‘You know your father has a fancy woman in London, don’t you?’: That single sentence shattered Martin Amis’s idyllic childhood. Here, in an exquisitely written memoir, the novelist who died last week describes in raw, honest detail the emotional cost of his father Kingsley’s betrayal
That night, I remember, I was engrossed, with maximum pleasure and concentration, in a pinball machine. Gripped though I was, I fell into line without hesitation when my brother approached and said simply: ‘Quick, Mart. Dad’s telling us the lot.’
We sat before Kingsley at a restaurant table and mutely listened to him explain the facts of life.
In a sodden schoolyard, at the age of five, I had heard a friend explain them. And my reaction then was, I should say, universal: my mother would never let my father — the bastard! — do that to her.
But in 1962, at the age of 12, I came away with all the very best thoughts and feelings: my father and my mother loved each other, and I and my brother Philip and my sister Sally were somehow the creation of that.
‘Never doubt that I love your mother. Never doubt that we will always be together.’ And I didn’t doubt it.
But in 1962, at the age of 12, I came away with all the very best thoughts and feelings: my father and my mother loved each other, and I and my brother Philip and my sister Sally were somehow the creation of that. Pictured: Sally Amis (left), mother Hilly (back centre), Sir Kingsley Amis (back right), Philip Amis (front left), Martin Amis (front right)
Then Kingsley met [the novelist] Elizabeth Jane Howard. And by the following summer his marriage was at an end.
My father never had and never did stop loving my mother. Still, Jane Howard was a coup de foudre. It was the sort of thunderbolt that fills the world with sudden colour.
I know a scuttle when I see one, and my father definitely scuttled down that gravel drive on the day he left our house in Madingley Road, Cambridge, in the summer of 1963.
He was carrying a suitcase. A taxi waited. He was en route from one reality to another; that taxi was part of a tunnel to a different world.
I didn’t know, then, as I watched him through the window, that I was destined to do some scuttling of my own.
I was unlucky 13, overweight and undersized: I had reached that clogged point in youth where childhood (in my case happy, even idyllic) was obviously running out, and yet no alternative mode of existence seemed available or even possible. So, yes, averagely unhappy for my age, perhaps. But essentially secure.
Then Kingsley met [the novelist] Elizabeth Jane Howard (right). And by the following summer his marriage was at an end
[Then came] the following exchange around the Madingley Road kitchen table: ‘You know your father’s got this fancy woman up in London, don’t you?’
My informant was Eva Garcia. Eva was one of the divinities of my childhood [who had helped look after me] and so it was quite right, I suppose, that she should be the one to end it, at a stroke, with that sinister sentence.
The next morning, or perhaps the morning after that, my mother [Hilly] and I made our usual run to Cambridgeshire High School for Boys. As we approached the final crossroads, she told me matter-of-factly that she and my father were going to separate (there was no mention of the fancy woman).
She asked me if I understood, and I think I said I did. I climbed out of the car and paused before the gates in the sunshine.
It only took a few seconds to leave the weightlessness, the zero gravity of childhood and feel the true mass of the world.
Only when I came to write this book did I realise how much I lost and how far I fell in the course of that brief sentence: ‘You know your father . . .?’
It was four months later when I next saw my father: a winter midnight, in London.
His astonished form, pyjama-dad, moved back from the doorway. In the background, wearing a white bathrobe, was the fancy woman with her waist-long hair.
To the end of his life Kingsley maintained the following: ‘the idea was’ that he would have his holiday with Jane and then return to the family (and then go on seeing her as often as he could). Still, he knew he had crossed a line with my mother.
We had absconded to Soller, Majorca, to a villa the family had already rented for an experimental year abroad.
To the end of his life Kingsley maintained the following: ‘the idea was’ that he would have his holiday with Jane and then return to the family
After a few weeks in Soller, my brother and I fell into a wordless routine. After breakfast we went through the orange grove to the iron gates and sat on the wall and waited. We were waiting for the postman. We were waiting for something from my father — something that his occasional notes and postcards weren’t bringing us: they seemed paltry, tangential, wholly incommensurate.
What took us out there every morning? What did we need to know? We said little. The oppression did not appear to originate from my own heart: the world was doing it, subtracting clarity from things. We were almost comatose by the time my mother put us on a plane to London.
I can see Kingsley now, in his striped pyjamas, rearing back from us in histrionic consternation. London, midnight, the harsh doorbell. The plane was late, the warning telegram had not arrived.
