Interview with an author

9th June 2000 at 01:00
The furore over Laura Spence unearthed painful memories for Ian Whitwham of a grammar-school boy's mauling by the literary lion Kingsley Amis at Cambridge.

"LOW in confidence and difficult to draw out despite being able to manifestly think on her own feet."

So runs the recent damning and scandalous Oxford assessment of comprehensive pupil Laura Spence.

"Woeful" and "of no obvious potential", ran the more emphatic Cambridge asssessment of me - a rather grim working-class grammar-school boy - nearly 40 years ago.

Picture me, bereft of confidence, near-mute and manifestly going off the trolley, standing outside Mr Amis's room. It is December 11, 1962. I am waiting to be interviewed.

That's Kingsley Amis, the novelist, funniest man on the planet and scourge of the pretentious. He is, as his letters have just made clear, in the grip of recent and illicit "sexual ecstasy" - and likely to be irked by such as myself.

I am 18, dull, clinically shy and a virgin. That's why I'm standing outside this door, academic success usually being consequent on sexual failure. Proper boys are trying to get laid to Gene Vincent and not pretending enthusiasm for Hopkins, Lawrence and the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. I am a prize exhibit of a grammar school in High Wycombe. I am trying to be the first member of my family to attend a university.

So I am standing outside Kingsley Amis' s study - shining shoes on grey flannels and slicking down a double crown. My apparel is by Sexual Desert, my hair by Medieval Peasant and my confidence in freefall.

There is music behind the door; boogie woogie, I surmise. I knock. And again. A voice might have called. So I go into a dim study full of books and bottles and culture and the world's most satirical man. He looks like Kingsley Amis, the same wavy locks as the Penguin jacket.

He is changing a record. An old 78? And he is drinking. He is listening to jazz. Sidney Bechet or Fats Waller?

It all seems a bit louche and low-brow to me. I haven't come all this way not to hold forth grimly about high-culture.

As I emerge through the murk, I am filed uder twerp.

The brothel music continues. "If you were on a long train journey, which book would you take with you?" says Kingsley Amis, sipping whiskey like a Bohemian.

"Wuthering Heights" I hear myself say on my way down to a sofa in a voice not commonly associated with puberty. I seem to be swallowing marbles.

I may as well be singing madrigals. I continue to address furniture with some less-than-arresting apercus concerning passion and fiction - something a major novelist in the grip of sexual delirium needs to hear from a callow wanker on a sofa.

Fats Waller continues to tinkle the ivories. Kingsley Amis continues to drink and probably think of Elizabeth Jane Howard. I continue to manifestly not think on my feet.

We are now two separate events. Some sighing runs parallel to my deliberations.

Probably more in response to Mr Waller. I am having a soliloquy with Kingsley Amis.

I am confusing him with someone who gives a fuck. My confidence now nil, I elect myself mute. My family will not be attending Cambridge or any other place of higher learning for several generations.

If only I'd known. I would have discussed Gene Vincent. Fats Waller. "Lucky" Jim Dixon.

We nearly shake hands. It would suggest we have met. I won't be seeing him again.

My school, that prissy ghetto of dullness, is promply informed that one of its prize-exhibits is a dullard, is in fact "woeful", was in fact a grim quaking swot scared daft by the culture.

Cambridge and damn fool inquisitions. Nothing seems to have changed. My own inner-city comprehensive 'A' students, as bright as anyone, are intimidated by Oxbridge. They think it might be fusty, crusty, male and sadistically pedantic.

They rarely apply.

Those who do can get withering rejections. Of course they're "low in confidence". It's called humility. They find it difficult to blag their way in.

They find twittish arrogance unnatural.

Kingsley Amis knew that. Did he even care? Would he have cared more for a female blonde medical student? It isn't fair.

Ian Whitwham teaches at a west London comprehensive.

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