Friday, 5 August 2016

The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis

 
published 1990
 
 
Folks that live on the hillFolks that live 2


She thought anyway she probably looked about as nice this evening as she ever would, going to be thirty-two in the autumn, a little tall for her own liking, a little ruddy-cheeked, but with abundant browny-red hair a few people seemed to think was quite attractive, trimmed rather short as it was nowadays and scraped back behind not-too-bad ears. The corduroy suit had mostly gone down all right in the past and nobody could have quarrelled with the new plain cellular shirt. Obviously a nice type of young woman, in the words of a testimonial she had once sneaked a look at. Too much so? Not in a good way?

She was turning right into Shepherd’s Hill Road when a man of her own age began to cross towards the King’s public house, a personable enough young man a nice type himself, and he eyed Bunty pretty thoroughly until they were about five yards apart, when he suddenly seemed to get very interested in the stained glass in the pub windows and doors and faded away. She was used to just that sort of double take, she ought to have been by now, but had not altogether stopped wondering about it, wondering if it could have anything to do with the look she had once or twice surprised in photographs of herself, coming upon them unexpectedly, but had never managed to catch in the mirror: a kind of joyless look, a worried and worrying look, the look of someone who without being in any way aggressive was always going to need a bit of handling, a bit of careful watching. At such times she came near guessing that her school nickname had been attached to her by way of irony, to point up her lack of easy dependable warmth and whatever other attractions might once have been expected in a girl called Bunty.


commentary: In a recent discussion of academic novels, Lucy Fisher memorably brought up Margaret in Lucky Jim, with the paisley frock and the quasi-velvet shoes (see the blog version here). She contrasted this with Christine from the same book in her ‘wine-coloured corduroy skirt and the unornamented white linen shirt’. Then she went on to say:
Ever read The Folks That Live on the Hill? His masterpiece IMV. Only nice girls wear corduroy suits!
Well I hadn’t, and so I did. And see how right Lucy is – two books, 36 years apart, and almost the same description of the good woman’s clothes.

Significantly, another woman in the book considers a black suit and white shirt, but decides against:
putting on the old Spanish-style jersey skirt, grey-and-white-flecked mohair sweater and, as before, low-heeled, limited-damage boots.
- and Bunty (above) may not be doing well, but she’s doing better than Spanish-skirt-lady.  (And you can completely imagine Lucky Jim’s Margaret in the second outfit – with some wooden beads.)

It is a most entertaining book. I did not like it better than either Lucky Jim or The Old Devils – my two favourites from the far ends of his career – but it was enjoyable, and a great picture of life in 1990.

It is a series of events, with chapters from different POVs. The sections about the alcoholic Fiona are very convincing and almost unreadably horrible, and may well have been based on Amis’s own experiences with his troubled daughter Sally (along with his own experiences of serious drinking). All the characters live in a recognizable part of London, and apparently several of them are recognizable as real people.

There are moments where you feel Amis didn’t do a final draft. Some of the sentences are all over the place – for example this:
Off she went again, past Beautiful Dreamers now that sold nothing but beds, not even quilts, etc., past Potandum that sold wine but only a case at a time, past the house on the other side of the road where Harry Caldecote lived with his widowed sister, a rather pretty house, or rather half of a substantial Early Victorian house in white-painted stone on four floors, a lot of space for two even with a mostly-absent lodger on the top floor and a room or so in the basement that in some sense belonged to Piers.
He uses ‘etc’ so often in the book, and not only in dialogue where it might be meant as a character trait, that you feel it must be deliberate, but it still seems lazy and insulting to the reader – I think there’s very rarely any excuse for using it unironcially, and I would say it was slapdash. (For interest, I checked on Kindle in half a dozen other modern novels of varied genres – most of them didn’t contain a single instance, none had more than one. The Amis book has around 13).

And yet other passages are beautifully put together – the extract above is much longer than I would normally use, but it was so well-constructed that I couldn’t shorten it without, I felt, losing the elements of description that make it so real and convincing.

Amis was undoubtedly an old curmudgeon with some very sexist, racist, un-politically-correct views, but (as Amis said himself about Ian Fleming, see discussion in this blogpost) – the way he writes about women would absolutely NOT make him seem like a misogynist.

Phones and minicabs provide the infrastructure of the book and feature endlessly, with the drivers providing commentary on the action. Mind you, there’s an odd moment where someone makes a transferred-charge call, which seems to make no sense at all – perhaps Amis doesn’t understand the term.

So I had my complaints. But still, this was a distinctive and memorable book, and one I expect I will read again. And I have so much to say about it that there will be another entry…



















18 comments:

  1. Well, it doesn't sound like the most carefully-edited, smoothly-polished writing, Moira. But it sounds as though this one is a really interesting look at that time in that part of London. And that in itself is appealing. And ah, yes, the corduroy suit...

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    1. Yes, not perfect but highly enjoyable. And corduroy - a fabric that can mean many different things. I'm sure there's a PhD thesis in this one fabric...

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  2. Never read this one actually - good news all round, thanks Moira.

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    1. I honestly don't think I'd even heard of it till Lucy recommended it - but it slipped down very easily.

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  3. Poor Fiona and the low-heeled boots! I think he's doing "narration as stream of consciousness" rather than sloppy writing.

    What is this book about? It's about how it feels to be alive. (My theory.)

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    1. That's a kind but quite possible verdict! There's a spot too much of it for my liking, it just feels as though he meant to go back and tidy up.
      Someone (possibly Martin A) says the book is about kindness..

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  4. I remember a Sherlock Holmes story where the detective deduces that a note was written on a train because some of it is legible (the stops), some harder to read (moving on the lines), and some practically illegible (crossing the points). Perhaps the better written parts of this book were written whilst he was fairly sober, whilst the weirder parts were written whilst he was in his cups. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he wasn't being particularly edited by his publishers by this point in his career. After all, they didn't want to upset him.

    He always writes well about drinking. The main character in THE GREEN MAN is a borderline alcoholic, and there is an uncomfortable feeling that Amis isn't having to reach too hard to explain what this is like to us,

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    1. Yes - and the lack of editing goes for all older and more successful writers, such a shame. No-one dares say...
      Yes, it's quite sad, he is so cheerful about Lucky Jim's hangover, that famous description, and then it gets darker and darker...

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  5. I have of course heard of Kingsley Amis but haven't read any of his books. Maybe some day. I like the title a lot.

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    1. Yes, although the song of that name doesn't feature at all, it does make me think of it.

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    2. That is very funny, I had to have known it was a song, because I adore Jerome Kern, but I wasn't even thinking of the song when I said it. Almost all the songs in Cover Girl are Jerome Kern, and then that lovely song All the Things You Are. Now I going to go and watch all our movies with Kern songs.

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    3. Oh that is funny, I absolutely assumed you'd be thinking of the song, with your knowledge of and love for musicals. I hope you enjoyed your filmfest.

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  6. Moira, I can't say I have come across "etc." in fiction. I think it'd put me off further reading if I did. Of course, I never put a book away. The thing is I don't even use "etc." in my news or any kind of writing. On another note, I have not read Kingsley Amis in years and don't recall his style, but I quite like the above passage. It has a leisurely pace to it.

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    1. I read a couple of books by him that I didn't like, but on trying him again have found some good stuff.
      I think etc is very sloppy, and I would only use it ironically, I think.

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  7. I have the other two you mention and will stick at that. Not sure if I'll ever read them though!

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    1. Definitely start with Lucky Jim. If it doesn't make you laugh I will send you the collected works of all the Mitford sisters.

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  8. Haha just rereading. I use etc all the time, and so did George Orwell.

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    1. Depends on context! In casual writing maybe. In the non-dialogue body of a novel, no. In my not-at-all-humble opinion.

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