Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils, Booker Prize 1986

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Back in 1986, most of the literary world was surprised when Kingsley Amis won the Booker Prize. After all, this is a prize associated with young modern authors such as Kingsley’s son, Martin Amis. Kingsley Amis was associated with the new wave of British writers of the 1950s. How had Amis Snr won a prize more suited to Amis Jnr’s generation?

The Old Devils is a straight-forward tale of growing old disgracefully. A group of old friends; Malcolm, Peter and Charlie live in Wales, and they spend their retirement drinking in every pub they can find. However their routine is interrupted when a celebrated poet or ‘Professional Welshman’ called Alun Weaver comes back to the area with his wife Rhiannon, with whom one of them previously had a relationship.

In truth, the novel’s plot was plodding in parts, but there can be no doubt that The Old Devils is funny. The rants and conversations between the main characters are amusing and entirely relatable to the time it was written and their age. Personally, I found it hilarious about how much ale, bitter, wine, port and whisky they get through. One particular highlight was some of the characters being thrown out of one pub for ‘bad behaviour’.

What sort of statement is Amis trying to make with this novel? Are we really only as old as the people we are inside? Does retirement bring about a re-evaluation of our past? Or is there nothing better to do in our retirement that simply get sozzled and moan about the world? I think Amis is trying to say all of these things in The Old Devils. Through their numerous days spent in pubs, the main characters reflect and rethink all that has happened to them, or what they have done in the past, and they find reconciliation, forgiveness and second chances.

The reader gets a sense that this is a very personal novel for Amis. He was sixty-four when he wrote the novel. Like the characters in his novel, he enjoyed drinking, and some critics thought that his drinking had ‘robbed him of his wit and charm’. They also said that his best work, that standard being set by Lucky Jim, was well behind him. Well, this novel is a clear ‘Fuck you, I’ve still got it’ message to those critics.

Personally, I did find The Old Devils a bit of a stretch to read at times, but I did appreciate the themes and humour of the novel and as Amis has shown in this novel, spending most of your days in the pub with your friends sounds like great fun!

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