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3.6 out of 5 stars27
3.6 out of 5 stars
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on 6 May 2011
Ageing "professional Welshman" Alun (nee Alan) Weaver decides to up-sticks from his fashionable North London home and go back to his roots. Taking with him his ex-hottie wife (Rhiannon) and many half-completed written projects and other half-formed ideas.

Despite the passing of time (in which he has gained a CBE and a minor talking-heads TV career - seemingly based on knowing a, here renamed, Dylan Thomas) he is soon back as leader-of-the-gang: The "Old Devils" (Malcolm, Charlie and Peter) who pub-crawl and party to their, undoubted, premature graves.

Starting by reviewing the reviewers (rather than the book) I am tempted to say (snobbishly?) is that you either get this or you don't. Like reading War and Peace not knowing it is going to be very long, heavy and set in Russia, or Robinson Crusoe not knowing it is about solitude, you might easily get off on the wrong foot. If not be thrown entirely.

However, please, don't be put off by bare headlines, topic or even the (much noted) loose meandering plot. Indeed marvel at its Houdini-like ability to break free of its, apparent, chains, handcuffs and heavy padlocks and come to the surface as a winner.

(Here we are in the land of aching limbs, borderline alcoholism, difficult bowl movements, false teeth and how difficult toes are to clip when clinically obese. And, I say with a chuckle, much, much, more and worse!)

If I was to give one negative, it does little for women. Maybe men get the wives they deserve and maybe women do bitch behind each others back in real life, but they come across as an extra jaded lot.

However it doesn't follow the comedy rule of women being the stay-at-homes armed with curlers, a hairnet and a rolling pin. Far from it, they have an eye for a party as much as the men. Even, as you would find by reading it, have very different agendas and priorities to the men folk.

Equally the massive lead character of Weaver does diminish and overshadow the others who, at least, don't like causing trouble for its own sake and are less inclined to be let their mouths run away with them.

One of these books that if you manage to read it once you will end up reading it twice...
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 January 2011
I first read this book when it came out and I didn't like it all that much. I liked his brighter kind of shinier books like 'Lucky Jim' and 'Stanley and the Women' better. However nearing the age of Amis's characters in this book I am having a right Amis binge (I am talking senior) now and I found this much more compelling.

As usual with Amis the male characters are really what the book is about, the women are a bit thin. These men are mostly fat, colossally unfit drunkards with heroic endurability and considerable tolerance for their lives, and a willingness to stick together. They are also at times very intelligent and funny. They shoulder life's difficulties with massive doses of super-bitchy humour.

The Welsh thing is interesting. Amis is of all men the most English, of all writers I should say. He has even written novels about how much he hates abroad. Wales is very definitely not England, but it is not abroad either. But in England you have to have a ticket to do Wales.

