McEwan gets a doin’


(c) Penguin


Earlier this week I was burning the proverbial midnight oil writing a new blog-post about a recent visit I’d made to the National Museum of Scotland, where I’d seen an exhibition with the self-explanatory title Robots.  It was a coincidence, then, when I decided to take a break from my labours, surfed a bit on the Internet and found myself reading a Observer interview with author Ian McEwan, talking about his new novel Machines Like Me: which is about robots too.  And about the general implications that come with the existence of artificial intelligence, and the troubling fact that, in McEwan’s words, humanity is “in the process of handing over responsibility for safety, but also for ethical decisions, to machines.”


Then, half-a-dozen paragraphs into the interview, I read an assertion by the interviewer, Tim Adams, and some more comments by McEwan, which made my jaw drop.  “McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’”


What? I thought.  Oh, come on


I also thought: f**k off!


I know from reading other interviews with McEwan that he’s no fan of science fiction and thus he’s unlikely to have read the very long list of sci-fi stories that do indeed deal with whether a machine that ‘seems like a human’ has ‘responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’  These include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), Harlan Ellison’s I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream (1967), Arthur C. Clarke’s literary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and dozens, if not hundreds of other things going back to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s (later collected as 1950’s I, Robot) and probably before that too.  But I thought McEwan would have vegged out on the sofa in front of the TV at least once or twice and let himself watch a classic science fiction movie dealing with the topic, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), itself based on the afore-mentioned Philip K. Dick novel, or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – so that he would have some awareness that writing about this theme is not some startlingly original idea on his part but one that has a long, long pedigree in science fiction.


(c)Film 4/DNA Films/Universal Pictures


Predictably, twitter was soon busy with science fiction enthusiasts pouring scorn on McEwan’s assumption that sci-fi writers had never entertained the thought that the creation of robots and artificial intelligence might have some interesting ethical ramifications.  Among them were a few modern writers of science fiction.  For example, Charlie Stross tweeted: “Famous literary author reinvents the wheel, says something profoundly stupid about genre fiction not having wheels, while standing in front of genre fiction motorway crammed nose-to-tail with genre fiction trucks.”  And Adam Roberts speculated about McEwan’s thinking if he ever decided to write an opera: “Obviously I never listen to opera because it’s all crap but I had this idea for two doomed young lovers, a duel and a fat lady singing a really high note and I thought: nobody’s ever done that before so I will.” 


What also makes this a bit rich is another remark that McEwan made, this time in an interview for the Glasgow Herald, to the effect that he doesn’t like science fiction because he finds it unscientific: “Although I am fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying: ‘Well, if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics.’” 


Hmm. The premise of Machines Like Me is that it takes place in 1982, though in a parallel universe where Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide in 1954 but lived on to revolutionise computer science, to the extent that artificial humans have been created. (Both male and female ones, called – amazingly original thinking, Ian! – Adams and Eves.)  These are super-intelligent and can read literature, fall in love and even, in the case of the male ones, achieve erections ‘thanks to a reservoir of distilled water’ in their buttocks.  But even if Alan Turing had still been on the go, I find the notion that human technology would have reached this advanced stage by 1982 as scientifically laughable as, well, the moon hurtling out of orbit and carrying 300 people on a moonbase away on a tour of the universe.  (Yes, Space 1999, I’m looking at you.)


Still, maybe it isn’t so much McEwan’s fault that he’s blinkered.  Maybe it’s the fault of the literary bubble that surrounds him and his contemporaries, the fault of all the critics, publishers, agents, supplements, magazines and so on who between them create a micro-verse that’s so precious, pretentious and stuck-up it makes anyone who spends time in it blinkered.  Britain’s literary establishment despises anything that falls into the category of ‘genre’ fiction, be it science fiction, crime, horror, humour, whatever, yet when an acceptably literary ‘name’ repackages an idea that’s been knocking around genre fiction for decades, said ‘name’ is applauded for their innovation and genius.  Hence, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) got shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its premise of a world where time runs backwards was one that’d seen duty away back in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967) and J.G. Ballard’s Mr F is Mr F (1961).  And I’ve heard folk enthuse about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) (a novel that, incidentally, I like) as if Ishiguro was the first writer in history to put pen to paper about the subject of cloning.  Arthur C. Clarke (author of 1975’s Imperial Earth) or Ira Levin (author of 1976’s The Boys from Brazil) might disagree.  As might a certain Aldous Huxley, who once wrote a wee book called Brave New World (1932). 


(c) Penguin


Ironically, this disdain for genre fiction was not shared by some of the big names in Britain’s previous generation of ‘literary’ authors.  Both Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis (Martin’s dad) were happy to write science fiction, espionage thrillers and comedies and, in Amis’s case, a ghost story.  In 1983, Burgess put together a list of what he considered the 99 best novels written in English since the start of the second World War and he found space for science fiction ones by J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts and George Orwell – after all, 1984 (1949) is sci-fi – as well as fantasy (Mervyn Peake), crime (Raymond Chandler) and spy (Ian Fleming) ones.  Kingsley Amis was a champion of traditional science fiction (though he loathed the ‘New Wave’ school of sci-fi that surfaced in the 1960s) and once wrote a book on the subject, New Maps of Hell (1960).


It cuts both ways, of course.  The gatekeepers of respectable literary fiction would do well to take science fiction more seriously because, over the decades, the field has seen some great writers with great ideas – Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Thomas M. Disch, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and dozens of others – and it would be good if they were discovered by a wider readership.  But an awful lot of dire crap has been written in the name of science fiction too, often by fanboys – and they tended to be boys – who’d never read anything outside the parameters of sci-fi and who probably thought that Sir Walter Scott was the chief engineer on board the Starship Enterprise.  Even today, I suspect there are some sci-fi hacks whose work would improve (slightly) if they broadened their reading horizons and sampled something for a change that wasn’t science fiction.  (Personally, I have little time for the old-school likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, and anything that takes place in a spaceship, space station or space colony and has more than a minimum of futuristic technobabble usually leaves me cold.  That said, I’m partial to the works of the technology-loving Arthur C. Clarke.)


It’s a shame to see McEwan make a dick of himself like this because I actually like his books, especially Atonement (2001) and the faintly science-fictional The Child in Time (1987).  I certainly prefer his work to that of his mate Martin Amis, which I find largely unreadable.  And incidentally, I was really into McEwan’s earlier writings when I was a teenager.  This was the phase of McEwan’s career that produced the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories that were gathered together in the collections First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), all of which were dark, morbid and macabre.  In fact, they gave me the impression that McEwan was a horror writer.  I wonder how the genre-disdaining McEwan would react if I ran into him now and exclaimed: “Oi, Ian, you’re a master of horror – every bit as good as James Herbert and Stephen King!”  Yeah, I bet he’d really love that.


Indeed, one of his stories from In Between the Sheets, Pornography, was included in the 22nd Pan Book of Horror Stories (1981).  Ha!


(c) Pan Books


One other thing.  If McEwan is as dismissive of science fiction as he makes out, it probably wasn’t wise to let the Observer take a photo of him dressed as Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who.   


(c) Suki Dhanda / The Observer
(c) BBC


My name is Amis, Kingsley Amis


© Vintage Classics


There’s been much talk in recent years about the obsolescence of James Bond.  The thinking goes that as a privileged, white, stuck-up, sexist macho-man rooted in the early decades of the Cold War, Bond has become an embarrassing anachronism in our politically correct, socially aware era today.  Here’s Laurie Penny’s contribution to the debate, for instance, in the New Statesman.


Well, forgive me for being sceptical about this line of thought.  For one thing, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit dominating political discourse just now, our times are clearly less enlightened than many would like to think.  Which means there are probably millions of unreconstructed souls out there who don’t give two hoots about political correctness and still clutch old snobby, sexist 007 to their bosoms.  For better or for worse, I don’t think Bond is going to disappear off the popular radar for a while yet.


Also, modern-day Bond-bashers overlook the fact that the Bond franchise – the movies, anyway – has had fun for a long time already with the idea of its hero being outmoded and anachronistic.  In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox’s M tells Sean Connery’s Bond: “It’s no secret that I hold your methods in much less regard than my illustrious predecessor did.”  Thereafter, he lectures Bond on healthy eating and avoiding free radicals: “They’re toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread.  Too many dry martinis!”  In 1995’s Goldeneye, another M, Judi Dench, takes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond to task for being ‘a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War…’  And in 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond is faced with a new, tech-obsessed superior called C (Andrew Scott), who vows to ‘bring British intelligence out of the dark ages, into the light’, where ‘an agent in the field’ can’t ‘last long against all those drones and satellites.’


