Sir Kingsley Amis and the era of Lucky Jim

By Stephen Colbourn

Sir Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) was a modern and popular writer who began his career as a radical and ended up fostering an image of curmudgeonly conservatism. He was knighted in 1990. Amis is remembered first and foremost for Lucky Jim (1954). The title became a byword in the 50s along with I'm all right Jack - a film starring Ian Carmichael who also played Jim Dixon in the film adaptation of Lucky Jim. A problem for modern readers, over fifty years later, is to grasp why the book was a hit at the time.

Post-war Britain was a very gray place. It was a world of rationing and earnest social policies that made George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) seem possible and not far away. A Labour government was elected in 1945 after Victory in Europe but its members had been largely in control of domestic policy during the previous years. The 1944 Education Act allowed bright youngsters from lower-middle and working class backgrounds to attend university; and it was intended as a piece of social engineering to break down the old barriers of class and privilege and issue in a New Britain of fairness and equality after the most devastating war in history.

Amis was the son of an office clerk. He did well at the City of London School and got into St John’s College, Oxford, where he declared himself to be a communist. The war interrupted his studies. He was drafted into the army and received a commission in the Royal Corps of Signals in 1943, going on to university after the end of the war. On graduation from Oxford in 1948 he became a lecturer in English Literature at University College Swansea where he taught for a dozen years.

The underlying theme of Lucky Jim is that of a fish out of water. A working class boy has become a university lecturer and is trying to make sense of the whole academic business. What is the relationship between a knowledge of Latin and the works of Matthew Arnold and doing a job of work? Lucky Jim was not so lucky: he had come a long way from home and found himself with nowhere to go.

Richard Hoggart was to describe the dilemma of the deracinated scholarship boy in The Uses of Literacy (1957). University novels were not that common. Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, for example, had appeared in 1911. Yet, with the emergence of a newly educated readership, three such novels appeared in the 1950s and became well known: The Masters (1951) by C. P. Snow, Lucky Jim, and Eating People is Wrong (1959) by Malcolm Bradbury.

The term ‘campus novel’ has been misapplied to these books. The campus novel came into use twenty years later with David Lodge’s Changing Places and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (both 1975).

Other labels attached to Amis were ‘Angry Young Man’ and member of ‘The Movement.’ The latter term was coined in 1954, by the Literary Editor of The Spectator, to encompass the new writers Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, D. J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, and Robert Conquest. John Wain disowned the existence of any such movement in 1957.

Angry Young Men is a more enduring catch-phrase that relates to John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956); and twenty first century readers, who are unlikely to sit through a performance, are asked to take on trust that it was indeed electrifying in its day. Osborne, Amis, Colin Wilson, and Alan Sillitoe were all Angry Young Men.

What they were angry about was the slow pace of social change. They may have been educated as the protégés of the New Britain but they found plenty of Old British opposition. To them the war had not been about the preservation of country house weekends and the leisures of the golf links. They found themselves in an equality of inopportunity – or so it seemed at the time. Soon, the 1960s, for all its excess and silliness, was to sweep away a lot of dust from the closets of ancient Albion – especially the old snobberies of class and deference beloved of the English gentry.

Meanwhile, living standards rose slowly from their bleak wartime gloom. Martin Amis, who followed his father as a successful writer, recollected growing up in the 1950s in a world of nappies drying on the fire guard and tin baths in front of the open grate and bread and dripping and suet pud. The sun never shone in the fifties and all houses were remorselessly and irremediably damp and cold.

Kingsley Amis had three children by his first wife and could not give up his teaching post and risk becoming a full-time writer, despite money coming in from his books and a payment for the film rights of Lucky Jim. After leaving Swansea, he worked at Cambridge and in the United States for two years.

To make money in the 60s he completed Ian Fleming’s last James Bond book The Man With The Golden Gun (1965) and wrote a Bond book of his own entitled Colonel Sun (1968) under the pseudonym Robert Markham. He was a fan of science fiction along with Robert Conquest.

Amis was also a poet and a life-long friend of Philip Larkin who wrote so well that Amis felt intimidated. They kept up a regular correspondence and most of their letters have been published. Larkin declared in his lugubrious fashion: ‘We are the last generation that will write to each other.’ But he couldn’t have anticipated the internet and email.

Apart from novels and poetry, Amis also wrote non-fiction. Rudyard Kipling and His World (1975) is an examination of a writer who is endangered by Political Correctness. Memoirs (1990) shows Amis criticising all the people he had ever loathed – which was a goodly number – with especial vilification reserved for Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl. Yet, there are photos of conviviality in the book and the pleasures of the pub. Figures in the background include Peter Quennell who helped with the publication of many Amis books and the American academic Paul Fussell who wrote appreciative criticism of Amis.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006
Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

See also: British Books on Film >

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