Gideon Rachman read History at Cambridge University and later did inconclusive graduate work at Princeton. He is The Financial Times's chief foreign affairs commentator, having joined the paper in 2006 after a 15-year career at The Economist, which included stints as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Bangkok and Washington. As well as writing a weekly column, he blogs on the FT website and writes occasionally for other publications, such as Prospect and The Washington Quarterly. Here Gideon discusses Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim.
Gideon Rachman on Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
I first read Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim when I was twelve or thirteen. It did more to shape my outlook on life than anything else I've read before or since.
In many ways this is unfortunate since the world-view promoted by Lucky Jim is shallow and cruel. 'Nice things are nicer than nasty ones' is not much of a philosophy to go through life with.
Christine, the ideal girl pursued by Jim, is a cardboard cut-out - with big tits and an amiable temperament. Margaret, the woman Jim is trying to escape, is a more complicated person: an insomniac and 'one of those people - they're usually women - who feed on emotional tension'. But in the end she is dismissed as little more than a neurotic nightmare: 'nasty' as opposed to the 'nice' Christine.
So why did I love Lucky Jim? Above all, because it is extremely funny. Like many English kids, I grew up reading P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. But Lucky Jim was set in a much more recognizable world - a world not of dukes and 'bright young things', but of dowdy suburbs and red-brick universities.
There are passages from the novel that I can still recite, like this wonderful description of Dixon's academic article on 'The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485':
It was a perfect title in that it crystallised the article's niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.The language is original, precise, funny, devastating. And unlike the novels of Martin Amis (whose books I also liked), there is nothing showy or self-conscious about the writing.
But it was more than the language and the low farce that made Lucky Jim appeal to me. The book still strikes a chord because of its determinedly satirical and low-brow approach to intellectual life and high culture.
In some ways it is odd that this aspect of the book should appeal to me, since I have made my career by writing about ideas. But I also have within me, something I have identified as my 'inner moron'. It is my inner moron that takes charge when, in an editorial meeting or a seminar, I find my mind wandering on to other matters: sport, sex, the peculiar dress sense of somebody else in the room. Jim Dixon is all inner-moron. His feelings when confronted by his teaching timetable are 'orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred'.
The world would be in a sorry state if everybody was like Jim Dixon. (And so would Britain's universities). But Lucky Jim's wit and its subversive intolerance of the bogus and the pretentious are still deeply appealing to me, more than 30 years after I first read the book.