»  Kingsley Amis' "New Approach Needed"

 

New Approach Needed

by Kingsley Amis, 1922-1995

 

•  Background

Kingsley (from 1990, Sir Kingsley) Amis was just four months older than Philip Larkin, and the two men were good friends. Some of their correspondence has survived, and it is often very funny.

Amis described himself as "an unwilling unbeliever." That is to say, he thought religion was on the whole a good thing, but felt no inclination towards it himself. His outlook, like Larkin's, was that of the skeptical, rather aggressively unillusioned generation born in the decade or so after the Great War. (Larkin's 1955 poetry collection had the tile The Less Deceived; and his 1960 poem "MCMXIV" is a fine commemoration of the Great War.) Amis's attitude towards religion was a bit more complicated than that implies, though. One of the four sections of his 1986 production The Great British Songbook — 40 songs out of 200 — is titled "Carols, Hymns and Spirituals." In the introduction to that section Amis says that: "Anybody is the poorer who has not at some time in life regularly sung hymns in choir or congregation." The Anglican hymnal has in fact been popular with several famous atheists: George Bernard Shaw and D.H. Lawrence are other examples.

Like most English people, however — including most English Christians, I think — Amis found Jesus Christ unappealing. I think he would have approved of George Orwell's remark that "I like the Church of England better than Our Lord." In their Biblical preferences, the English are an Old Testament folk — there is in fact a British Israel Society, founded on the notion that the English (or British, I am not clear on this) are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Kipling seems to have been attracted to this idea.

In this poem, Amis addresses some remarks to the Saviour. I don't know a date for the poem, but I would guess it to have been written around 1960 or so, when the author was about forty.

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•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

Should you revisit us,
Stay a little longer,
And get to know the place.
Experience hunger,
Madness, disease and war.
You heard about them, true,
The last time you came here;
It's different having them.
And what about a go
At love, marriage, children?
All good, but bringing some
Risk of remorse and pain
And fear of an odd sort:
A sort one should, again,
Feel, not just hear about,
To be qualified as
A human-race expert.
On local life, we trust
The resident witness,
Not the royal tourist.

People have suffered worse
And more durable wrongs
Than you did on that cross
(I know — you won't get me
Up on one of those things),
Without sure prospect of
Ascending good as new
On the third day, without
"I die, but man shall live"
As a nice cheering thought.

So, next time, come off it,
And get some service in,
Jack, long before you start
Laying down the old law:
If you still want to then.
Tell your dad that from me.