Following my first encounter with the Book Babes, below, Andrew Hunter has pointed out that I missed another of their recommendations. Ellen (my fave book babe) also had James Hynes and Kingsley Amis in her pick of funny books:
Hynes and Amis poke fun at academia and its pretensions: Amis, a leading bad boy of the British literary set after World War II, broke new ground when he wrote Lucky Jim, set at the august Oxford University, but with little respect for its traditions. Hynes adopted a version of this idea in The Lecturer’s Tale, published a few years ago. Both use hyperbole (in Hynes’s case, even fantasy) to promote the idea that college administrators are bumblers. If you tend to suspect the emperor has no clothes, these are books for you.
There’s minor shitness in the brain-damaged final sentences, where little infelicities – ‘promote the idea’, ‘tend to suspect’ – add some bland chewiness to the watery incoherence. The major shitness is that Lucky Jim is very, very explicitly not set in Oxford or anywhere like it.
I’ve always like the passage in Amis’s Memoirs where he describes the initial moment of inspiration for Lucky Jim. It’s while he’s visiting Philip Larkin:
In 1948 or so, I went and stayed with him at his digs in Leicester. There he was in a house smelling of liniment, with a landlady who resembled a battered old squirrel and a dough-faced physicist co-lodger. On the Saturday morning he had to go to college and took me (‘hope you won’t mind – they’re all right really’) to the common room for a quick coffee. I looked round a couple of times and said to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this.’ Not that it was awful – well, only a bit; it was strange, and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got on to from outside, like the SS in 1940, say. I would do something with it.
The ‘SS in 1940’ is nicely done, but I also like that ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this’. I always used to have the same feeling when I’d go to ‘Restoration to Reform’, a long Eighteenth Century Seminar, and look at the academic life-forms sitting around.
(Larkin-Midlands aside! Amis goes on to say that the ‘Dixon’ in Jim Dixon comes mostly from ‘Dixon Drive’, the location of Larkin’s digs. If you’re around Leicester, Dixon Drive is up London Road past Vicky Park, turn on Stanley Road, then down to the end and it’s on your right. I’m not sure why you’d want to see it. I imagine the ‘battered old squirrel’ is dead. While free-associating, I’ve always found it odd that there’s an extract from Larkin’s ‘I Remember, I Remember’ on a pillar on Platform One of Coventry Station. It’s the opening, rather than where he describes it as ‘only where my childhood was unspent […]just where I started’, or the end:
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.
A great poem, and a comfort when you’re spending an adolescence in Leicester.)
I usually get a bit bored with Amis over a novel, but he can be hugely funny on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis (not entirely unike his son in this respect). I’ve got no time for the self-congratulatory bufferdom, Thatcher worship, and faux common-sense reactionary blather, but he was one of the best for the comic character study: attentive and vicious, with over-precise, over-extended figurative language, and a terrific ear for speech allied to a skill in its transcription which I really, really envy.
The Memoirs are a fabulously entertaining book. This may not illustrate the virtues I’ve just argued for, but I like swearing, a lot, so I shall depart with Amis on Tony Benn:
Benn I have run into only once, early in his career, when by a misunderstanding he arrived on my doorstep expected but not heralded by any name. The door was one of those with a glass panel affording a preview of the caller. At the first sight of the present arrival thr thought flashed into my mind, ‘Who is this English cunt?’ The distinguishing adjective is important. There are Scottish cunts, there are even Welsh cunts, and God knows there are American cunts, but the one in question could have come from nowhere else but this green and pleasant land. Something about the set of the lips.