Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis – Dec 2, 2011

The original cover

KRG Readers were lucky in the choice of the novel for the December reading by Thommo and Priya. Can a fifties novel still entertain and amuse us? To hear the chuckling and laughter at the Yacht Club Library during the reading of a dozen passages was to have the question answered resoundingly with a 'yes.'

Priya

The story goes that Amis was visiting his friend, the poet Philip Larkin, at Leicester University, when he passed by the common room of the faculty and imagined a story lurked there. When he wrote Lucky Jim it became a hilarious send-up about university life and the intrigues among the faculty. By exploiting the enormous material for comedy that lay hidden amidst the chicanery and incompetence within the university, Amis gave the world a novel whose mirth will last a long time.


Zakia, Priya, KumKum, Talitha, Thommo
(note on the table the Banana Raisin Cake which KumKum made)

Comparisons with P.G. Wodehouse arose naturally. The novel has many similarities: improbable situations, the build-up to a climactic accident in a chapter, polysyllabic humour, and people who are ridiculous foils for the comic anti-hero. Dixon marches doggedly through a sludge of difficulties that would damage irreparably the self-esteem of an Oxford don; and here he is, a mere lecturer at a provincial university.


Talitha, Zakia, KumKum, Priya, Thommo, Gopa, Mathew, Verghese, Joe
(the merriment had not subsided)
Imitations of various accents by Dixon are a source of much farce in the novel, and readers took on the challenge. Gopa even did a fine imitation of Dixon muddling through a madrigal by opening and closing his mouth, sans sound, in unison with the other singers.


To read more, click below.

Lucky Jim
Reading on Dec 2, 2011

Present: Priya, Talitha, KumKum, Zakia, Thommo, Gopa, Samuel, Sunil, Mathew, Joe
Absent: Soma (no reason), Bobby (out of station), Sivaram (no reason)


 Kingsley Amis

The next session is Poetry, on Jan 13, 2012. The next novel for reading is Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne on Feb 10, 2012. The next novel selection is up to Bobby and Verghese – by Dec 15 please.

Talitha mentioned a 'performing poet' whom she had met at the Hay festival in TVM; the poet will be coming to Kochi and interested readers can meet her at a performance to be arranged by Talitha, who will notify the readers in the first week of Jan 2012.

Bobby and Verghese will select the next novel for reading in April 2012. The turns for novel selection will be as follows:
Bobby & Verghese Samuel
Gopa & Sivaram
Sunil & Mathew Chakala
Talitha
Zakia & Soma
Priya & Thommo
Joe & KumKum

and then around again.

Talitha, Zakia, KumKum, Priya (showing the brilliant pallav of her sari), Thommo, Gopa, Mathew, Sunil, Verghese

Thommo 
Thommo read the comic passage where the Head of the Dept. of History, Welch, is driving the junior lecturer, Dixon, to his home. Welch's driving down the narrow lanes and barely colliding with other vehicles provides the merriment. The recitation of the title of his precious paper is another spoof on academia's absorption in trifles: 'In considering this strangely neglected topic,' it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? … 'oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.

Dixon reminded Thommo of Bertie Wooster and many of Wodehouse's techniques for causing bedlam. What Wodehouse did for the aristocracy, Amis seems to have accomplished for academia, said Thommo. Verghese said it was the first of the genre now called 'the campus novel.' Joe said campus novels usually focused a large part of the plot on the goings on between students and professors, though here there is only one small sub-theme, namely, Michie, the moustached ex-service student who'd commanded a tank troop at Anzio and was keen on doing a special topic course with Dixon.


Talitha
Talitha's piece about Dixon lighting a fire in the bedroom with his cigarette was leavened with hilarity, and many a snuffle of laughter rang out as she read, just as with Thommo's piece. There is a steady stream of bits of conversation in which little bomblets of the ridiculous lying buried just below the surface go off; but you must listen to someone reading to appreciate it. Priya confirmed that it was not until she read it aloud she got the full dose of Amis. The jams Dixon gets into are redolent of Bertie Wooster (said Thommo), but the style is different according to Talitha.


KumKum
KumKum found chapter 19 of the book quite remarkable. It starts with three telephone conversations and a discourse over a date for tea of the two mildly infatuated young people, Dixon and Christine. She read some passages to highlight Dixon’s desperate situations in this well-spun tale of jollity by Kingsley Amis.

Dixon is trying to wheedle out of the editor of a journal the publication date of an article of his, crucial for his tenure – to no avail. Once again Amis exposes the trivia with which academia occupies its waking hours (the number of articles published in refereed journals). The best part, said Thommo, is that the editor, Caton, plagiarises Dixon's article and publishes it in an Italian journal after having it translated!


Priya 
Priya read the farcical piece where Dixon masquerades as a reporter for the Evening Post gathering information about Bertrand for an article. Bertrand falls for it and provides an exaggerated account about what he paints and so on (“the undraped female figure”). Gopa pointed out that at the beginning in his father’s house, Bertrand gave a different account of his painting:
I am a painter. Not, alas, a painter of houses, or I should have been able to make my pile and retire by now. No no; I paint pictures. Not, alas again, pictures of trade unionists or town halls or naked women, or I should now be squatting on an even larger pile.”


Joe noted the passage was in character for Priya, who works for a newspaper herself. Here she is interviewing Bertrand over the phone:
"Er….. we'd like to do a little paragraph about you for our, for our Saturday page,"



Zakia 
The passage Zakia read makes one aware of the class distinctions in those times of the fifties in Britain. What made you look and act in a particular way depended on the class of society you came from. Dixon ruminates here on the shabbiness of women in his class, whereas those who draped the arms of Bertrand-like men were far more attractive in appearance:
The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk: those in whom the intention of being attractive could sometimes be made to get itself confused with performance.”

