chap, American producer, thought he was going to make a film of one of my books, he gets hold of me and says – you know, big cigar –” Kingsley Amis’s stomach distending like a bullfrog, teeth champing down on his cigar as he enunciated the nasal American:

“‘Naw, Naw! Look, Kingersley feller, it’s all very well you wanna write it inna book that way or sumthin’ ... but when you’re making a real pic-ture, you gotter think of it...’” Kingsley Amis’s hands pudged upwards at an imaginary Cinemascope screen.

“‘Up there’.

“Yuuu—lke!” Kingsley Amis’s features coming back to normal. “I’ll do my Evelyn Waugh face next for you, if you like,” Kingsley Amis puffing his cheeks, eyes rolling heavenwards.

“Just the same I haven’t been feeling too humorous lately. Feeling terrible really. Terrible, because I knew I had to get started on. this. new book of mine ... different kind of book from the ones I used to write.”

In his Hampstead attic Kingsley Amis rolled another sheet of paper in his typewriter and tapped tentatively, contemplating the words hammered blackly in front of him. He looked up. His face with a slightly mischievous undergrad smile, the real Amis face, brightening.

“But I’ll be feeling a lot better now I’ve got started on it. Shall I tell you about the plot? Right then, here goes! Title I’m putting on it is The Anti-Death League – all about this idea, you see, that life,” Kingsley Amis said sombrely, “is so short. And death is so long. So all of us, we ought to be, well ...” the original angry young man said carefully, “nicer to each other. A lot nicer. Yes, a bit different from the Angry Young Man stuff isn’t it?” Kingsley Amis’s eyes brightening again, “You see? I have changed, haven’t I ?”

The talent for lack of pretentiousness, the clear expression, the ability to find the right phraseology for the job of debunking anything is still there. Kingsley Amis. M.A., said: “What do you think of old Sartre turning down about £18,000 and the Nobel Prize just like that. Let the whole bloody literary side down. And all that hard cash too.”

Bopa Amis - the subsequent dispute

Six years later, Kingsley Amis returned to this article (and to another by Rosemary Collins) in a column in The Spectator entitled ‘The Right to Reply’. Both John and Ms Collins replied, as did Brian Roberts, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and an exchange ensued in the letters pages of the magazine, from which these are the extracts relevant to John:

Extract from Kingsley Amis article, ‘The Right to Reply’, The Spectator, 30 January 1971:

…On two occasions the Sunday Telegraph denied me the right to reply to its misrepresentations. The first of these was in 1964, when one of the people who then worked for its ‘Mandrake’ feature came to interview me. It turned out that I knew him, remembered him well as an unusually thick student in my classes at the University College of Swansea. (My erstwhile colleagues must forgive me if I observe that that is saying something.) How I wondered – at first – had such a person got his present job?

It was soon clear that he had already written most of his piece. ‘This man Lucky Jim,’ he said, eye on notebook, ‘always falling out of windows and getting his finger stuck in the woodwork while lecturing on English literature – he isn’t really you, is he?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘and while we’re about it he doesn’t fall out of any windows, and the finger-sticking incident comes in the film, not the book. and it’s history, not literature.

‘Oh yes,’ I think he said.

Some days later the telephone rang. (It was incidentally the only movable object in the entire dwelling, everything else having been packed into a removal van that was throbbing in the roadway outside.) A girlish voice read the interview over to me: a piece of common courtesy, this, but, in fairness to my interviewer, normally omitted. ‘“This man Lucky Jim,”’ I was told, ‘“always falling out of windows and getting his finger stuck in the woodwork while lecturing on history [aha!], he isn’t really me,” said Amis.’

There was much more of a kindred absurdity, but I could not then and there rewrite the piece. ‘At least scrub the bit about the finger in the woodwork,’ I said; ‘change it to ... oh, setting fire to his bed-sheets.’

