Friday 3 January 2020

Outside Every Fat Man...

On the long long flight(s) to the city of the Agapanthus and the Pohutakawa, I finished One Fat Englishman, an early (1962) novel of Kingsley Amis's that I hadn't read for forty-odd years. It chronicles the misadventures of the appalling Roger Micheldene, an English publisher on a business trip to America, as he lurches from one drunken party to another, from one high-risk joyless sexual encounter to another, and from self-pity to self-loathing, while indulging a steadfast contempt for all things American. Entirely selfish and driven by compulsive lechery, insatiable gluttony and an unquenchable thirst, the aptly named Roger is clearly a grosser, fatter, even more appalling self-portrait of Amis – a self-portrait, you might say, in a convex mirror. All of this would be unbearable, were it not that One Fat Englishman is just so damn funny. Amis is a master of comic prose, incapable (at this stage of his career) of writing a dull or inelegant sentence, and he's no slouch at constructing comic narrative either. Narrated in the third person, but seen entirely through Roger's jaundiced eyes, this novel is, as much as anything, a glorious compendium of prejudices not so very different from Amis's own, expressed with jaw-dropping directness and deadly comic spin. I found myself laughing several times in every chapter, often on a single page – what more can you ask of a comic novel?
Roger Micheldene's ruminations contain one of Amis's best-known quotations, a reworking of Cyril Connolly's 'Imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signalling to be let out':
'Outside every fat man there was an even fatter man trying to close in.'
One Fat Englishman is also probably the only novel title to have been written on the ample flesh of its author: Amis's exasperated first wife wrote on his back as he lay torpid on a beach 'One Fat Englishman: I Fuck Anything' – and photographed her handiwork.

Scrolling desperately through the inflight 'entertainment' offers, I found nothing I wanted to see or hear, and much that I would pay good money to avoid seeing or hearing – until I eventually found a small selection of classical music. Here I discovered Mio Caro Handel, a collection of Handel arias sung by Simone Kermes, a singer blessed with a quite amazing voice, perfectly suited to Handel. Listening to her was sheer joy.

Another small highlight: Stepping outside the hotel in Singapore into a wall of tropical heat, I stayed just long enough to have a look at the flower bed planted against the hotel exterior. This was planted mostly with big showy tropical flowers, but there was a border of much smaller yellow daisy-like flowers, and on these a number of tiny oriental blues of various species, with nothing of the tropics about them, were busily feeding. My travel-weary heart was instantly lifted.

Then, at Auckland airport, a man – a lanky, balding, dishevelled American who looked as if he'd lived a little (or rather a lot) – came dashing after me as I stepped out to take a breath of air, tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was the living image of Jimmy Stewart, a man he had himself had the pleasure of meeting. He'd been on the fringes of the movie business and knew them all, and I, he could assure me, was, as stated, the living image of J. Stewart. Well, I am not, but this has happened to me before – and it is invariably an American who somehow contrives to see me as Jimmy Stewart to the life. Odd.

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