‘The Old Devils’ by Kingsley Amis

Amis_The-Old-Devils-fcX-700pxThe 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.

Amis_The-Old-Devils-bcX-700pxSo, 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?

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20 Comments

Filed under Amis, Kingsley, Fiction

20 responses to “‘The Old Devils’ by Kingsley Amis

  1. I have read Lucky Jim and I really liked it. I just bought Take A Girl Like you and am going to read that one next.

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    • Jonathan

      Lucky Jim will be my next Amis novel – I just don’t know when that will be. I’ll look forward to your review of Take a Girl Like You.

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  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I confess I’ve only ever read Amis junior – always think that Kingsley will be just to misogynistic for me! 🙂

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    • Jonathan

      I used to avoid British authors, with a few exceptions of course, but it’s only relatively recently that I’ve been trying a few more British authors. What I used to fear was that they were only going to be about the upper-classes and would be very parochial.French, Russian, American etc. authors always seemed to have more style to me.

      The Old Devils is very insular and appears very dated as well – I mean it would have seemed dated to me when it came out as I was 16 at the time and I would have avoided it like the plague.

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      • Jeff

        > What I used to fear was that they were only going to be about the upper-classes and would be very parochial.French, Russian, American etc. authors always seemed to have more style to me.

        Here here. I’ve overcome some of this by reading a le Carre novel, and have it in (an unhurried) mind to read some Graham Greene. But I started Vile Bodies and quickly started shrugging. See my other comment here about Amis jr.

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      • Jonathan

        I have been reading more British authors recently and although it’s a mixed bag there have been some gems, e.g. Elizabeth Taylor and yes, Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory was particularly good.

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  3. I read Take a Girl Like You in the mid-eighties (a good twenty years after publication) and it felt dated. I liked the central character, Jenny Bunn, but I didn’t feel the urge to try anything else by this author. I get the feeling that his novels are very much a product of their time.

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    • Jonathan

      I will try some more by K Amis as I don’t like to dismiss an author’s whole work based on one novel.

      It’s strange, but as I was writing the post I realised that the reasons I was giving for not liking the book are those that I don’t like giving myself or mildly annoy me when others give them, such as unlikeable characters and a dated feel to the book. Some of my favourite books have unlikeable characters, but they are in those cases interesting characters. I also quite like dated books as it can be the closest we get to time-travel, allowing us to escape the homogeneity of current day morality and sensibilities. I also found that I liked parts of the book when I was re-reading them in order to write this post. Maybe KA just needed a good editor.

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  4. LOL Exactly why I’ve never got round to taking this one off the shelf. I collect Booker Prize winners in first edition, and I suppose I’ll have to read it one day, but I’m going to put it off as long as possible…

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    • Jonathan

      It is, at least, easy to read. Because I wasn’t enjoying it I started rushing my reading and therefore became impatient with it.

      I’m often wary of books that win prizes as sometimes I think they give them to people who they feel should have already received a prize but haven’t or it’s a compromise decision.

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      • Well, the Booker has certainly been subject to all those criticisms over the years. Still, it’s brought us some terrific books too. I loved The Siege of Krishnapur – have you read that one? I think it would be a nice antidote to Amis…

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      • Jonathan

        No, I haven’t read Siege of K Lisa but I have read and enjoyed other Booker winners such as Rushdie & J Barnes. It’s just that they’re a bit hit or miss.

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  5. I like lucky jim and have read a number of other books by him including this but lucky jim was the one I liked best I felt it was the nearest to him at the time he wrote it and was in the tradition of writers venturing out into the world of teaching rather like waugh’s early books

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  6. Jonathan

    I sometimes think, Stu, that they sometimes award the prize for an author’s whole body of work, especially when they’ve been criticised for missing the artist in previous years. The same thing happens with the Oscars.

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  7. Jeff

    Don’t think I’m plagiarising your review when I post about Money by Amis jr. but I had a similar reaction. I thought they were unlike father unlike son, but now I don’t know, and it’s not as though I cared anyway. Was there any sneering towards the uncultured lower orders of society by any chance?

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    • Jonathan

      I think I’ve read Money by Amis Jr, but I can’t quite remember now. There wasn’t any class stuff in Old Devils it was just that the characters were so one-dimensional and superficial, they drink and fuck, but they get no enjoyment out of either but they don’t have anything interesting to say. c.f Bukowski; Bukowski’s books are all about drinking and fucking but are thoroughly entertaining.

      I’ll try to read some more by Kingsley though, as I’m sure his earlier work is better.

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      • Jeff

        I concur about Bukowski. I’ve only read Post Office, and Ham on Rye was recommended by someone who read my review of the former and had reviewed the latter. Bukowski had empathy with the kinds of people he depicted yet didn’t shirk from depicting their warts. I related to the joys and failings to blue-collar workers, having been one myself for years. Amis Jr., and I’ll post about this when I get my arse in gear, sneers from his high-horse. The caveat to this may be to try another book to confirm of deny – I’m keen to read his account of the pro darts scene in the 1980s (can’t recall the book’s title).

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  8. Pingback: Martin Amis and the Wrong Kind of Money | Recent Items

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