Still lucky (and laughing)

Swansea University - where Amis worked while writing Lucky Jim
As well as encouraging me to read books that I had never read before, the Before I die reading challenge also got me re-reading some favourites on the list that had been neglected for far too long. Among them was Kingsley Amis' breakthrough classic from 1954 Lucky Jim. Jim was every bit as funny as I remembered it, one of the few books that can still reduce me to guffawing helplessly, and to receiving odd looks from total strangers. It is a comic classic, which manages both to be of its period and timeless.

Yes, shades of Kingsley Amis the misogynist are still there, the social mores have changed; but this novel is a masterpiece. And I dare anyone to read it with a straight face.

Jim Dixon is a lecturer in History at a provincial university somewhere in the UK. Set shortly after the Second World War, Jim is one of the new breed of university lecturers - not public school and Oxbridge, but a local grammar school and a red-brick university. He even sounds different - Jim is occasionally known to sport a northern accent. Jim however hates his job, at least not so much the job, he genuinely loves history; but he hates the life of academia, and some of the weird people he works with, not least the objectionable Professor Welch.

Jim lurches from disaster to disaster from burning the bedclothes in the Professor's house to a fight with Welch's odious artist-son, Bertrand. Stuck with a depressing girlfriend but in love with Bertrand's stuck-up girlfriend, Christine - who turns out to be a thoroughly good sort beneath the snooty veneer - Jim feels trapped. Is the Merrie England lecture going to lead to promotion? Or will there be a rather different outcome?

Lucky Jim is a brilliantly good book. Amis always wrote well, but this was his star work. Hilariously funny, shaking with anger and frustration at the system, and with some quotes that you would sell your soul to have written.

And it's not just funny either. Amis rages against the bonds of class and education in the UK; and of the snobbery that surrounds institutions (less so now, but all pervasive then). There's a very serious side to it. Jim, even at his funniest, talks a lot of sense. It's notable that many of the most "serious" characters actually spout ill-concealed rubbish.

Of its time but timeless. When I first read Lucky Jim, I had fairly recently graduated from a provincial university; and there was much that I still recognised in it. Nearly 30 years on much has changed but Jim remains a wonderful book. How did I manage to not read it for so long?


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