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Kingsley Amis
File:Kingsley Amis in early middle age.jpg
Born Kingsley William Amis
(1922-04-16)16 April 1922
Clapham, London, England
Died 22 October 1995(1995-10-22) (aged 73)
London, England
Alma mater St John's College, Oxford
Occupation Novelist, poet, critic, teacher
Political movement Angry Young Men
Spouse(s) Hilary Ann Bardwell (m. 1948–1965, divorced)
Elizabeth Jane Howard (m. 1965–1983, divorced)
Children Philip Amis
Martin Amis
Sally Amis

Sir Kingsley William Amis, CBE (16 April 1922 – 22 October 1995) was an English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher. He wrote more than 20 novels, six volumes of poetry, a memoir, various short stories, radio and television scripts, along with works of social and literary criticism. According to his biographer, Zachary Leader, Amis was "the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century." He is the father of British novelist Martin Amis.

In 2008, The Times ranked Kingsley Amis ninth on their list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.[1]

Life and career

Kingsley Amis was born on 16 April 1922 in Clapham, south London, the son of William Robert Amis, a mustard manufacturer's clerk in the City of London and his wife, Rosa Annie (née Lucas).[2] He was raised in Norbury – in his later estimation "not really a place, it's an expression on a map [–] really I should say I came from Norbury station."[3] He was educated at the City of London School on a scholarship, after his first year, and in April 1941 was admitted to St John's College, Oxford, also on a scholarship, where he read English. It was there that he met Philip Larkin, with whom he formed the most important friendship of his life. While at Oxford, in June 1941, Amis joined the Communist Party of Great Britain[4] (but later broke with communism in 1956, after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced former Soviet premier Joseph Stalin in his speech On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences[5]). After only a year, in July 1942, he was called up for national service. After serving in the Royal Corps of Signals in the Second World War, Amis returned to Oxford in October 1945 to complete his degree. Although he worked hard and earned in 1947 a first in English, he had by then decided to give much of his time to writing.

In 1946 he met Hilary Bardwell; they married in 1948 after she became pregnant with their first child, Philip. Amis initially arranged for her to have a back-street abortion, but changed his mind, fearing for her safety. He became a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea (1949–1961).[6] Two other children followed: Martin[7] in August 1949 and Sally in January 1954. Days after Sally's birth, Amis's first novel Lucky Jim was published to great acclaim; critics saw it as having caught the flavour of Britain in the 1950s, ushering in a new style of fiction.[8] By 1972, in addition to impressive sales in Britain, one and a quarter million paperback copies had been sold in the United States, and it was eventually translated into twenty languages, including Polish, Hebrew, Korean, and Serbo-Croat.[9] The novel won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction and Amis was associated with the writers labelled the Angry Young Men. Lucky Jim was one of the first British campus novels, setting a precedent for later generations of writers such as Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe and Howard Jacobson. As a poet, Amis was associated with The Movement.

During 1958–59 he made the first of two visits to the United States, where he was Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at Princeton University and a visiting lecturer in other north-eastern universities. On returning to Britain, he fell into a rut, and he began looking for another post; after 13 years at Swansea, Amis became a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge (1961–1963). He regretted the move within a year, finding Cambridge an academic and social disappointment, and resigned in 1963, intent on moving to Majorca, although he went no further than London.[10][11]

In 1963, Hilary discovered that Amis was having a love affair with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hilary and Amis separated in August and he went to live with Howard. He divorced Hilary in 1965 and married Howard the same year. In 1968 he moved with Howard to Lemmons, a house in Barnet, north London. She and Amis divorced in 1983.

In his last years, Amis shared a house with his first wife Hilary and her third husband, Alastair Boyd, 7th Baron Kilmarnock. Martin wrote the memoir Experience about the life, charm, and decline of his father.

Amis was knighted in 1990. In August 1995 he fell, suffering a suspected stroke. After apparently recovering, he worsened, was re-admitted to hospital, and died on 22 October 1995 at St Pancras Hospital, London.[12][13] He was cremated; his ashes rest at Golders Green Crematorium.

Literary work

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Amis is widely known as a comic novelist of life in mid to late 20th-century Britain, but his literary work included many genres — poetry, essays and criticism, short stories, food and drink writing, anthologies, and a number of novels in genres such as science fiction and mystery. His career initially developed in a pattern which was the inverse of that of his close friend Philip Larkin. Before becoming known as a poet, Larkin had published two novels; Amis, on the other hand, originally wished to be a poet, and turned to writing novels only after publishing several volumes of verse. He continued throughout his career to write poetry, which is known for its typically straightforward and accessible style, yet often masks a nuance of thought, for example, in "Bookshop Idyll" or "Against Romanticism", just as it does in his novels.

Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is perhaps his most famous, satirizing the high-brow academic set of an unnamed university, seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Jim Dixon, as he tries to make his way as a young lecturer of history. The novel was perceived by many as part of the Angry Young Men movement of the 1950s, which reacted against the stultification of conventional British life, though Amis never encouraged this interpretation. Amis's other novels of the 1950s and early 1960s likewise depict situations from contemporary British life, often drawn from his own experiences. That Uncertain Feeling (1955) features a young provincial librarian (perhaps with reference to Larkin, working as a librarian in Hull) and his temptation towards adultery. I Like It Here (1958) presents a contemptuous view of "abroad" and followed upon the author's own travels on the Continent with a young family. Take a Girl Like You (1960) steps away from the immediately autobiographical, but remains grounded in the concerns of sex and love in ordinary modern life, tracing the courtship and ultimate seduction of the heroine Jenny Bunn by a young schoolmaster, Patrick Standish.

With The Anti-Death League (1966), Amis begins to show some of the experimentation – with content, if not with style – which would mark much of his work in the 1960s and 1970s. His departure from the strict realism of his early comedic novels is not so abrupt as might first appear. He had avidly read science fiction since a boy and developed that interest into the Christian Gauss Lectures of 1958, while visiting Princeton University. The lectures were published in that year as New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction. This was a serious, yet light-handed treatment of what the genre had to say about man and society. Amis was especially keen on the dystopian works of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and in New Maps of Hell coined the term "comic inferno" to describe a type of humorous dystopia, particularly as exemplified in the works of Robert Sheckley. Amis further displayed his devotion to the genre in editing, with the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, the science fiction anthology series Spectrum I–V, which drew heavily upon 1950s numbers of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction.

Though not explicitly science fiction, The Anti-Death League takes liberties with reality not found in Amis's earlier novels, and introduces into his fiction a speculative bent that would continue to develop in others of his genre novels, such as The Green Man (1969) (mystery/horror) and The Alteration (1976) (alternative history). Much of this speculation concerned the improbability of the existence of any benevolent deity involved in human affairs. In The Anti-Death League, The Green Man, The Alteration and elsewhere, including poems such as "The Huge Artifice: an interim assessment" and "New Approach Needed", Amis showed frustration with a God who could lace the world with cruelty and injustice, and championed the preservation of ordinary human happiness – in family, in friendships, in physical pleasure – against the demands of any cosmological scheme. The matter of Amis's religious views is perhaps summed up in a response, reported in his Memoirs, to the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's question, in his broken English: "You atheist?" Amis replied, "It's more that I hate Him."

During this time, Amis had not turned completely away from the comedic realism of Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You. I Want It Now (1968) and Girl, 20 (1971) both depict the "swinging" atmosphere of London in the late 1960s, in which Amis certainly participated, though neither book is strictly autobiographical. Girl, 20, for instance, is framed in the world of classical (and pop) music, of which Amis was not a part — the book's relatively impressive command of musical terminology and opinion shows both Amis's amateur devotion to music and the almost journalistic capacity of his intelligence to take hold of a subject which interested him. That intelligence is similarly on display in, for instance, the presentation of ecclesiastical matters in The Alteration, when Amis was neither a Roman Catholic nor for that matter a devotee of any church.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Amis regularly produced essays and criticism, principally for journalistic publication. Some of these were collected in 1968 into What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Essays, in which Amis's wit and literary and social opinions were on display ranging over books such as Colin Wilson's The Outsider (panned), Iris Murdoch's début novel Under the Net (praised), or William Empson's Milton's God (inclined to agreement). Amis's opinions on books and people tended to appear (and often were) conservative, and yet, as the title essay of the collection shows, he was not merely reverent of "the classics" and of traditional morals, but more disposed to exercise his own rather independent judgement in all things.

Amis became associated with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which he admired, in the late 1960s, when he began composing critical works connected with the fictional spy, either under a pseudonym or uncredited. In 1965, he wrote the popular The James Bond Dossier under his own name. That same year, he wrote The Book of Bond, or, Every Man His Own 007, a tongue-in-cheek how-to manual about being a sophisticated spy, under the pseudonym "Lt Col. William ('Bill') Tanner", Tanner being M's Chief of Staff in many of Fleming's Bond novels. In 1968 Amis wrote Colonel Sun, which was published under the pseudonym "Robert Markham".

