In English letters, few correspondents can have been more scurrilously, mutually offensive about so many others for such a long time than Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, who deserve headline billing in any compendium of malcontents. Plenty of what they wrote was witty and wonderful, and plenty was nakedly, nastily self-revealing. These are the two sides of the hate coin.
Take this passage, from a letter of 5th Dec 1980 from Amis to Larkin. Kingsley had recently returned from a trip to find that his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, had finally walked out on him. Here, he offers his chum a few first thoughts on his abandonment — surely one of the most concentratedly unfair, dismissive, chauvinistic and tacitly self-loathing paragraphs ever committed to paper:
[M]y wife left me 23 days ago. Not with anyone, just buggered off. She did it partly to punish me for stopping wanting to fuck her and partly because she realised I didn’t like her much. Well, I liked her as much as you could like anyone totally wrapped up in themselves and unable to tolerate the slightest competition or anything a raving lunatic could see as opposition and having to have their own way in everything all the time. Well, I expect reading between the lines there you can sense that we hadn’t been getting on too well of late.
Perhaps most unreasonably of all, Kingsley felt, she had said that if he gave up drinking she might come back — feminine perfidy of the worst sort. His scorn was nothing if not democratic, however, and he ended the letter with a dig (in traditional Amis-Larkin format) at one of his least-loved contemporaries:
Anthony Burgess’s gusto and exuberance springs from his brilliant bum
A complete record of the signoffs of Larkin’s and Amis’s letters would itself make an astonishing encyclopaedia….