Amis’s Oxford Marmalade

In 1874 Mrs Frank Cooper made 76 lbs of marmalade to her own receipt for sale in her husband’s grocery in Oxford High Street. Its distinctive bitter flavour permeates Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs.

Last week, in Classic Detective Stories, Bruce Montgomery was skewered: today two more get it in the neck. When Amis set out to take a B Litt in 1948 he needed two things: a supervisor and a subject for his thesis.  His choices were Lord David Cecil and English poetry between 1850 and 1900 and the Victorian readership. Lord David took a relaxed view of his duties and having never met Amis to discuss progress Kingsley found another don and got Lord David to sign off. Here is how he describes the process:

The actual business, the finding then the filling-in of the vital form, went off with surprising ease; he probably had a desk-compartment with a coded label meaning FORMS FOR FUCKING FOOLS WHO ARE FED UP WITH ME JUST POCKETING MY FEE AND WANT A SERIOUS SUPERVISOR. Anyway it was done.

Well, not quite. It transpired that his examining board had just two members: Lord David (chairman) and a junior don in his college. His thesis was rejected and therefore he failed his degree … but he did have an idea for a novel.

At the same time he meets James Michie in the English School at Oxford and a friendship grows based on their shared love of reading and writing poetry. Amis is uncharacteristically generous: “ James’s poems were embarrassingly better (than mine), among his cleverest though he was never just a clever poet.”

In the late 1970s Michie invites Amis to lunch in a French restaurant in Old Compton Street and commits an unforgivable sin. He manoeuvres Amis into paying the bill. He also tries to enlist the, by now famous, Amis’s help with a poetry anthology. Here is how Sir Kingsley concludes his chapter on James Michie;

I grieve at the non-flowering of that talent that I thought I had seen so clearly on the way in 1948, and find it a sad come-down that James should be doing the Spectator literary competition every week. But I still read the old fellow’s accomplished and elegant translations.

It’s autumn so …


4 thoughts on “Amis’s Oxford Marmalade”

  1. Is the spelling ‘receipt’ for ‘recipe’ yours, Christopher, or is it Mrs Cooper’s? An ancient aunt of mine (b.1900) and an old-fashioned friend (b.1927) used that spelling and prononciation but I mistakenly thought they were saying ‘receep’. No doubt, the Barmeath cook used ‘receipt)

  2. Sir Kingsley took a leaf from Lord David Cecil’s book as a friend of mine, who had Sir Kingsley as his supervisor at Peterhouse in the early 1960s, told me. His comments on the quality of the supervision were most uncomplimentary. Sir Kingsley disliked Cambridge and lasted only two years there.

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