The main fact about all the main characters is that they are old, seemingly between sixty and seventy. The embarrassments of age are a main part of the story. Malcolm is secretly but obsessively worried about his teeth and his bowels. Charlie (along with most of the other characters, but to a greater extent) keeps going by blotting out much of the outside world with drink. Peter is in an even worse position than either, having allowed himself, in despair and disappointment with his failed marriage, to become grossly fat—so fat, the reader is told, that dressing has become a daily problem; even a simple matter such as cutting his own toenails has become virtually insoluble. As far as the reader can tell, only Alun, of the four principal male characters, remains potent, and though this is a psychological as well as a physical matter, it is made clear that age makes everything, from toenails to sexuality, more difficult, while at the same time it tends continually to shut down one’s options.
A side effect is that character in a way becomes more pronounced. Young people may change, or learn, or succeed, or at least entertain comforting illusions about themselves. Old people are likely on the one hand to know themselves better and on the other hand to be more set in their ways, and thus more transparent to others. The reader is given engaging pictures accordingly of Malcolm slowly realizing why it is that he has always been socially unpopular: He dresses badly, he says what others are thinking, but at times, when they recognize the virtue of silence, he has a fatal lack of empathy (bred, perhaps, by his lack of skill as a social observer). He means well but performs badly. By contrast, Muriel has turned into a sadistic nagger, adept only at breaking the spirit of her husband, while Rhiannon is presented as in a way the converse of Malcolm, socially adept where he is inept, and physically attractive where he is not, but (to a degree which only she recognizes) without personal opinions or interests, dependent on others for stimulation and support. One might believe that The Old Devils is a sequence of “variations on inadequacy,” and this is true. The galling truth which Kingsley Amis presents, though, is that inadequacy is normal. Age only brings it out—fortunately, at the same time, robbing it of much of its sexual or social sting.
Even the book’s dominating character, Alun, has obvious areas of failure and weakness. One is signaled by his name. Was he really called “Alun” from birth? his friends ask. The answer is no. His real name is Alan, the normal but English form. He has respelled it in exactly the same way that Welsh cabranks are now labeled “tacsi”—not because “taxi” would be unfamiliar to any Welshman but to make a point simply of being Welsh. Being Welsh is part of Alun’s stock-in-trade as a poet and personality, as is his devotion to imitating and explaining the local poet “Brydan.” The dangers are, first, that being Welsh is much more successful as an attention-getter in London than in Wales, and, second, that using this continually as an attention-getter diminishes one’s real response to the experience. Alun is therefore continually afraid that he may be turning into a charlatan. At the same time, he fears that for all of his sexual potency, he may be losing literary creativity—hence the violence and meanness of his revenge on Charlie. These fears coexist with an undeniable private honesty, generosity, charm of manner, and short way with other...
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poseurs. One can see, however, again ironically, that just as the other characters fear the impact of Alun on them, so Alun fears the force of their collective judgment on him. It is perhaps a mercy that he dies suddenly, before that judgment finds a voice.
Alun Weaver, a critic, poet, journalist, and television personality in England, recognized for his service to literature by an award from the queen. In his early sixties, he decides to go into semiretirement in his native town in South Wales. A handsome, charming man with a fearsome reputation as a womanizer, he has not been slowed by age; his famous mane of hair, once deep bronze and now snow-white (somewhat deepened by a dye job), and his quick sense of sexual prey and willingness to please are immediately put into practice as he returns to his old friends, both male and female. He can be monumentally glib, and unrepentant about it, but he is also a scarifying commentator on social, political, artistic, and personal stupidities.
Rhiannon Weaver, Weaver’s wife, beautiful as a girl and still handsome as an old woman. Gray-eyed, tall, and fair, she is not without old lovers herself, if more properly so, but she is not, like her husband, sexually obsessed. She knows what he is usually up to when he disappears, but she has come to terms with it. Her big test lies in meeting the one serious love of her life, Peter Thomas, and dealing with him.
Peter Thomas, the youthful lover of Rhiannon Weaver who let her down when she became pregnant while at the university. A retired chemical engineer, he lives in mortal vicious combat with his wife, a Yorkshire woman. Thomas is deeply unhappy and conveys an air of constant melancholy and bad temper in public, punctuated by shards of witty disdain. He is dangerously overweight, and, in early old age, is bald-headed, paunchy, and barely able to transport himself from one chair to another. He is not much of the man whom Rhiannon loved years earlier. He still loves her but does not look forward to being in constant social conjunction with her, given his present state.
Muriel Thomas, the only non-Welsh member of the group, a loud-voiced, breezy woman. Dark-haired and of slender build, she seems to be the physical ideal of a Welsh woman, but she is not, and she despises all things Welsh. She is constantly at Peter, threatening to return to England and to leave him behind, both physically and financially, because she owns all of their property and most of their money. He is terrified of her, and she takes considerable pleasure in humiliating him with blistering verbal attacks when and if it suits her.
Sophie Norris, a former lover of Weaver, and of many others as well. Having possessed a lavish figure and a generous sexual appetite when young, she is still in fairly good shape and is still open to salacious invitation. Only her husband, Charlie, seems immune to her charms, but he knows that she still has an occasionally active social life. She is good to Charlie, however, in other ways.
Charlie Norris, the owner of a restaurant, which is run by his brother. He is a very heavy drinker who is suffering from a variety of serious physical ailments. Intelligent and often aware, despite his pug-nosed drinker’s face and dazed demeanor, he is quick to put Alun in his place when he talks nonsense. Charlie is susceptible to terrible nightmares and is constantly on the edge of a serious nervous breakdown. Good-natured and accepting of his wife’s infidelities, he is pathetically trying to get from drink to drink without falling apart completely.
Malcolm Cellan-Davies, a retired insurance agent who, on one occasion long ago, had a small book of poems printed. Sixty-one years old, long-faced, tall, erect, and constantly worried about his diet and his tendency toward constipation, he is a very mild and somewhat conservative man. He tends not to see what is going on quite as clearly as his friends, which is probably just as well. He cherishes a memory of his short courtship of Rhiannon Weaver that seems to be quite out of proportion to her memory of the same association.
Gwen Cellan-Davies, Malcolm’s wife. She is spectacled, round-faced, and sixty-one years old, with deep-set eyes and tinted, light brown hair. She is often disdainful of Malcolm’s literary reputation and of his character in general. There is more there, however, than she wishes to reveal. She is a close friend of Rhiannon Weaver and has been since school days, but despite her talk to the contrary, she is closer to Alun Weaver than she would admit.
Dorothy Morgan, the resident bore, shorthaired, intelligent-looking, and obsessed with telling everyone in long lectures what she has just learned about subjects of no possible interest to anyone. She was a close friend of Rhiannon at the university.