Diary

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.

For some time my Grub Street performances, if these reasonably dignified outings can be so called, were controlled by patient BBC producers, all anxious about the way one used one’s voice, but I returned to print when Karl Miller took over at the Spectator, then at the New Statesman, then at the Listener, and then right here. I wrote occasionally for the Sundays and quite often for American journals, so I suppose I am or was one of the race of grubbing professors, though a very costive one compared with others I was about to name but who are too well known to need the favour. Many besides me simply drifted out of the Ivory Tower (an inappropriate term) into Grub Street (another such). Unlike that of Ulysses, their trip is not irrevocable, and many commute freely between these termini. There was a time when old-fashioned colleagues might profess themselves aggrieved by this journalistic moonlighting, and on a strict interpretation to do too much of it could be thought in breach of academic contracts, but these questions no longer seem to come up.

Neither location, Grub Street or Ivory Tower, can now be said to have more than a vestigial, even a metaphorical existence, although there was a genuine 18th-century Grub Street, a real place in Moorfields, where hacks worked in poverty on various ephemeral compilations. Jenny Uglow writes here about them, but her main interest is in Henry Fielding, who was not only a novelist, a playwright and a magistrate but a prolific high-class journalist and editor. In his day there were no book reviews as such, though books might be discussed along with other matters of topical interest. Soon, in the mid-century, a more specialised literary journalism took hold. The preferred style was of unpedantic but educated talk, and Uglow remarks that ‘the “conversational” voice of today’s better literary periodicals is closer to that of Fielding’s century than to the long educative essay-reviews of the 19th century.’ This is true, and who will regret it, except maybe a few dedicated followers of F.R. Leavis, here the subject of a judicious piece by Stefan Collini, who understandably wonders why he should believe that ‘the possibility of living a truly human existence depends on the quality of reviewing in the literary weeklies’. But he is only saying the claim is too high, not that it shouldn’t, in some form, be made: say, a civilised existence, anyway to some extent.

What we gather from other excellent contributions to this collection is that very learned people, though not as a rule dons, have, historically, done much of the best reviewing. Zachary Leader explains that Coleridge had such terrible trouble writing books that he found doing shorter pieces to strict editorial deadlines a godsend. De Quincey frequented what Grevel Lindop calls ‘the fluid frontier between the academic and the journalistic worlds’ of early 19th-century Edinburgh and London, though he had little time for Scottish professors. Indeed De Quincey, and Blackwood’s Magazine, seem to Lindop models of a virtuous compromise between journalism and scholarship; he thinks we should not allow ‘these poles to draw apart’, adding the names of contemporary journals which decline to let this happen, and kindly naming this journal among them.

Two articles comment on the unusual position of University College London, an early 19th-century foundation, between these poles. There was a heroic age when very learned journalists, men of astonishing energy and dedication like Churton Collins (here dealt with by Valentine Cunningham) were fighting for appointment to the newly created chairs of English literature. John Sutherland provides a historical sketch to show that the literary as opposed to the linguistic appointments at UCL have often gone to people with a foot in the literary world outside the academy. David Masson, who succeeded Arthur Hugh Clough at UCL, wrote an immense Life of Milton, ran his department with great success, and in his spare time edited Macmillan’s Magazine. His successor Henry Morley was, as Sutherland says, ‘a heroic populariser’, a sort of academic Grubber, whose incredibly numerous cheap editions can still be found on bookstalls. He also edited a weekly paper, the Examiner. The more donnish W.P. Ker, who came next, broke with this nascent tradition and imposed more obviously scholarly ideas and programmes; so did his successor C.J. Sisson (who was, by the way, a more serious scholar than Sutherland makes out) and so did the next professor, James Sutherland, another devoted researcher. But after this rather lengthy lapse the old Gower Street concordat between scholarship and journalism was, against some dryasdust opposition, revived, and the most recent incumbents, myself, Karl Miller and John Sutherland, have done as Lindop says we ought, and in our widely different ways cultivated the terrain between journalism and scholarship.

It is, after all, extensive. Lorna Sage claims that her career in Grub Street has been, quite simply, her career: ‘the boundaries between the two worlds are more permeable than they are made out to be.’ Karl Miller celebrates the ‘amphibian’ Conor Cruise O’Brien as a particularly striking example of distinction in the academy, in politics and in journalism. Marjorie Perloff offers a spirited demonstration of the incompetence and irresponsibility of much modern poetry reviewing, especially when it is done by poets, who understand poetry so much less well than trained academics; she further and less continuously laments that it is too often not done at all.

Hermione Lee proposes the example of Virginia Woolf, who hadn’t much time for either dons or literary journalists. She believed that ‘one should try to read books as if one were writing them,’ and advised an audience of Cambridge undergraduates thus: ‘Do not begin by being a critic; begin by being a writer.’ This advice is endorsed by Valentine Cunningham, who would like ‘creative writing’ to be given a central place in the literary syllabus, a view with which, under certain conditions, I agree.

