Kingsley William Amis was born in London on April 16, 1922. His father, William Robert Amis, was an office clerk with Coleman’s Mustard and fully expected his only child to enter commerce. His son’s intention, however, was to be a writer—a poet, really—though it was not until the publication of his rollicking and irreverent first novel, Lucky Jim, in 1954 that Amis achieved his goal.
By Amis’s own account, he had been writing since he was a child. Writing became for him a means of coming to terms with certain fears. As a boy he suffered from the routine terrors of childhood—fear of the dark, fear of the future, fear of other children, fear of his parents’ disapproval—but as he grew older the subjects of his fears changed. He was a complicated individual; depression alternated with laughter, and an inner loneliness counterbalanced his social charm. Typically, one fear involved his health. Like many of his characters, one of his strongest fears was and continued to be the fear of loneliness. “Being the only person in the house is something I wouldn’t like at all,” he said, years later. “I would develop anxiety. By this I mean more than just a rational dislike of being alone and wanting company but something which means, for me, becoming very depressed and tense. I’ve always been terribly subject to tension. I worry a lot.”
Kingsley Amis as an author and his characters themselves often seem to be running scared, playing out their lives while always looking over their shoulders, afraid that the truth of life’s meaninglessness will catch up to them. Amis admitted that writing fiction encourages the illusion that there is some sense in life. “There isn’t,” he said, “but if that’s all you thought, you’d go mad.” In his fiction, if not in life, he was able to pretend that there is a pattern in events and that the suffering of his characters can be justified, or explained, or atoned for, or made all right. Such power to conjure up meaning where it otherwise may not exist brought with it the “wonderful feeling of being Lord of Creation.”
Long before Amis was to experience this power, he was merely a schoolboy at St. Hilda’s local fee-paying school. At St. Hilda’s he learned French from Miss Crampton and also developed a crush on his English teacher, Miss Barr, “a tall, Eton-crowned figure of improbable eloquence.” It is in these inauspicious surroundings, he said, humorously, that perhaps “we can date my first education into the glories of our literature.” Perhaps because of Miss Barr, but more probably because of his temperament and interests, he developed a fascination for anything to do with writing—pens, paper, erasers.
His interest may have been piqued at St. Hilda’s, but his first literary efforts occurred at Norbury College. There he was exposed to the vast entertainment that the days held for a British public school boy in the 1930’s: Under the tutelage of his teachers, he began to write stories and poems. His first published work of fiction, a three-hundred-word adventure story called “The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,” appeared in the school magazine. In the fall of 1934, he entered the “really splendid” City of London School—a day school of seven hundred boys that overlooked the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge. Amis read much during this period. He specialized in the classics until he was sixteen, then switched to English, but later he would wish that he had been more interested in scripture and divinity at the time and had been touched by the wings of faith, a wish that his fiction would ultimately demonstrate. He also read French. Early artistic delights included watercolors, Dadaism, and architecture. He especially loved to read poetry, and with his keen mind and quick sensibilities he could take in a considerable amount of material quickly.
In the prewar year of 1939, while he was in the sixth form, Amis and many of his school chums were suddenly surprised to find themselves being evacuated from London for their safety, sent to Marlborough College in Wiltshire; there he spent the next five terms. He found himself in the small country town of...
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