November 12th 1988: Two contrasting letters from Kingsley Amis

In “The Letters of Kingsley Amis”, edited by Zachary Leader, we find two contrasting and yet in their own way characteristic letters from Kingsley Amis from this day thirty years ago.

The first is a letter to editor of the Spectator, in response to a letter by Frank Dunne . This is a letter conjuring something close to the splenetic, rather reactionary Amis of his public image, with a swipe at Modernism and subsidy for the Arts and a boost for the unfashionable figure of Edward Thomas:

Sir: Frank Dunne is in such a rush to put me right on modernism (Letters, 29 October)that he cannot stay to read even what Auberon Waugh says I said about it. Waugh says I said, and I said, and I say, not of course that the modernist movement “would never have succeeded” without bodies like the Arts Council, but that the movement “would be over but for the life-support machine provided by the Arts Council and other malign institutions”. In this country, that is was was understood: Americans, Irish, French etc modernists are no doubt still doing well enough unassisted.

As to modernism’s success in past years, it must have been helped by those like DUnne whose palates are so jaded that they find only a “tepid, weak-tea” tradition in the work of that classic English poet, Edward Thomas. But then Thomas never achieved “worldwide acclamation”, as far as I know.


194 Regents Park Road, London N1

An explanatory footnote reads: “Auberon Waugh’s comments on Amis and modernsism appear in a column entitled ‘Something Slimy and Spongiform in the Saleroom’. Spectator, 8 October 1988 p 8. Frank Dunne (b 1932) is an Irish writer and actor.”

Immediately afterwards we find a contrasting letter to W. Y McNeil. A footnote explains : ‘McNeil (b. 1916), a retired Director of Social Work at a Scottish local authority, had met Amis as a young subaltern in Signals. He wrote to Amis on 11 October 1988 after seeing him interviewed on television.”

194 Regents Park Road, London NW1 8XP

Dear Mac,

How nice to hear from you Of course I remember . you very well: red-haired, lively, always ready with a laugh, especially at our superiors’ expense – something we all needed in those days of (my God!) 43-44 years ago

Though I remember the names of everyone in the photograph you kindly sent – returned with many thanks – I have no recent news of any except Eric Milner, on your left in the photograph. He turned up at a Foyle’s luncheon I was at not much changed, now of course an ex-Lt-Col-TA with a place in Surrey. He wasn’t my favourite man in the old days but seems to have mellowed since, or perhaps I have.

I remember Urquhart well too, so well I can’t believe he was only with us until we left High Wycombe: dark, pale, serious, with walking-stick, bonnet with pompom  and (could it have been?) kilt. I once said to him, just to make conversation, ‘Are German ciphers made in the same sort of way as ours?’ He said ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,’ and I thought, wow, Jerry must be in a bad way if still doesn’t know that (in ’44). Give him (Gordon, not Jerry) all my best.

If you’re ever in London do think of giving me a ring. We could summon up the ghosts of Bill Yorke, Jack Reeves, Col. Walker (aargh!) and not least RSM Fryer over a wee tassie.

With every good wish,


Bill Amis.

Zachary Leader’s footnotes do provide more context (in relation to the last paragraph, it is noted that “neither Bill Yorke, the Adjutant, nor Lieutenant-Colonel  G.F.H. Walker the CO, were favourites”) , but I feel that it is worth letting this affectionate and rather touching letter speak for itself.

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