Credit goes to Dixon for bending the attractive Christine to him, in Mills-and-Boon fashion:
He put an arm round her shoulders and bent towards the neat blonde head.”


Gopa
One of the impossible situations into which Dixon is projected is at the Welch's party. After making the claim that he could read music 'after a fashion', he is given a solo part that he can't muddle through by just opening and closing his mouth voicelessly in unison with the rest of the chorus:
The madrigal began at the bidding of Welch's arthritic forefinger. Dixon kept his head down, moved his mouth as little as possible consistent with being unmistakably seen to move it, and looked through the words the others were singing. 'When from my love I looked for love, and kind affections due,' he read, 'too well I found her vows to prove most faithless and untrue. But when I did ask her why…..'”

Gopa did a fine imitation of Dixon singing, sans sound, and then being saved by the bell, literally – Bertrand's entrance, that sets up the rest of the novel's climactic contest.

Verghese said that like Amis himself, Dixon was a product of a 'grammar school.' The term is used nowadays for a secondary school with an academic curriculum, particularly suited for preparing pupils for entry to the universities or professions. It is sometimes contrasted with 'public school,' which in British use means a private school to which the posh people send their wards.

Verghese expatiated at length on the kind of university at which Dixon taught. After the post-War New Education Act was passed, red-brick universities came up in the counties to handle the large influx of students who had been demobbed from the Armed Forces. The marker of differences between products of such universities and the Oxford-Cambridge variety was in the clothes they wore, and the accents they affected. Since a lot of the humour comes from the speech, we in India miss those subtleties unless we listen to a video or film of the novel. Toward the end in the 'Merrie England' speech which Dixon delivers drunk, the accents meander from a Northern England accent (perhaps Yorkshire) to Welch's accent, and then the Principal's. As Wodehouse says in Right Ho, Jeeves:
if you want real oratory, the preliminary noggin is essential”

However, the past uniformisation that took place at Oxford-Cambridge, and the crumbling of the aristocracy, combined with the democratisation of accents at BBC, has led to the acceptance of the great variety of accents in Britain. Ted Hughes, for one, maintained his Northern accent, regardless of his Cambridge education.

Sunil said that among Indians who go abroad and return, for while you will hear the foreign accents they acquired, but “from time to time the Kanjirapally drawl will return!”

KumKum said there is a problem at the IITs where meritorious students who come from a provincial non-English medium schools, are disadvantaged.

Verghese who has experience from his days at Madras Christian College narrated the explicit English language conversation coaching that was done for those who came from Tamil-medium schools. It might take a year or more to get them up to speed with those who came from upper-class English medium schools like Lawrence Lovedale and so on.

Gopa confessed to having two children who studied in England. The daughter went to Portsmouth and has a perfect Cockney accent; the son who studied in Surrey has a Posh accent. In the 1960s, the Received Pronunciation (RP) was still very common and defined what 'educated classes' spoke. It is often difficult to understand for Indians, because there is a tendency to swallow the final words in a sentence, and not enunciate clearly. Joe mentioned that one of the pronunciations most widely comprehensible is that of Indians like Jawaharlal Nehru, or Mani Shanker Aiyer in our time; its chief merit is that it is clearly enunciated. Someone thought it was a British accent; Joe responded that it was clearly an Indian accent, perhaps influenced by English schooling, but unmistakably Indian.


Mathew
The first passage Mathew read shows Margaret to be a drama queen, having hysterics. Gopa said in those days females had hysterics more commonly. Thommo mentioned that 'smelling salts' (defined as a preparation of ammonium carbonate with lavender, etc, used as a stimulant in cases of fainting, etc.) were in common use. KumKum alluded to the fancy bottles that line the medicine cabinets of women.

In the second passage Dixon is thinking back on the hysterical scene:
It would take its place with those three or four memories which could make him actually twist about in his chair or bed with remorse, fear, or embarrassment.”

Sunil wondered what Flipkart.com might be thinking is the reason that so many copies of Lucky Jim are flying from their godown to Kochi! Do they put two-and-two together and from our blog realise it is our readings that trigger the sudden book-slide to Kochi? Should we get an added discount?


Joe
Appreciation

How wonderful to write a first novel that amazed an audience of readers well-used to humour of the PG Wodehouse variety. It has many similarities: improbable situations, the build-up to a climactic accident in a chapter, polysyllabic humour, and people who are ridiculous foils for the comic anti-hero. Dixon marches doggedly through a sludge of difficulties that would damage irreparably the self-esteem of an Oxford don; and here he is a mere lecturer at a provincial university. The forced grovelling before the oafish Head of the Department of History, Welch, is a trauma in which we readers participate in. With every thrust or jape that Dixon uses to thwart the ill-fated engagements forced on him by Welch, the reader rises in anxious expectancy: will Dixon get his own back on Welch, or even better, on Bertrand, his son, the phony artist?
Complicating matters in the progress of Dixon's tenure, is the big decision: which girl should he pursue – the neurotic Margaret, whose self-esteem is so low a limbo dancer couldn't crawl under it, or the well-equipped Christine, over whom the fake-artist Bertrand exerts a proprietorial hold?


The effect of large draughts of beer and spirits on Dixon are so expertly described that we assume it must come from the author's first-hand experience. Amis, the author, became increasingly drunk in later years and it was the death of him. The role of the pub in making drink an easy escape from reality to drown one's sorrows is well established. But who in the decimal era can imagine Dixon paying for drinks with two florins and pocketing eightpence in change? That's a shilling and eightpence per pint of beer, we can work out.


