Cover image for The letters of Kingsley Amis
The letters of Kingsley Amis
Amis, Kingsley.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Hyperion, [2001]

Physical Description:
lvi, 1212 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
"Talk Miramax books."

First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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PR6001.M6 Z48 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In 1954, Kingsley Amis grabbed the attention of the literary world as one of the Angry Young Men with his first novel Lucky Jim. He maintained a public image of blistering intelligence, savage wit, and belligerent fierceness of opinion until his death in 1995. In his letters, he confirms the legendary aspects of his reputation, and much more. This collection contains more than eight hundred letters that divulge the secrets of the artist and the man, with an honesty and immediacy rare in any biography or memoir.

Amis, so assured in his pronouncements on fellow writers, grapples privately with fears, self-doubts, ambitions, and personal disasters. He is wildly funny, indulging in mordant gossip and astonishing frankness with his intimate friends and lovers. Some letters are dashed off with signature frustration; others are written with painstaking and painful circumspection. They make vivid the triumphs and tumult of his life and his times, from post-war Britain through the Thatcher era, as well as his attractions to women, jazz, drink, and the comic possibilities of the English language.

As an intellectual pugilist who took no prisoners, Kingsley Amis had few peers. These letters, at times scandalous, at times tragic, reinforce his historical relevance and literary stature.

Author Notes

Kingsley Amis was born in London in 1922. From his fictional debut with Lucky Jim to his death in 1995, he published twenty-five novels and numerous works of non-fiction, verse, volumes of short stories, and anthologies of poetry and prose. He was also a prolific critic and polemicist in newspapers and magazines. He was knighted in 1990
Zachary Leader is professor of English literature at the University of Surrey Roehampton



Chapter One to JOHN RUSSELL LLOYD -- 5 NOVEMBER 1941 3 Highfield Road, Berkhamsted, Herts My dear John,     I was more than pleased to get your letter and am replying with a speed unusual to me. Now, really, you know, this won't do at all, leaving the Party like that. Tut, tut, John. I am seriously displeased with you. The trouble is, you underestimate your capabilities. Obviously your mental equipment is more than enough to fit you for the Party, even without the 'high standard' you mention. Most party members join without any knowledge, some, it is whispered, without any intelligence. I think you can, without undue conceit, give yourself marks above the average for knowledge and intelligence. After all, when you read in "World News & Views" (that is if you read it) that "260 people joined the Party at an open air meeting held at--" do you suppose that any, let alone many, of those 260 are expert Marxist theoreticians? No, sir, they are not. So rejoin the Party right away. Not the YCL -- that is only a bleeding kindergarten, or, an excuse for getting to know lascivious young ladies -- as if that needed an excuse anyway.     As the so called Smash Hitler Fund (I should be interested, too, to know where that ten grand is going to be spent) will have closed by the time you get this I would suggest that (if, indeed, you have not already done so) you go & put yourself at the disposal of the small woman at the Oxford Bookshop -- I hope you know where it is -- it's near the station and is ornamented, adequately if somewhat inappropriately, with dazzling (at the moment) green paint.     Your reference to the wangling of Party members onto committees, is, as you justly remark, a commonplace to the initiated, among whom, however, it is technically known as "the selection of the best and most representative candidate by free discussion before the votes are actually cast." This bears an interesting (though superficial) resemblance to elections in the Soviet Union.     