But however fashionable or unfashionable Bond is these days, nobody can deny that well-regarded authors are still keen to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming and have a go at writing new James Bond novels: for example, Sebastian Foulkes (with 2008’s Devil May Care), Jeffery Deaver (with 2011’s Carte Blanche), William Boyd (with 2013’s Solo) and Anthony Horowitz (with 2015’s Trigger Mortis).  And it’s been announced that Horowitz will be unveiling a second Bond novel, Forever and a Day, later this year.


Long before Foulkes, Deaver, Boyd and Horowitz got in on the act, though, another writer attempted to construct a novel around Ian Fleming’s legendary creation.  In 1968, just four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond adventure called Colonel Sun and published it under the pseudonym Robert Markham.  By then, of course, Amis was a big noise in British letters thanks to works like 1954’s Lucky Jim and 1960’s Take a Girl Like You.  I should say that my 2015 Vintage Classics edition of Colonel Sun makes no mention of Robert Markham on its front cover and advertises it unapologetically as a Kingsley Amis novel.


© The Times


A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to read Amis’s take on Bond and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on it.  If you haven’t yet read Colonel Sun but intend to, beware – there are spoilers ahead.


Set a little while after the events of Fleming’s Bond swansong, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (which Amis is rumoured to have polished up when Fleming died before he could revise it himself), Colonel Sun begins with an audacious attempt by some unidentified villains to kidnap both Bond and M.  They’re only half-successful – M is abducted and whisked out of England, but Bond manages to elude his would-be kidnappers and is then tasked with tracking down his boss.  He soon homes in on an island in the Aegean Sea.  There, M is being held by a Chinese officer, ‘Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army’.


The dastardly Colonel has hatched a dastardly plan.  The Soviet Union is hosting a secret international conference in the area and Sun plans to destroy it and the delegates in a mortar attack, the blame for which will then be pinned on Britain – Sun intends to make it look like one of the last mortars blew up accidentally, before firing, and leave Bond and M’s dead, but still identifiable, bodies in the wreckage.  Thus, China will benefit from the discrediting not only of the USSR for sloppy security, but also of the UK for warmongering.


To rescue M and thwart Sun’s scheme, Bond joins forces with a woman called Ariadne Alexandrou, a Greek communist who’s been working for the Soviets; and a Greek World War II veteran called Niko Litsas who, after fighting Nazis, fought communists during the 1946-49 Greek Civil War.  (Amis discreetly skates over Britain’s sorry role in this episode of Greek history.  In 1944 the British government decided to back the anti-communist faction in Greece against the left-leaning one, even though the former faction contained many former Nazi sympathisers and collaborators and the latter contained many partisans who’d fought for the Allies.)  Despite their ideological differences, the trio bond – ouch! – and are soon prowling the Aegean Sea in a vessel called The Altair whilst figuring a way of taking the fight to Sun and his many henchmen.


Amis’s plot is a generic one and a few things don’t make sense.  For example, why does Sun want to plant the elderly and normally deskbound M at the scene of the crime?  (This is the literary M we’re talking about, not the feistier and more empowered cinematic version played by the likes of Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.)  Wouldn’t it look more believable if the body of another, physically-able British agent was found there next to Bond’s?  It’s hard to see this as anything more than a perfunctory excuse for the novel’s main gimmick, the kidnapping of M.


© Bantam Books


But Colonel Sun is still good entertainment and it feels more credible as a Bond novel than the other non-Fleming Bonds, like Solo and Trigger Mortis, that I’ve read.  For one thing, unlike the rather bland villains in the Boyd and Horowitz novels, Colonel Sun makes a memorable baddie.


Yes, he belongs to a long tradition of Oriental supervillains found in pulpy colonial adventure fiction – the Fu Manchu books being the most famous, and notorious, examples.  He’s not even the first bad guy in the Bond canon to follow this dubious blueprint, an honour that belongs to the titular character of Fleming’s Dr No (1957).  But Sun is splendidly eccentric.  He’s irritatingly polite and addresses friends and foes alike by their first names.  He also sees himself as an Anglophile: “Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt… for everything British.  He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.”


Then there’s his troubling penchant for torture.  Near the novel’s end and just before he lays into Bond with an array of kitchen utensils (‘knives, skewers, broom-straws’), he explains: “True sadism has nothing whatever to do with sex.  The intimacy I was referring to is moral and spiritual, the union of two souls in a rather mystical way.”  Later still, he surprises us when he confesses to Bond that “I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there.  I felt sick and guilty and ashamed.”


