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To H

October 8, 2011

A poem by Kingsley Amis

Towards the end of his life Kingsley Amis wrote a rather unfunny, slapdash and bad-tempered autobiography, which even his fans wished he’d thought better of. The best thing about it was this poem.  

H is Hilary “Hilly” Bardwell, his first wife, and the mother of his two sons Philip and Martin. The first pregnancy had been unplanned and Kingsley made various unsuccessful attempts to help Hilly procure an abortion, illegal in those days, until eventually agreeing to marry her. Their shared sex lives got ever more complicated from then on.

Kingsley was repeatedly unfaithful.  His many lovers included his pupil the broadcaster Mavis Nicholson, and the rugby widow visited when Swansea played at home and her husband was safely at the match. The latter “behaved so badly in a bath” in Philip Larkin’s poem Letter to a Friend about Girls.  Hilly soon joined in that game and according to Zachary Leader, Amis’s biographer, besides her own conventional affairs, got involved in at least one threesome.  Her third child Sally, brought up by Kingsley as his own, was believed by both his sons and, if a close reading of the novel The Folks That Live on the Hill is correct, by Kingsley himself, to have been fathered by someone else.  

Out of this chaotic household came the early novels, Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, I Like it Here, Take a Girl Like You and One Fat Englishmen. And then Kingsley fell in love with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.  

Kingsley and Jane married in 1965, and two years later Hilly married a Cambridge classics don, Shackleton Bailey. While married to Bailey, Hilly had a fourth child James (Jaime) fathered by the Liberal peer Alistair (Ali) Boyd the 7th Baron Kilmarnock.   Although Ali later became her third husband, being born out of wedlock prevented Jaime from ever inheriting the peerage.

Later still, after Amis had lost his sex drive, and written Jake’s Thing about it, Jane walked out, leaving him to sell their house and split the proceeds.   Instead Amis, who by then had plenty of money, but wasn’t much good at looking after himself, installed Hilly and the impoverished Ali in the house.   Their role seems to have been mainly as a pair of upmarket housekeepers. Kingsley patronised Ali while Hilly made the meals and tried to keep the two of them apart. But the arrangement seemed to suit. It lasted till Amis’s death in 1995, although as far as we know Kingsley and Hilly never resumed sexual relations.

Hilly died last year. She sounds  to have been a wonderful woman. But you don’t need me to tell you that. Read the poem.  

To H.

I.
In 1932 when I was ten
In my grandmother’s garden in Camberwell
I saw a Camberwell Beauty butterfly
Sitting on a clump of Michaelmas daisies.
I recognised it because I’d seen a picture
Showing its brownish wings with creamy edges
In a boy’s paper or on a cigarette-card
Earlier that week. And I remember thinking,
What else would you expect? Everyone knows
Camberwell Beauties come from Camberwell;
That’s why they’re called that. Yes, I was ten.

II.
In 1940 when I was eighteen
In Marlborough, going out one winter’s morning
To walk to school, I saw that every twig,
Every leaf in the vicar’s privet hedge
And every stalk and stem was covered in
A thin layer of ice as clear as glass
Because the rain had frozen as it landed.
The sun shone and the trees and shrubs shone back
Like pale flames with orange and green sparkles.
Freak weather conditions, people said,
And one was always hearing about them.

III.
In ’46 when I was twenty-four
I met someone harmless, someone defenceless,
But till then whole, unadapted within;
Awkward, gentle, healthy, straight-backed,
Who spoke to say something, laughed when amused;
If things went wrong, feared she might be at fault,
Whose eye I could have met for ever then,
Oh yes, and who was also beautiful.
Well, that was much as women were meant to be,
I thought, and set about looking further.
How can we tell, with nothing to compare?

Kingsley Amis

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