Kingsley William Amis life and biography

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Kingsley William Amis biography

Date of birth : 1922-04-16
Date of death : 1995-10-22
Birthplace : Clapham, South London, England
Nationality : British
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-03-30
Credited as : fiction novelist, poet, Lucky Jim

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Kingsley William Amis was born on April 16, 1922, at Norbury, a country suburb. His middle name ‘William’ came from his father while Kingsley was the name of his mother’s cousin. Amis studied at St. Midas and later at Norbury College.

By the time of Kingsley’s birth, his parents, who originally belonged to Norfolk, were settled in south London. Kingsley’s mother, Rosa Annie preferred to be called Peggy. Although they used to meet at regular intervals, he hardly knew any of his relatives. Kingsley had a very striking rather than erudite impression of his relatives. On his maternal side, his granny was resistant in a way like ‘one of those horrible shrunken little old women, dressed in black who used to sit on walls or outside shops on the continent’. Kingsley didn’t much admire his granny but he respected his granddad. Dora, Peggy’s sister, was a lunatic and her behavior had affected Kingsley’s life.

His School Days

‘They (Mum and Dad) didn’t say it was going to be like this.’ These were the words, which Kingsley recalled, of his first day at the school. The first school he visited was St Milda’s which though only for girls, admitted boys in lower grades. Kingsley was a loner in his school and made no new friends. From St Milda’s, he could recollect only a few people. They included one of his classmates named Freda, one Miss Crampton, the French teacher and another Miss Barr, the English teacher, with whom Kingsley fell in love. He wrote about her in Memoirs (his autobiography).

Kingsley then joined St John’s College in Norbury village where he developed an interest in English.

Parental Love

Being the only child, Kingsley had both advantages as well as disadvantages. The plus point was his parent’s undivided affection, the negative point was that he was pampered and over protected to the limits of being smothered.

Kingsley gained as well as suffered from the contradictory pressures. His mother was very fond of him. She nicknamed him Fud, which he did not much admire and was able to wipe it off only in his teens. One of Peggy’s mental anguish was Kingsley’s health. This meant use of excessive laxatives, all of them so pungent that in Kingsley’s view it seemed to be a proof of ‘The supposedly very English idea that, if something was really going to do you good, it must taste horrible : Senna ‘tea’, California Syrup of ligs, worst of all Gregory powders’. Peggy was also much concerned about his eating habits. But this made Kingsley reluctant and hesitant in doing things for himself. In his 50s he also told an interviewer. ‘I dislike, in a sense, standing on my own feet’.

In a way, Kingsley’s mother encouraged him to be independent but she also left him heavily dependent on other people. It was Peggy who helped him to choose the career of a writer. She encouraged him to try his hand on writing in his free time.

His Anxieties

Two events in Kingsley’s life left lasting impressions on him. One incident took place, when he was 10 during his first air journey. At that time flying had yet to become a regular means of transportation. When the plane took off, he looked down from the window, and suddenly a great fear gripped him. He thought : "This is the wrong place – ground was supposed to be under your feet." Since then, he never flew again for the next six decades.

Another event occurred when he was left all alone at home at night. He felt deserted and had a strange feeling that someone would climb through the window and murder him. These anxieties never left him, neither in his adolescence nor in the later part of his life.

At London School

Kingsley joined London School where he tried writing poetry. He joined Officers’ Training Corps and took riding lessons. In the school, Kingsley realized that neither class nor race, intellect nor prowess at sports was required for a schoolboy to be popular. ‘To be accepted, you had only to be amiable. To be liked you needed pre-eminently to be able to raise the occasional laugh’. In the last school years, Kingsley had made up his mind to become a writer and so decided to set his sight on reading English. He required a scholarship to get admitted into Oxford or Cambridge University as he was in no position to pay for the same. At the same time, Kingsley’s family moved from Norbury to the town of Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire so as to escape the German bomber flight path at the time of World War II. This move made Kingsley a bit lonely and isolated. During his school life he was always short of friends, the reason being his parent’s inexorable exclusion policy towards potential pals. This deficiency was made up after getting into Oxford.

Oxford Life

Kingsley went up to Oxford in April 1941 with help of a scholarship. As a result of World War II there were some abnormalities in the pattern of Oxford life. He scored maximum grades in the four terms. With Illes and Philip Larkin, Kingsley was drawn into a group called ‘The Seven’. Other members were Jimary Willcox, Philip Brown, Nick Russel and David Williams. This group, in a way, was a constant source of harassment to the college for their ruffian behavior like playing loud music. Philip Larkin turned out to be his long lasting friend. Together they drank, gossiped, cracked jokes and behaved like a couple of college hearties.

In Larkin’s words Kingsley became best known at Oxford for his ‘genius for imaginative mimicry’. Kingsley was jubilant when admired for his wit and ability to entertain. Even he enjoyed Larkin’s company.

The Army

After joining Oxford, Amis had no other option but to join British Army as World War II was still going strong. He underwent rigorous training to expand his sense of ludicrousness of Army life.


Amis’ first try at fiction was Who Else Is Rank, depicting his affair with Elizabeth Simpson, a married woman. He showed up in the name of Francis Archer. The novel was jointly written with another officer, E Frank Coles. It consisted of two sections - Rhapsody and Ecstasy. William, Amis’ father, was shocked when he learnt about his son’s affair with a married woman. The situation was not comfortable but it was satisfying as an experience to Amis. His affinity towards Elizabeth brought sourness in his relation with his father.

Comeback To Oxford

Amis returned to Oxford from the Army in October 1945. There he took up a job as a lecturer. He kept in touch with his closest friend Larkin through letters. Distance did not diminish their friendship but it deepened it.

In January 1946, at Oxford, Amis spotted a very young and a pretty blonde across the room. That very moment he was sure that she was the person of his interest. She was Hilary Bardwell, an arts student at Ruskin College who was studying biology.

They started dating and things went smoothly for the two. A week later, he found Hilary boring and stupid but also realized that he enjoyed drinking, smoking and making love to her. Amis discovered that Hilary’s pet name was ‘Hilly’ and he called her so afterwards.

In July Amis went to stay with Hilly’s parents in Harewell. He spent the entire August with Hilly and later realized that he had seen enough of Miss Hilly and should get back to himself again.

Amis was still in touch with Elizabeth Simpson and confessed to Larkin that ‘he felt strongly for her’. The anxieties that had been accumulated in him since childhood became severe. He became eccentric and was almost on the verge of insanity. These anxieties expressed themselves in his novel Take A Girl like You.

Amis and Hilly grew fond of each other after he suffered from mental anguish. Hilly was pregnant and was overjoyed at the prospect of having a baby, whereas he felt sick at the thought of it. They got married on January 21, 1948, in the Oxford’s register office. In June, they moved into a cottage. On August 15, 1948, Hilly gave birth to a baby boy they called Philip Nicol.

The Crisis

Amis made an individual effort in writing a novel called The Legacy. It turned out to be a failure. His next novel Lucky Jim was most appreciated. For Amis, late 1940s and early 1950s were the times of crisis. He had no job. At times he would have several projects – poems, novels, short stories. He scanned the newspapers for vacancy and sent in his applications to the universities in Scotland, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester. He also appeared for the interviews at some of the universities but nothing materialized.

On August 25, Martin, his second child was born. Martin walked on his father’s footsteps and became a novelist. The family moved in with Hilly’s parents at Harewell.

Just before moving into a cottage, Amis received an interview call from the university at Swansea. Due to bad health, Amis requested to postpone the interview. The University agreed and he later moved to Swansea and got the job with a starting salary of £300 plus £50 child allowance. Until later 1950s, cash remained a major problem. To help make ends meet Hilly worked at the local cinema at Harewell and Amis corrected exam papers. He kept in touch with Hilly through letters until she joined him at Swansea.

