Like father like scum

Lucky Him: the life of Kingsley Amis

Richard Bradford <em>Peter Owen, 448pp, £22.50 </em>


Over his four-decade career, Kingsley Amis produced a book or so a year. Since his death, in 1995, books by or about him (his Letters, his rules for good English, Martin Amis's memoir Experience) have continued to appear at almost the same rate. This year's instalment is Lucky Him, a biographical reading of Amis's oeuvre, endorsed on the dust jacket by no less than Amis fils. Amis himself always denied that his work was autobiographical but, right from the start, critics and fans insisted on conflating him with his protagonists. Something about the relaxed transparency of his prose suggested easy and direct access to its begetter. When Somerset Maugham called the hero of Amis's first novel "scum", he had more than just Lucky Jim Dixon in mind.

Richard Bradford, professor of English at the University of Ulster, is the latest in this long line. Amis's oeuvre, he argues, is "one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking autobiographies ever produced". Entertaining and thought-provoking, yes, but autobiographical? Sure enough, a few sentences later, Bradford is getting cold feet: Amis, he tells us, obscured "the autobiographical thread that runs through [his] books not only to disguise it, but also to allow himself space for conjecture, as a means of exploring his thoughts about life" - which sounds pretty much like how your average novelist transmutes experience into fiction.

The real question is whether Bradford's autobiographical parallels shed any more light on Amis's fiction than it sheds on itself. Since that fiction was illumined by great shafts of wisdom and wit, I think the answer has to be no. Amis's work explained itself.

The lineaments of his life are well enough known from the Eric Jacobs biography, his son's memoirs and the many interviews he gave throughout his career. Born in south London in 1922, the only child of a lower-middle-class family, he went to the City of London School, won a scholarship to Oxford, interrupted his degree for a wartime stint in the army and became an English lecturer in the postwar education boom. His lectures, first at Swansea, later at Cambridge, in which he paid far more attention to the means rather than the meaning of literature, sound like fun. Amis would ask his students whether, say, Twelfth Night was all it was cracked up to be: "It says it's a comedy. Fine. But does it have any decent jokes?"

Jokes, often indecent ones, were what made Amis famous, but darkness was always encroaching. Like most funny men, Amis was a depressive. Unlike most funny men, he never wanted to play Hamlet. His talent to amuse meant that the solemn could never take him seriously - F R Leavis called him a "pornographer" - but for Amis, jokes were a moral duty. The world was awful enough without his adding to its miseries.

His own miseries left him utterly dependent on others. Evelyn Waugh, with whom Amis is often compared, couldn't cope with the modern world. Amis just couldn't cope. He was afraid of the dark and, when he wasn't working, he couldn't be alone. When his second wife left him, he moved back in with his first wife and her new husband - a set-up of startling modernity. Otherwise, Amis was a fervent anti-modernist, who always maintained that the test of a good book was how fast it made you turn the pages.

Yet his own books can be very slow reads - the story beckons you on, but those coiling, colloquial cadences stop you in your tracks. They demand rereading. Unbelievable, then, that while sententious second-raters such as Iris Murdoch are forever being reissued, the bulk of our best postwar novelist's work is out of print, or that we still await a satisfactory biography. In the meantime, Richard Bradford's book is a pleasant and entertaining enough rehearsal. Should it encourage some enterprising publisher to commence reissuing Amis, it will have done good work.

Christopher Bray is an editor on the Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis