Kingsley Amis, one of the great comic novelists of the C20th, was reputedly in terminal decline by the mid 1980s, his faculties blunted by alcoholic abuse. To show there was life in the old dog yet, he won the Booker prize in 1986 for his book, ‘The Old Devils.’
The story focuses on old friends from Wales, all of them retired and with little to do but start drinking soon after breakfast—usually in seedy pubs, none of them pleasant. They moan and bitch, are outrageously rude and wouldn’t know political correctness if it hit them flat in the face. ‘Show me a Welsh Nationalist and I’ll show you a cunt.’
But over the course of the book, they forgive each other’s faults and past betrayals. They show tolerance, indeed tenderness for Dorothy, an uncontrolled alcoholic who will talk nonstop on New Zealand tribal customs—given the chance. The trick lies in keeping the conversation going, for should there be a lull the task would be akin to starting 'a motorcycle in the path of a charging elephant’
The warmth and wisdom lies in the exploration of mutual infirmities, bowel movements and farting, and the ever-deepening shadow of approaching death.
Why has this book come suddenly to mind?
Well, this weekend I’m off to a reunion of some old and special friends from the deep past. In those days you made your own way to University carrying what you might need in a single large suitcase.
It was a dark Swansea night, and I had just wandered off from the train trusting in the assurance that the university had found me accommodation. Before I knew it, I was bundled into a white van like a Hezbollah hostage and there met the bunch of people I’d spend most of my university career living, working and drinking together.
We ended up in a strange boarding house, later found a large house overlooking a park, and developed a friendship that, however loose, has lasted for decades. Life is a vigorous bagatelle, and I doubt not we’ll be split on politics and the Brexit chasm currently splitting the country, but real friendship transcends trivialities.
So, the OldDevils are descending on Swansea. No doubt some beer will be drunk, but I have no intention of discussing bowel movements unless the others do first.
Below are three old photos that, for me, capture the unworldly magic of Swansea University and where we occasionally swam.