Very Amis, very Hampstead

Joseph Connolly treasures his friendship with his literary hero

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I heard these words in the Flask Bookshop in Flask Walk, Hampstead — which I owned and ran from 1975 until 1988 — while slumped in the back room on my leather swivel chair, quite as usual, smoking a pipe and reading: I was always reading. It was a unique and much-loved old bookshop, specialising in second-hand and antiquarian literature and art, as well as my own special interest, modern first editions. Hampstead was still Hampstead in those days — there were seven bookshops in the Village of various sorts, one of them selling only books in French.

This was 1978, before the wholesale takeover by video rental stores and purveyors of expensive dresses, and I had recently published my first book, Collecting Modern First Editions — something of a pioneering work in that it included “popular” authors such as P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, all of whom hitherto had been entirely ignored by collectors. What I really wanted to be was a novelist — but no sane publisher was about to spring for an advance on a novel by an unknown, and so therefore I couldn’t really afford to write one.

Now here before me — the chap who had spoken those unremarkable words above — was my absolute literary hero: Kingsley Amis. And within a surprisingly short time this splendid fellow, who died 25 years ago in October 1995, became something of a chum. In one way, the odds were against it: he was on record as disliking men with long hair (and particularly beards) and here was me to a T. Anyone gushing or with a reedy voice and verbal affectations, as well as bores, philistines, teetotallers, fops and illiterates were also beyond the pale, though I don’t think I fell into any of these categories (and certainly not the last).

There had been surprisingly little hoo-ha when he moved to Hampstead; it was barely reported at all. I had seen him wandering about, of course, but would never even have dreamed of approaching: far too fearful and in awe of the man for any of that. And anyway, what would I have said? “You are Kingsley Amis!” Which, let’s face it, he already knew.

His previous home, however, had been endlessly written about — Lemmons, in Barnet, a rather grand Georgian pile in eight acres, bought in 1968 for £48,000, and where he had lived with his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, along with his three children by his first wife Hilly, together with Jane’s brother (she was always called Jane) and a shifting assortment of artists and writers, including at some point Peter Scott and the Poet Laureate C. Day Lewis.

Although both Kingsley and Jane were very successful at this point — he far more so than she, and that’s just the way he liked it — maybe the mortgage on Lemmons had been just a bit of a stretch, because soon they famously appeared in a much derided advertising campaign which was strewn across all the glossies and Sunday supplements: a colour spread of the two of them seated on a large sofa in their gracious drawing room, with the caption “Very Kingsley Amis, Very Sanderson” — Sanderson being a trendy seller of wallpaper and fabrics, and hence the grand and extravagantly swagged drapes and lavish upholstery.

In his youth, Kingsley had been an ardent socialist (hard to credit, I know), having even written a tract for the Fabian Society, so all the jeering lefties had a field day. Kingsley — always a master of deadpan irony, did his critics but know it — would well have appreciated how very open to satire such blatant commercialism would be: here was exactly the sort of thing he would have mercilessly speared in a novel. But still, though — neither the publicity nor money remotely went amiss. Many other celebrities were featured in the campaign, but it says something for his fashionable status and ubiquity that no other author could ever have been considered.

For Kingsley and Jane, who had married in 1965, were more than merely literary stars: their presence spilled over into gossip columns, opinion pieces and seemingly endless interviews. Quite the golden couple, is how they were perceived, who each evening, we were told, would read out to one another what they had written that day. There was a rumour at the time that she was responsible for all the sexy bits in his novels, because he could never pull it off (half true, as I later discovered: he would actually write the scenes, while she — in her own words — would “make them credible”).

They left Lemmons in 1976, and by the time they were settled in Gardnor House in Flask Walk — also Georgian, though rather smaller and with a modest garden — the gilt was beginning to chip away from the golden couple, and that deterioration was about to accelerate rather rapidly. At first our tentative relationship took the form of an occasional lunchtime drink in The Flask, a famous and proper old pub (still is) pretty much equidistant between my shop and his house. He would have a pint of keg ale (just the one) and I a glass of wine — of which he didn’t really approve, though nor did he openly sneer. He had an odd relationship with wine: although he knew a great deal more about it than he would have cared to let on, he didn’t regard it as a serious prospect, unlike his beloved malt whisky. What he really couldn’t bear, however, was all the jargon and general palaver affected by the sort of people who went on and on about it (going on and on about absolutely anything was anathema to Kingsley).

