Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

“Unkind things”: the letters of Kingsley Amis

In a letter to me not long before his death, touching on the role played in the publication of his 1957 collection by poet and novelist John Wain, the poet Gordon Wharton came up with some harsh words for Kingsley Amis, who at that time had moved in the same circles:

“What else? Oh yes, John Wain was lecturing in English at Reading Uni when he was supervising/editing the series in which Errors of Observation appeared … Incidentally, Kingsley Amis absolutely loathed JW, and when John’s sight began to go, he wrote all manner of filthy things to Larkin and/or Conquest. If you can get hold of Amis’s collected letters, you’ll find he has some pretty unkind things to say about me, too. Never retracted, even though I was instrumental in earning him quite a lot of money on the Third Programme. I have postcards and letters from him nagging about money: how much, how soon and how often. Despite all his amusing ways and books, he was a pig!”

amis lettersSo just how unkind was Amis? Picking through The Letters of Kingsley Amis (a volume the size of a small breezeblock), we find that he would probably have been in the same room as Wharton at the January 1953 launch of G S Fraser’s Springtime anthology, in which they were both represented, but didn’t make contact for 18 months, until they met to discuss George Hartley’s Listen magazine, with which Wharton had been involved. In July 1954 Amis wrote to Philip Larkin:

“Had a good jaunt in London the other week. I met Gordon Wharton, a funny little chap with a cockney accent like mine … who looked about 14 and nice but has a wife and kid. When he wasn’t taking TWENTY MINUTES to tell me that ‘it’s a long way to tip a raree’ story in a bad Irish accent, or NEARLY STARTING FIGHTS at Leicester Sq Underground by ‘pretending to be drunk’ and lurching into negroes shouting , etc., he was telling me that LISTEN should have been out, was coming out, on 14th June, but he HASN’T HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT IT FOR WEEKS fuck and burgher. It seems that he’s turned it all over to Geo H[artley].”

Gordon (unlike Amis) didn’t have a racist bone in his body, so the suggestion that he deliberately provoked black people is unfortunate. His grandmother was Irish, and he collaborated poetically with Patrick Galvin, so the Irish accent may have been better than suggested. Amis (lower middle class) had some sensitivities with regard to social status, so for “cockney accent” read “self-educated working class intellectual”. At least they seem to have parted friends. But six months later Amis put the knife in well and truly, in his advice of January 1955 to Robert Conquest on the latter’s choice for his “Movement” anthology, New Lines:

“Your provisional list seems unexceptionable to me. About the 4 fresh people you name, my judgements (for what they’re worth) are:

Gordon Wharton: Snap judgement on what I’ve seen (not much):

P.P.P. (pretty pisspoor)

Though amiable and far from spineless”

On that casual basis Wharton was excluded from New Lines. By April 1956 this “amiable” man had become “that idiot Gordon Wharton.” In October of the same year Amis and Wharton appeared together, alongside Bernard Bergonzi and Geoffrey Warnock, on a Third Programme poetry discussion, The Moral Element. Amis was worried that he “sounded rather a ponce, but … less of a South Kensington coffee-party ponce than Wharton …”

How much of this abuse was also to the face? Or was it saved up for letters to chum Larkin? Much later, in October 1985, Amis commented to Larkin on John Wain:

“What was all that about him going blind a few years ago? Result of meths-drinking to save on drink bills? Or an excuse for his difficulties with the printed word, inability to find his way to the bar, trouble seeing what’s staring him in the face, etc. Takes me back over the years to the afternoon he read me bits of HoD [Hurry on Down] and I was filled with despair because I thought it sounded exactly like crap, which of course it couldn’t be.”

Twenty two years before he had written to Wain himself:

“I thoroughly enjoyed Hurry on Down and read it whenever I had a free moment till I’d finished it. It is very funny in parts and does succeed above all in getting across a grotesque and twisted view of life … I think a few parts are over-written: my only complaint.”

Similar treatment is dealt out to countless others in Amis’s 1200 pages of accumulating vituperation. The reader quickly grows tired of the mannered abuse, the fixed adolescent tone, the relentless “urine”, “bum”, “turdy” and so on, the sad efforts at pornography featuring 14 year old lesbians, the nudie pics enclosed to Larkin, the casual put-downs of women, blacks, Jews.

No doubt it’s been said many times before, but however much of a soft spot one retains for Lucky Jim,  it’s still immensely sad and sobering to follow the steady collapse of this overblown schoolboy with radical inclinations into the ageing, boorish (and boring) reactionary, his gratuitous offensiveness the only remaining echo of an original and authentic dissent. Sad, but somehow oh-so-British.

Or is this an instance of the problem of a particular type of literary personality, one who finds it possible to be humane only in a fictional setting? What kind of dislocated soul is it that mistakes the habit of insult for the discipline of right judgement? And what might this tell us about the urge to write and the yearning for compensation?

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