Karl Miller Remembered
People said things about Karl, but not often to his face. He might like the things or he might not, and that did not always depend on whether they were intended as compliments or the opposite. Personal remarks could be returned with interest, hot or cold. Whichever way, he remembered them with accuracy.
I can think of two personal remarks about Karl, in his early years, which reached him and went down well. The first came when he and his wife Jane went to stay with George Barker, in Italy I think, and Barker exclaimed afterwards: ‘That boy! He’s got a tiger in his loins!’ Karl loved that. Who wouldn’t? His friends all got to hear about it. He laughed about it in a deprecating way but inside I think he felt that Barker had put the tiger in the right bit of him. Not so much sexually, though that implication was a nice bonus, but determination to do what’s in you to do – it’s in the loins that willpower gets girded up. A tiger in the head or a tiger in the typewriter wouldn’t be rated.
The other remark came from me. I can’t remember what provoked it, but Karl was acting forlorn, counting up imagined ways in which his friends had let him down, failed to conceal their scorn for him or edged away in some other manner. I was irritated, and I said: ‘You know, Karl, in many ways you are a perfect love-child.’ To my surprise, he was delighted with that. Yes, a love-child he was. As I got to know more about his background, I began to see what he meant. His father and mother, both fiercely independent characters, ‘married at leisure but repented in haste’, as he put it. They quarrelled and parted within months of the ceremony and Karl was born at Straiton, outside Edinburgh, to an effectively single mother. She passed him on to her own mother and her mother’s sisters in nearby Gilmerton, a working-class family whose older generation had worked in the pits of the Lothian coalfield around them.
Karl grew up as an only child, or rather a sort of only orphan. But simple insecurity doesn’t seem to have bothered him. His granny and his aunts, austere but dependable, saw to that. So did the new welfare state rising around him. He was gifted and imaginative and certainly dramatised his own loneliness, as the marvellously precocious and eloquent diary of his teenage years shows. This journal, judiciously quoted in his memoir Rebecca’s Vest, had some of the self-arraigning qualities of old Presbyterian spiritual diaries and some Romantic young Werther posing, but disciplined by a vigilant sense of irony about his own emotions. Later in his life, he was to defend intelligent self-pity as the portal to true empathy with others.
But he was alert to his lack of parents. Substitutes and metaphors appeared. In Cockburn’s Millennium, my favourite among Karl’s books, he seems to arrange his own fosterage by the very landscape of Edinburgh. Male and fatherly is that authoritarian skyline, the horizon of black phallic spikes and spires stretching from Arthur’s Seat to the Highland Church and on to the Castle Rock. Motherly, rounded, green and tender are the great Pentland hills, Caerketton and Allermuir, watching over Gilmerton and Straiton and the city beyond.
In another sense, though, Edinburgh did adopt him. His talents took him to the Royal High School, where William Drummond, Henry Mackenzie and Walter Scott had been before him. There Karl became favourite pupil and close friend of Hector MacIver, that incomparable teacher of literature, who recognised his gifts and took him with his other clever boys down the Calton Hill to Rose Street. In those days, a sort of café society still flourished in Edinburgh. You knew which set you’d find in which pub, and young Karl was introduced to the mighty poets of Milne’s Bar and the Abbotsford: Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and Robert Garioch, among others. MacIver played some of the part of a father, taking Karl all over town to whatever was happening on stage or on screen. MacCaig was to become a lifelong friend, guide and admirer; they shared the same dryness of wit and much the same hunter’s alertness to words (their slightest sound, the stealthy tracks they leave behind).
The Abbotsford thought of Karl as their Nachwuchs – the next young poet. But he went south to Cambridge, to Downing College and the throne of F.R. Leavis, and became eventually and primarily a critic and editor. There was an opinion that Leavis had strangled a promising nightingale. Certainly Karl’s first important critical essay (‘Notes on Agreement and Elegance’) came out as a prose bramble-bush which intimidated many readers. But he grew steadily out of that mode, perfecting his own unmistakeable and unpredictable manner with the language. Though few realised it, he continued to write remarkable verse for the rest of his life, which he apparently did not care to publish or to have published.
The young Karl wanted a lot more out of life than 1950s Edinburgh proposed. He was impatient for something Lawrentian, something more than the ‘quiet unimpassioned sensuality’ he recorded after cuddling a girl in the New Victoria cinema. On a visit to Cramond, on the city’s outskirts, he had noticed on the terribly white wall of the public lavatory a lone graffito: ‘Is there nobody queer in Cramond?’ Karl wanted out.