Admittedly, I could have done without the linguistic quirk that Amis bestows on his villain.  Thanks to his ‘quick ear and passionate desire to learn’ English and a ‘total ignorance of the British dialect pattern’, he’s ended up with a bizarre accent combining the ‘tones of Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and several sorts of London…’  As a result, every time that Colonel Sun opens his mouth in the book, I imagine him sounding like Liam Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Best, Jimmy Nail, Charlotte Church and Bob Hoskins fed through a mixing desk.


Colonel Sun also feels like a proper Bond novel because Kingsley Amis’s authorial voice doesn’t sound that different from Ian Fleming’s.  Putting it more crudely, it feels closer to the originals than the modern pastiches do because Amis was as much of a curmudgeonly snob as Fleming was.  By the 1960s, Bond’s rarefied world of Bentleys, dinner jackets and private members’ clubs were on their way out; and Amis bellyaches about it as you’d imagine Fleming would.  When Bond drives through some English farmland, he writes: “Places like this would last longest as memorials of what England had once been.  As if to contradict this idea, there appeared ahead of him a B.E.A. Trident newly taken off from London Airport, full of tourists bearing their fish-and-chip culture to the Spanish resorts, to Portugal’s lovely Algarve province, and now… as far as Morocco.”  Also activating Amis’s Licence to Grump is the prospect of the great unwashed discovering the Greek islands.  Describing a waterfront, he observes: “At the near end were whitewashed cottages with blue or tan shutters and doors, then a grocery, a ship’s supplier, harbour offices, a tavérna with a faded green awning.  No neon, no cars, no souvenir shops.  Not yet.”


© Eon Productions


Still, some aspects of Colonel Sun are surprisingly liberal, considering that Amis was well-known for his cranky right-wing politics.  Ariadne, the book’s heroine, is resourceful and able to look after herself and Bond comes across as less of a sexist boor than one might have expected.  Meanwhile, some of the Soviet characters are depicted sympathetically: for example, Gordienko, Moscow’s man in Athens who believes Bond’s warnings that something fishy is afoot and will have bad consequences for both their countries; and Yermolov, the pragmatic, vodka-loving dignitary who at the end expresses the USSR’s gratitude to Bond for foiling Sun’s plan.  Indeed, Yermolov feels like a prototype for the craggy but avuncular General Gogol, the KGB head played by Walter Gottel who appeared in every Bond movie from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to The Living Daylights (1987).  In Colonel Sun, Yermolov even offers Bond the Order of the Red Banner; just as Gogol awards Roger Moore (‘Comrade Bond’) the Order of Lenin at the end of 1985’s A View to a Kill.


But before we assume that old Kingsley has gone all hippy-dippy and peace-and-love, we should bear in mind that the Soviets are the good guys here only comparatively – because the bad guys are the Chinese.  The novel even postulates that the West and the Soviet Union are on the brink of working together because of the increasing threat posed by China.  (Richard Nixon’s jaunt to China in 1972 must have knocked that fanciful notion on the head.)  Happily, by the time of the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, which has Pierce Brosnan joining forces with Michelle Yeoh to take on evil media mogul Jonathan Pryce (basically playing Rupert Murdoch), the Bond-verse had decided that the Chinese could be good guys too.


Talking of which, while Colonel Sun has never been filmed, it’s interesting to see how a few of its ideas have turned up in the Bond movies.  The kidnapping of M was a key plot element in 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, while a villain called Colonel Tan-Sun Moon features in 2002’s Die Another Day.  And if Colonel Sun’s musings during the book’s climactic torture scene sound familiar – “Torture is easy, on a superficial level.  A man can watch himself being disembowelled and derive great horror from the experience, but it’s still going on at a distance…  a man lives inside his head.  That’s where the seed of his soul is…  So James, I’m going to penetrate to where you are.  To the inside of your head….” – it’s because they were used as dialogue in 2015’s Spectre, for the scene where Christoph Waltz violates Daniel Craig’s skull using a torture device that looks like a dentist’s drill attached to a robotic tentacle.


In Spectre, Waltz’s character is revealed as being none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Having James Bond’s great arch-enemy nick his best lines?  I’m sure Colonel Sun would have been flattered.