I don't know exactly what you mean by "good works". I have been doing just below the minimum amount of academic work, I have been doing a satisfactory quantity of Party and Russia Today (Party) work, I am shortly to have a white clad friend drilling, and moreover yanking out, my teeth, I have been listening to the gramophone, I have been drinking a small quantity of gin & smoking not enough cigarettes to assuage my craving for them: but (most important) I have been becoming increasingly intimate (but not intimate enough. Yet) with a charming and romantically-minded young woman. I will tell you all about her, and everything, when I see you. After an apology for my writing, (and for my writing in pencil) nothing remains but for me to subscribe myself (with a cordial invitation to come and see me as soon after I come up as is compatible with convenience) KINGSLEY [ALS: Private collection, Altadena, California] to JOHN RUSSELL LLOYD -- 13 JANUARY 1942 3 Highfield Road, Berkhamsted, Herts Dear John,     Many thanks for your long and informative letter. I'm afraid I shan't be able to spread myself in an equally long and informative reply, as I should have liked, partly because there's so little, political and other, going on here (I'll have something to say to you on this point when I see you); and partly because I'm at present engaged in a feverish effort to get some work done at the last minute before I come up.     I don't know whether I entirely agree with your remarks about the "Russian sit." It seems to me, that although the Russian offensive is purely local in character at the moment, there are signs (e.g. Hitler's assumption of command, and especially the weak protestations of Lord Haw-Haw) that this may develop into a real attack on German territory. I don't think this is being unduly optimistic; I suppose we're so used to bad news that when some really good news comes along at last we're unduly suspicious.     I was sorry to hear about your Cert. 'A', but you'll get this all right next time. I hope the JRB turns up trumps. Your party-contact experiences are really awful; knowing the sort of thing, I can fully sympathise.     Before we get off the subject; I'd be very obliged if you'd tell Saul Rose that a) I've scoured the shack for things for the LC rooms & can't find anything suitable b) I can't come up early because I'm suffering under dental treatment & have got appointments right up to Wednesday afternoon. Thanks in anticipation! But tell him I shall be at the EC meeting on Thursday afternoon if I can.     I quite agree with what you say about the country. Though my parents are all for it, I must say it leaves me cold -- bloody cold on occasion. I too hanker after the company of young men and maidens -- especially, let me hasten to add, of young men and maidens.     I'm afraid that as our lit. sec. might just as well be stone dead for all one ever hears of him, I don't know anything about recent pamphlets, but I want to see some. I'll leave you with a few questions to work out answers to, which you, as a man who reads "World N[ew]s & V[iew]s", should find easy:     a) what is CP policy towards the punishing of Germany for atrocities, oppression & general war-guilt? b) What is the CPSU (b) policy on this question; if it is not the same as our CP's, how does it differ? c) if we disagree with the government on this question, what action, if any, should be taken?     d) if you disagree with each or any policy, if the above are not identical, why & how far do you disagree & what is your own view?     I heartily agree with you about our relations with the town. I'll support you when you raise the matter.     I must shortly submit to dental (and mental) torture, so cheerio. Looking forward to seeing you. Yours, Kingsley [ALS: Private collection, Altadena, California] to THE SECRETARY, JUNIOR COMBINATION ROOM, ST JOHN'S COLLEGE, OXFORD -- c. APRIL 1941--JUNE 1942 Sir,     The fact that potatoes have jackets is no excuse for their being largely black inside, And the cooks do something to the jackets that makes them taste like brown paper. When I have potatoes in their jackets at home their jackets are worth eating. Here jacket and potato are fucking awful. What is wanted is not necessarily no potatoes-in-jackets, but better potatoes-in-jackets. Yours considerately, K. W. Amis [ALS: St John's College, Oxford] to PHILIP LARKIN -- c. 26 OCTOBER--6 NOVEMBER 1943 No 2 Mess, Helles Lines, Catterick Camp, Yorks Dear Philip,     I was extra pleased to receive your letter because I had just come back from three days in London, where we were all taken round to be shown things. Now I hate being taken round to be shown things, especially when they are things I do not want to be shown. A spectacular enemy success, involving the failure to tell me I was wanted on the phone until too late, meant that I did not meet Betty on the Saturday before we left, and she came to see me off at Darlington. I liked this because I want to take her trousers down, but I didn't like it because I couldn't then. We arrived in London during a fog that lasted all the time we were there. On two evenings we went out to try and find a nice place where they drink. But all the places were nasty. There was one enormous place near Victoria Station, just like a station bar, absolutely crammed with foreign soldiers and passée whores. There was a nasty man there, who told me not to put my glass down on the snack bar with all the rapid, efficient insolence of Henry. On the third evening we went and saw an awful revue "Get a load of this" (get a load in the crup hawse ): you know, where they come down into the audience and talk to you, and you don't want to talk to them .     