Amis seems to me to have put more into this than most of his books and the humour is as distilled as the whisky all the men seem to take their morning bath in. I would say it does for old age what 'Take a Girl Like You' does for courting. Now there's an old word for you.
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on 12 June 2015
As others have noted this shouldn't work, being about grumpy old men (only secondarily women) who drink excessively and bang on tediously about Wales. However, it does work, despite the effort involved in fixing who's who in your mind as you read. If you lose the dramatis personae, as some critics here admit they did, then you're up the Taff without a paddle, boyo. OK, so why does it work? Because I think KA was - underneath all that prickly, alcohol-fuelled unpleasantness - a bit of a romantic old blighter. It's evident in I Want It Now and The Folks That Live On The Hill, for example, and certainly there is real emotion in TOD - "What will survive of us is love", as his great pal Philip Larkin, who didn't make old bones, wrote. Waspish humour buzzes over the picnic too, the tourism industry arising from famous poets being one target, and the realisation that existence is a bloody mess a lot of the time. "Life is at first boredom... then more boredom," as one character reflects ruefully, an explicit tribute to Larkin. Ah, getting old is such pain.
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on 3 September 2009
One of his best. A Professional Welshman returns, with his beautiful wife, to the Welsh town of his youth, and together and separately the couple meet up with all their old friends. The "hero" is happy to get off with all his friends' wives and drag his old mates on a weeklong pub crawl. A lot of alcohol is absorbed as the old friends are revealed as living lives of quiet desperation, leavened by 30s jazz. The BBC dramatised this back in the 80s - the brilliant series has never been repeated, and it's not on DVD. Why, oh, why?
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on 10 October 2013
Re-read 20 years later this is still great reading. Not for those with a tendency towards depression as Amis's knife lances deeply into the boil of everyday life for older couples. The theme is fatalistic and loaded with equal measures of sarcasm and irony. The setting is a dull and conservative suburban corner of South Wales where "Welshness" is a topic for endless discussion. An intelligent and well educated gang of old Welsh boozers have their everyday life disrupted by the return of a minor literary celebrity and "would-be" Don Juan. The intrigues and old wounds that have been just below the surface for years are suddenly forked to the surface. While some have taken this book as a litany of misogyny it is not that at all. While the women may not be as loyal or supportive to their husbands as might be hoped, it is the lack of will and energy of their husbands which provokes this. When the would-be hero arrives, he shows up the other men's lack of drive by his "up and at 'em" approach. Can be read in many ways, none of them terribly optimistic although there is a hidden romantic theme if you look deep enough.
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on 7 September 2014
Poor old Kingsley...he's come in for a bit of a bashing in some reviews here, mostly due to his portrayal of female characters, which are said to be both misogynistic and thinly detailed, and this is a fair criticism. Added to that, this book deals with Welsh identity and aging, viewed through the haze of alcohol...it's not a concoction for success. Yet this is one of those books that reads itself and the effort to reach the end was light. This book is warm and eloquently fermented in Amis' mind - it feels natural, organic, rather than an example of an author showing you just how clever he is (I get this feeling with, for example, Jon McGregor). You will probably either like it or dislike it, but based on your preconceptions of what is right or wrong, before you read the first lines, rather than the quality of the writing itself, which is very good.
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on 28 November 2015
I won't go into the generalities of the book, as they have been covered by other reviewers. I liked this book and found it to be touching and sensitively handled by Amis. The one downside that I can see with it (although it's quite a big downside), is that from the early chapters, the premise was built up that the returning couple, Alun and Rhiannon Weaver, would be the main focus of the story as it went forward. Yet whilst this is true to an extent, I don't think Amis followed through enough with this. Such a figure, made out to be a cross between Melvyn Bragg, Richard Burton (who was friends with Dylan Thomas, who Weaver's friend and rival Bryden was modelled on) and perhaps a right-wing Neil Kinnock, was clearly the most interesting male character in the book, and I think much could have been made out of his adventures filming his television series about Wales, the people he met doing it, and maybe drawing out his relationship with his past life in London and what it meant to be an exile and how challenging it was to go back home when you had moved on in life.

But Amis instead saw fit to make him just another character in a suburban melodrama in a peri industrial, semi rural location in South Wales. The characters of Malcolm, Peter and Charlie are boorish old men who should have stayed peripheral to the adventures of Weaver, certainly not deserving long tracts of chapters devoted to their humdrum lives. There were snatches of dialogue about how one of these characters had noted how they hadn't seen Alun for some time, and I was left wanting to know what he was getting up to as opposed to what breakfast Malcolm was having. I think this also means that the story lacks any real central thrust, with the reader not knowing enough about characters because there are too many of them. (Should we think that the story is really about Malcolm, Peter, Rhiannon, Charlie, Gwen or Muriel?)

I don't think Amis knew what to do with the Alun Weaver character once he had introduced him to the story. He is clearly a successful journalist and writer (the pre-eminent cultural authority on Wales who makes serious television programmes on one of the four terrestrial channels (this being 1986)); he clearly would have lived in a Surbiton, Finchley or Chiswick as opposed to a council estate in Bermondsey; his daughter had obviously gone to a good grammar, top comprehensive or private school, as she was now at Oxford; he is introduced to us as being confident and outgoing. Yet for all of that, and for all of the other males having a grudging respect for him as the alpha male of the pack (despite their knowledge of his clear and present danger to their wives), he ends up living as a nobody in the middle of nowhere, with no one interested in him. He might have been arrogant or preening, but Amis doesn't allow him to be so, rather he just allows him to vegetate and get drunk for no apparent reason.

