Who could have guessed that the angry young men of the nineteen-fifties were destined to turn into the furious middle-aged men of the nineteen-eighties? John Osborne especially is so hot with rage still, as to seem in danger of spontaneous combustion – though perhaps the danger has diminished since he found a new outlet for his molten emotions. Never well-known for his admiration of critics, Osborne has recently taken to criticism on his own account, bringing to his assignments the sort of delicacy and restraint we associate with Charles Bronson.
Still, it’s a question whether, as a senior member of the literary Angry Brigade, .Osborne is entitled to pull rank on Kingsley Amis. Kingsley is every bit as moodily pissed-off. Russian Hide and Seek, his last (superb) novel, was a black comic forecast of an England where the natives have been reduced to peasant status by the occupying Russkies; and its plot climaxed with a Party official witnessing his subversive son being shot dead. Amis’s rage about the way things are going, however, is transmitted more skilfully, and also with more humour than the thuggish Osborne could, or perhaps would want to muster. Reading Amis’s stuff, and often laughing aloud, you would forget that you were in the presence of one of the great contemporary misanthropists – well, almost.
His misanthropy manifests itself even in casual publications. Every Day Drinking, a collection of newspaper journalism, is informative about drink, but it’s also a brisk tour round the author’s rough edges. He can’t conceal – indeed he delights in not concealing – his phobias. Some of these are to do with the degeneracy of the drinking times: he abhors fruit machines and intrusive food smells in pubs; he fumes about kids getting under his feet; at the sight of morons imbibing pina colada he becomes convulsed with disgust. But as sources of exasperation these are nothing compared with the sheer bloody business of dealing with other people.
In a previous book, Amis suggested that urban man took to drink because, unlike his rural cousin, he keeps running into strangers – an experience, he noted, bound to arouse misgivings even if enjoyable in the event. Several years on, his xenophobia is still right upfront: ‘To get myself into any sort of shape for being nice to people’, a sentence in the Christmas drinks section festively begins. And if you ever have the luck to be among his guests waiting for a drink, you can assume that the irascible Kingsley, skulking in the kitchen, thinks of you as belonging to the ‘wretched crowd’.
People as perceived by his host are an obtuse lot with some terribly dim ideas about drink. Amis declares himself a beer and spirits, but especially spirits, man. Wine he has relatively little time for and rarely wastes an opportunity to jeer at its consumers. ‘Young and other uncritical persons’ he calls those who are satisfied with a straight choice between red and white wine. Fair enough, I suppose, but he is plainly deeply bored by the whole subject of wine. He would probably not roar with mirth at the gambits offered by Leonard S Bernstein in his guide to wine snobbery. (Eg Order a Beaujolais with a fish dish; and then dish your fellow diners, about to smirk at your ignorance, by revealing that you ordered a white Beaujolais. Ho, ho.)
Amis too is interested in, if not preoccupied with alcoholic one-upmanship; but his involves real drinks and it’s directed against people, the appalling majority it seems, who know fuck all about proper boozing. Here he is on a ‘simple ploy with gin’:
Asked what you’d like to drink, say simply ‘Gin, please’. Wave away tonic, lemon, even ice, and accept only a little water – bottled naturally. Someone’s sure to ask you if that’s all you really want, etc. Answer, ‘Yes, I must say I like to be able to taste the botanicals, which means I like the taste of gin, I suppose. Of course, a lot of people only like the effect’. Any gin and tonic drinkers in earshot will long to hit you with a meat axe, which after all is the whole object.
There is nothing glib or throw-away about this advice. It is, surely, the result of lengthy deliberation: it reads like the distilled wisdom of a grumpy old toper with a penchant for nettling people. ‘Your writing’, a correspondent informed him, ‘is getting more and more biased and entrenched in reactionary fuddy-duddism’. Apparently she hadn’t noticed that much of Amis’s animus is in fact aimed at his fellow human beings. But of course he was delighted by her outrage: it’s the sort of thing he banks on. ‘An excellent summing up of my contribution to the eighties cultural scene’ he gleefully comments.
There has been a lot of talk over the years about writers adopting personae, thereby making it hard to trust their utterances, or at least to be sure that they are truly their own, the ones they’d stick by in private. Perhaps Kingsley Amis is not really quite the Evelyn Waugh-ish curmudgeon he has come to seem on the page. At all events the pleasure afforded by Every Day Drinking derives less from learning about Kingsley’s cocktails than from witnessing this seasoned misanthrope at work. The book is a small repository of humorous ill-humour.