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The Old Devils

Kingsley Amis

First published in 1986

Winner of that year's Booker Prize

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Many real places are referred to in this novel (Carmarthen, Cowbridge) and many fictitious ones too (Birdarthur, Caerhays).

       Lower Glamorgan corresponds to no county division. The fictitious places are not real ones in disguise or under pseudonyms: anybody trying to go from the coast of South Wales to Courcey Island, for instance, would soon find himself in the Bristol Channel. Courcey and the others have no more actual existence than any of the characters here portrayed.

       K. A.

       Swansea: London

One - Malcolm, Charlie, Peter and Others

1

'If you want my opinion,' said Gwen Cellan-Davies, 'the old boy's a terrifically distinguished citizen of Wales. Or at any rate what passes for one these days. '

       Her husband was cutting the crusts off a slice of toast. 'Well, I should say that's generally accepted.'

       'And Reg Burroughs is another after his thirty years of pen-pushing in first City Hall and later County Hall, for which he was duly honoured.'

       'That's altogether too dismissive a view. By any reckoning Alun has done some good things. Come on now, fair play.'

       'Good things for himself certainly: _Brydan's Wales__ and that selection, whatever it's called. Both still selling nicely after all these years. Without Brydan and the Brydan industry, Alun would be nothing. Including especially his own work - those poems are all sub-Brydan.'

       'Following that trail isn't such a bad - '

       'Goes down a treat with the Americans and the English, you bet. But... ' Gwen put her head on one side and gave the little frowning smile she used when she was putting something to someone, often a possible negative view of a third party, 'wouldn't you have to agree that he follows Brydan at, er, an altogether lower level of imagination and craftsmanship?'

       'I agree that compared with Brydan at his best, he doesn't - '

       'You know what I mean.'

       In this case Malcolm Cellan- Davies did indeed know.

       He got up and refilled the teapot, then his cup, adding a touch of skimmed milk and one of the new sweeteners that were supposed to leave no aftertaste. Back in his seat at the breakfast-table he placed between his left molars a small prepared triangle of toast and diabetic honey and began crunching it gently but firmly. He had not bitten anything with his front teeth since losing a top middle crown on a slice of liver-sausage six years earlier, and the right-hand side of his mouth was a no-go area, what with a hole in the lower lot where stuff was always apt to stick and a funny piece of gum that seemed to have got detached from something and waved disconcertingly about whenever it saw the chance. As his jaws operated, his eyes slid off to the _Western Mail__ and a report of the Neath-Llanelli game.

       After lighting a cigarette Gwen went on in the same quirky style as before, 'I don't remember you as a great believer in the integrity of Alun Weaver as an embodiment of the Welsh consciousness?'

       'Well, I suppose in some ways, all the television and so on, he is a bit of a charlatan, yes, maybe.'

       'Maybe! Christ Almighty. Of course he's a charlatan and good luck to him. Who cares? He's good fun and he's unstuffy. We could do with a dozen like him in these parts to strike the fear of God into them. We need a few fakes to put a dent in all that bloody authenticity.'

       'Not everybody's going to be glad to have him around,' said Malcolm, giving another section of toast the standard treatment.

       'Well, that's splendid news. Who are you thinking of?'

       'Peter for one. Funnily enough the' subject came up yesterday. He was very bitter, I was quite surprised. Very bitter.'

       Malcolm spoke not in any regretful way but as if he understood the bitterness, even perhaps felt a touch of it on his own part. Gwen looked at him assessingly through the light-brownish lenses of her square-topped glasses. Then she made a series of small noises and movements of the kind that meant it was time to be up and away. But she sat on and, perhaps idly, reached out to the letter that had started their conversation and fingered it as it lay in front of her.

       'It'll be, er, fun seeing Rhiannon again,' she said.

       'M'm.'

       'Been a long time, hasn't it? What... ten years?'

       'At least that. More like fifteen.'

       'She never came down with Alun on any of his trips after whenever it was. Just that once, or twice was it?'

       'She used to come down to see her mother at Broughton, and then the old girl died about that long ago, so she probably... '

       'I dare say you'd remember. I just thought it was funny she never really kept up with her college friends or anyone else as far as I know.'

       Malcolm said nothing to that. He swayed from side to side in his chair as a way of suggesting that life held many such small puzzles.

       'Well, she'll have plenty of time from now on, or rather from next month. I hope she doesn't find it too slow for her in these parts after London.'

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