Catchpole is introduced early on, but his real role comes at the end to clarify that Margaret’s suicide attempts were shams, put on to attract attention to herself. Amis seems to have found no role for Michel, the other son of Welch. Margaret is the least believable of all of them, though the hold she has on Dixon is all too real until the very end. Michel, Bertrand's is introduced early, but Amis forgets him, or finds no place for him in the future narrative:
effeminate writing Michel, a character always waiting in the wings of Dixon's life but apparently destined never to enter its stage. This Michel, as indefatigably Gallic as his mother, had been cooking."


One of the things to be remarked is the unusual prevalence the word 'face' in this novel; there are in all about 155 occurrences. Dixon is immensely curious about the faces others make in the course of their conversation; he is himself given to making faces in the mirror, and making faces as a prelude to putting on a particular manner of speech. Dixon's ability to take on the characteristics of whatever difficulty he faces at the moment with a put-on 'face' is an ample source of humour.

Joe read the passage where Dixon and Bertrand have a showdown with their fists. Joe took off his spectacles on cue as the passage progressed, and Thommo wondered who among the KRG readers was to act the part of Bertrand and knock Joe on “his right cheekbone,” according to the narrative!


Sunil 
The goings on before Dixon sets fire to the bedclothes provide a vein of comedy that Amis mines richly. The effects of drunkenness on the person is described by one who has been there; the room moves with his every movement, contrariwise.

Carol helps Dixon get Christine, on whom he decides after Catchpole describes Margaret's duplicity in suicide.

Gopa referred to the reasons for Dixon's final triumph over Bertrand by landing the job of secretary to Julius Gore-Urquhart, the rich uncle of Christine:
a) Dixon possesses no superfluous qualifications
b) Dixon attended a grammar school, not a public school.

Mathew brought in Wodehouse again to draw an analogy with two aspects:
  • the campaign against efficiency
  • the Gussie Fink Nottle debate

For the latter refer to:

Gopa noted that the novel is set in the period of class-struggle in the fifties. Verghese stated that grammar schools had high standards, and were excellent, in the main, to prepare students for higher education. The comprehensive schools came much later in the 70s, he said.

Thommo added, in re class struggle, the novel Come On, Jeeves:
It is 1952, and the aristocracy are feeling the pinch. Some are even having to work. While Lord Carmoyle has taken a job as a floorwalker at Harrods, ...”

Verghese said Wodehouse, unlike Amis, had no social commentary to make. The world he constructed in his novels was one in which pure evil did not exist. For him the aristocracy was all pure fun, and most of the characters are imaginary, except for the aunt (Dahlia?). Wodehouse was out of the Establishment for a while on account of his having made some broadcasts for the Nazis. That's why Wodehouse took up residence post-War in USA, but he was forgiven in time, and this quote from Evelyn Waugh signals that fact:
Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

Verghese referred to a 1957 film version and a 2003 TV remake. For this and many other references see:

Joe mentioned his having read that the novel was inspired by Amis walking past a common room of the professors at the university where Philip Larkin, the poet, worked as a librarian:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsley_Amis
“Taking its germ from Amis's observation of the common room at the University of Leicester, where his friend Larkin held a post ...”

Larkin was a good friend of Amis. Verghese said Kingsley Amis was a serial adulterer and had a drinking problem; his relations with his son, Martin Amis, also a novelist, were strained.


Readings


Thommo 
(a) As Dixon watched, a bus passed slowly up the hill in the mild May sunshine, bound for the small town where the Welches lived. Dixon betted himself it would be there before them. A roaring voice began to sing behind one of the windows above his head; it sounded like, and presumably might even be, Barclay, the Professor of Music.
A minute later Dixon was sitting listening to a sound like the ringing of a cracked door-bell as Welch pulled at the starter. This died away into a treble humming that seemed to involve every component of the car. Welch tried again; this time the effect was of beer-bottles jerkily belaboured. Before Dixon could do more than close his eyes he was pressed firmly back against the seat, and his cigarette, still burning, was cuffed out of his hand into some interstice of the floor. With a tearing of gravel under the wheels the car burst from a standstill towards the grass verge, which Welch ran over briefly before turning down the drive. They moved towards the road at walking pace, the engine maintaining a loud lowing sound which caused a late group of students, most of them wearing the yellow and green College scarf, to stare after them from the small covered-in space beside the lodge where sports notices were posted.
They climbed College Road, holding to the middle of the highway. The unavailing hoots of a lorry behind them made Dixon look furtively at Welch, whose face, he saw with passion, held an expression of calm assurance, like an old quartermaster's in rough weather. Dixon shut his eyes again. He was hoping that when Welch had made the second of the two maladroit gear-changes which lay ahead of him, the conversation would turn in some other direction than the academic. He even thought he'd rather hear some more about music or the doings of Welch's sons, the effeminate writing Michel and the bearded pacifist painting Bertrand whom Margaret had described to him. But whatever the subject for discussion might be, Dixon knew that before the journey ended he'd find his face becoming creased and flabby, like an old bag, with the strain of making it smile and show interest and speak its few permitted words, of steering it between a collapse into helpless fatigue and a tautening with anarchic fury.

(b) Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. It wasn't the double-exposure effect of the last half-minute's talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he'd written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article's niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. 'In considering this strangely neglected topic,' it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. 'Let's see,' he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: 'oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. After all, that's what it's…..'
Unable to finish his sentence, he looked to his left again to find a man's face staring into his own from about nine inches away. The face, which filled with alarm as he gazed, belonged to the driver of a van which Welch had elected to pass on a sharp bend between two stone walls. A huge bus now swung into view from further round the bend. Welch slowed slightly, thus ensuring that they would still be next to the van when the bus reached them, and said with decision: 'Well, that ought to do it nicely, I should say.'
Before Dixon could roll himself into a ball or even take off his glasses, the van had braked and disappeared, the bus-driver, his mouth opening and shutting vigorously, had somehow squirmed his vehicle against the far wall, and, with an echoing rattle, the car darted forward on to the straight. Dixon, though on the whole glad at this escape, felt at the same time that the conversation would have been appropriately rounded off by Welch's death.


