Frank Kermode

If you wanted to make your way as a literary journalist in the days of Addison you might have done well to begin by heading for Button’s coffeehouse in Russell Street where the great man held court, and be as submissively impressive as possible. Almost three hundred years later, though sadly not for very long, you could make your way to the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street, where Ian Hamilton, editor of the New Review, was usually to be found. The suppliants, mostly young men not then long out of the universities, have very properly combined to congratulate the sage or gaffer on his 60th birthday.[*] Some of them got their first chance in that pub. A few of the celebrants are, or have been, English dons – John Fuller, Simon Gray, Dan Jacobson; but even they arrived by what might be called the bohemian route.

There are of course other ways in; anybody can see how much space the dons occupy in the respectable papers and magazines. Many moved in by routes that did not necessarily pass through the Pillars, thereby missing what was evidently a truly liminal experience. One cannot help recalling the words of Dante’s Ulysses to the companions he wanted to take through the Pillars: ‘Consider your nature, you were not made to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’ So through they went, hearts high, but unfortunately their ship soon sank. Some of the work remained to be done by professorial landlubbers.

The relations between dons and bohemians in the world of literary reviewing is a principal subject in an interesting collection of essays edited by Jeremy Treglown and Bridget Bennett.[†] My attention wandering, I found myself trying to remember how I started to do literary journalism. The first book I was ever asked to review, let us say fifty years ago, was a study of Fair Rosamond, the mistress of Henry II. The King kept her hidden in a maze at Woodstock but his wife, who had probably been told about Ariadne, tracked down her rival by following a thread or clew, and that was effectively the end of Rosamond, except that she turned up quite often in literature. These reappearances were the subject of the conscientious and unbelievably dull book to which I was to devote a review of three hundred words. The editor of the journal for which I was working was also my academic boss, and must have wanted to see if I could do a decent short notice of the least interesting book he could lay his hands on. I wrote, polished, eliminated all references to tedium and inutility, and presumably passed the test, for I began to get slightly more substantial though always honorary commissions.

Branching out, I wrote a bit of a slasher for another academic journal, only to be told by the editor that since the author, unlike me, was a respected professor, my tone was inappropriate. My reviewing career was as good as over, as far as the learned journals were concerned. But help was unexpectedly at hand. I was asked by the late Basil Taylor to give some talks at the RCA, and somebody must have liked them, for I was soon on the Third Programme, which, as I daresay few remember, did a lot of book reviewing in 20-minute slots, as well as unscripted conversations about new novels and the like. I have a distinct memory of Kingsley Amis, also a regular on these occasions, leering over even the most far-fetched double-entendre that came up as we chuntered on. The point of this reminiscing is that there are many different routes from the academy to the magazine, and in those days the Third Programme was one of them.

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[*] Another Round at the Pillars, edited by David Harsent (Cargo, 151 pp., £25, 5 April, 1 899 98006 7).

[†] Grub Street and the Ivory Tower (Oxford, 292 pp., £15.99, 19 November 1998, 019 818412 3).