When Kingsley Amis, author of the indispensable classic Lucky Jim, produced The Old Devils in 1986, a great number of people – among literary critics and also the reading public – thought he was past it. He and his associates were frequently called ‘fascist’ because of their perceived and actual Right-ward shift – they gloried in the term, holding ‘fascist lunches’, for example – and the man himself was caricatured as a misogynistic bore, whose talent and energy had been sapped by the over-application of drink and whose capacity for human warmth and lightness had decayed accordingly. How wrong they were; how wrong they turned out to be.
In this book Amis’s characters are Welshmen and women; they are all old, or getting there; and they are all to some extent unfulfilled. Many have lived in roughly the same way for years – the men coalescing around a couple of choice pubs while drinking vast quantities of whisky and the women sprawling in unattractive living rooms and wrestling with endless wine bottles. But this balance is upset by the arrival (or rather re-appearance) of Alun and Rhiannon Weaver – he a promiscuous writer of uncertain talent and something of a ‘professional Welshman’, and she the unrequited first love of every third male member of their social circle. The primary themes at work here, as is immediately apparent, are those of age and drinking.
Superficially unappealing in nature – the book does, after all, contain a litany of malady and mayhem, and hovering in the wings is both the spectre of the eternal footman and the dread prospect of being left alive but bored stiff – The Old Devils is in fact a touching portrait of some ultimately endearing wrecks. The characters are all wrecks, of course, and each is diminished in some way that is individual and unique; but their struggles are more than obstacles to be grimly overcome. In doing so, there is much humour – caustic and edifying, nasty and even rather sweet – and even a little emotional succour to be had.
Throughout the book, Amis delivers some wonderful, luminous writing. The following is a description of Alun Weaver’s reaction to the stifling mediocrity of a group outing: ‘He gave a muffled cry, then, remembering he was alone in the house, unmuffled it’.
The characters are real, lively and full of very human failings. Some are adulterers, others drunks, yet others glorious bores. The wives are a category unto themselves. One, Dorothy, is a staggeringly enthusiastic talker, willing – practically mandated – to pontificate on any subject, the more obscure and tedious the better: ‘She was said to have been found once telling the man who was laying the carpets about eohippus’.
Muriel, wife to the long-suffering Peter, subjects her spouse to endless torments: she is cold and cruel and needling. But even this is understandable and subtly set within the bounds of the possible by Amis’s empathetic narration. ‘It’s like when somebody like a dissident or a minority finds they can’t get anywhere through legal channels’, she explains, ’so they go around blowing up power stations. Of course I don’t hold with people actually literally doing that, but by Christ I promise you I know how they feel.’
Meanwhile Alun, the celebrity Welshman, is steadily working his way through his friends’ wives. He is also a failed writer – not that he doesn’t make money – in that he cannot rise above the mantle of Brydan, a poet whom all seem to love and cherish and whose memory has become a veritable institution (aided by piles of kitsch) in the fictional town of Birdarthur. Before Alun and his wife physically move back to Wales – and before he is disappointed by being interviewed only once at the station – the others all denigrate his literary merits. (Later on, in a dispute with a curmudgeonly pub landlord, Alun is called ‘a second-rate bloody ersatz Brydan’, which prompts a verbal avalanche of such ferocity that the entire crowd is thrown out.)
The book is genuinely very funny, but sad too – and sadly funny at the best of times. The sadness is never forgotten, even in a few moments of outright joy, but it does not dominate proceedings. Instead it offers a wry and wise perspective, a kind of conversational colouring with which to view events.
Amis depicts these ‘oldsters’ alone with their memories, their records, their drink. But there is great humour to be found in that pursuit; Malcolm, a broken-down chap with little to live for, exhibits a continual air of sentimentality and a faint weakness – ‘Soft as lights, that fellow’, Peter comments. ‘And I swear he swings his arms when he walks’. Similarly the scene where Malcolm dances alone to his obsolete and unappreciated records, after the drawing the curtains to spare his neighbours embarrassment, is almost exquisitely tragic in construction – and very funny because of it.
Amis’s writing exhibits his real ear for, and skill in constructing, dialogue – and it contains many examples of the genially unfulfilling conversation. Witness the following, which depicts one of the few marriages which – infidelity excepting – could not be described as failing: ‘Having filled all the gaps in Rhiannon’s speech with strong language or wordless howls, Alun waited till it was a theatrical certainty that there was no more to come and said “Is there more to come?”’
Pathos and bathos compete with lively good humour; and through it all, the narrative is imbued with a real love of life.
Elements of Amis’ perceived ‘fascism’ linger on, mainly comically, in the description of the oldsters in question. Their pub conversations are veritable festivals of reaction. And there is something gleeful about that fact.
Alun began to relax. He went on relaxing over the next drink, when they got on to politics and had a lovely time seeing who could say the most outrageous thing about the national Labour Party, the local Labour Party, the Labour-controlled county council, the trade unions, the education system, the penal system, the Heath Service, the BBC, black people and youth. (Not homosexuals today.) They varied this with eulogies to President Reagan, Enoch Powell, the South African government, the Israeli hawks and whatever his name was who ran Singapore.
As Amis’s son Martin notes in his memoir Experience, one thing his father detested above almost all things was tightfistedness. This hatred of parsimony is given a humorous – and fateful – outing in the form of Garth, a health-freak and general bore, a little distant from the main group, who invites the men in question back to his place after Alun’s outburst gets them kicked out of their favourite pub.
What they find presents a grim scene. The place is a dusty ruin, a mausoleum rather than a home. There are ancient photographs and ‘optic measures’, almost like one would find in a bar, found on the necks of every bottle in the well-stocked cupboards. Nothing wrong with that, they think; it’s not surprising that Garth’s wife, like theirs, would attempt to circumscribe her husband’s drinking. But worse than that – worse even than the depressing nature of the place – is to come: it becomes distressingly apparent that their friend means to charge them for their drinks. A pocket calculator is produced. Alun rather pointedly remarks to his host, ‘Mind you don’t forget to add on the cost of the first round’. What follows is a brilliant encapsulation of the miserly instinct, unpleasant frugality epitomised:
At this Garth moved the calculator aside, though not far. ‘I regard that as distinctly uncalled for, Alun,’ he said in a sorrowful tone. ‘If not downright gratuitous. Those first drinks were not a round in any sense of the word. They were my freely offered hospitality. Good God, man, do you take me for some kind of Scrooge?’
At this Alun chokes on his drink and promptly falls down dead, something of an occupational hazard at that age and with that level of alcohol consumption (not to mention extensive extra-marital activities on an impressive scale).
The book becomes more enjoyable as it runs its course, and there is something tragically, poetically beautiful about the whole thing. Despite infirmity, despite tragedy, despite even the reality of life in all its boredom and squalor, Amis finds beauty of a sort and brings it forth. It is not bitter; it is not cruel (well, not unnecessarily). The real skill of this novel is not necessarily in its construction or its characters of the flow of its language; in all three Amis was consistently impressive. What makes it all work – and what ensures it endures, too – is its heart; and at its heart is a surprisingly gentle and even optimistic attitude. All may not be well, but it could certainly get worse; and while we’re here we may as well enjoy things – life, love and everything.
A slightly unexpected message for someone with Amis’s reputation to transmit, but it is, ultimately, a worthy one – and one to remember. I imagine the old devil would have been more than a little pleased with that.