During his brief stint as a restaurant critic for Tatler, however, he would ritually make a point of ordering the most expensive Bordeaux on the list — though this gesture had nothing whatever to do with wine: he simply enjoyed flexing his muscles.

Although I very much enjoyed those lunchtime drinks — during which he would sometimes treat me to an edited selection of quite uproarious impersonations of such as Malcolm Muggeridge (his Evelyn Waugh, during which it looked as if he might burst a blood vessel, was one of the funniest things I have ever seen or heard) — still I had to gently explain that the bookshop was very much a one-man band, and that I couldn’t actually afford to close in the middle of the day. And his response to that quite astounded me: “I envy you,” he said. Was he being satirical? This most eminent novelist envied a bloke in a shop?

I later divined what he meant: he craved the idea of days with a clear-cut structure: you open a shop in the morning, you lock it up at night. A full-time writer, he said (and I now know the truth of this) has to impose all his own disciplines: when to start work, of if to. When to pause, when to stop. When to eat, whether to read . . . and when to have that all-important first drink of the evening, for this marks the divide between the working day and the leisured evening. 6 o’clock was traditional, and he did his damnedest to stick to that.

Kingsley liked a drink, God knows, but at this time he was by no means the day-long boozer of legend. After that, he took to inviting me to the house in the early evening, and jolly times were had. Gardnor House was and is a rather lovely and dignified building, quietly situated in a pretty road. I don’t know what he paid for it in the mid-1970s, but in 2019 it was on the market for nearly £11 million, which I think might have amused and appalled him in equal measure.

Kingsley and Jane had formulated an arrangement for the running of the place: she attended to all household affairs, finance, the garden, shopping, cooking and general maintenance — and he didn’t. Lately, Kingsley had been feeling very put out by his agent as well as his publisher, Jonathan Cape, because he felt they were both rather taking him for granted. Should he look elsewhere, did I think? Bloody hell — what did I know? I think I fudged the answer by saying that it might be worth looking into.

Such now was his tax status that he requested payment for journalism in the form of Macallan malt whisky

Anyway, the upshot was that soon he had a thrusting and trendy young literary agent, Jonathan Clowes, who quickly secured for him a lucrative contract with Hutchinson, as well as reawakening the interest of the media, which had waned since his heyday. And so Kingsley was suddenly booming again, with commissions for all sorts of things bombarding him, and nearly all of them he took.

Such now was his tax status that he requested payment for journalism in the form of Macallan malt whisky (having recently switched from Smith’s Glenlivet). This meant that you had to edge into his hallway sideways in order to negotiate the wall of whisky which was always there: as it became depleted, another load would arrive.

On one memorable evening, I saw that considerable inroads had been made into a case, while on the floor on their hands and knees —fairly unexpected — were Kingsley and Laurie Lee, their four fists joined around a sturdy knitting needle. The carpet was obliterated by hundreds of pieces of paper (not Very Sanderson at all), some typed, most handwritten.

Both the distinguished authors were burbling rather madly while they were lurching about, as round and round went the needle. At a given signal, down it plunged, and into the heart of a sheet of foolscap. Here then, they both quite deliriously agreed, was the winner of a poetry competition they had been jointly asked to judge by, I think, the Daily Mail. The poem was duly published, the consensus of the pundits being that here indeed was a very wise and perceptive choice.

We talked about books a fair deal, and it was immediately clear that poetry was where his heart lay (he was and remains a seriously underrated poet) although among his contemporaries he really only had time for Betjeman and his great friend and ally Philip Larkin: such as Ted Hughes he thought to be simply absurd. He cared for even fewer living novelists: loathing all American writers (“obviously”, he said) but loved to read Dick Francis and George Macdonald Fraser.

He had quite liked Malcolm Bradbury until, he said, “he tried to be Kingsley Amis”. He did not enjoy his son Martin’s early novels, finding them tedious, mannered and far too tricksy (for the boy himself, though, his love was seemingly boundless). We shared an admiration for the late Ian Fleming — Kingsley having written the first “continuation” 007 novel Colonel Sun (and damned good it is) as well as The James Bond Dossier.

We discussed the possibility of my expanding upon this and bringing it up to date for a new edition — he didn’t want to return to it — and he introduced me to Patrick Janson-Smith, the man in charge of the Fleming estate: grub and booze were consumed, though nothing eventually came of the idea.

When Jane finally left him in 1980, Kingsley was immediately overcome by an enveloping sense of loneliness — more than that, actually: an insurmountable fear of ever being alone in the house. I well remember the day he came into the shop to tell me she had gone, and I had reacted in so crass and insensitive a manner that I still can cringe at the memory.

I shrugged, and said to him, “Well, I suppose you saw it coming.” Because I surely had, and I can’t have been the only one: when the two of them were in a room, she was always so pointedly apart. He stared at me with struck-open eyes, his motionless face quite bleached of not just colour, but even the remotest understanding. “I had not the least idea,” he said, his voice so low: he was simply dizzied by sheer amazement.

She had, in classic style, left a letter for him on the mantelpiece — and over the months, each day she had been stealthily removing a few more of her clothes and possessions until there was nothing of her left. Kingsley, wholly characteristically, had noticed none of it. Jane went public in the press, eager to tell the world of her husband’s general ghastliness, and the drink and philandering in particular. He did by this time drink a lot in the evenings, though Jane was certainly no stranger to booze.

As to the dalliances, they were long behind him, and following publication of Jake’s Thing (1978) and Stanley and the Women (1984) Kingsley was now saddled with the eternal reputation of being a misogynist, as well as inveterate curmudgeon. He didn’t hate women, merely considered them all to be at the very least slightly mad, and he would much prefer to talk to blokes (always provided they were the sort of blokes he wanted to talk to). If sex wasn’t involved, he didn’t really see the point in a relationship with a woman — not an uncommon attitude in men of his generation. All the papers offered Kingsley space to reply, but he declined.

He displayed a similar reticence in 1986 when with his third shortlisting he won the Booker Prize with The Old Devils, and again in 1990 when he was knighted: on both occasions I offered  to interview him for The Times, but he said no: thought it might look a little pushy.

His Booker acceptance speech, incidentally, was a supreme example of his brazen mastery of irony: with deadpan expression and that merest inclination of the head — to those in the know, always the sign that he knew exactly what the reaction would be to what he was about to utter — he said something to the effect of always having regarded the Booker as an irrelevance, but that now he had suddenly changed his mind, whereupon of course many po-faced critics took the words at face value, and branded him a hypocrite: ho hum.

I felt so sad when Gardnor House went up for sale, and Kingsley left Hampstead, while completely understanding the reason: he was simply too lonely. A highly singular arrangement had been agreed with his first wife Hilly and her second husband Lord Kilmarnock whereby he would live in the basement of their house in Regent’s Park Road. Hilly would take care of him — which he needed — while Kingsley, I understood, would take care of all household expenses.

I once asked him if he ever regretted leaving Hilly. His answer? “Only every day.” We still occasionally saw one another, though not nearly so much. One very memorable occasion was in 1988, at the unveiling of a Blue Plaque to P.G. Wodehouse (I am the author of the first British biography of Wodehouse, and hence my invitation). Outside the house in Dunraven Street, Mayfair, before she tugged aside the little curtains, the Queen Mother concluded a very short speech by saying that she would always read a page or two of dear Plum in bed, knowing that then she would go straight off to sleep. Kingsley muttered to me in a sidelong stage whisper, “Something of a double-edged sword . . .”

During the 1990s, I noticed that he could be doddery at will: he would shuffle along with an abstracted air, but on meeting someone he knew, all of that would immediately fall away, and there he was, upright, bright-eyed and as sharp as a nail. By now he had taken to lunching every single weekday at the Garrick (I never saw him wear any tie other than the club’s “salmon and cucumber”), where they installed a lift just for him, and God help anyone who presumed to sit in his chair in the Cocktail Bar. A car would decant him back home in the early evening. And every single morning, he would write.

Kingsley was indisputably one of the very greatest postwar novelists — and although Lucky Jim is justly seen to be a deathless classic, many of his other novels (not to say the poetry) should by no means be overlooked: Take a Girl Like You, The Green Man, Ending Up, Jake’s Thing (actually a sequel to Lucky Jim, he told me: Jake Richardson = Jim Dixon), Stanley and the Women, The Old Devils and his little known penultimate novel You Can’t Do Both.

I valued his friendship more than I can say. Somewhat ironically, my first novel, Poor Souls, was published in 1995, the year of his death, aged 73. I sent him a copy, but I never heard back. Would he have read it? Liked it? God knows. I had, of course, just joined the ranks of contemporary novelists — so probably not.

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