Amis's literary style and tone changed significantly after 1970, with the possible exception of The Old Devils, a Booker Prize winner. Several critics accused him of being old fashioned and misogynistic. His Stanley and the Women, an exploration of social sanity, could be said to instance these traits. Others said that his output lacked the humanity, wit and compassion of earlier efforts.

This period also saw Amis the anthologist, a role in which his wide knowledge of all kinds of English poetry was on display. The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), which he edited, was a revision of the original volume done by W. H. Auden. Amis took the anthology in a markedly new direction: Auden had interpreted light verse to include "low" verse of working-class or lower-class origin, regardless of subject matter, while Amis defined light verse as essentially light in tone, though not necessarily simple in composition. The Amis Anthology (1988), a personal selection of his favourite poems, grew out of his work for a London newspaper, in which he selected a poem daily and presented it with a brief introduction.[14]

Amis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times – for Ending Up (1974) and Jake's Thing (1978), and finally, winning the prize, for The Old Devils in 1986.[15]

In 2008, The Times ranked Kingsley Amis 13th on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.[16][17]

Personal life

Political views

As a young man at Oxford, Amis joined the Communist Party. He left in 1956.[18][19] He later described this stage of his political life as "the callow Marxist phase that seemed almost compulsory in Oxford".[20] Amis remained nominally on the Left for some time after the war, declaring in the 1950s that he would always vote for the Labour Party.[21] But he eventually moved further right, a development he discussed in the essay "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" (1967); his conservatism and anti-communism can be seen in such later works of his as the dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek (1980).[citation needed] In 1967, Amis, Robert Conquest, John Braine and several other right-wing authors signed a controversial letter to The Times entitled "Backing for U.S. Policies in Vietnam", supporting the US government in the Vietnam War.[22] He spoke at the Adam Smith Institute, arguing against government subsidy to the arts.[23]


Amis was by his own admission and as revealed by his biographers a serial adulterer for much of his life. This was one of the main contributory factors in the breakdown of his first marriage. A famous photograph of a sleeping Amis on a Yugoslav beach shows the slogan (written by wife Hilly) on his back "1 Fat Englishman – I fuck anything".[24]

In one of his memoirs, Amis wrote: "Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time".[25] He suggests that this is the result of a naïve tendency on the part of his readers to apply the behaviour of his characters to himself. This was disingenuous; the fact was that he enjoyed drink, and spent a good deal of his time in pubs. Hilary Rubinstein, who accepted Lucky Jim for publication at Victor Gollancz, commented: "I doubted whether Jim Dixon would have gone to the pub and drunk ten pints of beer ... I didn't know Kingsley very well, you see."[26] Clive James comments: "All on his own, he had the weekly drinks bill of a whole table at the Garrick Club even before he was elected. After he was, he would get so tight there that he could barely make it to the taxi."[27] Amis was, however, adamant in his belief that inspiration did not come from a bottle: "Whatever part drink may play in the writer's life, it must play none in his or her work."[25] That this was certainly the case is attested to by Amis's highly disciplined approach to writing. For 'many years',[28] Amis imposed a rigorous daily schedule upon himself in which writing and drinking were strictly segregated. Mornings were devoted to writing with a minimum daily output of 500 words.[29] The drinking would only begin around lunchtime when this output had been achieved. Amis's prodigious output would not have been possible without this kind of self-discipline.

Nevertheless, according to Clive James, Amis reached a turning point when his drinking ceased to be social, and became a way of dulling his remorse and regret at his behaviour toward Hilly. "Amis had turned against himself deliberately... it seems fair to guess that the troubled grandee came to disapprove of his own conduct."[27] His friend Christopher Hitchens said: "The booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health."[30]

Amis had a somewhat complex relationship with anti-Semitism, which he sometimes expressed but also disliked and opposed.[31] He occasionally speculated on the historically received, and commonly accepted, stereotypes attributed to Jewish character. Anti-semitism was sometimes present in his conversations and letters written to friends and associates: "The great Jewish vice is glibness, fluency... also possibly just bullshit, as in Marx, Freud, Marcuse." Or, "Chaplin is a horse's arse. He's a Jeeeew you see, like the Marx Brothers, like Danny Kaye." It is a minor theme in his novel about a paranoid schizophrenic, Stanley and the Women. As for the cultural complexion of America, Amis had this to say: "I've finally worked out why I don't like Americans ... Because everyone there is either a Jew or a hick." Amis himself described his anti-Semitism as being "Very mild ..."[32]


Amis's first marriage, of fifteen years, was to Hilary Bardwell,[33] daughter of a civil servant,[34] by whom he had two sons and one daughter: Philip Amis, a graphics designer;[34][35] Martin Amis, a novelist;[36] and Sally Amis, who died in 2000.[35]

Amis was married a second time, to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard from 1965 to 1983, with whom he had no children.

