Lucky Jim was published in 1954. It was multiply trailblazing: an important writer’s first novel, the first Angry Young Man novel, Britain’s first campus novel. The story is as simple as the title. Jim Dixon, a second-rate history lecturer at a fourth-rate university (so called) gets himself in a continuous mess with women and his job. The laugh-out-loud rate is high to bellowing every other page.
I first read Lucky Jim in 1956 as a teenager. That same year the only university that troubled to interview me for an undergraduate place was Leicester. Kingsley Amis’s bosom pal Philip Larkin’s first job had been there as an assistant librarian in the late 1940s. Amis’s first reaction on drinking a cup of filthy coffee in Leicester’s senior common room was: “Christ, somebody ought to do something with this!” The something, five years later, was Lucky Jim.
Unlucky John, I thought, as I walked up Cemetery Road, as Larkin called it. Leicester University is next door to a graveyard. “Abandon all hope” jokes were rife. Leicester wasn’t Oxford, but, as I now think, better for not trying. It attracted then and still does, I suspect, talented misfits.
Amis’s narrative has dated since the 1950s, but comic moments still work as laugh-ticklingly as they did in 1954. Most laughably those on drink. A beer lover (in my day), I treasure the novel’s alcoholic moments. Jim’s waking up as a guest in his professor’s house, for instance, with a monster hangover and disgrace in prospect: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
An important writer’s first novel, the first Angry Young Man novel, Britain’s first campus novel.
Many mornings I woke up with Jim’s dead creature of the night in my mouth. For decades I loved and laughed over Lucky Jim. But less so nowadays. The reason being that we now know the murkily spiteful origins of the novel.
Amis was a long time working on Lucky Jim, which was dedicated to Larkin. The two men had been college buddies in wartime Oxford. They loved jazz, japes, booze and literature that would never be on the syllabus. Both got firsts, effortlessly.
Although work took them to different academic institutions, they kept their relationship alive with letters that are classics of English comic writing.
Larkin’s friendship with Amis extended to his being co-authorial on Lucky Jim. At the end of his life, after their relationship had cooled, Larkin went so far as to claim that Amis had “stolen” the novel from him. It’s not true, but there is an element of truth in the complaint.
Then Came a Girl …
In the late 1940s Larkin became smitten with a lecturer at Leicester. She fell in love with him and never fell out of it. Her name was Monica Jones. Amis never met her over the years that he and Larkin were concocting, with mutual glee, Lucky Jim. But Larkin talked at length about Jones and showed photographs. She was, Amis decided on the basis of what he was told, a frigid vamp, sucking the life out of his friend.
Amis decided to write her in as a villainess — the whole plot hinges on her trapping luckless Jim in her web and he (lucky at last) breaking free. What to call her, Amis pondered. Monica’s full name was Margaret Monica Beale Jones. “Veronica Beale”, Amis first thought. Then, when Larkin demurred, perhaps “Margaret Jones”. Too close. Amis finally came up with “Margaret Peel”.
As Amis’s son Martin later put it: “Monica is remade as the unendurable anti-heroine, with her barn-dancer clothes, her mannerisms and affectations, her paraded sensitivity, and her docile-hostile adhesiveness.”
“Adhesive” was Amis’s word for Jones. She stuck to your fingers like Sellotape.
Jones didn’t know about Larkin’s collaboration with Amis and his tossing her into the comic mix. Now working at Hull University, Larkin sent her a copy of Lucky Jim on the eve of publication. It was, he warned her nervously, the funniest novel he’d read.
Reading it were the three unfunniest days of her life, which inspired a 50-page letter, written part drunk, in which she tries to argue in the face of the evidence on the pages before her that Larkin would never be so “treacherous” as to do this to her. He had been. And for the rest of that life, as Larkin’s longtime lover, she was sniggered at behind her back as Margaret Peel. She knew it and it was a torment.
She didn’t deserve the immortality Amis gave her, nor that treatment by Larkin, the love rat. But, I must confess, that creature of the night still cracks my face into a laugh.
John Sutherland is the author of Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves