Sunday, July 22, 2007

"A hoot sounded in the street..."

On June 10 I reported having read a review of a new biography of Kingsley Amis and subsequently adding his name to my list of authors to read. I've been continually in a state of delight as I read his 1990 novel The People That Live on the Hill. (And it's not even one of the especially funny novels mentioned in the review.) Here's an excerpt:
In the post office [Harry Caldecote] picked up more or less at random a small packet of airmail envelopes and made for the counter. Here he found he was standing next to a kind of elderly small boy dressed like a conscript in some half-starved oriental army. When an unsmiling glance of recognition had come his way he identified this person as the dreaded Popsy, girl-fiend of Bunty, his niece by marriage. She seemed to be daring him to speak.
      "Hallo, Popsy, how are you, haven't seen you for a long time. How's old Bunty?"
      This was obviously so devoid of insight and style as not to be worth answering. She was buying some packets of coloured sticky labels of the sort that might be used (it occurred to him later) to distinguish one person's belongings from another's. Harry watched her intently while she had her purchase put in a bag, paid for it and was given change, not because he wanted to in the least but through having somehow entered a state of light hypnosis. It lasted until she had moved to near the door and he had followed her.
      "Did you say something to me about Bunty?"
      "Yes." He wanted to say something else to her now, on the subject of her going and fucking herself, but stuck to his original point. "I wondered how she was."
      "Oh. Well I'm afraid I'm not really up to date on how Bunty is at the moment. I haven't spoken to her for over a week it must be. She was all right then."
      "I...what...I..."
      "That flat she's in, I'm not living there any more, I'm in South Kensington now." To save him from looking a bit of a twit by objecting that actually as anybody could see she was in Shepherd's Hill now, Popsy added, "I'm just over here to see some of my stuff being picked up."
      "You're moving out for good, then," he said without much sense of breaking new ground.
      "Life had simply become impossible."
      "Really?"
      "I don't know whether you think you have any influence over her, over Bunty."
      "Oh well, perhaps I do, I mean perhaps I have."
      "After all you got her into that flat, didn't you?"
      "I thought I'd made it clear I merely happened to have heard it was vacant at the right time."
      "She needs someone to tell her other people don't belong to her as if they were her private property, they have their own lives to lead."
      "I don't think I've ever met anybody in my life who needs someone to tell her that less than Bunty does."
      "In any case it isn't just Bunty. That Piers [Harry's 35-year-old son, who lives in the same flat] needs to pull himself together as well, in a big way."
      "I couldn't agree more, I've often tried to put the point to him myself."
      "Young lord and master. Do you know what he does for a living?"
      "Do tell me, I've given up trying to find out."
      "I don't know, I just thought you ought to, in your position."
      "Well there are an awful lot of things I ought to know which I don't suppose—"
      "There certainly are." Popsy's bottom teeth were visible between her thin lips. Her eyes moved as if in rapid thought. "Here's another. There was a fellow round the other day making inquiries about that Piers."
      "What sort of man?"
      "I don't know, I wasn't there." She gave a grim laugh out of a thriller. "The sort of man who makes inquiries, I shouldn't wonder."
      "What sort of inquiries?"
      "As I said, I wasn't there. But evidently they boded no good at all to Master bloody Piers."
      Harry glared back. "Well, Miss Popsy-Poops, all I can say is that if for your own good reasons you want to make me feel fed up or concerned or frightened about Piers, who's been in more kinds of trouble than I guess you have so far, then you'll have to do a bloody sight better than that. Your trouble is you've plenty of ill-will but not the imagination or the practical knowledge or I dare say nasty enough associates to carry it through. Good afternoon to you."
      At that point the two moved apart...
      She had managed to convey greater hostility...than anything in her words. In addition she had made him feel he was responsible for everything she had alluded to, and for much else besides, things he could never even have known about, but he was used to getting such teleaesthetic messages even from the sort of women that were supposed to like men. Something in his manner had told her, quite likely without her knowledge, that he was feeling pleased with life, and she had instinctively moved in to see about that. Well, he was not going to let himself be got down by a bloody dyke at his time of life....
      [One of the two Asian brothers who ran the shop] handed him a small leaflet of stiff pink paper. Shepherd Hill Neighbours Help, it said.
      "You've got a dog, haven't you, Mr Caldecote? This lot'll exercise it for you. Also come to visit you if you feel lonely....Mind you, I doubt whether any of those services are really intended for you. I mean you're not from a black or ethnic minority or gay or disabled like it says, are you?"
      "No. No."
      "No. And you're not regardless of age, creed or religion either, are you?"
      "I should say not."
      "You know what I think, I think that lady you were talking to just now, she's more the kind of person these people are anxious to involve, as they call it. Or am I completely wrong?"
      "Your powers of observation are extraordinary."
      "I'm just interested in human nature, Mr Caldecote." A hoot sounded in the street.... [p. 71-74]
And from this reader, too, a hoot—of laughter. I hope that my excerpt provided enough for you to appreciate the wickedly observant satire of the "novelist of manners" that Kingsley Amis seems to have been (he died in 1995). If not enough for that, then enough, I hope, to encourage you to pick up this novel and join me in reading it from the beginning for its mordant humor, its marvelous precision of observation of people's foiblous ways*....
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* Right, I made "foiblous" up, but it should be in the dictionary, don't you agree?

Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of Kingsley Amis). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. And some of those who read this excerpt might be led to explore Amis's work....

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