At the end of his second marriage, he went to live with his ex-wife Hilary and her third husband, in a deal brokered by their two sons Philip and Martin, so that he could be cared for until his death.[35]

Partial bibliography


  • 1947 Bright November
  • 1953 A Frame of Mind
  • 1954 Poems: Fantasy Portraits
  • 1956 A Case of Samples: Poems 1946–1956
  • 1962 The Evans County
  • 1968 A Look Round the Estate: Poems, 1957–1967
  • 1979 Collected Poems 1944–78


  • c. 1948 The Legacy (unpublished)
  • 1954 Lucky Jim
  • 1955 That Uncertain Feeling
  • 1958 I Like It Here
  • 1960 Take a Girl Like You
  • 1963 One Fat Englishman
  • 1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest)
  • 1966 The Anti-Death League
  • 1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
  • 1968 I Want It Now
  • 1969 The Green Man
  • 1971 Girl, 20
  • 1973 The Riverside Villas Murder
  • 1974 Ending Up
  • 1975 The Crime of the Century
  • 1976 The Alteration
  • 1978 Jake's Thing
  • 1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek
  • 1984 Stanley and the Women
  • 1986 The Old Devils
  • 1988 Difficulties with Girls
  • 1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
  • 1991 We Are All Guilty
  • 1992 The Russian Girl
  • 1994 You Can't Do Both
  • 1995 The Biographer's Moustache
  • c. 1995 Black and White (unfinished)[37]
Short fiction collections
  • 1962 My Enemy's Enemy
  • 1980 Collected Short Stories
  • 1991 Mr Barrett's Secret and Other Stories
Other short fiction
  • 1960 "Hemingway in Space" (short story), Punch December 1960


  • 1957 Socialism and the Intellectuals, a Fabian Society pamphlet
  • 1960 New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction
  • 1965 The James Bond Dossier
  • 1965 The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007 (pseud. Lt.-Col William ('Bill') Tanner)
  • 1970 What Became of Jane Austen?, and Other Questions
  • 1972 On Drink
  • 1974 Rudyard Kipling and His World
  • 1983 Everyday Drinking
  • 1984 How's Your Glass?
  • 1990 The Amis Collection
  • 1991 Memoirs
  • 1997 The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage (name in part a pun as he was sometimes called "Kingers" or "The King" by friends and family, as told by his son Martin in his memoir Experience)
  • 2001 The Letters of Kingsley Amis, Edited by Zachary Leader
  • 2008 Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, Introduction by Christopher Hitchens (an omnibus edition of On Drink, Everyday Drinking and How's Your Glass?)


  • 1967 Spectrum V : a fifth science fiction anthology (ed. with Robert Conquest)
  • 1978 The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (ed.)

Poets in The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988)

Richard AldingtonKenneth AllottMatthew ArnoldKenneth AshleyW. H. AudenWilliam BarnesOliver BayleyHilaire BellocJohn BetjemanLaurence BinyonWilliam BlakeEdmund BlundenRupert BrookeRobert BrowningRobert BurnsThomas CampbellThomas CampionG. K. ChestertonHartley ColeridgeRobert ConquestW. J. CoryJohn DavidsonDonald DavieC. Day LewisWalter de la MareErnest DowsonMichael DraytonLawrence DurrellJean ElliotGeorge FarewellJames Elroy FleckerThomas FordRoy FullerRobert GravesThomas GrayFulke GrevilleHeathReginald HeberFelicia Dorothea HemansW. E. HenleyGeorge HerbertRalph HodgsonThomas HoodTeresa HooleyGerard Manley HopkinsA. E. HousmanHenry Howard, Earl of SurreyT. E. HulmeLeigh HuntElizabeth JenningsSamuel JohnsonJohn KeatsHenry KingCharles Kingsley – Rudyard Kipling – Philip LarkinHenry Wadsworth LongfellowJohn LydgateH. F. LyteLouis MacNeiceAndrew MarvellJohn MasefieldAlice MeynellHarold MonroWilliam MorrisEdwin MuirHenry NewboltAlfred NoyesWilfred OwenThomas Love PeacockGeorge PeeleAlexander PopeFrederic ProkoschWalter RaleghJohn Crowe RansomChristina RossettiSiegfried SassoonJohn SkeltonRobert SoutheyEdmund SpenserSir John SquireRobert Louis StevensonJohn SucklingAlgernon Charles SwinburneGeorge SzirtesAlfred, Lord TennysonDylan ThomasEdward ThomasR. S. ThomasFrancis ThompsonAnthony ThwaiteChidiock TichborneAurelian TownsendW. J. TurnerOscar WildeJohn Wilmot, Lord RochesterRoger WoddisCharles WolfeWilliam WordsworthWilliam Butler YeatsAndrew Young


