Jake’s Thing – Kingsley Amis – 1978 Booker Prize Shortlist

People’s behaviour changes, “Society” changes, but not feelings. And while we’re on “society” let me remind you of something you said to me in that terrible pub, something about repressive attitudes making me feel sexually unrelaxed. Repressive? In 1977? I was doing fine when things really were repressive, if they ever were, it’s only since they’ve become, oh, permissive that I’ve had trouble.

From what I’ve read of Kingsley Amis’s work, an underlying theme of things being better in the past emerges. ‘Ending Up’ featuring five aged characters all lamenting earlier days, and now ‘Jake’s Thing’ where we have the main protagonist, Jake, an Oxford professor, searching for the cause of his sexual inactivity, it is not erectile dysfunction, it is a lack of interest in sex.

Besides the plot being oh so tedious, a stuffy old professor can’t sexually function anymore, the character of Jake is utterly deplorable. He may represent a 1970’s attitude, and, yes, the novel is forty-three years old, however I couldn’t help but feel as though this popular literature of the Boomer generation has something to do with their current attitudes. Jake seen as a comic hero, when basically he is a misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, stuck-up arsehole.

Here are a few excerpts from the first chapter:

[At the bus stop] No sooner had one black, brown or yellow person, or group of such, been set down on the pavement than Americans, Germans, Spaniards were taken up and vice versa.

[At the doctor] Rosenberg. Presumably he’s some sort of –

[Leaving the doctor] The receptionist, a girl of twenty or twenty-five, was in attendance. Jake noticed that her breasts were either remarkably large or got up to seem so by a professional.

[Coming home] The near end of the latter consisted of two longish brick terraces put up a hundred years before to house the workers of some vanished local industry and these days much in demand among recently married couples, pairs of homosexuals and older persons whose children had left or never existed.

This is the FIRST CHAPTER, and there are twenty-eight of them, all containing something along the lines of descriptions of women for their physical appearance, some interaction with a homosexual colleague, masturbation over pornographic magazines, “therapy” to help Jake’s problem (his wife attends therapy too, she needs to lose weight – to help Jake’s problem). This is a relentless barrage of old attitudes, passed off as satire.

We have a whole chapter debating the possibility of females being admitted into the Oxford College.

‘And the desirability of admitting them to this college,’ added the Master.
This time the two sighed noisily and flapped their hands, and Jake wondered what stopped them from seeing that, for good or ill, this was the most interesting matter ever likely to come their way, short of death.
‘As you know, it’s on tomorrow’s agenda,’ said the Master when he and Jake had moved off.

Jake is asked to provide the case “for” females being admitted into the College, why not have a misogynistic, narcissist prepare the case “for”? Massively hungover Jake presents a somewhat feeble argument, and then eventually shows his true colours:

No doubt they do think, the youngsters, it’d be more fun to be under the same roof, but who cares what they think? All very well for the women no doubt, it’s the men who are going to be the losers – oh, it’ll, it’ll happen alright, no holding it up now. When the first glow has faded and it’s quite normal to have girls in the same building and on the same staircase and across the landing, they’ll start realizing that that’s exactly what they’ve got, girls everywhere and not a common-room, not a club, not a pub where they can get away from them. And the same thing’s going to happen to us which is much more important. Roger’s absolutely right, all this will go and there will be women everywhere, chattering, gossiping, telling you what they did today and what their daughter did yesterday and what their friend did last week and what somebody they heard about did last month and horrified if a chap brings up a topic or an argument. They don’t mean what they say, they don’t use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that’s the end of the search for truth which is what the whole thing’s supposed to be about. So let’s pass a motion suggesting they bugger off back to Somerville, LMH, St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s where they began and stay there. It won’t make any bloody difference but at least we’ll have told ‘em what we think of ‘em.’