Talitha
(a) 'Everybody was wondering where you'd got to,' she said.
'I've no doubt they were. Tell me: how did Mr Welch react?'
'What, to finding out you'd probably gone to the pub?'
'Yes. Did he seem irritated at all?'
'I really have no idea.' Conscious, possibly, that this must sound rather bald, she added: 'I don't know him at all, you see, and so I couldn't really tell. He didn't seem to notice much, if you see what I mean.'
Dixon saw. He felt too that he could tackle the eggs and bacon and tomatoes now, so went to get some and said: 'Well, that's a relief, I must say. I shall have to apologize to him, I suppose.'
'It might be a good idea.'
She said this in a tone that made him turn his back for a moment at the sideboard and make his Chinese mandarin's face, hunching his shoulders a little. He disliked this girl and her boy-friend so much that he couldn't understand why they didn't dislike each other. Suddenly he remembered the bedclothes; how could he have been such a fool? He couldn't possibly leave them like that. He must do something else to them. He must get up to his room quickly and look at them and see what ideas their physical presence suggested. 'God,' he said absently; 'oh my God,' then, pulling himself together: 'I'm afraid I shall have to dash off now.'
'Have you got to get back?'
'No, I'm not actually going until….. No, I mean there's….. I've got to go upstairs.' Realizing that this was a poor exit-line, he said wildly, still holding a dish-cover: 'There's something wrong with my room, something I must alter.' He looked at her and saw her eyes were dilated. 'I had a fire last night.'
'You lit a fire in your bedroom?'
'No, I didn't light it purposely, I lit it with a cigarette. It caught fire on its own.'
Her expression changed again. 'Your bedroom caught fire?'
'No, only the bed. I lit it with a cigarette.'
'You mean you set fire to your bed?'
'That's right.'
'With a cigarette? Not meaning to? Why didn't you put it out?'
'I was asleep. I didn't know about it till I woke up.'
'But you must have….. Didn't it burn you?'
He put the dish-cover down. 'It doesn't seem to have done.'
'Oh, that's something, anyway.' She looked at him with her lips pressed firmly together, then laughed in a way quite different from the way she'd laughed the previous evening; in fact, Dixon thought, rather unmusically. A blonde lock came away from the devotedly-brushed hair and she smoothed it back. 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'
'I don't know yet. I must do something, though.'
'Yes, I quite agree. You'd better start on it quickly, hadn't you, before the maid goes round?'
'I know. But what can I do?'
'How bad is it?'
'Bad enough. There are great pieces gone altogether, you see.'
'Oh. Well, I don't really know what to suggest without seeing it. Unless you….. no; that wouldn't help.'
'Look, I suppose you wouldn't come up and…..?'
'Have a look at it?'
'Yes. Do you think you could?'
She sat up again and thought 'Yes, all right. I don't guarantee anything, of course.'
'No, of course not.' He remembered with joy that he still had some cigarettes left after last night's holocaust. 'Thanks very much.'
They were moving to the door when she said: 'What about your breakfast?'
'Oh, I shall have to miss that. There's not time.'
'I shouldn't if I were you. They don't give you much for lunch here, you know.'
'But I'm not going to wait till….. I mean there isn't much time to….. Wait a minute.' He darted back to the sideboard, picked up a slippery fried egg and slid it into his mouth whole. She watched him with folded arms and a blank expression. Chewing violently, he doubled up a piece of bacon and crammed it between his teeth, then signalled he was ready to move. Intimations of nausea circled round his digestive system.

(b) My goodness, you certainly have gone to town, haven't you?' She went forward and fingered the sheet and blankets like one shown material in a shop. 'But this doesn't look like a burn; it looks as if it's been cut with something.'
'Yes, I….. cut the burnt bits off with a razor-blade. I thought it would look better than just leaving it burnt.'
'Why on earth did you do that?'
'I can't really explain. I just thought it would look better.'
'Mm. And did all this come from one cigarette?'
'That I don't know. Probably.'
'Well, you must have been pretty far gone not to….. And the table too. And the rug. You know, I don't know that I ought to be a party to all this.' She grinned, which made her look almost ludicrously healthy, and revealed at the same time that her front teeth were slightly irregular. For some reason this was more disturbing to his equanimity than regularity could possibly have been. He began to think he'd noticed quite enough things about her now, thank you. Then she drew herself up and pressed her lips together, seeming to consider. 'I think the best thing would be to remake the bed with all this mess at the bottom, out of sight. We can put the blanket that's only scorched – this one – on top; it'll probably be almost all right on the side that's underneath now. What about that? It's a pity there isn't an eiderdown.'