We spent the days being driven round in an ex-Green Line Bus by an old army driver who seemed as if he had been commandeered with the bus. We were shown over sets and things. They all seemed just the same. Sometimes I would be standing half-listening to the man talking ("Nah, 'ere's the sender, gentlemen, inside, we got the pahr supply. Over there, we got the line equipment. Over 'ere, the switchboard" ah ahrs swor ahs sw ahrghs ghwoighl ) and a terrific pang would hit me in the stomach, as if I were suddenly randy, and I realised it was a stab of boredom.     This letter does not seem to be going very well. The reason is that I have got a fucking cough, a slight headache and intermittent toothache, and to-day we had half of our final exam (questions like: "You are in charge of......... what would you do?") and to-morrow we have the other half and I don't know anything about any of it.     I think the most poignant single word in all Betty's harrowing narrative was "Morpeth", I am glad you singled it out and thank you for enquiring after "Radio Pictures." No, it wasn't anything to do with Jack Oakie. It was all about the radio pictures in your newspaper: "Air Raid Devastation in Hamburg". (Picture by radio from Stockholm). Yes, I talked about it. For three-quarters of an hour. That was one of the times when I would rather have been talking to Mrs. Sharrock . Almost, anyway. Don't take it too hard about the torments of a commissioned officer: Y'see, kid, the world's in one hell of a mairss. And -- wal, yet know I ain got no time for this pehtriotism ... guff, but -- wal, it kinda seems to me that it's -- our dooty; yeah! our dooty as human beings, to -- go out there 'n' -- see what we kin do aboud ut. Maybe I cain't do merch, but ... I kin do somethun ', 'n' as long 's I got the strength to do ut, wal, I guess that's the way it'll always be. I hate it, you know, Philip. I hate it more when I read that the Germans say that 1,000,000 people have been killed in air raids in Germany.     Since you ask, Betty was terrifically flattered at being given the Brwhoredway Fook. I expect she is studying it hard, poor little bastard "Runs howling to his art ... howling ... m'm. I wonder why it's ... (I wish I liked this. I ought to) ... I'd better ask Bill [Amis]. That will please him."     I think Kuno says it too, but I can't remember.     Pattern conversation.     "It was awfully nice of you to come and see me to-night, darling, when you've got all that work to do."     "Don't say that. I wanted to." (Liar)     "It's been awful this week. I've missed you so much."     "It hasn't been nice for me, either, I've missed you too." (Liar)     "You know, Bill ... it's just like having ... pins and needles ..."     "You'll have to get used to being without me, you know." (Bastard)     "Yes, I know."     "Never mind, May. I shall never forget you." Yes, I really said that.     I hope you will try and come and stay with me for a day or two during my leave, which starts on Thursday: that is if you think you can give yourself a holiday for the time. I hate to bring blackmail into this, but at the mew ment it is very likely that in six weeks or so I shall be on the banana boat, ole boy, bound probably for India, which I shall not like. I am told that all the boys (and women) there have syphilis. And it is very hot there too. So try and accept this never-to-be-repeated offer.     Betty said she would ring me up to-night and she hasn't yet. This fills me with disproportionate and resented anxiety.     I also deprecate the kind of blues riff; dah deedle dardle dah (ooch!) dah deedle dardle dah (ooch!) dah dee -dah dah (ooch!) dah dee- dah dah (ooch!) dada dee dah dah (ooch!) dah dada dah.... (ooch!) 26 Shrublands Road, Berkhamsted Hefts., 6 November     Yes, I'm home on leave now. I've left this letter for a disgracefully long time, I'm afraid; the reason is that I was very busy during my last few days at Catterick, packing and all that, you know. I go back (where I do not know yet) on the 19th. During that time you can surely come over here for two or three days. Please try. It is very nasty here on one's own. My parents would be very glad to have you, if you see what I mean. I think they regard you as a "stabilising influence" on me ("Does Philip care for girls much?" "Well, not an awful lot; he likes them, though." Silent registration of approval). If you come, bring all your obscene stories and things, especially Willow Gables. It's no use bringing any records, because my gramophone is still broken. Don't forget, ole boy: any time, we're always deligh'ed to see you. Name your own time.     