© Eon Productions


Kingsley goes green: book review / The Green Man, by Kingsley Amis


(c) Penguin


I can claim to be neither an expert on nor a fan of Kingsley Amis.  While I’ve enthusiastically worked my way through the fiction of several of his contemporaries – Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Graham Greene – until recently I’d read only a couple of Amis’s short stories and one of his books, Lucky Jim.  The latter was an early (1954) example of the literary sub-genre now known as the ‘campus novel’ and I have to say I found it pretty dated and unfunny.


I suspect the main reason for my aversion to Kingsley Amis, though, is the persona he projected when he was alive.  He didn’t seem like a nice piece of work and so I rarely felt an urge to dip into his writing.  In the 1950s he trumpeted his support for the Labour Party but by the 1980s he’d become an enthusiastic fan of Mrs Thatcher.  He seemed to me pretty typical of major figures in Britain’s arts and media establishments whose politics undergo a severe rightward turn during their lifetimes.  Socialist egalitarianism and liberal permissiveness are great things when you have youth (and a lack of material possessions) on your side.  But when you reach a point in your life when you’re too old, and too moneyed, to benefit from them  any longer, and when a younger, upstart generation arrives on the scene with their own ideas about how to do things, it’s time to change into reactionary old fart and deny those freedoms you once enjoyed to anyone else.


But far worse than Amis’s Conservatism was the fact that in later years he seemed unashamedly anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic.  I’ve read an interview with his long-suffering second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard (who died at the beginning of this year) in which she, rather gallantly, blamed much of that nastiness not on Amis but on his fondness for alcohol.  In other words, his odiousness was really just the drink speaking.  However, I can’t help thinking of an old saying they have in Northern Ireland: “If it’s not in you when you’re sober, it won’t come out of you when you’re drunk.”


Still, I have one reason for liking Amis, and that’s because unlike nearly everyone else in Britain’s snobbish literary establishment at the time, he didn’t look down his nose at genre writing – he was openly supportive of it and dabbled in it himself.  For example, Amis was one of Ian Fleming’s most heavyweight admirers and it’s fitting that, after Fleming’s passing, he was the first person to write a non-Fleming James Bond novel, Colonel Sun (which he published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham).


Amis was also a big fan of science fiction and in 1960 he wrote a critique of the genre, New Maps of Hell.  As J.G. Ballard noted, New Maps of Hell was important for science fiction’s development because Amis “threw open the gates of the ghetto, and ushered in a new audience which he almost singlehandedly recruited from those intelligent readers of general fiction who until then had considered science fiction on par with horror comics and pulp westerns.”  Predictably, though, the curmudgeonly Amis went off science fiction in the 1960s when younger sci-fi writers like Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison and Thomas M. Disch started going all experimental and New Wave-y on him.  Before long he was raging at how those whippersnappers had contaminated his beloved science fiction with horrible things like “pop music, hippie clothes and hairdos, pornography, reefers” and “tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics.”


Amis seemed too to be interested in supernatural stories and in 1969 he tried his hand at writing one, a novel called The Green Man.  This has long been a neglected entry in Amis’s oeuvre, overshadowed by more prestigious books like Jake’s Thing (1978) and The Old Devils (1986), out of print and near impossible to find in bookshops.  It was, however, adapted into a three-part drama serial by the BBC in 1990, with the script written by none other than Malcolm Bradbury, an author whose own books like Eating People is Wrong (1959) and The History Man (1975) were examples of the campus novel that Amis had helped pioneer with Lucky Jim.  The TV version of The Green Man starred the splendid Albert Finney and it began with a memorable and grisly sequence that didn’t evoke Kingsley Amis, or Malcolm Bradbury, so much as it evoked Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic schlock-horror movie The Evil Dead.


(c) BBC 


Unfortunately, when The Green Man was televised, I was in the middle of moving from London to Essex and I didn’t get a chance to see its second or third episodes.  However, I was impressed enough by the first episode to make a mental note to set aside my prejudices against Amis and hunt down the original novel of The Green Man sometime.


Recently, nearly a quarter-century later, I noticed a new edition of The Green Man sitting on a shelf in a bookshop, bought it and finally got around to reading it.  So here are my thoughts about this particular foray by Kingsley Amis into the realms of the paranormal and macabre.


The Green Man is narrated by the fifty-something Maurice Allington – the character played by Albert Finney in its TV adaptation – who owns and runs an inn of some antiquity, the titular Green Man, on the way from London to Cambridge.  Living on the premises with his second wife Joyce (his junior by a number of years), his teenage daughter Amy and his ailing father, Allington is unnerved when the hoary old ghost stories associated with the inn over the centuries start to intrude on reality.  In particular, he has several encounters with the ghost of Thomas Underhill, a supposed sorcerer who lived in the building in the 17th century; and he senses the presence of a more monstrous apparition, a demonic creature that Underhill once summoned up from the local woods to destroy his antagonists.  The inn’s name is a clue to this demon’s constitution.