KumKum
(Dixon calls up the Welch residence hoping to talk to Christine. Unfortunately it is Mrs. Welch who picks up the phone. Dixon tries to hide his identity in a dubious manner, but Mrs. Welch is not fooled)
Reading (with some gaps)
If you’re still there, Mr. Dixon,” Mrs. Welch said after a moment, in a voice sharpened to excoriation by the intervening few miles of line, “I’d like to tell you that if you make one more attempt to interfere in my son’s or my affairs, then I shall have to ask my husband to take the matter up with you from a disciplinary point of view, and also that other matter of the….”
Dixon rang off. “sheet”, he said. Trembling, he reached for his cigarettes.
As he was lighting his cigarette, the bell of the phone went off within two feet of his head; he started violently and began coughing, then took up the phone.”
(It was Catchpole, the fellow who supposed to have crushed Margaret Peel when he jilted her.)
Your name’s Catchpole, isn’t it?”
Yes. Please….”
Well, I know who you are all right, then. And all about you.”
Please give me a hearing, Mr. Dixon.” The voice at the other end shook slightly. “I just wanted to know whether Margaret is all right or not. Won’t you even tell me that?”
Dixon calmed down at this appeal. “All right, I will. She’s in quite good health physically. Mentally, she’s about as well as can be expected.”
Thanks very much. I’m glad to hear that. Do you mind if I ask you one more question?”
What is it?”
Why were you so angry with me a moment ago when I asked you about her?”
That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Not to me, I’m afraid. I think we’re talking rather at cross-purposes, aren’t we? I can’t think of any reason, why you should have grudge against me. No real reason, that is.”
It sounded remarkably sincere. “Well, I can,” Dixon said, unable to keep the puzzlement out of his voice.
They arranged to meet for a pre-lunch drink in a pub at the foot of College Road the next day but one, Thursday. When Catchpole had rung off, Dixon sat for some minutes smoking. ……..With a sigh he referred to the pocket diary for 1943 in which he wrote down telephone numbers, pulled the phone towards him again, and gave a London number. In a little while he said: “Is Dr. Caton there, please ?”
There was another brief delay, then a rich confident voice came clearly over the line: “This is Caton.”
Dixon gave his name and that of his college.
For some reason, the richness and confidence of the other voice waned sharply. “What do you want?” it asked snappishly.
I read about your appointment, Dr. Caton—incidentally may I offer my congratulations?—and I was wondering what was going to happen to that article of mine you were good enough to accept for your journal. Can you tell me when it’ll come out?”
I know chaps in your position think an editor’s job’s all beer and skittles; it’s very far from being that, believe me.”
I’m sure it must be most exacting, Dr. Caton, and of course I wouldn’t dream of trying to pin you down to anything definite, but it’s rather important to me to have some estimate of when you’ll be able to publish my article.”
I can’t start making promises to have your article out next week,” the voice said in a nettled tone as if Dixon had been stupidly insisting on this one point, “with things as difficult as they are. Surely you must see that. You don’t seem to realize the amount of planning that goes into each number, especially a first number. It’s not like drawing up a railway timetable, What? What? “ he finished, loudly and suspiciously.
Dixon wondered if, without knowing it, he’d allowed an imprecation to pass his lips.
But to be quite frank, Dr. Caton, I want rather urgently to improve my standing in the Department here, and if I could just quote you, if you could give me a….”
I’m sorry to hear of your difficulties, Mr. Dickinson, but I’m afraid things are too difficult here for me to be very seriously concerned about your difficulties. I don’t know what I should do if they all started demanding promises from me in this fashion”
All I want is an estimate, and even the vaguest estimate would help me----the second half of next year, for example.”
(They met as scheduled, over tea at a restaurant. But the meeting was not to prolong their relationship as they had fancied, but to end it with immediate effect. Since both realized how absurd it was to let romance flourish between them.)
Dixon: “… there’s not really much to choose between us when you look at it. You’re keeping up your little affair with Bertrand because you think that on the whole it’s safer to do that, in spite of the risks attached to that kind of thing, than to chance your arm with me. You know the snags about him, but you don’t know what snags there might be about me. And I’m sticking to Margaret because I haven’t got the guts to turn her loose and let her look after herself, so I do that instead of doing what I want to do, because I’m afraid to. It’s just a sort of stodgy, stingy caution that’s the matter with us; you can’t even call it looking after number one.”
He looked at her with faint contempt, and was hurt to see the same feeling in the way she looked at him.



