The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
published 1986 Part 5
[Rhiannon is about to go out on an almost-date. Her grown-up daughter Rosemary is visiting, and helps her get ready.]
[Rosemary said:] ‘What’s that on your legs, Mum?’
‘Sheer Genius. I mean, that’s what it’s called, I noticed particularly. Max Factor. I got it for my face but it turned out too dark…’
‘All right, but what’s it doing on your legs?’
‘’Well, it was that or stockings, and the weather’s too nice for stockings, I thought.’
‘You realize they don’t match your hands?’
‘Yes of course I do, but men don’t think of things like that. Not as a rule.’…
‘What, er, what outfit were you proposing to wear for this jaunt, Mum?’
‘I thought the blue denim suit … [and] a white cotton sports-shirt with long sleeves that comes down out of the cuffs of the jacket. Then if it gets hot I can take the jacket off and roll the sleeves up. Only when he can’t see my legs of course.’…
There was a bit of a hiccup over the shirt, with an alternative in frilled terracotta silk considered and briefly tried on, but in the end everything went through all right…
[Rosemary looks into her mother’s handbag] ‘What’s this for God’s sake?’
‘Plastic mac. Rolled up.’
‘I’m not blind you know. Honestly, Mum. Christ… I suppose there’s a hat to match is there?’
‘No, there’s a hood. I’ll wear it all through lunch if you don’t look out…There’s no need to treat me as if I’m fourteen years old.’
‘Oh yes there is, because that’s all you are. When I was that age you were much older, but now you’ve gone back.’
Kingsley Amis is always capable of surprising us. He can seem like a misogynistic grumpy old curmudgeon, churning out endless unreadable books. But then he can produce something like The Old Devils, an unexpectedly wonderful, very involving novel about old people in Wales. They’re not particularly exciting old people, but he makes their stories compelling and real. It’s an affectionate if ruthless picture of their lives, and very very funny. He’s good at descriptions: ‘he looked like the sort of girl who might be cast as Toby Belch in a women’s college production of Twelfth Night.’ Another character: ‘She looked confident and comfortable, very much like the wife of a prosperous caterer… and hardly at all like someone who in her time had been one of the surest things between Bridgend and Camarthen town – quite a distinction.’ That could be misogynistic but isn’t – he is even-handedly mean about males and females, and about their misunderstandings.
Nothing much happens in the book – it is largely about drink, and about giving characters opportunities to express hatred for the Welsh language. But who’d have thought Amis would know so much about how grown-up daughters interact with their mothers: this is pretty much note perfect - or is it just my family?
The photo comes from the Stockholm Transport Museum, and is available on Flickr.