Allington eventually realises he’s become enmeshed in a scheme that Underhill has devised to transcend his own death.  However, his attempts to outwit the ghostly sorcerer are hampered by his own failings: his ill-health, his liking for the bottle – to which, of course, his family and friends attribute his strange visions – and the distractions posed by his carnal appetites.  Not only is the lusty Allington engaged in an affair with another younger woman, Diana, who’s the wife of the local doctor, but he’s devised a less-than-noble scheme of his own.  He wants to persuade both Joyce and Diana to participate with him in a ménage à trois.


I hadn’t got far into The Green Man before I’d realised that both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness are its characterisations.  Amis does an excellent job of sketching Allington, with his many vices and virtues.  He’s annoyingly conceited, intellectually as well as socially.  Talking about his book collection, he says sniffily: “I have no novelists, finding theirs a puny and piffling art, one that, even at its best, can render truthfully no more than a few minor parts of the total world it pretends to take as its field of reference.  A man has only to feel some emotion, any emotion, anything differentiated at all, and spend a minute speculating how this would be rendered in a novel… to grasp the pitiful inadequacy of all prose fiction to the task it sets itself.”  Allington, in fact, is a poetry snob.  “By comparison… verse – lyric verse, at least – is equidistant from fiction and life, and is autonomous.”


(Actually, his love for the poetic and his disdain for the more mechanical medium of prose remind me slightly of the late 19th century / early 20th century occult writer Arthur Machen, who speculated in his fiction that supernatural phenomena are best perceived by people with receptive intellects and imaginations – the very young, the insane and the poetically-inclined.  Perhaps that’s why, of all the people living, dining and drinking in the Green Man, the verse-loving Allington is the one with whom the supernatural intelligence of Thomas Underhill makes contact.)


Meanwhile, feminist readers will no doubt feel like strangling Allington on account of his baser musings.  “Ejaculation,” he comments at one point, “as all good mistresses know, is a great agent of change of mind and mood.”


And yet as a bundle of contradictory traits – stuck-up, sexist, cynical, drunken, cranky, comical, cunning, occasionally courageous and very occasionally principled – Allington is a believable figure in this story.  He might be a hapless mess of vanity, lust and booze, but at the book’s finale, when he rushes out of the inn and into the night to try to save the sleepwalking Amy from the predatory green man, we aren’t surprised that he shows a streak of heroism as well.  Incidentally, with hindsight, it’s easy to see why Albert Finney was ideal for the role in the TV version.


But on the other hand, Amis is hopeless at drawing believable female characters here.  Joyce and Diana give little impression of having minds of their own.  They seem like manifestations of Amis’s notion of what women should be like – statuesque, well-bred and utterly pliable to the needs of the local Alpha Male.  “Together,” says Allington, “they made an impressive, rather erectile sight, both of them tall, blonde and full-breasted…  Dull would he be of soul that would pass up the chance of taking the pair of them to bed.”  In their speech, meanwhile, they spout irritating upper-class adverb-adjective couplings: “jolly closed up”, “perfectly awful”, “frightfully exciting”, “damn good”.  Late on in the book, Allington’s devious ménage à trois plan backfires and Joyce and Diana get their revenge on him, but this isn’t enough to convince me that they’re anything more than Kingsley Amis’s idea of desirable posh totty.


Elsewhere in the book, predictably, we’re treated to a list of things in the modern world (or at least, the 1960s) that the grumpy, ageing Amis finds appalling.  He sounds off against radical students: “First one whiskered youth in an open frugiferous shirt, then another with long hair like oakum, scanned me closely as they passed, each slowing almost to a stop the better to check me for bodily signs of fascism, oppression by free speech, passive racial violence and the like.”  He rails against popular music: “Amy’s gramophone was playing some farrago of crashes, bumps and yells from her room down the passage…  I listened, or endured hearing it…”  He has a go at trendy vicars: “I found it odd, and oddly unwelcoming too, to meet a clergyman who was turning out to be, doctrinally speaking, rather to the left of a hardened unbeliever like myself.”  Readers will either find this aggravating or endearing.  Now that Amis has been dead for nearly twenty years, and I’m in the process of turning into a grumpy old man myself, I have to confess I found it rather endearing – more so than I would have if I’d read the novel in my youth.