To have an unlikeable main protagonist, is not an easy ask, and yes, Kingsley Amis is using satire to drag out the ugly qualities of certain belief’s however it is the small references to “blacks” at the shops or bus stop, the anti-Semite ideals based purely on somebody’s name, the underlying story that women exist for Jake’s sexual pleasure (and by the way, he’s a straight up missionary position, nothing more, in fact even pictures put him off) where my issues with this novel occur. For Amis to write such content there has to be at least a hint of belief in these values in his own personal armory.

Given both ‘Ending Up’ and ‘Jake’s Thing’ (and the first half of ‘The Old Devils’) all deal with characters lamenting a better time, and yes Margaret Thatcher was about to come into power so maybe earlier times were a better place. It is the use of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. where I find his works a difficult read. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, the Sea’ won the Booker Prize the year this was shortlisted, another work dealing with male egotism and self-absorption – 1978, what a year!!!

Ending Up – Kingsley Amis – 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist

Sample menu Vu De Monde

Moonlight Kiss Oysters w. Native Citrus
Macadamia Tofu w. Kelp & Caviar
Heirloom Tomatoes & Mirabelle plum
Western Australian Marron “Curry”
Lemon Verbena & Wood Sorrel
Lamb Rib – Lamb Tea
Lamb Saddle & Wild Garlic
Trolley of Australian Cheese
Cantaloupe & Green Ants
Chocolate Soufflé w. Billy Tea Ice-Cream
Mum’s Gumnuts
Rivermint Kangaroo
Saltbush “Caramello” Koala


When it comes dinner time you have many choices, you can go for the full-blown degustation menu (with matching wines of course) of Vue De Monde in Melbourne, or you can go for lighter fare, maybe a salad with some added protein. Then there is everything in between.

Similarly, when choosing your next novel to read, you can pick up ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or the latest best seller.

Kingsley Amis’ ‘Ending Up’ I liken to a light salad, with five pieces of tofu for the protein intake, you know the thing, something quite bland, each piece almost indistinguishable from another, excepting the amount of chilli that managed to stick whilst it was in the frying pan.

Your light salad, the backdrop, is ageing, have a mouthful of general dismay of getting older and being abandoned, now a nibble on something a little more substantial, a character.

Your five pieces of tofu are each of the characters in this novella.

In summary ‘Ending Up’ is about five old people all living together in a dilapidated house, Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage. Let’s explore our tofu:

Adeala – Bernard’s sister, runs the household and does the shopping in town. Never married, explained as being too ugly, never had any real friends, excluding Marigold at school. Spends her time waiting on everybody and not complaining about it.

Marigold – speaks as though she is making baby talk with everybody, believes she is “above” all other people in the house, has grandchildren who come to visit, manipulates Adela, is starting to show first signs of amnesia (Alzheimer’s?)

George – bedridden after having a stroke before the novella begins, his sister had married Bernard. Can’t remember nouns so babbles

Bernard – homosexual ex-Army but had a marriage of convenience, rumoured to have a child that nobody has met, hates everyone in the house and plays nasty juvenile practical jokes on them (generally involving urine or laxatives), plays up the fact that he has a bad leg to get out of any household chore.

Shorty – Bernard’s ex-lover from the Army, does the odd jobs around the house and drinks a great deal, always putting on funny voices or signing songs

That’s it – a novella that details the interactions between this unlikeable bunch and the children and grandchildren that come to visit. Have another lettuce leaf (another bitter remark about getting old, or a reflection from one of the visitors “hope we don’t end up like that” kind of thing).

Here is a superficial farce that does the job of satiating your hunger, one that offends with its misogyny, homophobia, racism (more of that when I review another Kingsley Amis work in the coming days) and one that has little spine or oomph. No wood sorrel or rivermint kangaroo here.

I was going to compare this to a complex work, such as William Gaddis’ ‘The Recognitions’, a masterwork of many layers, a complex painting that becomes more radiant the more you look at it, with this book being a cheap water colour with a wash background (again ageing) but that would be crediting it with some level of art. Basically it is a bland salad, totally forgettable. How on earth did it make the 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist? Probably the same reason the 2019 award was jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood for ‘The Testaments’.

Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe – 1987 Booker Prize Shortlist

“Why? I hear you ask. Very well . . . This is why . . . Because storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university of wherever. That’s why.”

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a lauded storyteller, to list his achievements would take pages, although a winner of the Booker International Prize in 2007, when the award was presented bi-annually for a body of work, he never won the Booker Prize (for a single novel), only being shortlisted once, in 1987, for ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ (the winner that years was Penelope Lively for ‘Moon Tiger’).

The novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ takes place in an imaginary West African country, Kangan, where an officer “Sam” and known as “His Excellency”, has taken power following a military coup. IT is mainly through the eyes of Sam’s fellow friends Chris Oriko, the government’s Commissioner for Information and Ikem Osodi, a newspaper editor critical of the regime, as well as Beatrice Okoh, an official in the Ministry of Finance and girlfriend of Chris, that this novel of unstable and corrupt Government unfolds. The history of colonial interference and ruling, as well as the associated racist practices always simmering in the background:

You see, they are not in the least like ourselves. They don’t need and can’t use the luxuries that you and I must have. They have the animal capacity to endure the pain of, shall we say, domestication. The very words the white master had said in his time about the black race as a whole. Now we say them about the poor.

This is a novel that alternates the point of view and narration, giving voice to the many players. The main theme being the African political agenda, characters with English university educations, returning and taking power etc. these elements are all “givens”. However, it is not these themes of Chinua Achebe’s novel that I want to explore today, as they’ve been written about, studied, debated many times before.

It its through the strength of Chinua Achebe’s characters that this novel comes alive, how we sympathise with one faction and abhor another, how we question one but give ourselves over to blind obedience of another. The nuances that Chinua Achebe builds throughout his work.

Sam, the dictator, as narrated by Ikem:

To say that Sam was never very bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past or that he is one now. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness. When our headmaster, John Williams, told him that the army was the career for gentlemen he immediately abandoned thoughts of becoming a doctor and became a soldier. I am sure the only reason he didn’t marry the English girl MM found for him in Surrey was the shattering example of Chris and his American wife Louise whom he married, if you please, not in New York with might have made a certain sense but in London. I suppose it is not impossible for two strangers to fabricate and affinity of sorts from being exiled to the same desert island even from opposite ends of the earth.

Chris, as relayed in an awkward cabinet meeting where Sam is intimidating Chris:

“He doesn’t need a word from you. Remember, he owns all the words in this country – newspapers, radio and television stations…” “The Honorable Commissioner for Words”

Beatrice, as told in a chapter using traditional stories about the Pillar of Water:

Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen in a world apart; was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jews and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put a word in for her forebears and the divinities with whom they had evolved. So she came to barely knowing who she was. Barely, we say though, because she did carry a vague sense more acute at certain critical moments than others of being two different people. Her father had deplored the soldier-girl who fell out of trees. Chris saw the quiet demure damsel whose still waters nonetheless could conceal deep overpowering eddies of passion that always almost sucked him into fatal depths. Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire, but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of kitchen or the bargaining market-stool behind her little display of peppers and dry fish and green vegetables. He knew it better than Beatrice herself.
But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work. For, as a newly-minted proverb among her people has it, baptism (translated in their language a Water of God) is no antidote against possession by Agwu the capricious god of diviners and artists.

Ikem, the writer, sees the Nation’s issues with clarity:

The prime failure of this government began also to take on a clearer meaning for him. It can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable; it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is; it isn’t even this second-class, hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed; nor is it the damnable shooting of striking railway-workers and demonstrating students and the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives. It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.

A novel filled with wonderful metaphors, proverbs, and stories of the oppressed, even though told through the eyes of the well-to-do. This is a great example of the wonders the Booker Prize used to bring to our tables in the 1970-1980’s, only four years after this novel made the Booker shortlists, fellow Nigerian Ben Okri took home the prize for his novel ‘The Famished Road’, another work that I intend to revisit in the coming months (don’t hold me to it!!!)