It was at Cambridge that I first met him. We were both born in Edinburgh, but his background was working-class and mine was not. That seemed not to matter. Karl never supposed himself deprived in any cultural way. He wrote: ‘I don’t believe that I can ever have imagined that I was living in a backwater, and I wasn’t. I believed that my friends were gifted and interesting, and so they were.’ In the same way, he never felt himself at a social disadvantage with the gleaming elites from English public schools who laid down undergraduate taste. He was simply entering a fascinating foreign country, whose customs he found sometimes touching and sometimes absurd, but whose caste system was not relevant to him.
I wrote in my diary: ‘He is both agent provocateur and judge for me.’ A love-child may seek love, or at least sturdy assurances that he or she matters. Karl at Cambridge did this in an original way: he became a ringmaster. His friends noticed that they had each been assigned a role playing the character which Karl found in them. X had to remain hard-drinking and laconic; Y had to keep selecting lovers who were up to her examination standard; Z was required to stay a luckless romantic, given to loveable but ridiculous pratfalls and pronouncements. Departures from the role were quickly mocked, as if lines had been fluffed. Some of his friends grew nervous. Most of us, I think, adjusted our lives, or the show of them, to suit Karl’s imperious need.
In this way, I think Karl turned his need for affection somehow inside out: to use a rather Midlothian word, he flyped it. We, his friends, were not asked to love him, although we often did. Instead, we were asked to be reliable in accepting his love, as we acted out parts in his production. I never knew a man who cared so tenderly for his friends, for their health and their happiness. His beloved and increasingly large and interesting family seemed to get the same treatment. In the course of the last year, his last year, when he was often in a pretty terrible state, he would often telephone me to make sure that my own far less acute health problems were under control. After a painful hobble up the road, we would settle in a restaurant and become two cosy old deafies roaring at one another about ailments. Self-pity he reserved for his soul, not his body. ‘They talk about how I’m battling cancer,’ he said to me once. ‘As far as I can see, it’s cancer battling me.’
Then, and often in his earlier life, we would talk about Scotland. Unlike me, he was schooled in Scotland; like me, he spent almost all his life elsewhere. Unlike the late Alastair Reid and so many other Scottish writers, Karl was not a son of the manse. He was the love-child of two obstinately laic and sceptical individuals, and – although all his work was lit up by his fascination with the dualism inherent in the Calvinist personality (‘one fellow who is two fellows’) – that black cloud of inexpiable guilt didn’t hang over him. An Old Labour sort of democrat, he would have felt more at ease with opinions in the Miners’ Welfare at Loanhead than up on the Mound in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Karl always said that he was a patriot but not a nationalist. He knew and understood more about Scotland’s last three centuries of literary culture than almost anyone, but he stood firmly by the Union. He deeply loved the Scotland in which he had grown up, but felt it in certain ways too flawed to rule itself. Considering a MacDiarmid lyric, he once wrote that it showed ‘a compassion which is Scottish, but of which Scotland has always stood badly in need’. Karl died a few days after the independence referendum in which, had he commanded a vote, I assume that he would have voted ‘No’.
I could be wrong about that. As Thatcherism was succeeded by Blairism, he sometimes wrote bitterly about Britain’s ‘dishonoured public life’; perhaps the idea of a clean slate in the North might have appealed to him. More recently, he was aware that Scotland had changed and matured in new ways. But, to be honest, it’s more likely that he stayed in tune with Norman MacCaig’s famous tease:
My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not,
for its independence.
Karl shared a style with MacCaig – an Edinburgh, fencing sort of style in conversation, the advance of a dry-pointed rapier. Alarming to some. But not intended to wound, only to set you momentarily off balance. I once went to see him at the New Statesman, behind his desk, and he said to me: ‘Hello, Neal. I’d offer you a cigar. But I’ve only got eight left.’
What I’ve written here is mostly about the young Karl, whom I knew at the start of more than sixty years of friendship. He could take the huff in a way which lasted for decades, but his loyalty to his friends – though never uncritical – was tribal and unshakeable. This fellow who really seemed to me to be one fellow had iron integrity but molten, incandescent affections. I loved him and don’t know, can’t imagine, what I shall do without him.
The Scottish poet Alastair Reid died almost on the same day as Karl, far away in New York, and in his poem ‘Curiosity’, which is about cats with nine lives, he left some helpful lines about death:
A cat-minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth and what cats have to tell
on each return from hell
is this: that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who never know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do.
