Dear Martin, Yours Eric
by Eric Jacobs

In his letters Kingsley Amis called his son Martin both a "little s***" and a "f****** fool". Though I'm pretty sure he didn't mean the first - well, only a bit - I'm absolutely sure he meant the second. For f****** fool was a rather precise term in Kingsley's extensive lexicon of abuse. It did not mean that the person thus described was stupid. The point about him was the reverse. He was clever enough to know better than he acted. He wasn't foolish, simply wrong, and without the excuse of intellectual deficiency.

Lord Longford, with his numerous campaigns against pornography and for Myra Hindley, was Kingsley's prime specimen of this variety of bright buffoon. Martin earned the title by becoming a ban-the-bomber at an age (36) when, in Kingsley's eyes, he should have known better. If I borrow it now it is to apply it to Martin for a very different reason: his misrepresentation of me and my relationship with his father. He has preferred to ignore the truth, like some scavenging tabloid hack who will not let the facts stand in the way of a good story. Indeed, like the very sort of person he seems to believe I am.

It would be infinitely tedious to unpick all Martin's wilder surmises here. Let me instead describe as best and plainly as I can my relationship with his father. I shall try, unlike Martin, to stick to the facts.

THE first time I met Kingsley Amis he told me a joke. A very Amisian joke. We were in a bar - as we mostly were when later we met often - El Vino's in Fleet Street among a crowd that included George Gale, The Spectator's Editor. Kingsley and George had been staying at a friend's house from which for some reason they'd had to make an early departure.

According to Kingsley, George berated his wife Mary in their bedroom. "Get a bloody move on. Kingsley's been ready for half an hour." Mary protested. "How do you know? You haven't even been out of this room." "Because," George replied, "Kingsley's a bloke."

A bloke! That was all the evidence George needed. Blokishness was an absolute guarantee of reliability. Whereas femaleness - well. Kingsley laughed like a banshee when he told me. But there was ambiguity in his laughter. Was he laughing with Gale's misogyny or at Gale for being a misogynist? Both, I thought. This is why I remember the joke. Kingsley could see the funny side of everything. Two funny sides, even when they contradicted each other. Especially then.

There is a story of Kingsley suffering a most tremendous hangover while travelling on a ferry the morning after the break-up of a serious love affair, a bizarre combination of discomforts that made him utterly wretched. But suddenly he combusted with laughter. It had struck him that you could match the several types of hangover with Snow White's Seven Dwarfs, Sleepy, Grumpy and the rest of them. The fancy was irresistible. He just had to laugh.

With Kingsley, laughter was never far away. You could hardly be with him for two minutes without his finding something funny in what was going on or making it up if nothing was. And he had a riot of funny faces and voices to go with his jokes. His growling, shrugging George Gale was George to perfection.

Humour was at the heart of his life and his work. In later years his reputation as a comic writer tended to become overlaid by another, of a choleric Blimp, a reactionary curmudgeon to whom all modernities, from poetry to cooking, were hateful.

There was some truth in this but it concealed a deeper and more interesting truth. Kingsley conducted a lifelong campaign against fashion and orthodoxy, starting at Oxford in the 1940s when he and his new friend Philip Larkin blew raspberries at many sacred figures in the literary canon, from Beowulf to Dickens. Why should he admire them just because he was told to?

He continued to blow raspberries at everyone from Iris Murdoch to William Golding to Anthony Burgess. They were the new sacred cows. Why should they be spared? In attacking the newly fashionable he built up his reputation for reaction.

Not that Kingsley cared. It gave him a strong image, which was better than a weak-kneed one. Besides, it was something extra to laugh at, like that business with George Gale and misogyny. Kingsley relished his own prejudices and laughed at himself for having them. There was fun to be had out of both. And not much of it mattered to him. He didn't care a lot about the public realm, where opinions about affairs of the day were taken seriously. Fiction, poetry, friends, laughter, booze - these were what he cared about.

Martin belonged to the large category of writers he didn't much like, though he usually kept a decent paternal reticence about that. I once repeated to him what Martin had said to me, that the novel had "moved on" since Kingsley's day. "Oh, yeah," Kingsley growled. But that was all, though he reddened and seemed to inflate like a frog until he looked ready to explode.

Another time he let himself go about Martin's prose. "Why can't he ever write a plain sentence like 'He finished his drink, left the pub and went home'?" He sometimes worried that Martin was infecting his own prose, making him strive for needless effects, for sentences that worked harder than they should.

Something besides fatherly discretion made Kingsley reticent about Martin's work. He knew that, in some not easily calculable sense, everybody's taste was a product of their time. You liked the popular music you first chased girls to and nothing was quite the same afterwards, even if new music was better. So with books, though in time things might look different. Kingsley once speculated that in 50 years "if people still read either of us", Martin and he might look like twigs on the same branch.

I don't doubt that Kingsley was pleased at Martin's success, though I don't doubt either that he would have been more pleased if Martin had been successful at something else, like molecular biology or film directing. It was one thing for actors to reproduce themselves - look at all those Redgraves - but why did Martin have to be the only novelist around who was the son of another novelist? Kingsley was a bit miffed at this and a little jealous that Martin might be becoming the better-known Amis of the two.

IT was Kingsley's humour, his sheer sense of fun, that drew me to him when I first began to know him well early in 1991. At the time I was feeling pretty low. I had been fired as part of an economy drive from my job at the Today newspaper where I had written the leaders for five years and I took to passing the time lunching at the Garrick Club far more often than my dwindling pile of redundancy money and my precarious new earnings made wise.

Kingsley had me laughing through my own misfortunes as he had laughed himself when he thought about Snow White's dwarfs and the varieties of hangover.

He was at the Garrick most weekdays, sitting in the window of the first-floor bar, a Macallan's malt whisky always close by. I took to sitting down with him, tentatively at first because Kingsley's antennae were always twitchingly alert to bores and other sorts deemed disagreeable by him, all too many of whom slipped in even to his beloved club. You could never be quite sure that you would not register as uncongenial, though if you did it would show up at once on the radar display of his demeanour. He might only pout with mild disapproval but in extreme cases his whole body drooped, his face sagged, he murmured and mumbled in protest, which usually achieved his aim of scaring off the unwanted.

Happily I passed his tests of congeniality, though I am not sure exactly how. Perhaps it had something to do with my being the only person around with as much time on his hands as Kingsley seemed to have. His routine prescribed three large Macallan's to be spread carefully through the hour or so between his arrival by taxi from his home near Regent's Park and the necessary chore of eating. There would be wine, both white and red, the bare minimum of food - two starters would do - and then a digestif before he caught another taxi home for a revivifying snooze. Though if he'd turned in a good morning's work he just might make that four Macallan's and two digestifs.

It was only I who was idle. Kingsley continued to be prodigiously productive even as he entered his seventies and in spite of a regime that would leave most of us too stricken to work at any age. The core of his life was three hours at the typewriter every morning and large helpings of booze from then on. Other indispensable ingredients were lunch, friends, television - Coronation Street and The Bill. Books too, though he stuck to old favourites and rarely tackled anything new except thrillers.

'He has ignored the truth, like some scavenging tabloid hack'

During the three or four years I knew him well he finished a book of short stories, wrote two novels and his own personal answer to Fowler's Modern English Usage and at the time of his death he was 100 pages into yet another novel.

There was Kingsley, fat as a dirigible, barely mobile through lameness, increasingly deaf, if not wholly then half-pissed most days and yet sprinting round the track like a literary athlete. Who could keep up with him? Certainly not me. I became deeply fond of the old bugar, to borrow the spelling he often used in letters to Philip Larkin. And I was intrigued. Kingsley lived in a most peculiar ménage with his first wife, Hilly, and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock. Here was a puzzle worth unravelling.

THE idea of writing Kingsley's biography began to take shape, though I knew it was an impertinent one. Like him, I read English at Oxford but I had never been any sort of literary writer, just a reporter and genral pundit. Not ideal qualifications. But I had admired his novels since long before I met him and I still bought them eagerly, even at the hardback price. And I needed to earn money.

I couldn't possibly do it without Kingsley's agreement. The unlikeliness of persuading him held me back, until emboldened by my agent, Gillon Aitken. Have a go - what's to lose? That was Gillon's line. I couldn't bring myself to put it to Kingsley face to face. I would send him a letter and then he could write back and say "no" and we need never talk about it. We could carry on lunching. Embarrassment would be avoided.

To my amazement Kingsley replied immediately, rather less to my amazement saying "no". But it was a qualified no. If I could persuade him he wouldn't stand in my way. How was I to do that, I asked, when we next met. His answer was, unsurprisingly, lunch, on me, at Simpson's. So there we went and when I staggered out into the Strand, a good deal poorer and sodden with drink, I had somehow become Kingsley's authorised biographer. Probably, he had decided to give me the go-ahead already and exacted the lunch as a token fee.

Over the next three years I saw Kingsley three or four times a week, perhaps twice in the Garrick, on Saturdays in his local pub, the Queen's, and on Thursday evenings at his house a few hundred yards away, where I would ask him questions and jot down his answers. Later I wrote up these notes and made others from what I could remember under the date of our encounters. They turned into a sort of haphazard diary which I kept off and on until Kingsley died. It was over this diary that Martin was to become so powerfully outraged, as I shall explain, or try to.

As time went by we became, I think, friends. But what sort of friends? There were outstanding advantages for me in the relationship. If there is a more blissful way of earning some money than by writing a book you enjoy writing, the research for which involves nothing more strenuous than reading books you like reading and getting drunk with someone who makes you laugh out loud and simultaneously stretches your mind and imagination, then I have yet to hear of it.

'The version of me that does appear is hardly admiring'

But there were advantages for Kingsley too. He was short of company. His parents were dead and he had no brothers or sisters. The children were not far away but they had their own lives to lead. Too many of his friends had died - Philip Larkin, George Gale, Tibor Szamuely, the Hungarian writer - or were too distant for regular intercourse, like Robert Conquest who had moved to California, and Anthony Powell in Somerset. His Swansea friends he saw only rarely. Hilly was in Kingsley's house, but beyond reach with her husband in the basement, while his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, had, ten years earlier, "bolted" in her word or "buggered off" in his.

He was lonely. Kingsley needed people he could talk to. I filled a gap. The fact that our friendship was based on practical advantages does not embarrass me. In your seventies, you are not likely to develop new ones of the intensity you knew in your twenties, like Kingsley's with his Oxford friend, Philip Larkin. We never discussed ours. The only time the question came up was when a tactless TV interviewer making a programme about us put it to Kingsley.

He boggled at the question, saying it was not the sort of thing to air on TV and he couldn't speak for me. So far as he was concerned he hoped he was a friend but that was enough of that. To examine a friendship too closely was to tamper with and possibly destroy it. Some things are best left unspoken.

ONE thing that can be said about our relationship was that it had some influence on Kingsley's last two novels. You Can't Do Both is the most autobiographical of his fiction. The career of his hero, Robin, closely follows Kingsley's own: South London childhood, school in the City, Oxford, the wartime Army, unscheduled pregnancy leading to marriage, provincial academe, adultery. There are differences between reality and fiction. Kingsley never copied exactly from a life, even his own. I never asked him how much influence my poking around in his past had on his novel but it passes belief that it was no more than coincidence.

It was, too, as if - and here I am speculating - he wanted to get out his fictional version before my more or less factual one, and for a very particular reason. Suppose I came up with a spectacular catalogue of his infidelities.

Hilly, his break from whom Kingsley had come to regard as the biggest mistake of his life, would be hurt all over again. He wanted to make a pre-emptive amends to her in the best way he could, in a novel. I wrote in a review that I sensed his book was "a kind of apology for his own shortcomings, offered with silent love and regret to Hilly . . ." When I showed Kingsley that he did not ask me to alter a word, as he would certainly have done if I had been wildly wrong.

Kingsley's last novel, The Biographer's Moustache, was undoubtedly triggered by our biographical encounter. It is about an elderly writer having his biography written by a younger journalist, which describes Kingsley and describes me.

Neither character is at all like him or me and what passed between the fictional pair is nothing like what passed between us. If there is a model for the writer it is Peter Quennell, a much-married literary gent of Graham Greene-Anthony Powell vintage. Quennell would pop into the Queen's pub where Kingsley would consign him to the fringes of the conversation on the grounds that he was a bore, apt to mumble. Poor Quennell was suffering the disabilities of old age but that did not spare him from Kingsley's harsh enforcement of his rules of congeniality.

If there is a model for the journalist I do not know who it is but it is certainly not me, though the possibility that it might be became a running joke between Kingsley and I, beginning on the day he told me he was calling his journalist Cedric. He was pretty pleased with the name until I pointed out to him that it embraced my own - cEdRIC. So he was smuggling me into his novel, eh? Well, he'd better watch out because if Cedric was like me and less than perfect, I just might go after him in court. "Biographer sues biographee!" Imagine the headlines. Kingsley harrumphed indignantly. Cedric wasn't me at all, he insisted. Nevertheless, the next time Kingsley mentioned his novel Cedric had become Gordon.

So much for the character being an admiring version of me, as Martin has persuaded himself I believe. The version of me that does appear is hardly admiring. It comes in the person of Gordon's boss, a books editor called Desmond O'Leary who is bald on top but hairy "like an ape" everywhere else. This is how I once described myself to Kingsley, exaggerating a bit, but never mind. O'Leary smokes "a smallish cigar of rectangular cross-section" as I did at the time. That tots up the total of my appearances in Kingsley's fiction. Hardly a great boost to my ego.

Though perhaps Martin will think I am making up for that by revealing that Kingsley asked me to read the typescript of The Biographer's Moustache, making me the only person he asked for advice since he showed Philip Larkin drafts of his very first novel, Lucky Jim. So here I am, putting myself up alongside Larkin, am I? Well, no. Not really. Kingsley only wanted me to search out obvious bloomers. Had he changed the colour of someone's eyes between chapters, or perhaps their names? He was beginning to worry about his previously unimpeachable memory. I was happy to help. That's all.