On the Sunday I read (in part) that the man who was always falling out of windows and setting fire to his bed-sheets while lecturing on history wasn’t really me. No, indeed. I wrote a letter to the editor, saying (in part) that a man who always lectured on history from a blazing bed was undoubtedly a splendid character, but one I had not thought to include in any of my works or even conversations. The editor refused to print my letter, on the grounds that I had passed the piece. Had I? Had I passed the hot-lecture detail? I got bored and gave up – which they bank on…

Letter to the Editor, The Spectator, 27 February 1971:

Sir: Interesting that the unamiable Mr Amis rushes to admit that he has published statements intended to be damaging in your pages and, since it is me alone that he is crying in his porridge about, in that ‘Right to reply’ article of his, I trust it is OK for ‘the thickest student’ ever in Swansea University, who actually wasted time interviewing him in the Sunday Telegraph, now to have the right of reply too?

Since some 20,000 of us have gone through Swansea University in Amis’s time, by calling me ‘the thickest’ he is as he says, ‘saying something indeed’. But Amis is the gay Londoner who, when he came down here, described all of us Welsh as ‘slathered in woad and sheepshit’ … but then we Welsh have always had the teachers we deserve. And why should we be so surprised by anything this person says who has now sunk to his proper level masquerading as the concocter of crypto-fascist fake James Bond tec yarns?

Amis will shortly have a chance to read what we thought about him down at Swansea University in my own book titled The Rag Parade appropriately enough.

John Summers
Churchview, Lulsgate, Somerset

Letter to the Editor (extract), The Spectator, 6 March 1971:

Sir: Mr Summers and Miss Collins would have done better to go on sheltering behind the screen of anonymity I had chivalrously erected in front of them. Both, in different degrees, give further evidence of the shortcomings for which I chided them in my original article.

It is Mr Summers who offers the richer blend of incapacities. ‘Since it is me alone, that [Amis] is crying in his porridge about,’ he writes I trust it is OK for “the thickest student” ever in Swansea University ... now to have the right of reply too?’ Evidently so; but a glance at my article, or at Miss Collins’s letter, or at Mr Roberts’s earlier letter will show that it was not at all him alone (as he would put it) that I was in tears over, and another glance will show that I did not call him the thickest student ever in Swansea University, but merely ‘an unusually thick student in my classes at the University College of Swansea’ (today’s italics). However, in view of his letter we may have to consider seriously his claim to the majestic nadir he mentions.

To misquote a man within quotation marks is a rather novel and appealingly simple method of distortion. Mr Summers uses it again in the course of misrepresenting my views about the Welsh He says: ‘[Amis] described all us Welsh as “slathered in woad and sheepshit.”’ What I wrote, which was ‘woaded in pit-dirt and sheepshit’, was part of a jocose caricature of ignorant or hostile English views of the Welsh, for which as a whole I retain a deep respect and affection, as my many Welsh friends will testify.

Anyway, according to Mr Summers, I cannot hope to surprise anybody now that I have sunk to my ‘proper level masquerading as the concocter of crypto-fascist fake James Bond tec yarns’. I suppose he refers to the single yarn, Colonel Sun, which I published under a pseudonym while letting everybody know I had written it. I did not masquerade as its concocter, or concoctor: I concocted it. Mr Summers comes near libelling me by implying I got someone else to write the thing and then passed it off as my own work. And anybody who has read a Bond adventure and a few tec yarns, and imagines the one to be an example of the other, cannot have understood what he has read…

Kingsley Amis
Lemmons, Hadley Common, Barnet, Herts

Letter to the Editor, The Spectator, 20 March 1971:

Sir: Apart from ‘near to libelling Kingsley Amis’, I don’t mind actually libelling him any time he chooses to make an issue out of it. But Spectator readers should be fascinated to know it was your own press columnist, that late, great journalist, Donald McLachlan, for whom Kingsley Amis set to sharpen pencils, who first suggested we interview Amis in the Sunday Telegraph – because Donald McLachlan was the man who outlined the James Bond character and books to his wartime colleague Ian Fleming, and as McLachlan put it: ‘I don’t think Amis will add any lustre to Bond’s image in these books he is proposing to imitate.’

Quite. And I am indebted to my erstwhile fellow student at Swansea University, Mr Marcus Morris, for reminding me that at Swansea University we all knew Amis as Bopa Amis – Bopa being the name for Auntie in Welsh.

And Amis certainly demonstrates that same bitchery in everything he sets his fourth-rate pen to.

Never mind, Bopa, if we nasty journalists say anything annoying about you – hit ‘em with your handbag!

John Summers
Churchview, Lulsgate, Somerset

(This correspondence is now closed – Editor, Spectator.)