An Old Devil we could do without? ()wen Dudley Edwards throws the book at Kinglsey Amis.
M r Kingsley Amis began his literary career in 1954 by winning the Somerset Maugham Prize for a novel, ‘Lucky Jim’, based on his years teach- ing at University College, Swansea, and has now won the Booker Prize for a novel, ‘The Old Devils’, based on his years at University College, Swansea. He has chosen different settings for many of his other novels, but the pre- occupation is always the same: a single character (occasionally sliced up, as in ‘The Old Devils’, into several pieces which converse and get drunk together), behaving badly, exciting re- sentment, emitting increasingly chauv- inisi petulant diatribes, and usually being humiliated with a nasty and mer- ciless justice. The message seems to be one of petty alcoholic hatreds,
eitherconsciously orunconsciouslyre- ?
ilecting profound self-hatred. The books are thought to be funny.
Age offers some differentials. ‘Lucky Jim' was loosely and inaccurately des- cribed as the work of an Angry Young Man, and certainly reflected nihilisiic resentment oi seniors; the later books are definitely the work of an Angry Age- ing Man whose nihilisiic resentment of his juniors is sufficiently well recorded to merit the attention oi zoologists. Perhaps Mr Amis’s sole character is found at his most cheeriui in the teen- age hero oi ‘The Riverside Villas Mur- der’, a volume intended without much success to be a late flowering in classic
Thirties detective fiction. The murderer v
(iemale) goes to bed with the hero, the detective (male) would like to, and it is all suitably flattering. Nobody seems to want to go to bed with anybody in ‘The Old Devils’, and by the amount they drink it is just as well.
in one particular Mr Amis has a re- markable genius. His study of James Bond (which, while reeklng with fan- tasy-identification and special plead- ing, contains some good perceptions), comments on his difficulty in ‘hearing’ Fleming’s creations other than ‘M' and Donovan Grant in his disguise as Cap- tain Nash in ‘From Russia with Love’. The remark is lett hanging: to take it further would have exposed the card- board substance of Fleming's work to unseasonabie climate. But it does re- mind us how well Mr Amis’s readers can, iithey choose,‘hear’ his char- acters. ‘The Old Devils’ is tediously anti-Welsh, with some bad confusions between South Walean and North Walean cultures, but the Welsh voices are as faithful in their cadences as the English. Mr Amis is silly in his desire to deny natural Welsh talent for music, and on this he is his own executioner (as in so much else), for his Welsh voices carry a rich and vibrant music. The trouble is that like his English char- acters they never say anything worth listening to. There is a thickening plot Labout a returned professional Welsh-
Z'I‘he List 31 Oct— 13 Nov
j man who has done well out of the Dylan
5 Thomas indsutry (‘Dylan’ presented
3 under the cellophane disguise oi ‘Bry-
) dan’). The ‘retumed professional eth-
i nic’ theme is old. The intellectual vul-
) nerability of the Dylan industry is old.
; The author is old. The reader feels
about a hundred.
: MrAmis made a witty and graceful
; speech in receiving the Booker Prize.
: How he actually ieels about being
i chosen from a short-list otherwise con-
sisting oi two Canadians (one woman, one septuagenarian), a Japanese who
became a social worker in Scotland, a
half-Chinese analyst of the British re-
cord in the Dplum Wars, and a Gay Lib-
i erationist, we may in due course dis-
cover lrom a novel which presumably
will not be called ‘Booker Me’. His plot shortage is all the more acute with the need for some protective colouration of the single character, and he has been
; slightly desperately leaping from
‘genre’ to ‘genre’ — ghost story, science
fiction, James Bond thriller (Bond was
meant to be Fleming’s Bond, but his
; bedman ship proved to be of the usual
Amis Procrustean kind). ‘The Old Dev- ils’ seems something like a confession
i of despair on the point, by returning to
what he evidently regards as the vile
dust from which ‘Lucky Jim’ sprang.
i There seems little reason for him to
be wept now that he is honoured and
i sung as the Booker Winner. It might
just as well go to him, and one may
hope, without much faith, that it will
; make him happier.
‘ But somewhere in Amis, deep down,
. there is, lthink, a sensitive and per-
ceptive artist of much more funda-
mental decencies than the pathetic
. rants with which his perennial charac- ter responds to the irritations of a somewhat coddled human existence.
When he forgets to hectorthe public about the very depressing charms of Tory materialism, he can be a critic of value and insight; but he seldom for- gets. The whole trouble may have star- ted with someone comparing him to Evelyn Waugh: it is a comparison which, like the Booker Prize, indicates the horrible degeneration of British lit- erature since Evelyn Waugh. And Mr
' Amis’s response seems to have been to live the part of Waugh, as though it had not been bad enough in the original; his critics miscasthim, and so did he. (Waugh, on them both, said ‘there is
‘ life in the old dog— more than in the young'.) Above all, he has nothing in common with the spiritual dimension of Waugh. The nearest he gets to
eternal damnation, on a symbolist in- terpretation, is when the hero is forcib- ly excluded from licensed premises.
Yet maybe I misjudge him. Maybe the
Amis novel in itself is intended as a
: vision oi Hell. Maybe its eftect could be
to confront us with our self-created
( Hells. An eternity in an Amis novel
3 seems as dreadful a punishment as
: even the most hardened evangelical
I could wave before us.
l But I hope to Heaven he gets out oi it.
n.’ ' V Duntroon Castle. Argyllshire
Tonight is Hallowe’en. Ghosts, ghouls and things thatgo click, flash, whirr in the night. Stephanie Billen meets a
man who is doing a lot for the image of
E the haunted house.
‘For spookiness. Scotland is the place.‘ says the intrepid Simon Marsden. internationally acclaimed photographer. He should know; ten years ago he began research for The Haunted Realm. a book of pictures
that took him the length and breadth ' ofGreat Britain in search ofcastles
and houses with a reputation for ghosts.
It's not just that Scotland is rather more full ofcrags and castles than. say. the Home Counties; it is a question oftemperament. "I‘he Scottish stories are more violent. People really were boiled in oil and all those things that the Scots have it in their nature to do‘. suggests Marsden. adding that the Irish are more ‘over the top. more weird and that too is about temperament.‘
In his book he has not only taken some electrifyineg scary photographs. with a little help from
some infra-red film. but also chronicled the stories. part legend. part history. that have given the locations their peculiar atmosphere. The Argyllshire Duntroon ('astle. for example. was originally the domain of the (‘ampbells Back in the 17th century. a rival Chieftain known as ‘left-handed (‘oll Macdonnell‘. had a personal score to settle with the inhabitants. and sent out his piper to spy on them. Initially welcomed. the piper was soon rumbled and imprisoned in a turret. whereupon he began to play a tune to warn his clansmen not to attempt an attack on the castle. ‘The piper’s warning to his master‘. as this is now known. was heeded. but the piper's hands were summarily chopped off by the Campbells. causing his death from shock and loss of blood. Marsden visited the spot overlooking Loch (‘rinan. and was surprised to find it occupied by Mary Malcolm. ‘She used to be on children's TV — strange to see such a familiar face there. ' The Malcolm family added authenticity to the story by informing him that restoration work had uncovered a handless skeleton. and ofcourse.