In Which Kingsley Amis & I Disagree

First a confession: I love Sir Kingsley Amis. That’s why the heading of this post says “Kingsley & I” rather than “Kingsley & me” (which is my preference cause I reckon it sounds better) but not old Kingsley, he was a sucker for good grammar.1 I does not wish to offend him.2

I love Kingsley Amis for so many reasons. Because he’s dead funny, because he wrote in pretty much every genre, and because his main writing concerns were story and characterisation. Thus one of my favourite anecdotes about him goes like this:

Kingsley Amis is listening to a radio interview with his son Martin Amis, in which Amis Junior says of his latest novel that it really must be read twice in order to be fully appreciated. At which point Amis Senior says, “Well, then he’s buggered it up, hasn’t he?”

Too right. In case you’re worried about animosity between father and son, by all accounts they got on well, and there was much affection between them. They just had very different outlooks on writing. It happens.

I first came across Sir Kingsley when I was researching my PhD thesis on science fiction. His New Maps of Hell from 1960 was by far the wittiest, smartest, and most enjoyable book on science fiction I came across.3 That it was written by an established non-genre writer was astounding. It’s hard in these oh-so-much-more-tolerant days to convey just how much contempt was felt by the literati for us lowly genre writers. Why, back then even crime fiction (which Amis also loved) carried a stigma. But Kingsley Amis cared not a jot and wrote whatever he pleased: mysteries, science fiction, books about James Bond. I would love him for this alone.

Like me, he had an opinion on pretty much everything.4 (Though, um, his would only rarely, if ever, line up with mine.) In fact, I think he would have made a fabulous blogger. His non-fiction writing, espcially in newspapers, is chatty, unpretentious and instantly disarming:

Only one reader by her own account a hotelier and Tory [conservative] activist who’s also been a probation officer, took serious issue with me. “Your writing,” she stated, “is getting more and more biased and entrenched in reactionary fuddy-duddyism.” An excellent summing-up, I thought, of my contribution to the eighties’ cultural scene.

The quote comes from his writing on booze. Sir Kingsley was a boozer. He wrote three books on the subject, which are now handily collected in the one volume, Everyday Drinking, The Distilled Kingsley Amis. It’s wonderful and I say this as someone who pretty much disagrees with every word.

Sir Kingsley Amis’ drinks of choice were spirits and beer. He also had an inordinate fondness for cocktails and the book includes many recipes, including one for a Lucky Jim.5 I am a wine drinker,6 with little taste for cocktails, spirits or beer. Kingsley loved gin. I loathe it. Kingsley considered the Piña Colada a “disgusting concoction” and an “atrocity.” I love a properly made piña with fresh pineapple juice, fresh coconut milk and cream, and a dash of dark rum. Though really I just love coconut and pineapple—I’d happily skip the rum. He also considered combining beer and limes to be an “exit application from the human race” whereas I consider lime to be the only thing that makes most beer even vaguely palatable.

I also adore the French white wines he hates the most:

But the dry ones are mostly too dry to suit me, whether with food or solo. That’s if dry is the right word. I mean more than the absence of sweetness—I mean the quality that makes the saliva spurt into my mouth as soon as the wine arrives there. Perhaps I mean what wine experts call crispness or fintiness or even acidity, which for some mysterious reason they think is a good thing in wine. But whatever you call it, I don’t want it. Chablis, the average white Mâcon, Muscadet, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé—not today, thank you.

That’s fine, Kingsley. I’ll drink them!7 Well, not the average ones. Only the best, please!

He has scathing things to say about the Irish. Doesn’t think they could possibly have invented the process of making whiskey.8 Boo, Kingsley! Some of my best friends are Irish. Snobby, pommy bastard, you!9

So what was I doing reading a book I kept yelling “boo” at? Have I mentioned how funny Kingsley is? Here he is discussing the essentials for a good home bar kit:

1. A refrigerator. All to yourself, I mean. There is really no way around this. Wives and such are constantly filling any refigerator they have a claim on, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubblish like food.
8. A really very sharp knife. (If you want to finish the evening with your usual number of fingers, do any cutting-up, peel-slicing and the like before you have more than a couple of drinks, perferably before your first.)

Oh, Kingsley! How did you cope with those pesky wives and such?10 And food, irrelevant? My heart is so sad for you. I will go eat a nectarine. *gobbles* Ah, better.

Then once he’s given you his list of ten essentials he tells you what he ommitted:

Half the point of the above list is what it leaves out. The most important and controversial of your non-needs is a cocktail shaker. With all respect to James Bond, a martini should be stirred, not shaken. The case is a little different with drinks that include the heavier fruit-juices and liqueurs, but I have always found that an extra minute’s stirring does the trick well enough. The only mixture that does genuinely need shaking is one containing eggs, and if that is your sort of thing, then clear off and buy youself a shaker any time you fancy. The trouble with the things is that they are messy pourers and, much more important, they are far too small, holding half a dozen drinks at the outside. A shaker about the size of a hatbox might be worth pondering, but I have never seen or heard of such.

I am now trying to imagine operating a hatbox-sized cocktail shaker. Maybe if Yao Ming was the bartender? Which, oddly enough, is something I would like to see.

I also greatly enjoyed his instructions for making sugar syrup (simple syrup):

A bottle of sugar syrup, a preperation continually called for in mixed-drink books. To have a supply of it will save you a lot of time. . . Concoct it yourself by the following simple method:

Down a stiff drink and keep another by you to see you through the ordeal. . . [instructions] Your bottleful will last for months, and you will have been constantly patting yourself on the back for your wisdom and far-sightedness.