To younger readers, the idea of being a famous literary editor may seem oxymoronic. That, however, is exactly what Karl Miller was. As a result, it was possible to be well-briefed about Karl before meeting him for the first time. This was thanks to Clive James’s introduction to his collection Visions before Midnight. James said that Karl, who’d commissioned him to write about TV for the Listener, was brilliant, forceful and very very funny: ‘When he was in the mood to scorn the follies of the day, his invective would have me aching with laughter.’ I started work at the LRB in January 1987, and soon found that everything about James’s portrait was true, only more so. Karl’s forcefulness was apparent in his appearance: he was one of those people who don’t look at all like anyone else. Dark suit, white shirt, red face (from sensitive skin rather than booze or weatherbeatenness), white hair: his looks were somehow emphatic.
The LRB in those days was based in offices sublet from the BMA, in a building in Tavistock Square (a location subsequently world famous, because the 7/7 bombers blew up a bus directly outside). The editorial office was one small book-and-paper-suffocated room, with four of us in it: Karl, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Susannah Clapp and me. Even that staffing level sounds more lavish than it was, because Karl split his time with his other job as Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, about a ten-minute walk away. This was less a question of Karl doing two part-time jobs than his doing two full-time ones. A very impressive thing about him was how much stamina he had. This fact was reinforced rather than diminished by the fact that he often claimed to be ill. ‘I’m going to be the youngest person ever to die,’ he’d once said to Dan Jacobson when he wasn’t feeling well. He was then around thirty. Almost three decades later, he was still talking in a similar vein. Even feeling especially healthy could be a bad sign. ‘I’m feeling unusually well at the moment,’ he once told me, on the bus home towards Fulham. ‘Of course, that could be a sign that I’m preparing to become a dead person.’ None of this ever slowed him down or lessened how much work he did.
Karl’s speech was even more emphatic than his appearance. The impact of his talk was to do with the content, of course – he was a trenchant, vivid, wild, unpredictable talker, not just funny but the funniest person I have ever known, by a distance. There was also the question of his delivery. He had kept his Edinburgh accent, and it gave his speech an unusual quality: it was as if everything Karl said was in italics. In addition, the things he said would often build to a point involving a yet further degree of emphasis, so it was as if you had both his normal italicised delivery and then yet another level of italics on top. In the early days, when I was learning the ropes at the LRB and would often not know who somebody under discussion was, the italics and double italics would be wielded in giving a description and character summary. For example, the first time Anne Hollander was mentioned, I asked who she was. Karl didn’t say: ‘She’s a distinguished historian of fashion.’ He said: ‘She’s a tremendous pedant and aesthete of the knicker.’ This was delivered as: ‘She’s a [level-one italics] tremendous pedant and aesthete [level-two italics] of the knicker’. When I quote Karl from now on, I ask you to imagine that no italics means italics, and italics means his trademark double emphasis.
Karl’s verbal snapshots, I soon and lastingly learned, were a wonder of the world. R.W. Johnson was in those days writing a series of super-forthright, abrasive pieces that often featured glancing dismissals of all sorts of senior Labour Party figures. One of these pieces had come in and been edited by Mary-Kay, and Karl was reading it in proof. ‘Johnson is like some beast from the pampas,’ Karl said, admiringly and amusedly, ‘who’s brought in, and immediately rushes around butting everybody.’ No such animal is known to zoology, and Bill Johnson has no known connection with Argentina, but more than a quarter of a century later, whenever I read a piece in that combative vein, I still think of the beast from the pampas. Another image that has stayed with me came when I opened a book package, took out the review copy and handed it to Karl at his desk. The book, by a ‘French deepo’ called René Girard, was an ambitious work of theory and history called Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Karl took a quick look at it and shook his head. ‘The stage is filling with the inauthentic,’ he said. ‘Everywhere you look there’s some bigger fake advancing to greet you.’ Again, 25 years later, I often think of those fakes: larger-than-human beings resembling zombies, arms outstretched, lumbering slowly and inexorably closer. To the left: an enormous fake is advancing. To the right: an even bigger fake. And as for the fake directly in front …
Sometimes Karl’s talk would be about events of the day, from high politics to gossip. (I once passed on a piece of gossip which caused Karl to look up from his desk and say: ‘John, your ear is so close to the ground, it’s coming out in Australia.’ I didn’t mind the zinger, but thought Mary-Kay and Susannah had no need to laugh quite as much as they did.) He was particularly interested in the Spanner trial, in which a group of gay men involved in consensual sado-masochistic activity were sent to prison. Karl had no doubt that what the men were doing was none of the state’s business, but he was nonetheless riveted by the detail of the trial. ‘What about love?’ he asked. ‘Where’s love in all this?’ He thought that we his colleagues, in our reflexive liberalism, were missing some of the interest: ‘I suppose you lot are in favour of people nailing each other’s willies to boards until the end of time.’ One of the men, it emerged, was married, and he was struck by that too, and by the fact that the man’s wife apparently hadn’t known about his hobby. ‘Amazing,’ Karl said. ‘He comes home, covered in blood and minus one of his goolies, and she still doesn’t twig.’