Failures in female characterisation aside, I generally enjoyed The Green Man and I had more fun reading it than I had with Lucky Jim.  However, is the novel successful as a ghost story?  In my opinion, for a ghost story to succeed, it needs to convey a degree of believability.  If I can be lulled into thinking, however fleetingly, that this could be happening, I’m more likely to be affected, unsettled, even frightened by it.  On this account, Amis’s book almost succeeds.  For the most part, he convincingly moves the plot from being about a man whose home has some strange old tales attached to it to being about a man who has to deal with the unwelcome, ghostly protagonists of those tales.  To facilitate this jump from the credible to the incredible, Amis adds some persuasive background details.  A section where Allington visits a library at Cambridge University in search of a long-lost journal by Underhill has a scholarly believability that’s worthy of M.R. James.


Alas, all is betrayed by a scene near the novel’s climax where Amis goes too far and introduces another supernatural character, the most famous and powerful supernatural character of the lot – guess who it is.  Now any story involving ghosts has implications about the wider scheme of things.  It makes life after death a fact, which raises questions about the design and purpose of the universe and about the intelligence that might be behind it.  However, for the sake of believability, it’s advisable for ghost-story writers to keep things localised and small-scale.  In M.R. James’s celebrated short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad, for example, what’s important is that the hero is being pursued along a beach by a terrifying supernatural entity.  Not that this entity’s existence calls into question our scientific assumptions about the universe – because if it does exist, then scientists are likely wrong and all the priests, magicians and shamans of history were likely right.


Amis, unfortunately, can’t resist exploring the universe he’s created in The Green Man further than is necessary and so Allington ends up having an unexpected visit from the Big Man Himself.  Their confrontation resembles something from the classic 1946 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger fantasy movie, A Matter of Life and Death.  And that’s what The Green Man promptly becomes, a fantasy rather than a ghost story – a story that’s no longer believable and hence no longer scary.


J.G. Ballard once said of Kingsley Amis: “as with so many English novelists he was vaguely suspicious of the power of the imagination: it could be too much of a good thing.  Yet the radical imagination is what we seek in a writer; when we read we want to encounter a very different world that will make sense of our own.”  Ironically, the problem with The Green Man is that in the end, and atypically, Amis lets his own imagination run away with him.  The book would have been more effective if – like those English novelists whom Ballard complains about – he had decided that too much imagination here is a bad thing.


By David Smith, from The Guardian


You can, by the way, watch Albert Finney strut his glorious stuff in the BBC’s adaptation of The Green Man on youtube:


When writers had Thatcher for dinner




In a recent post I mentioned a cabinet paper from 1984 that came to light recently and revealed that at the time of the miners’ strike – surprise! – Margaret Thatcher’s government secretly planned to close down 75 British coal mines.  This was about 55 more than the number they publicly declared they wanted closed.  It reminds me of another Thatcher-related story that received no coverage at the time but that was recently given a public airing.


Late in 1982, Britain’s right-wing and supposedly iron-plated lady Prime Minister was riding high in the polls thanks to her victory in the Falklands War earlier that year.  She still, however, hadn’t won the support of much of the country’s artistic and academic intelligentsia.  One evening that autumn, a dinner was organised at the house of historian Hugh Thomas in Ladbroke Grove where Mrs Thatcher would meet and dine with a selection of the country’s leading literary lights.  It was hoped that this meeting would help her win over more of Britain’s creative elite.  (Later in her reign, you got the impression that Thatcher simply gave up trying.  Perhaps she believed that the British population had become so uncultured and coarse in their tastes that it didn’t make a blind bit of difference to her re-election chances what those arty types thought of her.)


Last month the Observer Magazine published a short but amusing account of this dinner, written by Nigel Farndale, who’d interviewed the evening’s survivors – ‘survivors’ seems an apt word somehow.  Among the attendees were novelists Anthony Powell, V.S. Naipaul and Dan Jacobson, poets Philip Larkin, Stephen Spender and Al Alvarez, playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, critic Sir V.S. Pritchett, philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin, historian Sir J.H. Plumb and Anthony Quinton, who was president of Oxford University’s Trinity College.  An unexpected addition to the guest list was Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s great novelist and its future presidential candidate – how Peruvians must have wished later they’d voted for him and not for the ultra-corrupt Alberto Fujimori – who I suppose just happened to be in town at the time.  His fame had evidently not preceded him, since Farndale reports that one guest referred to him as ‘some Panamanian novelist.’