A few pieces here set a course apparently rather remote from the stated aims of the collection, for instance the chapters on Kenneth Tynan’s theatre criticism and on the usefulness of Blackwood’s Magazine as a vehicle of First World War propaganda. But this is a lively and sensible book, largely, it must be said, by academics of one kind or another, few of whom ever passed the Pillars; yet all parties would surely agree that Virginia Woolf’s was good advice. Good literary journalism is good regardless of the formation of its authors. As long as they read as if they were writing it doesn’t matter how they found out how to do it.

The present dominance of the dons does not of course mean that they have all, or even the most important and fertile ideas, which traditionally derive from little magazines; as Auden expressed it,

Our intellectual marines
Landing from little magazines,
Capture a trend.

These journals are often produced under insane financial and alcoholic stress. The Review and the New Review are clear cases in point. The sufferings of the editor, his severity of manner, the faultlessness of his taste, have earned him this 60th birthday celebration, which is rather academically described as a Festschrift.

A book of this sort can be forgiven for a fair amount of repetitive adulation. The editor was sternly generous to his authors, actual or aspiring. It is said that he often failed to pay them, but we learn here that he had many other ways to impress them: for example by never eating, merely rearranging the food on his plate, a point noted with awe by more than one contributor. He smoked incessantly and had ways of alarming one not only by what he said, but by his facial expression, or complete lack of it, while he said it. The result of this behaviour was that everybody respected him not only because they trusted his eye and ear, but also because they saw him as rather magnificently and lovably weird. Still recognisably human, he became a myth. Nevertheless, as Ian McEwan remarks, what Hamilton ‘managed, probably without meaning to, was to create a milieu. Writers gathered around the New Review, because they respected Ian’s idea of quality, and they felt flattered to be included. I doubt if there has ever been a period in English literary history when so many writers have filed through one pub.’

The original Review had perished for financial reasons. At the time of its crisis I was at Manchester University and with some modest influence on the publications of the University Press. I can’t remember how, but I persuaded the publisher, a very cautious man named Jones, to consider taking on the Review, and Ian travelled hopefully up to see us. There were no problems about the quality of the paper, and it looked certain that the deal would be done until the moment when Jones, as he must, asked about outstanding debts. Could he see the accounts? Well, no, he couldn’t; there didn’t seem to be any. There were scraps of paper and notes scribbled on the backs of old envelopes, but Jones wanted more than that. The project collapsed instantly, and that was more or less the end of the Review.

For its successor Hamilton somehow screwed funding from the Arts Council. It was, to quote McEwan again, ‘a classy magazine with a charismatic editor’, and the Council recognised it as such. Its money was, in a way, well spent, but it wasn’t the orthodox way; the editor was far too charismatic to take an interest in accounts, which a body dishing out public money must, however boringly, require; and the New eventually went the way of the Old. But Julian Barnes makes a good point that might be overlooked: ‘the magazine was sustained far less by public money than by the devotion of an impoverished staff.’

Barnes also gives a lively account of the good times everybody had while the money lasted, though the master of the revels seems rarely to have joined actively in the fun: ‘He did not speak so much as let a few ironic syllables escape captivity from the corner of his mouth.’ Sometimes one feels the myth has altogether replaced the man. Blake Morrison, who was unlucky enough to attempt a debut with a review that never appeared and was never paid for, is not alone in describing his first visit to 119 Greek Street as an education: the drinking and the justified admiration; the editor quite impervious to alcohol or flattery (‘mocking eye, boxer’s nose, corner-of-the-mouth disparagement’) and consequently loved all the more.

Yet he cannot have been quite as dégagé as he looked, for he worried so much, McEwan reveals, that his hair once turned white overnight and fell out; to everybody’s relief it grew again. Some of the worry was of course financial. Al Alvarez remarks that Hamilton, ‘no matter how solemnly he pretended otherwise ... couldn’t take money seriously. But money is like the godhead – it never manifests itself to those who don’t truly believe in it.’ Matthew Arnold said of Heine that he had every other gift but wanted love. It seems that Ian Hamilton has every other gift but wants, i.e. needs, money.

Well then, a remarkable man, a fine though scanty poet, and a wonderful editor, apart from the accounts. I see I haven’t said anything about football. This is a fault, for as everybody knows, Hamilton is expertly keen on football and frequently writes about it. Somehow it goes, nowadays, with literary journalism. You can’t imagine that Matthew Arnold (about whom Hamilton recently wrote a good book) would have cared about football. He didn’t admire the Populace. Now things are different, and it seems that if you want to see life steadily and see it whole you cannot ignore the beautiful game. Arnold was just as much concerned as Hamilton with what he called ‘the ring of quality’, but he missed out on sport and probably spent very little time in pubs.

[*] 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).