Priya
Things at once happened very quickly. While, as he had reason to know, outgoing calls from the Welches' were liable to take some time, incoming ones were horrifyingly swift. In less than a quarter of a minute Mrs Welch had said to him: 'Celia Welch speaking.'
He felt as if he'd crunched a cracknel biscuit; in his preoccupation he'd forgotten about Mrs Welch. Still, why worry? In an almost normal tone he said: 'Can I speak to Professor Welch, please?'
'That's Mr Dixon, isn't it? Before I get my husband, I'd just like you to tell me, if you don't mind, what you did to the sheet and blankets on your bed when you…..'
He wanted to scream. His dilated eyes fell on a copy of the local paper that lay nearby. Without stopping to think, he said, distorting his voice by protruding his lips into an O: 'No, Mrs Welch, there must be some mistake. This is the Evening Post speaking. There's no Mr Dixon with us, I'm quite sure.'
'Oh, I'm most awfully sorry; you sounded at first just like….. How ridiculous of me.'
'Quite all right, Mrs Welch, quite all right.'
'I'll get my husband for you straight away.'
'Well, actually it was Mr Bertrand Welch I wanted to speak to really,' Dixon said, smiling at his own cunning as best he could with a distorted mouth; in a few seconds this horror would be over.
'I'm not sure whether he's….. Just a minute.' She put the phone down.
Better hang on, Dixon thought, and the information, which Mrs Welch had obviously gone to get, about where Bertrand could be reached was just what he wanted for the Callaghan girl. He'd be able to ring her up and tell her, too. Yes, hang on at all costs.
One of the costs was immediately presented in the form of a well-remembered voice baying directly into his ear 'This is Bertrand Welch', so directly, indeed, that Dixon could have fancied that Bertrand was actually in the room with him and had by some sorcery substituted for the receiver those rosy, bearded lips.
'Evening Post here,' he managed to quaver through his snout.
'And what can I do for you, sir?'
Dixon recovered slightly. 'Er….. we'd like to do a little paragraph about you for our, for our Saturday page,' he said, beginning to plan. 'That's if you've no objection.'
'Objection? Objection? What objection could a humble painter have to a little harmless publicity? At least, I take it it's harmless?'
Dixon got out a laugh, the Dickensian 'Ho ho ho' which was all his mouth could manage. 'Oh, quite harmless, I assure you, sir. We have a few facts about you already, naturally. But we would just like to know what you're engaged on at the moment, you see.'
'Of course, of course, most reasonable. Well, I've got two or three things in hand just now. There's a rather splendid nude, actually, though I don't know whether your readers would want to know about that, would they?'
'Oh, very much so, Mr Welch, I assure you, as long as we tell them in the proper way. I take it there'd be no objection to calling it "an undraped female figure", would there, sir? I imagine it is a female?'
Bertrand laughed like a leading hound announcing the end of a check. 'Oh, she's female all right, you can bet your bottom dollar on that. And "bottom" is the exact word.'
Dixon joined in this with his own laughter. What a story for Beesley and Atkinson this was going to make. 'Anything about what I believe's called the treatment, sir?' he asked when he might have been supposed to be calm again.
'Pretty bold, you know. Fairly modern, but not too much so. These modern chaps jigger up the detail so much, and we don't want that, do wam?'
'Indeed we don't, sir, as you say. I suppose this would be an oil painting, sir?'
'Oh God, yes; no expense spared. She's about eight feet by six, by the way, or will be when she's framed. A real smasher.'
'Any particular title for it, sir?'
'Well, yes, I thought of calling her Amateur Model. The girl who sat for it's certainly an amateur of a sort, and she acts as a model, at least while she's being painted, so there you are. I shouldn't put in that little explanation of the title if I were you.'
'Wouldn't dream of it,' Dixon said in something like his ordinary voice; his mouth had tightened involuntarily during the last few seconds and had temporarily abandoned its O. What a lad this Bertrand was, eh? He remembered the insinuations about the week-end with the Callaghan girl that Bertrand had made at their first meeting. God, if it ever came to a fight, he'd…..
'What did you say?' Bertrand asked, a little tinge of suspicion in his tone.
'I was talking to someone in the office here, Mr Welch,' Dixon said, through the O this time. 'I've got all that, sir, thank you. Now what about the other things you're working on?'


Zakia 
In a few more seconds Dixon had noticed all he needed to notice about this girl: the combination of fair hair, straight and cut short, with brown eyes and no lipstick, the strict set of the mouth and the square shoulders, the large breasts and the narrow waist, the premeditated simplicity of the wine-coloured corduroy skirt and the unornamented white linen blouse. The sight of her seemed an irresistible attack on his own habits, standards, and ambitions: something designed to put him in his place for good. The notion that women like this were never on view except as the property of men like Bertrand was so familiar to him that it had long since ceased to appear an injustice. The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk: those in whom the intention of being attractive could sometimes be made to get itself confused with performance; those with whom a too-tight skirt, a wrong-coloured, or no, lipstick, even an ill-executed smile could instantly discredit that illusion beyond apparent hope of renewal. But renewal always came: a new sweater would somehow scale down the large feet, generosity revivify the brittle hair, a couple of pints site positive charm in talk of the London stage or French food.
The girl turned her head and found Dixon staring at her. His diaphragm contracted with fright; she drew herself up with a jerk like a soldier standing easy called to the stand-at-ease position. They looked at each other for a moment, until, just as Dixon's scalp was beginning to tingle, a high, baying voice called 'Ah, there you are, darling; step this way, if you please, and be introduced to the throng' and Bertrand strode up the room to meet her, throwing Dixon a brief hostile glance. Dixon didn't like him doing that; the only action he required from Bertrand was an apology, humbly offered, for his personal appearance.


Gopa
A bursting snuffle of laughter came from Dixon's left rear. He glanced round to see Johns's pallor rent by a grin. The large short-lashed eyes were fixed on him. 'What's the joke?' he asked. If Johns were laughing at Welch, Dixon was prepared to come in on Welch's side.
'You'll see,' Johns said. He went on looking at Dixon. 'You'll see,' he added, grinning.
In less than a minute Dixon did see, and clearly. Instead of the customary four parts, this piece employed five. The third and fourth lines of music from the top had Tenor I and Tenor II written against them; moreover, there was some infantile fa-la-la-la stuff on the second page with numerous gaps in the individual parts. Even Welch's ear might be expected to record the complete absence of one of the parts in such circumstances. It was much too late now for Dixon to explain that he hadn't really meant it when he'd said, half an hour before, that he could read music 'after a fashion'; much too late to transfer allegiance to the basses. Nothing short of an epileptic fit could get him out of this.
'You'd better take first tenor, Jim,' Goldsmith said; 'the second's a bit tricky.'
Dixon nodded bemusedly, hardly hearing further laughter from Johns. Before he could cry out, they were past the piano-ritual and the droning and into the piece. He flapped his lips to: 'Each with his bonny lass, a-a-seated on the grass: fa-la-la la, fa-la-la-la-la-la la la-la…..' but Welch had stopped waving his finger, was holding it stationary in the air. The singing died. 'Oh, tenors,' Welch began; 'I didn't seem to hear…..'


