In the Shadow of Bibendum

In his Journals of the early 1990’s, English novelist Anthony Powell observed that Kingsley Amis (1922-95) “has begun to look oddly like Evelyn Waugh.  He now seems to be behaving rather like Evelyn too.”  On the telly, showing full jowl, pot belly, and beefy complexion, and sporting loud check suits, Amis—who moved from trendy Socialist to eccentric Tory—condemned, with reactionary relish, all the vulgar manifestations of contemporary life.  Like Waugh, the most unpleasant as well as the wittiest modern writer, Amis was an alcoholic, rude, and insulting, bored to death, and finally paranoid—tormented by the hallucinations, hysteria, and panic attacks that Waugh had vividly described in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

Born in a south London suburb, the son of a lower-middle-class clerk at Colman’s Mustard, Amis attended the City of London School and won a “cut-price scholarship” to read English at St. John’s College, Oxford.  There he met his lifelong friend and correspondent, Philip Larkin, a weird-looking, withdrawn, and pessimistic outsider who provided a striking contrast to the handsome, ebullient Amis.  Amis’s education was interrupted in 1942 when he became an officer in the Signal Corps, landed in Normandy three weeks after D-Day, and followed the Allied advance through Northern Europe at a safe distance from combat.


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