The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.
Rather bluffly, perhaps, Kingsley draws up the battle lines as a conflict between Berks and Wankers:
Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.
Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.
I don’t think that was an inspired coinage from K Amis. M Amis comes up with a better one, “punks” and “fogeys”, as the identifiers of the slipshod and pedantic. As for me, I’d just stick to “slipshods" and "pedants" - especially as both words are onomatopoeic in this context - you can slide and elide “slipshod” ("slusha") and “pedant” is a word you can really enunciate precisely.
I read The King’s English as I would a novel, just as when I was young I read Current English Usage, .and can happily browse through Fowler’s Modern English Usage. They were just phasing out grammar when I went to school but they hadn’t got quite rid of Latin, so I picked up the idea that what we speak and write has a history and structure and that the words had particular names and functions. I taught English at University level for a couple of terms to people a few years younger than I, and it was difficult to explain some of Chaucer’s use of words to students who didn’t know what a noun or verb was.
I’m a wanker/fogey/pedant of course, unless I’m with those pseudo-pedants who go on about split infinitives and so on, when I turn into a super-pedant who has learned about the evolution of language. I like understanding the difference between “masterful” and “masterly”. I roll my eyes when I read my well educated colleagues’ emails about setting up a meeting for Mark and I, or Ruth and myself will be on this conference call. The words “me” and “I” turning up with a partner throws them.
Martin Amis ends his piece with tenderness:-
Two months before he died, Kingsley had a heavy fall after a good lunch ("At my age," as he used to say, "lunch is dinner") and banged his head on a stone step. Thereafter, by degrees, he became a pitiable and painfully disconcerting madcap. He kept trying, he tried and he tried, but he couldn't write; he couldn't read, or be read to; and his speech was like a mixture of The Cat in the Hat and Finnegans Wake. Aged 73, he had just finished a book on the King's English; and now English was a language the King no longer had. His fate was a brutal reminder. We are all of us held together by words; and when words go, nothing much remains.
Plans for Kingsley's memorial service were quite far advanced when the typescript of the present book (then hardly more than a family rumour) was delivered to my door. I picked it up with a trepidation that the first few pages briskly dispersed. Here it was again, my father's voice – funny, resilient, erudite, with touches of very delicate feeling (see the entries under Brave and Gender), and, throughout, sublimely articulate. In truth, The King's English contains more concentrated artistic thrust than any of the five novels that followed his masterpiece of 1986, The Old Devils. The reason for this is, I think, clear enough. Love of life, like all human talents, weakens with age. But love of language, in his case, never did begin to fade.