From what promised to be a thoroughly interesting character, revered by his pals and acquaintances at the beginning, we find that by the end no one seems to give a damn that he has died very suddenly at a relatively early age. It is hard to believe that a man constantly coveted and inquired about as being such a boon and drinking companion, the man Malcolm, Charlie and Peter seem to want to be around the most, is not mourned one iota when he suddenly and tragically dies at a relatively young age. His wife doesn't seem to mourn him, nor does his still very young daughter (early twenties I'd imagine at the most considering she's studying at university and it would seem is not a mature student) seem to care that he has died. You'd at least expect her to raise it during her wedding, such as 'I so wish my father had been here to give me away' type of sentiment, but no, nothing. Her new husband, who had met Alun, turns to Peter at the wedding and basically says that he is glad his father in law is dead and that he thought he was 'a s***'. To this Peter concurs. One is left with the impression that Alun Weaver was some sort of serial killer as opposed to a highly respected writer and journalist. For me it is a strange end to the book and strange treatment of a character that doesn't ring true.

As for his wife...she is presented as a trophy wife, yet she comes across more Norma Major than Samantha Cameron. She has less go in her than the other women characters (although it must be said that she clearly knows about her husband's dalliances), and even Muriel who ups and moves to Middlesbrough, seems far more of a cosmopolitan character.

So whilst I enjoyed the book, and perhaps that is why I feel so keen to review it is because I did enjoy it, I think I could have enjoyed it more. Beyond the misfiring of the Weaver couples' characters, as with 'Lucky Jim', I felt that Amis has the ability to set things up with brilliant and complex moves, only for the punch-line to misfire. The dialogue has the potential to make this a comic classic, but there are too many times when he fails to ultimately pull off the gags. A decent enough book, but not one of the better Booker winners perhaps.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 September 2015
An interesting range of reviews covering a spectrum from witty, perceptive and sadly truthful about aging, to flat, loosely structured and misogynistic.

I recall, just about, the BBC adaptation with John Mills et al, which if memory serves me right – and it may well not – was loosely based on the book rather than attempting to follow the novel faithfully. In any event, I recall laughing uproariously at the time, whereas on finally getting to read the novel and a deal closer to the age of the principal characters, I found it witty at times, certainly, but more often depressing.

I do think that the lack of any clear structure is a weakness and for me it is only in the final chapters that the book finally finds its sharp cutting edge. Although, like his erstwhile friend, Philip Larkin, Amis was not without a streak of misogyny, I’m not so sure that the male characters come off a great deal better than the women here. If Alun represents nothing else bar a handsome portion of egotism and spite, he demonstrates how a sharp mind, particularly when fired by regular hefty intakes of alcohol, can still be wedded to a predictable boor. Rhiannon seems to me the most sympathetic of the characters, though I admit there is plenty of room for discussion here. My feeling is that the whole might have had more impact had we known more of the characters’ early lives. Only Charlie really qualifies here, and even then rather sketchily.

I very much admire Amis’ non-fiction, his wonderful essay on Jane Austen for example – much as I disagree with it – but have always found the novels have never quite lived up to expectations. Sadly, I’d much hoped for more,but this holds for “The Old Devils” as much as for his earlier more celebrated books.
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on 13 March 2014
I read this book recently as part of a personal challenge to read all the winners of the Booker Prize. I didn't instantly warm to this portrayal of damaged and damaging drunks. But they got under my skin. I remained less than convinced with the portrayal of the women, but the petty nastiness and calculating unpleasantness of the male characters was mesmeric.

Witty, but not cheerful, this was an entertaining read. I liked it and will probably read other works by Kingsley Amis (probably Lucky Jim next...), but would be unlikely to hurry back to The Old Devils - hence 4 stars rather than 5!
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VINE VOICEon 19 September 2013
Reread, for the first time in years in Jan 2013. Wonderful writing, full of gentle humour and wry observation. He always seems to find the right word and perfect phrase. I think that this was one of his very best, possibly even as memorable as Lucky Jim. There is a lot of the latter day Kingsley in here - spookily prescient too, as it's not that far from how things turned out. Poor old Kingsley. It feels like we have lost a really fun-to-be-with friend.
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