It wasn’t just that he was surprised to see us. He was horrified to see us. We had busted him in flagrante delicto.
These were his opening words to Philip and me — nicely phrased, I thought (even then): ‘You know I’m not alone.’
Devastated, and scandalised, we shrugged coolly and entered.
It wasn’t just that he was surprised to see us. He was horrified to see us. We had busted him in flagrante delicto. Pictured: Martin Amis at home in 1987
In her white towel bathrobe, with her waist-long fair hair, tall, serious, worldly, Jane loomed beyond him — already busying herself, cooking eggs and bacon, finding sheets, blankets, for the beds in the spare room.
That week passed in a spree of expert treats — gimmicky restaurants, the just-released 55 Days At Peking in Leicester Square, the Harrods fruit-juice bar, a new LP each (mine was Meet The Searchers) — counterbalanced by long, fumbling and (for us) inevitably lachrymose discussions between father and sons.
Outwardly calm, unusually quiet-voiced, Kingsley set about the task of explaining how marriages unravel. He took everything we threw at him, even when Philip tearfully blurted, ‘You’re a c***.’
In 1963, my mother had a form of breakdown. My academic career started to fall into a pattern: one O-level every other year. I didn’t have much time for reading but when I did read, I read comics and, after I’d done that, I re-read them.
Quietly, patiently, unobtrusively reeking, I lay there on the bed as my mother yelled my A-level English result up the stairs: ‘You failed.’ I arose, and spent the rest of the day transferring a sock from one end of the room to the other.
This had to end. My brother and I moved in with Kingsley and Jane.
For a long time [Jane and Kingsley’s] household had the confidence and humorous liberality that gathers itself around a dynamic marriage.
At their flat in Maida Vale we all used to have breakfast together in the master bedroom (where, in addition, you could smoke). Sometimes I or my brother looked in too early.
In 1963, my mother had a form of breakdown. My academic career started to fall into a pattern: one O-level every other year. Pictured: Martin Amis in 1989
Philip used to do a very good imitation of our father being surprised in the act of making love: the lips were crenellated in concentration but the voice was perfectly calm — ‘Just hang on a while, would you, old boy?’
It is very difficult, it is perhaps impossible, for someone who loves his mother to love the woman for whom his father left her. Because the Other Woman has made you cautious about love: she herself has created caution in you about love. However this may be, I got very close to loving Jane.
‘I’m your wicked stepmother,’ said Jane, after the wedding. And she was my wicked stepmother —but only in the sense meant by my son, Louis, when he tells me that he is ‘wicked at Latin’. Jane was my wicked stepmother: she was generous, affectionate and resourceful; she salvaged my schooling and I owe her an unknowable debt for that.
I also admire her as an artist, as I did then. Penetrating sanity: they both had that, in their work.
And I kept thinking, as I watched the household start to collapse, that if they could just stand back from this, if they could write it instead, then, surely, they would see . . .
But writers write far more penetratingly than they live. By the spring of 1976, the most incurious visitor, sticking his head round the front door for ten seconds, could have told you that the marriage was ineluctably doomed.
[Jane left Kingsley in December 1980 by going to a health farm and never returning.]
When I was a child I would sometimes hear my father in the night — his horrified gasps, steadily climbing in pitch and power. My mother would lead him to my room. The light came on. My parents approached and sat.
I was asked to talk about my day, school, the games I had played. He listened feebly but lovingly, admiringly, his mouth open and tremulous, as if contemplating a smile.
In the morning I talked to my mother and she was very straight. ‘It calms him down because he knows he can’t be frightened in front of you.’
Jane was my wicked stepmother: she was generous, affectionate and resourceful; she salvaged my schooling and I owe her an unknowable debt for that. Pictured: Martin Amis in 1987
Frightened of what? ‘He dreams he is leaving his body.’
If you’re a grown man who is frightened of the dark, what happens when someone leaves you? When they leave you alone in the dark like that?
I was sitting in my flat in Bayswater, starting [my novel] Money, when the call came through.
Phil: ‘It’s happened.’
What? I said. But I knew.
‘She’s left him.’
We made arrangements. It wasn’t a question of two sons planning to console a father who had lost his wife. It was much more elementary. One or other of us had to be there all the time. Not round the clock but every evening, every night, every morning.
He still had his housekeeper there, and her presence would help him get through the day; but only family or thoroughly trusted friends were any good to him for the hours of darkness.
My memory of that night has Kingsley perched on the brink of the low armchair, blinking more rapidly than usual, and fiercely worrying his thumb cuticles with the nails of his forefingers. And saying almost nothing.
He would answer questions about the logistical end of it (Jane’s failure to return from the health farm; the note delivered by her solicitor’s office) but nothing was ventured about his feelings, about love, about broken hearts, broken vows. His needs, at that moment, seemed basic, almost animal: shelter, warmth, the heat of known beasts.
My brother and I repeated what was most immediately necessary for him to hear: ‘Dad, you won’t spend a night alone. One of us will always be here.’
‘Thank you both for that.’ It was solemnly said. But I can see now that he was heartsick: romantically mortified, and (in a sense) incurably so.
Later, in his revisionist mode, when he had unpersoned Jane, had unloved her, he looked back on his suffering with ridicule and disbelief. Yet the suffering was there. That very night he was writing to her and about her in his head — a pleading letter, and also a poem.
The letter to Jane got written. And replied to. There was a fruitless exchange of conditions and ultimatums. What didn’t get written was the love poem.
It seemed to me that Kingsley’s strategy was to shed sentiment. The indispensable value, romantic love, would therefore have to be exposed as an illusion.
What got written, now, was the [woman-hating] novel: Stanley And The Women (1984). I always thought it was suicide: artistic suicide. It made my head drop, during this time, when my father started to liken women to the USSR department of propaganda. Around now, too, he started referring to the opposite sex as ‘females’.
Over the next few weeks, Philip and I conferred regularly on the Kingsley question. Either he had to go somewhere or someone had to come to him. Whoever came to him would have to be someone who understood, and so forgave, his fragility.
And it would have to be someone he liked very much indeed. I was 31, Philip 32: a bit early, we felt, to commit our lives to Dad-sitting — but we couldn’t rule it out.
It seemed to me that the Kingsley question was oddly shaped. The answer, too, therefore, would have to be oddly shaped.
In the interstices of worrying about my father, I worried about my mother. Her marriage [to Alastair Boyd, Baron Kilmarnock} was a complete success, but she and her husband, and [their son] little Jaime, were confined to a tiny cottage in the Midlands and couldn’t afford to move to London.
Surely it would be no great feat to attempt an answer here. Philip had already reached the same conclusion.
When canvassed, the principals appeared keen. Everyone else considered the idea both bizarre and impracticable. ‘Like an Iris Murdoch novel,’ they kept saying.
Philip and I thought it might work for a good six months, maybe even a year. But the menage [Hilly and her new family moved in with Kingsley] lasted for 15 years.
Four years after Jane left, I said, ‘How are you really, Dad?’
‘Oh, all right . . . But you know it’s only half a life without a woman.’
I was surprised and in a way delighted to hear him say this. It sounded uncharacteristically forgiving, and I had thought him more chronically embittered. Embittered for the long haul. Kingsley’s novels, around then, seemed to me in moral retreat, as if he were closing down a whole dimension — the one that contained women and love.
Thereafter he lived the rest of his life without romantic love. But his fiction came back to it [in The Old Devils (1986) and subsequent works].
What mattered to me most at the time was that it announced a surrender of intransigence. I had hoped for this, as ardently as you hope for the cessation of an infant’s crying-fit, of a child’s marathon sulk, of a lover’s disaffection.
The Old Devils marked the end of his willed solitude. He backed off: he climbed down. He hadn’t forgiven Jane, and never would, but he had forgiven women, he had forgiven love.
In the spring of 1993, after ten years there, I moved out of [my marital home] — a development that Kingsley could hardly have welcomed as he turned 72. But he cleaved unquestioningly to the new reality.
I still took [my two sons] to lunch at his place on Sundays; for our midweek meetings, though, we relied on a restaurant, an Italian place where, on and off, we had been coming for 30 years. ‘Stopping being married to someone,’ he had written ten years earlier, ‘is an incredibly violent thing to happen to you, not easy to take in completely, ever.’
He knew I was now absorbing the truth and the force of this. And he knew also that the process could not be softened or hastened. All you could do was survive it.
That surviving was a possibility he showed me, by example. But he roused himself and did more.
‘Talk as much as you want about it or as little as you want’: these words sounded like civilisation to me, in my barbarous state, so dishevelled in body and mind. I talked much.
Only to him could I confess how terrible I felt, how physically terrible, bemused, subnormalised, stupefied from within, and always about to flinch or tremble from the effort of making my face look honest, kind, sane. Only to him could I talk about what I was doing to my children. Because he had done it to me.
And he responded, and he closed that circle: his last fatherly duty.
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