On January 17, 1954, Sally, the third offspring arrived. The couple was ecstatic at having a baby girl. Eight days later Lucky Jim was published.

Success On The Way

After great struggle and misery, success came with the publication of Lucky Jim. People realized the worth of his works. He received letters from his fans and admirers. He spent 14 shillings on stamps replying. Amis was jubilant at his success and was also able to buy a television set and could arrange for a drink at home.


That Uncertain Feeling, published in 1955, is the story of a librarian, John Lewis, who had an affair with a lady called Elizabeth Williams, the wife of a local councilor. Lewis admitted his infidelity to his wife Jean to whom, he had been loyal for five years of marriage. The arguments between Lewis and Jean reflect those between Amis and Hilly. There were rows between the two, which frightened the three children. Philip, Martin and Sally would sit on the stairs to hear the fights with tears in their eyes, not knowing what it was all about but just praying it would soon be over. Hilly too began to have flings of her own. One of these was serious enough to rock their marriage. Amis thought ‘his marriage had about one chance in four of surviving till next summer.’ He did not tell anybody else and he swore Larkin to secrecy. He reckoned that if it came to divorce he would resign from Swansea and perhaps move to London. Matters swayed for some time but by November 20, everything quietened. Hilly agreed to give up her lover. In August 1958, their relationship plunged back into stormy waters.

Amis joined Army as he was a Communist, but left it when he found his interest in socialism. He started working on films, science fiction, jazz, the taste for which he had developed in the childhood and enjoyed it for the rest of his life.

Holiday In Portugal

Fame brought Amis invitations to travel. He accepted two holidays, one to Portugal and other to Princeton. He wrote to Robert Conquest : "We think we are going to Portugal after all now." He also wrote to Larkin : "You really have no idea what the bloody business entails or perhaps you can imagine." He considered this trip as an enforced exile and could fit it into his summer vacation from the university. In Portugal, Amis took accommodation at Billy Barley’s place, a Portuguese national. The place was not free from mundane troubles like untidy rooms to stinking lavatory and late, unhealthy meals.

Amis kept in touch with Conquest through letters. By the end of the month, he could not stand it any more. On July 31, he wrote to Conquest : ‘We’ve had a sort of muffled row with the chap who’s putting us up here." Amis was fed up with Billy Barley. Barley was taking out a lot of money from Amis and so he made up his mind to move with an Ulster couple to Jyrells at Monchique in Algrave. A Swansea couple, the Brocons, helped him to take this decision. Amis, in his letter to Conquest described Praia at length : "The beach is not impressive.… It’s pretty quiet all around. No night life to speak of, though there are cafes. Hilly wants me to add that she personally would go mad from boredom if left here on her own and that the town is an ugly little town."

When Amis was in Portugal, his second novel That Uncertain Feeling was published and he anticipated its reception with anxiety.

Excursion At Princeton

Amis’s second quest was at Princeton where he went as a visiting fellow in creative writing. He found America a far better place compared to Portugal. The people spoke English and were exceedingly loving. He was not confident enough to teach creative writing but he had to take up the task to satisfy monetary needs.

Amis along with his father William and sons Philip and Martin moved to 271, Edgerstoune Road. A week later, Hilly and four-year-old Sally joined. After six weeks of their arrival, he wrote to Conquest : "All very jolly here, settling in fine with the smell of bourbon and king size chesterfield over all."

Amis took weekly class at the library on the principles of literature or some ponderous theme, but his main duty was to guide the students who were amateur writers. He gave Christian Gauss Seminars on Criticism. His lectures were attended by eminent persons like Macdonald, Mary McCarthy etc. He enjoyed the train service from Princeton to New York and found New York impressive and entertaining.

In November, Amis made another trip to New York to debate at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Hunter College. His topic was ‘Is there a Beat generation ?’

