Tuesday, 13 February 2018

146 Kinglsley Amis

146 Kingsley Amis
Anyone walking from Cwmdonkin Park in the Uplands, with its associations with Dylan Thomas, and leaving by the lower entrance into The Grove, may notice on the left a blue plaque outside number 24.  This is to commemorate another notable writer in the English language, not a Swansea-born poet like Dylan, yet a novelist who worked at Swansea University for 12 years.  That blue plaque states that Kingsley Amis, who lived from 1922 to 1995, was a novelist who lived there from 1951 to 1955.
Born in Clapham, south London, Kingsley Amis won a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he met poet Philip Larkin (who was also a good friend of Pennard poet Vernon Watkins).  National Service and the Second World War interrupted his studies, but after completing his degree in English, Amis became a junior lecturer at University College of Wales, Swansea, in 1949.  He lived in lodgings near the Guildhall and in St. Helen's Crescent, as well as in various flats and houses in Sketty, in Mumbles and the Uplands, until he left Swansea in 1961. 
Amis achieved fame in 1954 with his first novel “Lucky Jim”, published days after his third child, and only daughter, was born at 24 The Grove, which had been purchased through an inheritance received by his wife and to which they had recently moved.  The novel was a critical success, satirising the high-brow academic set of a provincial university, and was translated into twenty languages including Polish, Hebrew and Korean.  It won him the Somerset Maugham award for fiction, and was made into a 1957 film starring Ian Carmichael.  “Lucky Jim”, which is dedicated to Philip Larkin, draws on the author’s experiences and clashes with academia in telling the exploits of a reluctant lecturer at an English university.  In the opinion of author Christopher Hitchens, it is the funniest book in the second half of the 20th century.
In 1955 a second novel “That Uncertain Feeling” was published, also set in Swansea, thinly disguised as Aberdarcy, with a film adaptation entitled “Only Two Can Play”, where Peter Sellers played the frustrated librarian.  The 1962 film used the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery as the library, rather than the actual Central Library, which stood then on the opposite side of Alexandra Road.  In this novel Amis bitterly satirises Swansea’s Little Theatre - describing the characters from a superior, ironical point of view as vulgar, provincial and immoral. 
Like poet Vernon Watkins, Amis visited the United States twice during his time in Swansea, becoming Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at Princeton University.  Although he disliked Dylan, through his friendship with Swansea solicitor Stuart Thomas he became a trustee of the Dylan Thomas Trust.  Amis was the precise opposite of Vernon Watkins, who looked for the good qualities in people.
After leaving Swansea, Amis concentrated on writing - including poetry, essays, science fiction and short stories.  Twice divorced, he had joined the British Communist party when he went up to Oxford, though he later became right-wing, and admitted to mild anti-semitism.  Having twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he was awarded this for “The Old Devils” in 1986, written mainly at Cliff House in Laugharne, which nostalgically recalls Swansea 25 years after he left.  His second son Martin (also a novelist) considers this novel his father’s masterpiece, commenting, “It stands comparison with any English novel of the century.” 
In 1990 Amis was knighted, but five years later his excessive drinking caught up with him, and he died at St Pancras Hospital in London aged 73.  Essayist Christopher Hitchens stated, “The booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm, as well as of his health.”                                                              
Although the film was made over fifty years ago, for Swansea people it is “Only Two Can Play” that demonstrates the wit and humour of Kingsley Amis at its best. 

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