07-09-2020

Whatever one may think of Martin Amis’s novels, one cannot deny that he has a gift for publicity - whether it is the astonishing cost of mending his teeth, the bitter row over changing his agent, or his belated discovery, when she was 18, of a girl he had fathered in his youth. These headlines usually appear when he is about to publish a new novel.

His new novel, Inside Story, to be published later this month, is being heralded by a suggestion in the book that Kingsley Amis was not his biological father, but his best friend Philip Larkin, the poet. In fact, the story helps to publicise another book as well, since Martin has just edited a selection of Larkin’s poetry.

It cannot be true that Larkin was his father. Apart from anything else, the dates are all wrong. Martin was born in August 1949, which would have required Larkin to have seen Hilly, Kingsley’s wife, in November or December 1948. I’ve checked in Zachary Leader’s huge and brilliant biography of Sir Kingsley, and his equally voluminous collection of Kingsley’s letters, and it is quite clear that they didn’t meet in that period. They might have done, because Kingsley and Hilly gave a big, boozy and rather louche party in Swansea, where he was teaching at the university, on November 2 1948, but Larkin refused their invitation to attend.

Kingsley and Larkin were close friends from the time they met at Oxford in 1943 to Larkin’s death in 1985. The eldest Amis child was named Philip after him and Larkin dedicated a poem to their third child Sally when she was born. There are a couple of teasing hints in Kingsley’s letters that Hilly liked Larkin. In one he says his wife told him she had a dream that she was kissing Larkin, and in the letter in which he reported Martin’s birth, his last line reads: “You have his nose.” In fact, although the diminutive Martin bore little resemblance to Kingsley, the one feature they shared was the size and shape of their noses. I was confirmed in my opinion by a statement from the biographer, himself a literature professor, that Martin could not possibly be Larkin’s son.

Both Kingsley and Martin wrote for The Observer in my time and I used to see Kingsley at the Garrick Club. One reason I got on with the old curmudgeon was that I had read his books and could talk to him about them. I was once talking in the Garrick bar to Melvyn Bragg while Kingsley sat staring disapprovingly at us both. I turned to him and said: “I sometimes wonder, Kingsley, is you think people like Melvyn and me shouldn’t be members of the Garrick.” He replied sourly: “Too bloody true.”

Nonetheless, I gave a party for his 60th birthday in a private room at the club and toasted him generously. His reply was not so generous: “The first thing I have to say is that The Observer is a bloody awful newspaper.” Martin then stood up and said: “Let’s go and play snooker and leave the old sod to stew in his port.” So we did, followed by a few other guests. A couple of years later, when I was involved in a heavily publicised dispute with my owner, Tiny Rowland, Martin sent me a supporting postcard which consisted of two words: “Snooker him!”.

On another occasion, I was just entering the Garrick bar when I saw John Osborne, the playwright, hovering anxiously outside. I took him inside, bought him a drink and introduced him to Kingsley, since both had been described in the 1950s as “angry young men.” Afterwards I asked John how they had got on. “I don’t think he likes me,” he replied. I reassured him: “He doesn’t like anyone very much.”

Science’s forgotten star

HAVE you ever heard of Cecilia Payne? According to an article I have been reading, she deserves a place alongside the greatest scientists in history, such as Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity, Charles Darwin, who discovered evolution, Albert Einstein, who discovered the relativity of time, and James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the double helix, the structure of DNA.

What she discovered is that the universe is made of hydrogen. She also discovered what the sun is made of and why some stars shine brighter than others. She received no Nobel Prize for astronomy, not even a plaque in her memory when she died in 1979 at the same age as the century.

She was English, educated at St Paul’s Girls School in London and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she wasn’t allowed to collect her degree because she was a woman. Remarkably, women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge until 1948, though it had been allowed at Oxford since 1921. Fed up at the lack of openings for female scientists in Britain, she answered an advert for the Harvard College Observatory, where did all her research and was eventually made the university’s first female professor. She married a German scientist and became a US citizen.

When she wrote a dissertation for her PhD in 1925, she said the sun was made of hydrogen, but she was persuaded by the reviewer of her thesis, Professor Henry Norris Russell, not to say that, because he had written a treatise saying something else. Four years later he discovered that she had been right all along and published the results of his research. Although he paid tribute to her work, Russell himself is unfairly credited with discovering the composition of the sun.

It is perhaps a bit late, since she has been dead for over 40 years, but she surely deserves some form of public or international recognition. It would seem appropriate to name a star after her.

Favourite cop shows

AS an aficionado of TV cop shows, I switched on eagerly to last week‘s BBC programme listing what it called “the 25 most popular TV detectives.” It was very disappointing. The choice seemed so arbitrary.

Why were the following favourites of mine not even mentioned: Dalziel and Pascoe, The Inspector Alleyn and Inspector Lynley Mysteries, not to mention Silent Witness, New Tricks, Waking the Dead or Shetland? Was Jonathan Creek really superior to all of those?

For no obvious reason, the programme featured four Americans series – Magnum PI, Columbo, Murder She Wrote and Cagney & Lacey (which stopped being made 32 years ago). Even the choice of American imports was arbitrary: why no CSI, for example?

The winner, Dominic Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, struck no chords with me. I found his mannered performance rather wearying after a while. Morse, which was second, would have been a better choice. For myself, though, I would have chosen either Foyle’s War or Endeavour – well acted, well scripted and both recapture perfectly the time in which they are set.

Bowled by computer

READERS of this column were deprived last week (or spared, as my wife would put it) of an article on whether Jimmy Anderson’s record 600 wicket haul in Test cricket makes him England’s best-ever pace bowler. I had just reached my final sentence, after extensive research of bowling averages in Wisden, when the pages went blank and nobody could bring them back. My wife’s explanation is probably right: the computer said No because it was bored to death.

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