Mathew
(a) There was a pause; then she came waveringly forward, put her hands on his shoulders, and seemed to collapse, or be dragging him, on to the bed. Unregarded, her spectacles fell off. She was making a curious noise, a steady, repeated, low-pitched moan that sounded as if it came from the pit of her stomach, as if she'd been sick over and over again and still wanted to be sick. Dixon half-helped, half-lifted her on to the bed. Now and then she gave a quiet, almost skittish little scream. Her face was pushed hard against his chest. Dixon didn't know whether she was fainting, or having a fit of hysterics, or simply breaking down and crying. Whatever it was he didn't know how to deal with it. When she felt that she was sitting on the bed next to him she threw herself forward so that her face was on his thigh. In a moment he felt moisture creeping through to his skin. He tried to lift her, but she was immovably heavy; her shoulders were shaking more rapidly than seemed to him normal even in a condition of this kind. Then she raised herself, tense but still trembling, and began a series of high-pitched, inward screams which alternated with the deep moans. Both were quite loud. Her hair was in her eyes, her lips were drawn back, and her teeth chattered. Her face was wet, with saliva as well as tears. At last, as he began speaking her name, she threw herself violently backwards and sideways on to the bed. While she lay there with her arms spread out, writhing, she screamed half a dozen times, very loudly, then went on more quietly, moaning with every outward breath. Dixon seized her wrists and shouted: 'Margaret. Margaret.' She looked at him with dilated eyes and began struggling, trying to free herself from him. Two lots of footsteps were now approaching outside, one ascending the stairs, the other descending. The door opened and Bill Atkinson came in, followed by Miss Cutler. Dixon looked up at them.
'Hysterics, eh?' Atkinson said, and slapped Margaret several times on the face, very hard, Dixon thought. He pushed Dixon out of the way and sat down on the bed, gripping Margaret by the shoulders and shaking her vigorously. 'There's some whisky up in my cupboard. Go and get it.'
Dixon ran out and up the stairs. The only thought that presented itself to him at all clearly was one of mild surprise that the fictional or cinematic treatment of hysterics should be based so firmly on what was evidently the right treatment. He found the whisky; his hand was shaking so much that he nearly dropped the bottle. He uncorked it and took a quick swig, trying not to cough. Down in his room again, he found everything much quieter. Miss Cutler, who'd been watching Atkinson and Margaret, gave Dixon a glance, not of suspicion or reproach, but of reassurance; she said nothing. As he felt at the moment, this made him want to cry. Atkinson looked up without taking the bottle. 'Get a glass or a cup.' He got a cup from the cupboard, poured some of the whisky into it, and gave it to Atkinson. Miss Cutler, as much in awe of him as ever, stood at Dixon's side and watched Margaret being given some whisky.
Atkinson heaved her up into a half-sitting position. Her moans had stopped and she was trembling less violently. Her face was red from Atkinson's blows. When he put the cup to her mouth it rattled once or twice on her teeth and her breathing was audible. With eerie predictability she choked and coughed, swallowed some, coughed again, swallowed some more. Quite soon she stopped trembling altogether and began to look round at them. 'Sorry about that,' she said faintly.
'That's all right, girlie,' Atkinson said.

(b) Dixon put his own cigarette out, jabbing at Ribble's bridge in a feeble rage he couldn't find any source for. He tried to tell himself that when he'd got over his own feelings of shock, he'd begin to be glad at having told Margaret what he'd been wanting to tell her for so long, but it wasn't convincing. He thought of his appointment with Christine the next day but one, and regarded it entirely without pleasure. Some part of what had happened in the last half-hour had spoilt all that, though he didn't know which part. Somewhere his path to Christine was blocked; it was all going to go wrong in some way he couldn't foresee. It wasn't that Margaret herself would take a hand in the matter and upset things by somehow alerting Bertrand and the senior Welches; it wasn't that he might be forced to withdraw his recent declarations to Margaret. It was something less unlikely than the first, harder to fight than the second, and much vaguer than either. It was just that everything seemed to be spoilt.
He began abstractedly brushing his hair in front of his small unframed mirror. He refused to think directly about Margaret's fit of hysterics. Soon enough, he knew, it would take its place with those three or four memories which could make him actually twist about in his chair or bed with remorse, fear, or embarrassment. It would probably supplant the present top-of-the-list item, the time he'd been pushed out in front of the curtain after a school concert to make the audience sing the National Anthem. He could hear his own voice now, saying in those flat tones, heavy with insincerity: 'And now….. I want you all….. to join with me, if you will….. in singing…..' And then he'd led off in a key that must have been exactly half an octave above or below the proper one. Switching every few notes, like everybody else, from one octave to the other, half a beat in front of or behind everybody else, he'd gone through the whole thing. Cheers, applause, and laughter had followed him when he ducked his burning face back through the curtains. He looked at his face now in the mirror: it looked back at him, humourless and self-pitying.