Soon after he returned to Swansea, Amis summed up all his feelings about America and Americans. He found them energetic. They always strove for more, respected women and were very secure in their circumstances. He found the food excellent. According to him the American women were less attractive than the English.

There were days when Swansea had given Amis hard time. His mother died suddenly following an injury in 1957. At that time Sally, three years old, was staying with her grandparents at Berkhamsted. Sally had been left all alone for the entire day with Peggy’s dead body. Amis’ anxieties increased when Sally fell down and injured her head and had to be admitted in a hospital for weeks.

After Peggy’s death and William’s retirement, William moved with Amis at Swansea. He considered this as a filial duty rather than personal pleasure later. William was invited to live with his sister Gladys in Washington, instead he took a job in London and rented a small flat belonging to a friend of Amis’.

Leaving Swansea

In short, Amis’ Swansea years resembled the glow of a golden age. His family was intact, children growing, success accumulating and money no longer a major problem.

For better opportunity, he applied at Cambridge and was positive of an appointment. Soon after his selection was confirmed at Cambridge, he resigned from Swansea and took his family to Sitges in Spain for an August holiday and returned to look for a house in Cambridge, where he was appointed as a professor.

Frustrated Life In Cambridge

Hilly found a house in West Wratting, a few miles from Cambridge. They stayed there for two months before shifting to Cambridge. Amis was a lecturer at Cambridge University where he found students arrogant and guiseful. Though Cambridge was at the top of academy tree, it did not turn out to be what he expected. It did not have keener minds or finer intellects. It was hard for him to cope with Cambridge University. He did not feel at home there. He attended some hopeless dinner parties, which he later mentioned in his memoirs too. Men were compelled to dress up in dinner jackets, women were not included in the party, food and wine were excellent but not sufficient. Initially Amis made futile efforts to make friends, but later his acquaintances with undergraduates were most valued. He developed dual relationships with his pupils, formal in the university and informal in cafes or pubs or at parties.

What drove Amis out of Cambridge was not only the burden of teaching and social frigidity but also the discomforts that frustrated the writer within him. By the beginning of his second year at Cambridge, he was more than willing to make a move. This thought started shaping up in a summer vacation when Amis was offered a commission from an American magazine to interview poet Robert Graves, who lived in Majorca. He made up his mind to rent a house in Majorca for a year, move the family there and to give exile a try. Due to circumstances, the interview could not take place.

An Adventure That Destroyed His Marriage

During the Easter holidays he and Hilly went to Majorca to look for a house. But even before he could resign from Cambridge and move to Majorca, something disastrous took place. It was an adventure that destroyed his married life. It began when he was invited to the Cheltenham Literary Festival to take part in a seminar on ‘Sex in literature’. The seminar was conducted on October 4, 1962. Here he was introduced to the artistic director, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and an affair started off. He described his meeting with Elizabeth: "I sort of threw a pass at Jane which was sort of accepted." Both were attracted to each other but Hilly’s presence made it impossible to develop anything between them, there and then.

Howard’s Past Life

Howard, at 39, was beautiful with long, thick, blonde hair and high cheekbones. At 19, she married Peter Scott and bore him a daughter, Nicola.

During wars, her husband served the British Navy and she was left alone with her daughter. The marriage could not survive for long in post-war years. In 1959, after eight years of her divorce from Scott, she married James Douglas Henry, an Australian broadcaster who was interested only in her money and connections. This union also met the same fate.

Elizabeth Howard

As the days passed Amis’ feelings for Howard deepened and he enjoyed her company in and out of bed. He kept his veil and discretion drawn and whenever Hilly inquired about his affairs he just brushed it aside as something unimportant. He loved his wife and children too.

He saw no reason why he should not go away with Jane and no reason why he should not come back to Hilly either.

He left Cambridge with Howard on July 21, Hilly’s birthday, and left behind a baby doll as a birthday present. To make matters worse, Hilly doubted it to be Howard’s choice. Hilly left for Majorca with the three children where they grew up unhappily and began to pine for their father. Amis was dumbfounded at Hilly’s move.