The other day I heard a programme on the wireless: Jazz in miniature or something, records by Armstrong. Several things struck me; the archaic sound of the 1927 records compared with the Teschmaker sides: Hines's first solo phrase in West End Blues; and Bechet's phrase after Armstrong's second pronouncement of 'You take the T & P, I'll take the L.M.N,' or whatever it is, in 2.19 Blues (or "two one nine" blues, as the announceress called it). I wonder if you heard it (You didn't).     My parting with Betty was heart-breaking, because we love each other, or so we say. I think we do, too. We certainly want to make the beast with two backs, eh? Yesh. Do you mind the name Betty, by the way? I'm indifferent to it myself. Her full name is Elisabeth Anne, which I like, and her married name is Simpson, Mrs. E.A. Simpson.... This is funny. I didn't say good-bye to May.     On Thursday I also heard Hari-Pari, for the last time, as I always say. They had a "famous British trumpeter" with them, Archie Craig I think his name was. He made wrong sounds when he blew into his trumpet with his mouth and pressed the valves down with some of his fingers.     Now it's time for me to go out on some futile shopping expedition or something. How I hate Berkhamsted. What a place to spend a leave.     Please forgive my delay in writing and reply soon. I've nothing whatever to do here, so my next letter will be speedy-- Kingsley PS. I should think Buddy Featherstonehaugh's head wobbles when he plays, just like Frank Dixon's. [ALS: Bodleian] to PHILIP LARKIN -- 25 NOVEMBER 1944 Lt K W Amis R Signals HQ Second Army Rear B L A +0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+ My dear Philip I was very glad to hear from you after what also seemed to be a long silence. I wrote unprovoked words only yesterday but I will write some more, provoked, to-day. I am glad you liked the Gailstorms. I like them too. The extraordinary lack of reticence is even more marked in the latest example. She is not, however, (you know the word) what one usually understands as not of the educated classes: she talks with a more refined accent than I do and has obviously had a quasi-public-school education, is a parson's daughter. The last letter is rather funny and contains some absolute jewels of middle-class morality at the same time as being the most shameless yet. Here are some extracts:     "I have thought it over an awful lot and have decided that I cannot come away with you when you come home...... I have been brought up very strictly and have been taught to look on it as something rather despicable. It is too sordid registering as Mr and Mrs and wearing a wedding ring, and being terrified of meeting someone who knows you. Birth control is not infallible. Someday I hope to get married, and I should feel bound to tell my husband, and that would start married life under a stain...... We should probably end by hating each other ...... Don't think I don't want you because my God I do, so much so that at times it torments me...... Maybe if you tried to persuade me, I should change my mind...... I am the type for a home and children, not for a mistress...... My cunt is small owing to the fact that I am a virgin and my hymen is not intact. The hair extends about an inch behind my cunt and several inches in front. My clitoris is warm and soft...... In spite of all I have said I still want you to make love to me. I want to stroke your cock and feel your hands on my cunt and feel our naked bodies pressed together......"     I quite agree; I don't believe it either. But it's true all right. A very subdued and anxious letter followed to-day, with no pornography at all, asking what I thought of her decision, and explaining that she has been talking to a friend of hers who got into the same bed as a man was who had not had any words said over him when she was with him, and when she finally had words said over her and another man, her previous affair hung over her like a tword of Damocles, and she is "very unhappy". This is amusing because not perturbing: in this letter too she says how much she wants me to get into the same bed as she is, and I think that that is going to happen alright artschartschartsch aaah . Yes, of course you are right; I am returning comparable information. It is nice to be able to write the words 'I want to fuck you' in a letter and send the letter off without qualm. What do you think of all this?     I am grateful for your qualified liking of my poem. I was disappointed that you could not find a poem for me. I was reduced to rollin' with fackin' laughter, ole boy, by your bit about the landlady's butter and buttocks -- mmm Yacks bugg but bugter butter . What do you mean by the "relevant" parts of my letter? And why did it make her "mad"? Poor little thing I should like to vbghtysddy578egd8e...... I am experiencing a febrile and drastic desire for evacuation. If I try to suppress it any longer I shall start to fail and that is bad thing to do. But I will be back before very long. Christ! I want to see the M AAAAA -aaajor ...     