  1. The Times
  2. Barratt, Nick (9 June 2007). "Family detective". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  3. Bookmark, BBC TV, 'Kingsley Amis:The Memoirs'.
  4. Leader (2006), p.108
  5. Martin Amis (2002)
  6. Leader, 2006, p. 452.
  7. "Sir Kingsley Amis Dies; British Novelist and Poet," Washington Post, 23 October 1995; Leader, 2006, p.1.
  8. Bradbury, Malcolm, 1989, p. 205; Ritchie 1988, p. 64.
  9. Jacobs, 1995, p.162
  10. Memoirs, "Cambridge"
  11. Bradford, Ch 10
  12. "Sir Kingsley Amis Dies; British Novelist and Poet", Washington Post, 23 October 1995
  13. Bradford, Ch 23
  14. Fussell, The Anti-Egotist
  15. [1] Archived 24 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The Times, 5 January 2008, accessed 8 February 2010.
  17. "List". Archived from the original on 25 November 2011. Retrieved 25 November 2011. 
  18. See Martin Amis, Koba the Dread (2002)
  19. MI5 reports on Amis. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  20. See Amis's Socialism and the Intellectuals, cited by Leader, 2006, p. 366.
  21. Leader, 2006, p. 366
  22. John Wakeman, World Authors 1950–1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors. New York : H.W. Wilson Company, 1975. ISBN 0824204190. (pp. 444–48).
  23. Madsen Pirie, Think Tank: The Story of the Adam Smith Institute, Biteback Publishing, 2012, p. 140
  24. Leader 2006, opposite p. 565
  25. 25.0 25.1 Memoirs: Booze
  26. Quoted in Bradford, Ch 5
  27. 27.0 27.1 Clive James, "Kingsley without the women", Times Literary Supplement, 2 February 2007
  28. Jacobs, 1995, p. 17
  29. Jacobs, 1995, p. 6.
  30. Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking, Bloomsbury, NY, 2008, editor's introduction.
  31. Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora, A History of Anti-Semitism in England, Oxford Univ. Press, 2010, pp. 357–358
  32. Julius, p. 358
  33. Hilary Amis was later wife of the classicist D.R. Shackleton Bailey (married 1967; divorced 1975) and of the late Lord Kilmarnock (married 1977; died 19 March 2009). She had one son James or Jaime, born out of wedlock, by her third husband (usually called her second husband by the media) who was therefore unable to inherit his father's peerage.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Mira Stout. "Martin Amis: Down London's Mean Streets New York Times Book Review, 4 February 1990. Sunday, Late Edition – Final Section 6; Page 32, Column 1; Magazine Desk
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 Sarah Sands. "My life with the unfaithful old devil Kingsley Amis" Daily Mail 6 October 2006
  36. Boyd Tonkin. "Martin Amis: The man who fell to earth" Independent 13 May 2000.
  37. Leader 2006, p. 778-779.


  • Amis, Kingsley (1992). Kingsley Amis: Memoirs. Penguin. 
  • Amis, Kingsley (2000). Leader, Zachary. ed. The Letters of Kingsley Amis. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-257095-5. 
  • Bradbury, Malcolm (1989). No, Not Bloomsbury. Arena. ISBN 0-09-954410-5. 
  • Bradford, Richard (2001). Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis. Peter Owen. ISBN 0-7206-1117-2. 
  • Fussell, Paul (1994). The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters. Oxford UP. 
  • Jacobs, Eric (1995). Kingsley Amis, a Biography. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-59072-6. 
  • Leader, Zachary (2006). The Life of Kingsley Amis. Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-06227-1. 
  • Powell, Neil (2008). Amis & Son – Two literary generations. Pan Macmillan. 
  • Ritchie, Harry (1988). Success Stories: Literature and the Media in England, 1950–1959. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-14764-X. 
  • Kingsley Amis's Troublesome Fun, Michael Dirda. The Chronicle of Higher Education 22 June 2007. B9-B11.
  • Amis, Martin (2002). Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Talk Miramax Books. ISBN 978-1400032204. 

External links

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