Kingsley Amis did not care what people thought of his drinking.
He was a grand old man of English letters, a comic master, recipient of the Booker Prize, a Knight of the British Empire. So what if “Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time?” So what if he fell over on the way out of pubs? If you didn’t like it you could piss off.
He wasn’t born to such fame but rather to the solid middle class in Norbury, a drab, down-at-heel London suburb. He hated it, and resented his family, who suffered from a false sense of superior status, and a fear of losing a rank it never had in the first place. The only child of older parents, he was forbidden neighborhood friends who were deemed too common. While he was loved and pampered, he was also smothered. His mother did everything for him, down to feeding him by hand, even when he was thirteen, setting the stage for a man who was hopelessly helpless, who could neither drive a car nor use a telephone.
His school career was unremarkable until he was ten when a new teacher introduced him to Shakespeare and poetry. Amis wrote a poem of his own, and found that he liked it. When he was twelve, he attended the City of London School where boys wore uniforms and striped pants, and read Greek and Latin. There he discovered G.K. Chesterton and American jazz, and continued to write poetry that he later called pieces of appalling pretentiousness and affectation. His wickedly funny impersonations of teachers and other boys guaranteed his popularity.
He won a scholarship to Oxford and started there in the spring of 1941. War cast a low-key atmosphere over the school, hardly what he had expected from novels about the school. Rationing made all sorts of things scarce, from sugar to gasoline, and he stood in long lines for extra food and cigarettes. It was in such a queue that he met fellow student Philip Larkin. The two discovered they shared a love of movies, jazz, and drinking; more importantly they were savagely uninterested in the same things, and the two became lifelong friends.
Despite rationing, Amis managed to find enough sherry to get drunk for the first time in his life, an event which left him vomiting into a chamber pot. He also arranged for his first sexual encounter, through a friend who knew a woman who was willing but had a couple of requests: that he first read a marriage manual, and next, that he lay in a supply of condoms. If Amis’s fictional hints are to be trusted, the experience was less than a success, due to the fact that he did not follow the book’s advice.
By the summer of 1942 he could no longer put off joining the army. Basic training and military routine were tedious, but eventually he was transferred to the Signal Corps where he fared a little better. Years later he described a fictional counterpart who hardly fit in: “He philandered in public; he talked freely of his homosexual friends in Oxford; he spoke of intercourse between the sexes much as the rest spoke of football, eating or drinking; he wrote poetry in the Signal Office.”
Eventually he was sent to Normandy, where he served as a radio operator, dispatching and receiving messages. He wrote that there was “no sex to be had there, or none that I could find. There was no beer, and of course no whisky even if I could have afforded it. But there was some stuff called burgundy.” Like other soldiers he took soap to the local farm houses to trade for extra food, which was how he discovered Calvados, the strong apple brandy native to the countryside. While in Belgium, he drank a cocktail called Gin and French, three parts gin to two parts vermouth.
At the end of the war he was demobilized and returned to London anticipating a life “full of girls and drinks and jazz and books and decent houses and a decent job and being your own boss.” In addition to resuming classes at the university, his agenda included not working, getting drunk and pursuing young women. In 1946, he was focused on one young woman in particular.
Hilary Bardwell was a seventeen-year-old art student when he saw her in a tearoom. “Hilly” was very beautiful and had no lack of male company. She was not at all sure that she was interested in the threadbare English student in the baggy suit, but she allowed herself to be pursued. Soon Amis wrote Larkin that “she does really like jazz. And she likes me.” Discouragingly, she was “not nearly so depraved as I had hoped.”
Although talk was one of Amis’s great joys, he had little use for women’s conversation, which he felt was indiscriminate. Years later, a character in his novel Jake’s Thing explains that women “don’t use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them.” Amis liked the fact that Hilly spoke little and listened well.
She was also incredibly understanding. In the late 1940s, a man would have always escorted a woman home. Not so Kingsley Amis. His terror of riding a bus alone and entering a dark room meant that Hilly took him to his place first, then saw herself home. When he felt the relationship was growing too close, he put distance between them, then pursued her again when he saw that this didn’t seem to bother her. The end-result was that Hilly was pregnant late in 1947. Their parents reluctantly attended a short wedding service in January 1948, then took the couple to tea.
They soon had a cottage, a dog, a cat, and a son, Philip, named for Larkin. While Hilly stayed home with the baby, Amis took the bus to Oxford where he attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien (“repulsive”) and C.S. Lewis (“the best lecturer I ever heard”). Hilly was left isolated, with no transportation, a baby, and another soon on the way. She also had a husband who described himself as “selfish, self-indulgent, lazy, arrogant and above all inextinguishably promiscuous by nature.” This was putting it mildly. A little more than a year after their wedding, she found that he was cheating on her, not with one woman, but with many, some of them her friends.
While he obtained a degree, he failed to defend his thesis for a higher degree to an antagonistic examiner he had insulted. It had actually been an unintentional slight, which is more than can be said for the time he publicly wrote that a bunch of dons had less dignity than a “procession of syphilitic, cancerous, necrophilic shit-bespattered lavatory attendants.” He took the defeat of his thesis in stride, as he already had a job and his first novel was finished.
Lecturing at the University College of Swansea was secure, but the pay was so small that he had to grade extra papers on the side while Hilly worked cleaning up the local theater. Their house was small, with primitive furnishings (their new baby, Martin, slept in a drawer), and Amis was forced (like Lucky Jim) to ration his cigarettes. Even though he was a popular teacher, his views on literature confounded his colleagues. He hated Chaucer, Keats, Beowulf, Jane Austen, and had little use for Charles Dickens, a controversial stand for any English teacher. Even more outrageous, he criticized Swansea’s beloved native son Dylan Thomas.
In 1951 Hilly inherited some money and they bought a house, a car and a refrigerator. The demands of teaching left Amis with little time and his first novel had failed to find a publisher, but he was determined to keep writing. The new house had a room for him to work in which children were not allowed. In his funny and moving account in Experience, Martin Amis wrote that it was from this point that his father “managed to abolish all responsibility for the domestic side of life. Other people looked after all that for him.”
A new novel was born on a visit to Oxford in 1948. Philip Larkin was teaching there, and one morning Amis accompanied him to the staff common room. The scene stuck in Amis’s brain and while it may not sound hilarious, it became the classic comic novel Lucky Jim. (In 1999, National Public Radio chose Jim Dixon as one of the greatest literary characters since 1900.) It was published in January 1954, the same month his daughter Sally was born; Amis was thirty-two. The book was a huge hit with readers and critics, including one who wrote that Amis was a “novelist of formidable and uncomfortable talent.” It was performed on radio, made into a movie in 1957 (and 2002), and would eventually be translated into twenty languages. America, however, did not know what to make of the book. Its distributor in the States offered a money-back guarantee to readers who did not find it funny, and in doing so lost a fortune.
Many people assume, wrongly, that Lucky Jim is autobiographical. Amis did draw some characters from life: Jim Dixon is a lecturer at a small college who rations his cigarettes due to economy and whose hatred of pretension tends to get him in trouble with authority. He also has a genius for making really outrageous faces. Jim Dixon shared one other trait with his creator, the love of drink. “Kingsley has written often and poignantly about that moment when getting drunk suddenly turns into being drunk,” wrote Martin Amis, “and he is, of course, the laureate of the hangover.”
To wit: “He [Jim] stood brooding by his bed…The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
One of the by-products of success was the opportunity for frequent trips to London, which meant sex and lots of it. Finding partners was no problem, and he simply, compulsively tried to seduce almost every woman he met. He described a typical adulterous scene in one of his poems: “Drinks on the tray; the cover-story pat/And quite uncheckable; her husband off/Somewhere with all the kids till six o’clock/…What about guilt, compunction and such stuff?/It’ll wear off, as usual.”
Heavy drinking affected his judgment, but not, apparently, his performance. A few days into a weekend party with friends, he was compelled to be especially attentive to every woman at breakfast, as he had been drunk the night before and couldn’t remember which lady he had slept with. In Swansea, he insisted that students make their apartments available for his extra-marital trysts, reminding them that they had to stand by the married man, and he regularly solicited alibis for anticipated absences from home. This was referred to as “a little chore I’d like you to do for me,” and he always promised to return the favor.
These efforts at discretion were fairly half-hearted, and Hilly continued to find out. She was beautiful, lonely, and hurt, which led her to have moments of her own. One of them was serious, and threatened to break up the marriage. Regarding this possibility, Amis wrote in a letter that “Having one’s wife fucked is one thing; having her taken away from you, plus your children, is another, I find.”
They survived that round, but when Hilly found some letters from his mistress, she gave him an ultimatum. He agreed, with reluctance, writing, “I am to give all that up, it appears. Trouble is it’s so hard to give all that up, habit of years and all that, and such bloody fun too.” His terror of really losing his wife, however, was strong, especially as his psychological fears grew more peculiar in a way that a lover might question. After he saw the movie Psycho, for instance, he was too afraid to go to the bathroom at night unless Hilly went with him.
In 1955 he won a literary prize that carried the painful condition that he spend three months abroad. Amis hated “abroad.” He saw it as nothing short of exile against his will, but in the end he accepted to make Hilly happy and to avoid looking too eccentric. The family settled on Portugal. While many would enjoy the simple, fresh food, the local wine, and the opportunity to work on a new book at a nearby beach or chalet, to Amis it was all “bloody terrible, man.” Instead, he worked on his goal “to draw as few sober breaths as possible” and succeeded by “drinking a lot of local gin and a kind of applejack-cum-Pernod that they go in for a lot hereabouts,” he wrote Larkin. The only writing he got out of the trip was a piece called “Lusitanian Liquors.”
That fall, his second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, was published to good reviews. More and more he was asked to write journalistic pieces and reviews, many with a characteristically contrary tone. The public gave a collective literary gasp when he panned Evelyn Waugh’s latest novel. He dismissed a collection of Dylan Thomas’s prose with “someone ought to give Dylan a bouquet of old bogwort before long.”
Nothing was sacred, including England’s most cherished symbols. In Life magazine he was quoted as saying, “I would abolish the aristocracy and, naturally, the House of Lords. As for the royal family, it serves a purpose as a sentimental glue for the Commonwealth and probably has to be preserved, but just as a personal feeling of my own I would like to get rid of them, queen and all.” In Swansea, the university administrators were horrified, but wary of firing their celebrity faculty member.
They got rid of him when he sailed (not flew) to Princeton, New Jersey, to teach creative writing. Amis loved the United States and its amiable, hard-drinking populace. In a letter to England he wrote, “All very jolly here, settling in fine, with the smell of bourbon and King-size Chesterfields over all: cirrhosis and lung-cancer have moved into an altogether more proximate position relative to me.” He was unnerved, however, by the fact that no one cursed, ever.
America liked him, too. He was hired by Esquire to review foreign movies, and asked to share the stage with Jack Kerouac, where he presented a gentlemanly contrast to the antics of the home-grown writer. Recreation was abundant, in the shape of female students and faculty wives, and he wrote to Larkin that he was boozing and fucking harder than any time in his life. Somehow he found time to teach classes and give a series of lectures on science fiction, a genre he enjoyed, which would eventually become the book New Maps of Hell.
He returned to England and a job at Oxford in 1960, although he almost didn’t get the post. In spite of his bestselling novels and popular columns, he was not deemed to have published the right sort of thing. Needless to say, he had no use for this limited attitude nor the stuffy atmosphere of the academic elite. Compared to the free-wheeling pub scene of Swansea, it was stultifying dull, but a bored Kingsley Amis could be counted on to show up drunk and liven things up.
The accepted method of instruction at the university was for a lecturer to feed students the correct interpretations of what was good or bad in literature. Amis made many of his colleagues, and some of his students, uncomfortable by encouraging his scholars to think for themselves and develop their own ideas about the work of even the most revered of masters, Shakespeare, for instance. Furthermore, he drank with students, which was frowned upon, lest it lead to homosexuality, a possibility which hardly seemed likely with Amis.
While he enjoyed teaching, it was demanding and drained him of the energy he needed to write; he eventually left Oxford to write full-time. By the end of 1962, he had published six novels, all of them strong sellers. That fall, he (as well as an extremely drunk Carson McCullers) was invited to speak at a literary festival whose topic was “Sex in Literature.” While there, he explored the subject by conducting an affair with one of the festival directors, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.
What started as casual turned serious; they continued to see each other when the festival ended. Jane Howard was sexy, beautiful, and well-respected in English literary circles. She was also from the upper class which appealed to the latent status-consciousness left over from Amis’s childhood. He told Hilly that he was taking Jane to Spain for the summer. Hilly used a lipstick to scrawl “I fuck anything” on his bare back.
He, in turn, left for Spain on her birthday, leaving her a present of a nightgown that had been picked out by Jane. When he returned from his trip, he was furious to find that Hilly was not waiting, that she had, in fact, taken the children to Majorca and abandoned him to his fate. Although he did not want a divorce, for Kingsley Amis it was impossible to avoid. He would need, “someone to make all the bookings, someone to get him to Southampton, someone to share his cabin on the boat, and someone to lead him from Palma to Soller and right up to our front door,” wrote Martin. It was easier to simply return to Jane.
For the time being, Amis and the twice-divorced Howard lived together in London, where they were shortly joined by the boys. The couple married in 1965, and Howard told the press, “I admit it. I’m really dotty about Kingsley.” There was a cost, however. Like Hilly, she was expected to take care of all the practical matters while Kingsley wrote. She was the one who did the real parenting of his children – enforcing discipline, overseeing schools – the everyday grind. Amis’s idea of being a good father was to turn his boys into his drinking buddies. In a gesture that was part bravado and part economy, he bought the fifteen and sixteen-year-old brothers a gross (144) of condoms.
In 1967, the family sailed to America where Amis was going to teach at Vanderbilt in Nashville. This trip to the States was not as successful as his previous one. He was unprepared, for instance, for a colleague who announced “I can’t find it in my heart to give a negro or a Jew an A.” Almost as disturbing as campus racism was the fact that local laws made it impossible to buy a drink in a bar or restaurant; he had to bring his own liquor to bars and order a set-up instead. Local laws notwithstanding, he managed to be hung over every day.
The couple returned to England via Mexico, where Amis discovered “a kind of tequila Bloody Mary with a hell of a lot of Tabasco and so on in the bloody part,” which he described as very sustaining, and that the “tequila is murder but local gin is good. Food excellent, wine awful piss but beer drinkable.”
Back home they moved into a Georgian country house the size of a small mansion, with two staircases and twenty-something rooms. Although she loved their new home, Howard found herself maneuvered more and more into the role of housekeeper, with increased duties such as cooking and cleaning as well as raising the boys, at the expense of her writing. Then Amis turned around and complained that he felt isolated, and that she wasn’t doing enough to make friends for the two of them.
When they moved back to London, it was to please him (the country did not have enough pubs), although Jane was left to move the entire household herself. The only part Amis helped with was finishing off the half-empty liquor bottles around the house so that they wouldn’t have to be transported. He now had a lot in common with the protagonist of his 1969 novel The Green Man: a self-absorbed alcoholic, prone to an eating disorder, hypochondria, and neglect of his children and wives who deems that “the only time I can be reasonably sure of not feeling bloody awful is a couple of hours or so at the end of a day’s drinking.”
In 1971 he published On Drink. Along with How’s Your Glass and Everyday Drinking, both published in the 1980s, it made up a trio of books that allowed him to play with his hobbyistic enthusiasm, as his son wrote, his delight with “the heated wine glass, the chilled cream poured over the back of a spoon, the mint leaves and the cucumber juice, the strips of orange peel, the rims of salt, the squeezers and strainers.” His son also believed that he “wrote about booze to salvage something from all the hours he devoted to it.”
If so, then the hours were salvaged delightfully, with recipes, history, advice on surviving the perils of drinking abroad, and “The Mean Sod’s Guide,” a fabulously funny and somewhat nasty chapter of instruction on how to be a stingy host. Also described are his suggestions for the “Boozing Man’s Diet,” which begins with a caveat. “The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you weight without reducing your alcoholic intake by the smallest degree.”
There is even an improbably gleeful return to the hangover, now broken down into two basic types. The first is the physical hangover, for which he suggests a variety of palliatives, such as the Polish Bison – a combination of Bovril beef paste and vodka – or a tumbler of Grand Marnier for breakfast. He admits to trying baking soda with a vodka chaser, but ultimately does not recommend it. The metaphysical hangover is trickier. “When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is.”
Unfortunately, that feeling about the family being in a conspiracy was more than a hangover in his own life. His marriage to Jane was disintegrating. When he misplaced an article he was working on, he accused Jane of destroying it. Another time he started a nasty argument about some guests that upset him at one of their parties. The problem was that there had been no such party, except in his imagination. There were repeated instances of calculated rudeness to others that he later could not remember. Then there were the physical indignities, the shoulder broken in a drunken fall, a broken hand in another, the necessity of going upstairs on all fours when walking was impossible.
It was beneath Kingsley Amis to deny his drunkenness, but it was likewise part of his bravado that he was unable to admit that it was a factor in the death of his marriage. He was a man who did not believe in seeing another person’s side of things; he was proud taking sides, and to this end he was compelled to blame the whole mess on Jane and Jane alone. In 1980, she left him, and made an offer to come back if he would give up drinking completely. Her request was met with anger, and he offered it to his friends as an example of her overweening egotism.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t stop drinking. When he fell and broke his leg in 1982, he underwent an enforced withdrawal, during which he claimed he experienced “nothing spectacular, just a few voices and non-existent cats,” and then remained sober for six months. It was more to the point that he was incapable of believing that drink was a problem, in his life or marriage, and Jane had no right to pretend it was.
The grounds for divorce were “unreasonable behavior,” and he (unwisely) considered contesting it. He accused Jane of being grasping about the settlement and was incredulous when she told the press that he made her keep house and kept her from her own writing, even though he admitted that it was her job to be domestic because she was good at it. Even so, he claimed that the divorce almost killed him. “Stopping being married to someone is an incredibly violent thing to happen to you, not easy to take in completely, ever.”
After eighteen years together, he felt abandoned, and was simply more terrified than ever of being alone. While he had sought professional help for his phobias, psychiatry had failed him, and at the age of fifty-eight he enlisted his grown children as companions. While he had been an imperfect father, he had also been a loving one, and they rallied around him. They realized, however, that permanent dad-sitting was not going to work, so Martin and Philip put their heads together and came up with an odd-shaped solution to an odd-shaped problem.
Hilly was now married to Alastair Boyd, Lord Kilmarnock, a member of the House of Lords. The marriage was happy but money was sometimes tight. Amis, on the other hand, needed company and protection, and was rich. Scarcely knowing what to hope, their children arranged for Kingsley to move in with his ex-wife, her husband, and young son, in a living arrangement that proved a great, if unlikely, success. After his second divorce, he swore-off women sexually and was no threat to Hilly’s marriage. He leaned on her, however, and depended on her as if she was a wife or a mother for feeding, cleaning, even buying his clothes. Lord Kilmarnock did his bit, too, making up Amis’s bed every morning before he headed to Parliament.
With such devoted caretakers on hand, he drank more than ever. He also continued to write. Between 1983 and his death he wrote seven novels, a collection of short stories, a book of English usage, and scores of articles, essays, restaurant critiques, and reviews. His fiction grew increasingly misogynistic, and his journalistic pieces were markedly cantankerous. This quality was trademark Amis, and it could run the gamut from honest and unflinching criticism of hypocrisy to inexplicably cruel and public barbs at the expense of his friends.
It showed up in his disdain for feminism, menus in French, friends who did not offer cocktails at lunch, and Nelson Mandela (whom he said should be hanged). Anyone whom he considered a bore was treated with an almost single-minded contempt, yet he loathed snobbery. His conservatism was rabid, even as he railed against convention. Most of this was done in the interest of taking sides. He believed that an argument had to have sides, or discourse would suffer, so it was morally necessary for him to provide adamant opinions. “How I hate all that talk of moderation and reasonableness and flexibility, especially the last,” he wrote.
In reviews of other writers, he used such terms as “little twit,” “fucking fool,” “pompous buffoon,” and “that little turd.” Yet he was aware that somewhere along the line he had gone from being an Angry Young Man to become, in his words, a “curmudgeonly old shit.” Friend and writer Christopher Hitches said it was a slow evolution, and that from “being a tease of the politically-correct he had become a bit of a droning old club-man.”
The club where he did his droning was the Garrick, and as time went on it became the center of his social life. Every morning he would write at home for three hours, then take a cab to the Garrick where, according to Eric Jacobs, his biographer and sometimes companion, Amis would have “three large Macallans to be spread carefully through the hour or so between his arrival by taxi and the necessary chore of eating. There would be wine, both white and red, the bare minimum of food then a digestif before he caught another taxi home.”
In the past, collapsing under the influence had been responsible for broken limbs, but now “falling over…was all he ever did,” wrote Martin. “There were the slow and majestic subsidences…And there were other types of trips, tumbles and purlers, usually performed in his rooms at home…To hear my mother tell it, some of these collapses sounded like a chest-of-drawers jettisoned from an aeroplane.” Hilly and Alastair rarely interfered, however, unless he got stuck and then he would bang on the floor for Alastair to unwedge him.
One day after lunch with Martin he took a particularly spectacular dive, and his son was tempted to intervene. “‘Dad, you’re too old for this shit,’ I might have said to him. But why bother? Do you think he didn’t know?” he wrote in Experience. In 1995, while visiting friends in Swansea, Amis fell and hit his head hard on the concrete. Eric Jacobs was soon on hand to drive him back to London, where it became clear that something was wrong.
Words got mixed up in his speech, and when he was well enough to sit at a typewriter, he would get up before dawn and produce pages covered with the word “seagulls.” In one of his novels, an Amis character says, “The rewards for being sane may not be very many but knowing what’s funny is one of them.” To Martin, the most frightening result of the fall was that his father could no longer understand what was funny, no longer knew when, or how, to laugh.
He continued to drink while in the hospital. Upon his release, he visited the Garrick where he drank himself paralytic. He kept his medication jumbled in a shoebox, from which he would grab a handful and toss it back with whiskey. One day he yelled at Philip, “Kill me, you fucking fool!” The end came a few weeks later.
His final words were “Come on,” but maybe it makes more sense to look back at his final sentence of the book On Drink and his admonishment to readers on their health and well-being: “Well, if you want to behave better and feel better, the only absolutely certain method is drinking less. But to find out how to do that, you will have to find a more expert expert than I shall ever be.”
Excerpted from A Drinking Companion by Kelly Boler, available in bookstores and at Amazon.com. Her latest book, Amy Lowell: The Demon Saleswoman of Poetry is available where books are sold.