I know exactly what you mean about Eric Portman's voice. I have always viewed him as a very attractive person. It would be nice to write an amorous letter to him, I think. Yes I want to reread Hamlet; that is a good idea. I love the dumbness of Ophelia (balls): "Belike this show imports the argument of the play." I think a horse-pissing of it would be rewarding, too. When I think of the expression "Horse-pissing" and the entirely unamused way we used to utter it, I want to burst out laughing. I think I will start a dream-book: your results sound delightful. The trouble is that my batman so often remembers to come and wake me in the mornings and so the ideal time for writing the things down is occupied with saying good morning and what sort er bloody day is it to-day -- when you come to thinko fart think of it not so very different from "Good-morning, sah" -- "Morning, Owen" -- "Twen-nty minnuts to eight, sah" -- "Thank you".     [Del.] wondering if it would be a good idea to go back to Oxford after the war. It would provide a base for us to meet, which is one heavy advantage; knowing so much more now about sex it would be good "fun"; and, most supreme of all thoughts, I shaould rrts be able to have Elisabeth to stay and Gail to stay and John Simmons to stay, and see how two halves of my life fit together. Can you imagine showing Elisabeth to Costin? Or introducing Gail to Freddy Hurdis-Jones? Or John Simmons to Chitra? The thought of it makes me scream . Oh yes I know half the people will have gone down; but one of the good things about Oxford is that its vessels of corruption are always being replenished. It is a thought more moving and exciting than any dreams of illicit and satyriacal bliss. I really have half a mind to do it. You will come up a lot, won't you? Nick will be back too I suppose. Oh ecstatic thought: oh the beer and the croaking clarinets and hating the Sharrocks and the suppers and the necking parties and the Labour Club which I shall crap on to revenge myself for the months I wasted in its service and the river and Laybourne oh oh oh imagination is drunken at the thought.     It is funny that you put Don't say Ye in your letter when I put it in the last letter I wrote without knowing that you had done it too. It is a pity that there will be no Bone to introduce Elisabeth to. I wonder if I shall re-seduce Elizabeth if she comes back. My greatest linguistic feat has been to translate the words of When You're Smiling into French: "er -- quand vous er -- souriez tout le monde sourit avec vous...... Continuez à sourire......"     I will let you know of any more Gabrielliana (I told you her real name was Gabrielle, didn't I? -- shit). Now I will stop; I should like to have some soon backwords. I am ill at these numbers. Kingsley PS -- Mr Moore would like to see you at a quarter past nine. PPS -- Thanks very much. Isn't this nice paper? PPPS. Did you find you could train yourself to remember your dreams without difficulty? If so, how long did this training take? K. W. Amis [TLS: Bodleian] to PHILIP LARKIN -- 16 JANUARY 1945     [...] One very good thing has happened and that is that I have got hold of a quite good portable wireless set which is now in my room. The only disadvantage so far is that the broadcasting stations do not make many noises that make me feel happier when I hear them. But it is the first time in my life that I have had a wireless set all to myself with nobody to say they do not like the noises that I like and to turn themm saul off and put on noises that they like I don't. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE LETTERS OF KINGSLEY AMIS by . Copyright (c) 2001 by The Estate of Kingsley Amis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. vii
Introductionp. xi
Preface to the American Editionp. xxiii
Chronologyp. xxv
Notes on Recipientsp. xxxvii
List of Abbreviationsp. lv
The Letters
Appendix A Poems Included in Amis to Philip Larkin, 30 March 1947p. 1139
Appendix B 'All Aboard the Gravy Train: Or, Movements Among the Younger Poets', by 'Ron Cain'p. 1141
Appendix C 'View Galloo! Or, Ivan in the Shires', by 'Jasper Budenny'p. 1146
Appendix D 'To Rosie'p. 1150
Appendix E 'Kipling at Bateman's'p. 1151
Appendix F Funeral Address for Philip Larkinp. 1152
Appendix G 'Bottoms'p. 1154
Appendix H Three Alibi Notesp. 1155
Appendix I Two Letters to Robert Conquestp. 1157
Appendix J 'The Watcher in Spanish'p. 1160
Appendix K Three 'Bunny' Notes (Undated household notes to Elizabeth Jane Howard, c. 1969-77)p. 1162
Acknowledgementsp. 1165
Indexp. 1171