Joe
Reading: Bertrand and Dixon have it out
Bertrand rose to his feet again and faced Dixon with his legs slightly apart. He spoke in a level tone, but his teeth were clenched. 'Just get this straight in your so-called mind. When I see something I want, I go for it. I don't allow people of your sort to stand in my way. That's what you're leaving out of account. I'm having Christine because it's my right. Do you understand that? If I'm after something, I don't care what I do to make sure that I get it. That's the only law I abide by; it's the only way to get things in this world. The trouble with you, Dixon, is that you're simply not up to my weight. If you want a fight, pick someone your own size, then you might stand a chance. With me you just haven't a hope in hell.'
Dixon moved a pace nearer. 'You're getting a bit too old for that to work any more, Welch,' he said quickly. 'People aren't going to skip out of your path indefinitely. You think that just because you're tall and can put paint on canvas you're a sort of demigod. It wouldn't be so bad if you really were. But you're not: you're a twister and a snob and a bully and a fool. You think you're sensitive, but you're not: your sensitivity only works for things that people do to you. Touchy and vain, yes, but not sensitive.' He paused, but Bertrand was only staring at him, making no attempt to interrupt. Dixon went on: 'You've got the idea that you're a great lover, but that's wrong too: you're so afraid of me, who's nothing more than a louse according to you, that you have to march in here and tell me to keep off the grass like a heavy husband. And you're so dishonest that you can tell me how important Christine is to you without it entering your head that you're carrying on with some other chap's wife all the time. It's not just that that I object to; it's the way you never seem to reflect how insincere…..'
'What the bloody hell are you talking about?' Bertrand's breath was whistling through his nose. He clenched his fists.
'Your spot of the old slap and tickle with Carol Goldsmith. That's what I'm talking about.'
'I don't know what you're talking…..'
'Oh, my dear fellow, don't start denying it. Why bother, anyway? Surely it's just one of the things you have because it's your right, isn't it?'
'If you ever tell this tale to Christine, I'll break your neck into so many…..'
'It's all right, I'm not the sort to do that,' Dixon said with a grin. 'I'm not like you, I can take Christine away from you without that, you Byronic tail-chaser.'
'All right, you've got it coming,' Bertrand bayed furiously. 'I warned you.' He came and stood over Dixon. 'Come on, stand up, you dirty little bar-fly, you nasty little jumped-up turd.'
'What are we going to do, dance?'
'I'll give you dance, I'll make you dance, don't you worry. Just stand up, if you're not afraid to. If you think I'm going to sit back and take this from you, you're mistaken; I don't happen to be that type, you sam.'
'I'm not Sam, you fool,' Dixon shrieked; this was the worst taunt of all. He took off his glasses and put them in his top jacket pocket.
They faced each other on the floral rug, feet apart and elbows crooked in uncertain attitudes, as if about to begin some ritual of which neither had learnt the cues. 'I'll show you,' Bertrand chimed, and jabbed at Dixon's face. Dixon stepped aside, but his feet slipped and before he could recover Bertrand's fist had landed with some force high up on his right cheekbone. A little shaken, but undismayed, Dixon stood still and, while Bertrand was still off his balance after delivering his blow, hit him very hard indeed on the larger and more convoluted of his ears. Bertrand fell down, making a lot of noise in doing so and dislodging a china figurine from the mantelpiece. It exploded on the tiles of the hearth, emphasizing the silence which fell. Dixon stepped forward, rubbing his knuckles. The impact had hurt them rather. After some seconds, Bertrand began moving about on the floor, but made no attempt to get up. It was clear that Dixon had won this round, and, it then seemed, the whole Bertrand match. He put his glasses on again, feeling good; Bertrand caught his eye with a look of embarrassed recognition. The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation, Dixon thought. 'You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation,' he said.


Sunil 
(a) He began getting into bed. His four surviving cigarettes – had he really smoked twelve that evening? – lay in their packet on a polished table at the bed-head, accompanied by matches, the bakelite mug of water, and an ashtray from the mantelpiece. A temporary inability to raise his second foot on to the bed let him know what had been the secondary effect of drinking all that water: it had made him drunk. This became a primary effect when he lay in bed. On the fluttering mantelpiece was a small china effigy, the representation, in a squatting position, of a well-known Oriental religious figure. Had Welch put it there as a silent sermon to him on the merits of the contemplative life? If so, the message had come too late. He reached up and turned off the light by the hanging switch above his head. The room began to rise upwards from the right-hand bottom corner of the bed, and yet seemed to keep in the same position. He threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, his legs hanging. The room composed itself to rest. After a few moments he swung his legs back and lay down. The room lifted. He put his feet to the floor. The room stayed still. He put his legs on the bed but didn't lie down. The room moved. He sat on the edge of the bed. Nothing. He put one leg up on the bed. Something. In fact a great deal. He was evidently in a highly critical condition. Swearing hoarsely, he heaped up the pillows, half-lay, half-sat against them, and dangled his legs half-over the edge of the bed. In this position he was able to lower himself gingerly into sleep.

(b) 'Bertrand?'
'That's the fellow; the painter, you know. The great painter. Of course, he knows he isn't great really, and that's what makes him behave like this. Great artists always have a lot of women, so if he can have a lot of women that makes him a great artist, never mind what his pictures are like. You're familiar with the argument. And with the fallacy too, no doubt. Undistributed how-d'you-call. Well, you can guess who the women are in this case. Me and the girl you've got your eye on.'

(c) You'll find that marriage is a good short cut to the truth. No, not quite that. A way of doubling back to the truth. Another thing you'll find is that the years of illusion aren't those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they're the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head.





3 comments:

Shipra said...

Correction requested:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis was selected by Thommo and Priya.

Another very interesting session. Enjoyed it very much.
Thank you Thommo and Priya for selecting this gem of a book; otherwwise, it would have remained unknown to me.
Joe, you captured the session very well, including the dazzling saree Priya wore, and the box containing the Banana-raisin cake we enjoyed.

Gopa said...

Joe,I enjoyed reading the blog and actually went thru' the Gussie Fink Nottle incident to refresh my mind and naturally laughed some more.
One correction:
I have a son in Surrey and a daughter (not two daughters) in Portsmouth and the comparison in their accents was made by a friend who teaches in Cambridge, when he happened to meet them. It doesn't bother me though!

Priya said...

Thank you Joe, so much, for the detailed blog that you put up after every session. The blog is as interesting as the event.
I too must thank Thommo for selecting this wonderful book and introducing me to this funny world of Amis. The inputs from all the members is truly enriching.
My reading has improved so much thanks to being a member of this group.
Kum Kum, thank you for the moist banana cake. Did you use curd in the recipe? It was delicious.