»  National Review

September 14, 1998

  A Writer All Through

The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage
        by Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis: A Biography
        by Eric Jacobs


Ah, usage. A couple of years ago I tried out one of those computerized style checkers. It promptly told me off for starting a sentence with "but." A few minutes research confirmed what I felt sure of anyway: that Chaucer, Shakespeare and God (insofar as He permitted His Thoughts to be set in English by the translators of the King James Bible) all started sentences with "but" … and I have never used the wretched thing since.

There you have the beauty of usage, as against other elements of language like grammar or spelling — it offers so much latitude for one to develop one's own opinions. Those of the British novelist Sir Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) are now on offer in The King's English, a collection of random jottings — arranged alphabetically — on the use of words.

Some of the book will be baffling, perhaps incomprehensible, to an American reader, but not as much as you might think. Sir Kingsley was an Americanophile and his book treats American usages with proper respect. Of Follett's Modern American Usage he says: "In its vigorous fashion it shows … how little good U.S. linguistic behaviour has come to differ from its British counterpart" — an observation that startled me at first, but which on reflection I think wise.

Everyone has his favorite points for attention in a book like this. One of mine is the use of "data" with a plural verb form, a schoolmarmism found even in otherwise reliable publications like, well, National Review. "Data" may indeed derive from a Latin plural; but if it's Latin you're using, be so good as to print the word in italics. Out of italics, "data" is an English noun of the aggregative type — like "rice" or "sand" — and takes the singular ("the rice is cooked"). On this, and most other points, Amis is sound. As a person who crosses his sevens, however, I was dismayed by his severity toward this tiny mannerism: "gross affectation," he thunders. Oh dear; does this mean I am a wanker? (See "Berks and wankers" on page 23.)

Sir Kingsley was an instance of several things, perhaps most famously of the angry young lefty who matures into a conservative curmudgeon. In Eric Jacobs' workmanlike biography, this rightward drift is said to have begun with Sir Kingsley's experiences teaching English Literature in the postwar British university system, which was being democratized and expanded with, as he saw it, disastrous results. I think there was more to it than that. Sir Kingsley's abiding hatred was of snobbery. He had no objection to genuine elites — elites of merit — but detested both the conservative, class-based elites of prewar Britain and the bogus elites of talentless — and exclusively left-wing — self-promoters who began to infest not only academe but also the arts and the media from 1960 onwards, who spoke to each other in invented languages and used obscurity as a weapon to intimidate ordinary people — who of course were paying their salaries.

Eventually Sir Kingsley came to believe that the academicization of English literature was a mistake. Since first being taught as a university subject (at Oxford, 1894), had English literature got better or worse? he famously asked. He especially deplored the American tendency to judge a work of fiction in terms of "significance" and "importance."  "In literature," he declared, "'importance' is not important; only good writing is." He thought the Modern Movement a complete dead end, Virginia Woolf a crashing bore, Ulysses unreadable (though he admired Joyce's earlier stories), and said of contemporary poetry: "[It] is written to impress other poets or would-be poets, not to please the ordinary reader."

Like all sensible people, Sir Kingsley regarded the Political Correctness movement with utter derision and cheerfully confessed to impure thoughts of the minor sort. He even wrote novels around such thoughts. The main character in Stanley and the Women (1985) wrestles with a question every man has pondered at some time or other: are women all mad? Similarly, when asked in an interview whether he was antisemitic, Sir Kingsley replied: "Very, very mildly." Urged to explain this, he added: "Well, when I'm watching the credits roll at the end of a TV program, I say to myself 'Oh, there's another one'." Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.

"He never pretends to like anything," testified Amis's second wife. Amis's tastes seem to have solidified early in his life, and did not change. Whole continents of human experience and endeavor were uninteresting to him: all of sport, most of the visual arts, religion (of which he was, however, respectful, describing himself as "an unwilling unbeliever"), business, modern languages, travel, opera, dance, science, nature. Fair enough; there is a kind of stubborn integrity in that. Yet I cannot help feeling that there is a lack of imagination, too — a failure to properly engage with life, possibly carried forward from the narrowness of his upper-lower-middle-class origins, or, as Mr Jacobs suggests, from his cosseting as an only child. Doctor Johnson set himself to learning Italian at the age of 73; that, I think, is an altogether more admirable spirit. But never mind:

Time, that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent, …
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

And though his tastes may have got stuck in the mud, Sir Kingsley cannot be accused of sloth. His output was huge — twenty-four novels, eight books of poetry, criticism, TV screenplays, restaurant reviews, books on drinking, education, Kipling, science fiction. I hope the box for "occupation" on his passport said "writer," for Sir Kingsley Amis was a writer all through, a master of his trade.