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Museum dust and mothballs
on 21 January 2009
Kingsley Amis was very much a man of the 1950s. His greatest work, Lucky Jim, was published in 1954 and amongst other things poked fun at the stuffy, hyper-conventional world of that rather dreary decade. Iconoclast though he may have been, Amis never really came to terms with post-50s Britain, and as time went by his work became ever more out of joint with the times and ever more irascible. The King's English, published posthumously in 1997, is very much a case in point.
Amis clearly worshipped the great grammarian H.W. Fowler, whose rules on what was correct English, first published in 1926, were once revered throughout the land. But that was a very long time ago, and things have moved on in the meantime. Even the notion of "correct usage" is not what it was. Modern writers on English usage stress the ever-changing nature of the language, its flexibility, and its remarkable ability to absorb new expressions. Others point to the existence of many different types of English, including Caribbean English, Australian English, South Asian English and most interesting of all, the new pared-down English that is beginning to emerge as a common language among globe-trotting businessmen and bureaucrats for whom English is very much a second language. Moreover some would argue that in any case, communication is of far greater importance than rule-bound correctness.
Amis was seemingly oblivious to all of these aspects, and in fact this is not a linguist's book at all, but more a guide in the Nancy Mitford tradition, where what matters is distinguishing between what is done and what is not done (another curious 1950s obsession, one might note in passing). It's a very old fashioned enterprise, in other words, and one that carries about it a strong whiff of museum dust and mothballs. Contrary to what some reviewers may have suggested, this is not a particularly funny book, and in fact one often longs for some light relief from the constant opinionated hectoring. The writing is marred by smugness and pomposity, and one feels as though cornered in a crowded saloon bar by a slightly drunk and loud mouthed upper middle class bore, who doesn't know when to stop banging on about his own views.
For people interested in the life and times of Kingsley Amis, this guidebook will no doubt be of real value, but those in search of linguistic assistance of a less subjective, more reliable and above all more up-to-date kind would be far better off turning to the professionals. Michael Swan, whose book Practical English Usage is now in its third edition, provides a full, workmanlike and very helpful guide, and unlike Amis, Swan knows what he's talking about and keeps his personal opinions to himself.