Amis and Howard found a flat in Knightsbridge, in Basic Mansions, near Harrods and later married her. He thought he could live a warm and happy life without any brawls and difficult reconciliation.

One fine day, Amis woke up to open the door and was stunned at the sight of Philip and Martin. Hilly put both the boys on a plane to London and gave them his address. Howard gave them a warm welcome and prepared them a breakfast of eggs and bacon. They made futile efforts to convince their father to join the family in Majorca. They left alone disappointed.

Amis’ marriage to Hilly was on the rocks. Their views about married life did not match. According to Amis he should be free to have affairs but Hilly did not agree. Their marriage was in shambles and it was to end sooner or later over one or the other issue.

Amis never planned to leave Hilly and go off with Howard. He just shuttled from one to the other until he felt the need for a change and was ready to make a move. After moving in with Howard, he saw no reason to repent. Howard was intelligent, attractive and was also a writer.

She introduced him to new places and new people. Their initial years were happy, romantic and full of passion.

Howard’s brother Colin stayed with them. Philip and Martin also lived with them through most of their teens, while Sally came for holidays. Howard’s mother, Katherine also lived with them for three years until she died. Amis enjoyed this life as he hated solitude. All of them were reassuring and protective. When at times Howard left him on his own, he would not even go to the pub.

Amis decided the course of his life and gave up his teaching career. His living depended entirely on writing.

Though he chose writing as his career, later he did not enjoy it much. On a day with no outside engagements he started with breakfast, followed by newspapers. At 10:30 he would force himself on the desk. Then he would shave, shower, have a drink and eat his lunch. Until tea, he would read or take his dog for a walk. After tea, he got down to work and would stay there until 8:30.

As the years passed by his marriage with Howard started disintegrating. Matters did not improve when they reached Edinburgh for a festival, where they were invited to stay at a hotel owned by Amis’ friend, Dickie Temple-Muir. Howard found Amis’ behavior extremely rude, especially in some parties or gatherings.

She made up her mind to leave and planned her exit with some tact. She booked a farm for 10 days. She wanted Amis to get used to her not being around in the house, so that when she would not return, it would not be a shock to him. One day Amis received Howard’s letter. It was a bolt from the blue. On December 5, 1980, he wrote to Larkin announcing her departure. "Not with any one she first buggered off. She did it partly to punish me ..... and partly because she realized I didn’t like her much." His anxieties came into play. He wrote to Jane that life without her was more unpleasant and requested her for reconciliation. Jane agreed but on condition that he quits drinking. Amis did offer a compromise that he would drink only on weekends. But she was adamant. She wanted him to give up drinking completely which he declined to accept. They separated over the issue.

Meanwhile, Hilly got married to Lord Kilmarnock. Amis did not like the solitude in his large Hampstead house. His sons suggested that he move in with Hilly and her husband. They required money, and Amis’ company, so it made sense. He always regretted his divorce to Hilly, as she was always around and children not far away.

Last Years Of His Life

The passing of years brought with it the inevitable separation from friends. At times, death visited so frequently it was almost part of Amis’ routine. Tibzor Szamuely, a Hungarian refugee introduced to Amis by Conquest, was the first of his friends to die suddenly of cancer. In his Memoirs, Amis valued him most for his ‘steady underlying cheerfulness and optimism’. His longest standing close friend, Philip Larkin, went next. On December 9, 1985, Amis went for his funeral. But his greatest personal loss after Larkin was George Gale. When he died in 1990, Amis in a way, was cut off from all his greatest friends. Thus, there was a vacuum in his life. Their absence left him lonesome.

In between the trying times, fame came his way. He got the Booker Prize for The Old Devils in 1986, a knighthood in 1990.

Amis left for heavenly abode on October 22, 1995, at the age of 73, at London leaving behind him dozens of volumes of poems, over 20 novels, stories, and collection of essays and criticism.

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