The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis was first published in 1986 and it won the Booker Prize that year. Alun and Rhiannon Weaver are returning to Wales from London; Alun is an ageing minor TV presenter who has become famous for presenting programmmes about Wales on TV, especially about the famous Welsh poet Brydan (think Dylan Thomas). Alun also likes sex and drinking, well, all the characters in the book like drinking, in fact that’s what they spend most of their time doing. Alun & Rhiannon are returning to their hometown where they quickly meet up with many couples that they used to know (and drink with) such as Gwen & Malcolm Cellan-Davies, Muriel & Peter Thomas, Dorothy & Percy Morgan and Charlie & Sophie. It turns out that Peter and Rhiannon used to date and there was an incident from their past that Peter finds it difficult to forget. Alun quickly starts having casual sex with many of his old flames, which seems to consist of most of the wives mentioned above, whilst he’s trying to write a book about Wales, which is just an excuse to travel around Wales getting drunk with his friends.
Now, I’ve had this book kicking around for a while and from the blurb on the back of this book it sounded like fun; a sort of ‘Old People Behaving Badly’ by one of Britain’s great comic writers. I hadn’t read anything by Amis Sr before so I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but after about a hundred pages I was prepared to throw in the towel – I’d had enough! I just found it so boring; the characters were both unlikeable and uninteresting, ALL they did was bitch and drink and fuck, which could have been interesting and should have been interesting, but it wasn’t. It’s difficult now to explain exactly what I didn’t like about it but I found Amis’s style very irritating; it consists largely of dialogue that rambles and seems quite pointless and confusing. Once we decide that we don’t like a book it’s probably wise to abandon it…but I didn’t; I carried on. Was this a stupid thing to do? Well, it did pick up a bit, especially with the Peter character, concerning his relationship with his wife and grown-up son, as well as his past relationship with Rhiannon. Also there were vaguely funny incidents such as the whole group getting thrown out of their local pub by the landlord who verbally abuses all of them. Maybe I was just not in the mood for this book but I certainly wouldn’t have called it a comedy and I’m amazed at the quote on the back that calls it a ‘bloody funny lovely bloody book’.
Admittedly there were a few good bits, so rather than pointing out more faults I’ve found a little quotation that was amusing; Gwen is explaining to Rhiannon why Charlie drinks so much:
‘The thing is, Charlie’s got nothing else to do and he can afford it. It’s quite a problem for retired people, I do see. All of a sudden the evening starts starting after breakfast. All of those hours with nothing to stay sober for. Or nothing to naturally stay sober during, if you see what I…We used to laugh at Malcolm’s dad, the way he used to mark up the wireless programmes in the Radio Times in different-coloured pencils. Never caught him listening to any of them but it was an hour taken care of. Drink didn’t agree with him, poor old Taffy. Some of us have got a lot to be thankful for.
And I like the following quote which pretty much sums up the characters’ predicaments.
Everybody had been in their twenties then; well, round about thirty. Now, from round about seventy, all those years of maturity or the prime of life or whatever you called it looked like an interval between two bouts of vomiting.
So, maybe I didn’t like the book just because it was the wrong book at the wrong time and I still intend to read some more Amis, such as his most famous novel Lucky Jim. Has anybody else read The Old Devils? Did you like it? Do you disagree with me and consider it a comic masterpiece?