Somebody who might have been expected to be invited, but wasn’t, was celebrated novelist Sir Kingsley Amis.  Amis had now entered his dotage and had already professed his admiration for Mrs Thatcher (for the sake of Amis’s reputation I would like to think those two things were causally connected) so it was thought his presence that night was unnecessary – Mrs T had no need to preach to the converted.  However, Farndale quotes some correspondence that passed between Amis and Philip Larkin afterwards.  Larkin had filled Amis in on the details of the evening.  Writing back, Amis referred to ‘H-F D’ being “down at the Jewish end of the table”.  H-F D stood for ‘Horse-Faced Dwarf’, which was Amis and Larkin’s unedifying nickname for Anthony Powell.  Amis also bitched about Al Alvarez, saying that he “(m)ight have known that Al, lately as lefty as they come, would get his foot in there.  It’ll be Lord Alvarez before we know it.”


In a different set of correspondence, with later-Poet-Laureate Andrew Motion, Larkin described the Thatcher dinner as being “pretty grisly.  Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily.”  Elsewhere in Farndale’s piece, though, there are suggestions that Larkin didn’t find his encounter with Mrs Thatcher as grisly as he made out to Motion.  Indeed, he may have been shuddering and moaning with pleasure rather than dismay.  Talking about the Prime Minister in a letter to Julian Barnes, Larkin supposedly havered about kissing “the ground she treads”, whilst in another letter to the historian Robert Conquest he raved: “What a superb creature she is – right and beautiful – few prime ministers are either.”  One only hopes that Larkin kept his opinions about Mrs Thatcher’s rightness, beauty and overall superb-ness to himself when he returned home, which was ‘up north’ in Hull.


(c) The Daily Telegraph


One person who found himself in unexpected agreement with Larkin regarding the glamour of Mrs T – I use the word ‘glamour’ in its conventional sense, meaning ‘allure’ or ‘glitz’, although its original Scottish meaning, which is ‘a spell or enchantment cast by a witch’, might be more appropriate – was left-leaning Al Alvarez.  He told Farndale: “I hate to say it, but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive.  She also had this dazzling aura of power around her.”  Just before you question Alvarez’s sanity, I should say that he added this qualification: “But that may be because being a writer is a bit like being a lighthouse-keeper: you don’t get out much.”


Something that the dinner’s attendees seemed to be in agreement about was Thatcher’s lack of humour.  Larkin observed to Amis that, “I noticed she didn’t laugh much, or make jokes.”  Alvarez actually tried to make a joke to her.  He quipped before the Iron Lady that because of his Spanish-sounding name he’d had to keep his head down since the Falklands.  In reaction, “(h)er face froze and she turned away.”


Actually, this brings to mind some comments made recently by the playwright Alan Bennett, who famously loathed the sight and sound of Thatcher and was never going to be in contention for the guest list that night.  “What also galls,” wrote Bennett in his 2013 diary, “is the notion that Tory MPs throw in almost as an afterthought, namely that her lack of a sense of humour was just a minor failing, of no more significance than being colour-blind, say, or mildly short-sighted.  In fact to have no sense of humour is to be a seriously flawed human being.  It’s not a minor shortcoming; it shuts you off from humanity.  Mrs Thatcher was a mirthless bully…”


What other nuggets of information are contained in Farndale’s piece?  Well, Anthony Powell, who was so cruelly derided behind his back by Larkin and Amis, thought that the red wine served that night was ‘filth’.  Tom Stoppard’s main memory of the evening was not of meeting Thatcher but of meeting Larkin, about whom he was apparently star-struck.  Al Alvarez got seated next to V.S. Naipaul, who spent the meal grilling him about how much he got paid by the New Yorker and if he could get some pieces published in it.  And Alvarez suspected that, really, Thatcher didn’t know who most of her fellow diners were.  “Dick Francis was more her speed.”


(c) The Daily Telegraph


For the full account of that night when Philip Larkin drooled over his political heroine, Al Alvarez felt disturbingly attracted to her, V.S. Naipaul talked New Yorker fees, Mario Vargas Llosa was mistaken for a Panamanian and Margaret Thatcher probably wasn’t sure what was going on, here’s a link to Nigel Farndale’s feature: