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October 25, 2005

Don't Envy Him! - Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lucky Jim
by Kingsley Amis
first published 1954
Pp. 251. Penguin Classics, 2000

Lincoln Allison - recently retired as a Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - managed to spend half a lifetime on a university campus without reading the quintessential campus novel Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. He has now rectified this omission and shares his thoughts on the novel which launched a genre.

Let me get the semi-familiar confession out of the way: I hadn't actually read this book before. But I probably thought I had, having read many passages and quotations from it and seen the original movie with Ian Carmichael as Jim. (There is a recent television version in which Stephen Tomkinson plays Jim, but I haven't seen that.) When I announced my intention to read it friends enthused: "Treat in store - hilarious" was the gist.

The plot: Jim is a probationary history lecturer in an unnamed and obscure provincial university. He has a "relationship" with a female colleague called Margaret Peel which is logically interesting because the relationship consists entirely of the self-fulfilling belief that a relationship exists. In this respect it is like those primary school children who announce that they are "going out together", but don't. He is in thrall to the awful Professor Welch: famously:

no other professor in Great Britain . . . set such store by being called professor.
He has to deal also with Welch's appalling wife and even worse artist son, Bertrand. The latter has a nice girlfriend, Christine, whom Jim covets; she reciprocates. Eventually, having messed up his prospects of an academic career, Jim escapes to London, having been offered a job by Gore-Urquhart, Christine's uncle, the very job which Bertrand had been after.

I have some sympathy with the publisher who is reputed to have turned down the manuscript of Lucky Jim for:

not having alive or exciting enough characters.
It would be an understatement to say that the only remotely sympathetic characters are Christine and Gore-Urquhart while Jim himself is incompetent and embarrassing. While I can imagine that burning through all the sheets and blankets in your professor's guest room when you drunkenly light a cigarette in bed is a considerable predicament I don't think it's a very interesting one. Only very occasionally did I laugh out loud. One of these was when Margaret says, in her drama queen way:
You must really hate me, James.
James then asks her, in his best young academic way, to clarify her meaning. The correct response would have been something along the lines of:
No, you're boring and ugly, but I certainly don't hate you.
But Jim never comes out with the right response and that, it seems to me, is the problem with the novel: everything either looks very contrived and/or Jim is merely exasperating. He chooses weak and silly options which are funny only in a sad, slapsticky kind of a way. This is nothing against Amis, but I laughed far more reading his Memoirs than reading Lucky Jim.

But an exception must be made for the classic set-piece scene in which Jim burns his boats and ends his academic career. It is, surely, the ultimate academic nightmare: you are lecturing to a vast audience, which includes everybody you know or who will control your future, but it is a theme you don't care for ("Merrie England"), you have managed to acquire a prominent black eye and a skinfull of drink and every time you open your mouth out comes an imitation of one of the senior figures who are on the platform with you. I guess nobody has really been there, but everybody has been somewhere near in a nightmare.

But even if it failed the hilarity test Lucky Jim is bound to be interesting to someone like me who signed on for an academic career half a generation after Jim and more or less stuck with it. But the comparison of a fictional account of university life with an autobiographical one, though fascinating to participants, must be treated with great suspicion. I note that fictional accounts (including Lodge, Bradbury, Davies et al in my own generation) invariably make the institution seem more communal and the relationships within it, particularly in their power aspect, more important than they really are. That is a consequence of the nature of novels. In this case, it is difficult to imagine Jim's life being quite so dominated by Professor Welch in a real university as it is here, but the nature of such relationships clearly changed anyway between 1953, when this was written, and 1969 when I signed on.

Actually, given the enormous success of the novel it seemed to have a mimetic effect on academics who were a little older than me. One of the things which Jim does is to telephone people using assumed voices and this habit had caught on among some, specifically targeting a colleague who had foolishly listed himself as "Doctor" in the telephone directory. They assumed Scottish or Irish accents and gave him long descriptions of the complicated ailments they were suffering from. A derived version of this was that when we had to share telephone lines we made it a rule when we picked up the phone to say "X's personal assistant" where X was the person you shared a line with. Amis to blame?

There are some aspects of Jim's life which rang surprisingly familiar tones. For example his urgency to get something published: his article on shipbuilding in the very late mediaeval period soft-targets a new journal where the "editor" duly plagiarises it. We thought things like that didn't happen in the good old days! And his keenness to get the three good-looking girls to do his third year option while persuading the excessively serious chap not to. But I couldn't pretend that the atmosphere of Dixon's world bore much resemblance to mine. My professors were nicer and had less power, my female colleagues (not in the department because there weren't any) much more friendly and less neurotic than Margaret. Above all, neither Oxford nor Warwick were remotely like the stultifying, claustrophobic, provincial atmosphere of this place. I have no way of telling whether anybody really felt as trapped as Jim does, but I certainly didn't.

The most interesting question about Lucky Jim is the question of what its real target is. Whatever it is, it is represented by the Welch family. Jim truly loathes Professor Welch, singing under his breath when the band plays:

You wordy old, turdy old scum, you griping old, piping old bum . . . .
And he is nothing compared with his son Bertrand, who is that foulest of creatures, the "artist" who thinks that his art redeems his complete prattishness. Welch sings madrigals and plays the recorder; he doesn't like modernity and extols "Merrie England". Which is specifically a problem for the contemporary reader (or, at least, for me). Frankly, he seems far less of a shyster than most modern professors: it would be nice to meet one who could actually play a musical instrument or who didn't cackle deconstructively at the idea of "Merrie England". Amis was an "angry young man" when he wrote this, a man of the left who even joined the Communist Party. Is there anything in his loathing of the Welches which survives the transition to Sir Kingsley, grumpy old conservative? It is like asking what is the real target of 1984: communism, fascism, totalitarianism . . . or the Britain of Atlee and Reith?

I think that there is a lasting target, which is why the book is still interesting. There is something about the Welches, a kind of righteousness which consists in sheer intellectual pretentiousness, which can take many forms. I do not mean intellectual snobbery because I am sure that Amis would agree that if you have anything to be snobbish about you should get on with it. I mean a kind of preciousness about being an intellectual which has no grasp on the real pleasure or product of thought and scholarship. If so their real sin can take many forms other than its provincial 1950s form. And they are still with us. Boy, are they still with us.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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"No other professor in Great Britain . . . set such store by being called professor." - That must really be the best line in the whole of Lucky Jim - there are so many people who could fall into this category today, who could compete for the "Prof. Welsh" award. Those competing for a "Welsh" seem to be those Professors who have done the very least to deserve the title. The less one has done, the more one covets the recognotion. It would be cruel to name names - but a few spring to mind.

Posted by: Cowardly Professor at October 25, 2005 06:11 PM

Margaret is believed to have been based on Monica Jones, partner of Philip Larkin

Posted by: Jenny at October 26, 2005 01:12 PM

It is like asking what is the real target of 1984: communism, fascism, totalitarianism . . . or the Britain of Atlee and Reith?

“Reith” rings a bell. I have read that in 1984 Orwell based his Ministry of Truth on his experiences working at the BBC.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 30, 2005 03:52 PM

By far my favorite novel of college life is Randall Jarrell's "Pictures from an Institution." Extraordinarily witty--it was the book that I had hoped (in vain) "Lucky Jim" would be.

Posted by: arminius at November 7, 2005 08:48 PM
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