Reading Kingsley on booze is like reading novels from the 1930s-1950s. The adults are drinking all the time. With breakfast, lunch, before dinner, during dinner, after dinner, before bed (night cap!). Was anyone ever sober? It is a miracle that anything at all was achieved in those decades in the US, UK or Australia.11

Sir Kingsley sadly discusses the growing ubiquitousness of wine. But I can’t help thinking that the largely lower alcoholic content of wine (lower than spirits and cocktails anyways) combined with the prevelance of it being drunk with food, is a good thing. Wine cultures tend not to have as much alcoholism as, say, vodka cultures. Compare and contrast France with Russia.

Kingsley explains his own lack of wine appreciation12 thus:

Now we reach the point at which my credentials become slightly less than impeccable. With all those drinks I have got through, what I have not done is drink first-rate table wines at their place of origin, work my way through classic vintages and develop an educated palate. To do that, what you really need, shorn of the talk, is a rich father, and I missed it.

I missed that one, too, Sir Kingsley. But I’ve muddled along okay without. I may not know much about the very best Bourdeaux but I does know which wines I like, you know, like a good Pouilly-Fume. Or “pooey fumes” as me and my classy friends call it.

Anyways, bless you, Sir Kingsley Amis, for poking fun at yourself, at wine and booze, and almost everything else. For your classy deployment of sarcasm, irony, and out-and-out wit. Tonight I will raise a glass of the wine you hated most in your honour.13

  1. He would be appalled by my grammar, spelling, and punctuation skills. Or lack thereof. Sorry, Kingsley. []
  2. Though I do feel free to use his first name. I guess I’ve been reading him for so long I feel that we are now mates. A very safe feeling what with him being dead and all. []
  3. I disagreed with much of it, but that’s neither here nor there. []
  4. Toilet paper goes over the roll, people, not under! []
  5. Many people believe that Amis’ Lucky Jim was one of the funniest British novels of the 20th century. I’d definitely put it up there with Cold Comfort Farm. []
  6. I mean if I were a drinker that’s what I would drink. Though obviously as as writer of YA I don’t drink. So clearly everything in this post is on the hypothetical side. []
  7. Er, in my mind, I will. Not in real life. YA writer. []
  8. With or without an “e.” []
  9. Though we do agree on the subject of cola drinks and Woody Allen. We doesn’t like them. []
  10. According to his bios, he did so by having lots and lots of affairs. Oh, is that who the “and such” were? Bad, Sir Kingsley! []
  11. I know not of the drinking habits of other nations, but I fear the worst. []
  12. Though judging from what he writes about wine he was a phony and knew vastly more than, say, I do on the subject. []
  13. I won’t actually drink it, mind. YA writer, me. Pure as driven snow. []


  1. veejane on #

    If you need a dry white wine rec, I’d suggest the Sancerre: my mother and I have opposite palates, hers dry and mine sweet, and we find a happy medium with a Sancerre demi-sec. I don’t know Kingsley Amis from a hole in the wall, but I bet even he could be persuaded to like it!

    My grandfather, who is the gin drinker in the family, feels strongly about explaining to his audience (i.e. me) every time he orders a martini, “Beefeater, up, with a twist,” that actually “up” means without a twist. But that if you don’t say “up” you will get a martini with vermouth, which is some sort of abomination against god and man, almost as horrifying as vodka in a martini. And so despite the inaccuracy (which he will explain), he continues to order his martinis in his special way.

    I suspect my grandfather and Kingsley Amis would get along swimmingly.

  2. Tracy on #

    I was laughing all the way through this post, and I don’t even drink alcohol of any sort. I had no idea people wrote such opinionated books on booze. Thanks for the giggle. 🙂

    P.S. I totally agree with the toilet paper thing. I even change it when people get it wrong, which may be a bit rude, but how can you not prefer to have it roll over? Rolling under is just not natural, I tell you.

  3. Bookewyrme on #

    I just want to say, I love the little end-notes you append to most of your posts. They make me giggle every time! Today’s were particularly gigglitious!

  4. Tim on #

    Ah, I love it when I can disagree with someone but the fact that they’re so amazingly witty and funny means that I can overlook their seriously bizzare views of things and just concentrate on how marvellous it is to read what they’re saying.

  5. Ali on #

    Justine, you continue to write blog posts about all the things I like best (YA, feminism, wine, sarcastic people), and this was one of my favourites 🙂 I think Kingsley Amis and I would have got on very well, except for his needless attack on dry white wines. Also:

    ‘It is a miracle that anything at all was achieved in those decades in the US, UK or Australia.’

    – I think this just proves that some of the best things are invented when not entirely sober. Except for YA novels, of course. (non-YA novels are another matter entirely)

  6. JMS on #

    He says some great things about boozeahol in both The Green Man and his James Bond book.

    Also, The Alteration is a magnificent alt-hist.

    He is probably my very favorite dead misogynist.

  7. Alisa on #

    If you would like to disagree with Mr. Amis some more, you should read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s autobiography “Slipstream”, which contains several instructive views of Sir KA. Ms. Howard was one of those wives and such. She was also a fantastic novelist.

    Among other things, she tells about the time she and Kingsley agreed to try to write each other’s novels. (Perhaps you and Scott should give this a go?)

  8. Pam Adams on #

    Ooh- more books to read! Thanks for the recommendation. By the way, I have finally purchased/read LIAR, and am now eagerly anticipating visiting the LIAR spoilers thread!

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