Karl could be brilliant, and brilliantly funny, about anything, sometimes in the compressed language people evolve when working for long periods together in a small space. Thus everything concerning psychic phenomena, ESP, UFOs, telepathy, paranormal experiences, spiritualism, Gurdjieff, life after death and any expression of interest in or sympathy towards mysticism, was referred to simply as ‘fork-bending’. At other times he could be more discursive, and had an academic mode at his disposal too. One day a man came from the Arts Council, an accountant, to evaluate the paper for some form-filling and box-ticking assessment. These occasions, a pure nuisance from the point of view of getting the paper to press, had the potential to be real trouble, because if the wrong answers were given and the wrong boxes ticked, there could be difficulties with the Arts Council’s never-certain funding. In the event the accountant was visibly smitten, and indeed eventually got carried away and started wondering out loud about the meaning of life. ‘After all, nobody even knows what art is!’ he said, excitedly. Karl held up a hand to halt this train of thought. ‘We have a working definition. Enough to be getting on with.’ The meeting came to a close when Karl had to leave to go to his other job at UCL. The next morning he came in and his first words were: ‘That man added a new chapter to the annals of amazingness.’
The force of his talk was self-reflective too. There are driven people who don’t realise how driven they are, but Karl wasn’t one of them.
‘I would like to be famous,’ he said one day. ‘I have the necessary psychological equipment to want to be, and to cope with being, famous.’
‘Yes, but what do you mean by famous?’ I asked. ‘Being famous in terms of the book world is very different from being so famous you can’t walk down the street without people stopping you.’
‘I would like to be so famous it inconveniences me.’
Karl meant what he was saying, but I’m not sure that last remark was true. If it had been, he would have shown some signs of trying to be famous and – as an editor – of chasing after glamour and success. He didn’t do that; fame and reputation had no claim on his attention when it came to commissioning. His dismissals made use of the shorthand I’ve already mentioned: X was ‘a liar’, meaning someone who wrote things for effect and to strike attitudes, a cardinal sin for Karl; Y was ‘a psychopath’, meaning someone who would make extravagant promises about what they’d do, talk you into keeping a space on the page open until beyond the last minute, and then let you down; Z was ‘an impostor – but one operating at a high level’. These distinctions were, indeed still are, useful, not least the implied observation that there are different categories of impostor, operating at different levels. X, Y, Z were all well known, and it would have been easy and crowd-pleasing to commission them, but on basic matters of judgment such as this, Karl was immovable. ‘My ambition is to have the paper with the least nonsense in it of anywhere in the world,’ he once told me. ‘That sounds like a small ambition, but really it isn’t.’ He had a visceral horror of cant.
The list of names he wasn’t willing to have in the paper overlapped with another list, that of people who used to be in the paper but with whom there had been a falling out. It wasn’t difficult to fall out with Karl, and one of the easiest ways was to write for another paper which paid more or had a bigger circulation. The essay by James mentioned this – ‘under a cloud was the only way anyone left him.’ The fact that writers had bills to pay and/or audiences to find was not significant. The principles of loyalty and betrayal were more basic than that. The sense of abandonment might well have been left over from childhood; from a practical point of view, it didn’t really matter where it came from, since knowing that didn’t help Karl or his colleagues or the writer being fallen out with. Once or twice he went through a list of contributors and struck off the names we were no longer to use, drawing a firm red line through each of the people who’d been banished. There were a lot of them. It was sort of funny to see his relish – he said, alarmingly, that he enjoyed it more than anything else – but also a little disturbing, both psychologically and from a practical point of view. I remember thinking: I’m not sure this is good for Karl, or for the paper. What happens if we run out of writers?
And yet the strange thing, indeed the strangest thing, about this impulse to fall out with people was that Karl turned it into an editorial virtue. It meant we were always on the lookout for new writers. All editors, especially all literary editors, claim to be on a permanent search for new writers, but the truth is that most of them establish a roster of contributors and then switch on a form of cruise control. The LRB was on an active, anxious quest for new writers because we kept using up and falling out with the old ones. It was one of the reasons Karl had been so central to literary culture in Britain for as long as he had.
Another area where an apparent weakness turned out, on extended inspection, to be a strength, was in the area of editorial solipsism. Karl was very interested in things that swam into his ken, and less likely to be interested in things that hadn’t. This could be maddeningly inconsistent: he would say something wasn’t worth a piece because he didn’t already know about it, whereas a mention by a friend or university colleague could make a subject into one on which we had to commission immediately. There was an office shorthand for this – so-and-so ‘exists’, we would say, meaning that Karl knew about them, and therefore something had to be done. He came back from holiday once, saying we should have a piece on Robert Ludlum. We said: ‘Why?’ Karl said: ‘People are reading him.’ ‘People’ implicitly meant someone with whom he’d been on holiday. At that point, Ludlum had been one of the bestselling writers in the world for at least a decade. He was a schlock thriller writer in whom the LRB had never shown the slightest interest; it seemed arbitrary and chaotic suddenly to have a piece about him, just because he now ‘existed’.
I now think I was wrong about that. A paper has to have a tone, and it has to get that tone from its editor(s). What they are and aren’t interested in, what they do and don’t know, is the only reliable filter for creating a distinct editorial entity. To chase after what seems interesting to other people is a guaranteed recipe for failure. It’s obviously the case that mistakes will be made, some subjects missed, others overemphasised, but the odd thing is that it doesn’t really matter – those mistakes, those errant emphases and lacunae, are part of a paper’s individual character, if it has one. More papers go wrong through not having that character than do from having too much of it. It was worth having a piece on Robert Ludlum, however long he’d been around and however many copies he’d already sold, not least because the commission had the virtue of complete unpredictability.
The fact is, no one knew as much as Karl about editing this kind of paper, no one incarnated the tradition of literary journalism better than he did, and no one could teach you more about writing, and teach it more quickly. He liked to go through copy in the writer’s presence, which was scary, but which was also a very good way of making sure you were filing your work as fully cooked as possible. When he queried something, it was invariably a point you hadn’t fully thought through or written out. It would be an elision you were half-aware of having made, or a passage where you weren’t quite clear what you thought and hoped that the vagueness didn’t leak into the text. All the points where you were on thin ice and hoped no one would notice, he noticed. You had no choice except to raise your game. The attention and focus given to editing were all the more impressive because Karl had no romance of editing as such: he didn’t think that a writer’s work was just something lying there waiting for the heroic actions of an editor to make it right. His ideal was to find writers who didn’t need editing. He once told me that the cleanest copy he had ever received were the regular reviews Kingsley Amis used to write for him at the New Statesman – ‘never a mark on them’.
Kingsley Amis might not be a writer people immediately think of in relation to Karl, but Karl’s reach across the literary culture of Britain was so great that it would be harder to think of writers whom he didn’t work with than ones whom he did. He had known and published Hughes and Plath while at Cambridge, he had published Seamus Heaney’s first poems to a wider audience at the New Statesman, he had been taught by Leavis and had fallen out with him when he went to work in London, he liked and commissioned Mary McCarthy and V.S. Pritchett and William Empson and V.S. Naipaul and Angela Carter and Penelope Fitzgerald. (McCarthy was the subject of another life lesson. He and she once, at a party, got into a conversation about the negative reviews of their own books. ‘Well,’ Karl said, ‘it’s not necessarily so bad as all that. You might not see the bad review.’ McCarthy gripped his arm. ‘There’s always friends,’ she said.) The LRB published ‘V’ by Tony Harrison, first fictions by Amit Chaudhuri and Romesh Gunesekera, reflections and memoirs and poems by everyone from A.J. Ayer to Fiona Pitt-Kethley. We often used to argue about Pitt-Kethley’s super-sexually frank work in the office. Karl was a believer and said something very useful about her work: ‘When people are shocked by something,’ he told me, ‘they never admit to being shocked by it, they say the poem doesn’t scan.’
People’s values aren’t expressed by the claims they make, but by their actions. Karl’s deepest values were to do with writing, and the difference between good and bad writing. The work of distinguishing them was his working life: it was what he did at his desk, all day and every day, in editing and commissioning and writing and reading and thinking and arguing. Arguments about ideas and theories and politics mattered deeply; but the thing that mattered most was good writing. That was the central principle of the LRB. Also, I think, the reason the paper is flourishing – I mean flourishing in the most basic and inarguable way, by having a circulation that’s continuing to increase – is because it occupies the same territory it always has, more or less, while everyone else has run away. Karl used to say that few things were more beneficial for literary pages than ‘a touch of really disastrous difficulty’. The idea of difficulty in prose or thought as a virtue is one from which the media in general have fled. The word ‘literary’ has in my working lifetime become a negative descriptor. Everything is becoming shorter, easier, less ‘literary’. But they’re all still out there, the readers who want difficult ideas and long essays and who don’t automatically think they won’t like something if you can attach the word ‘literary’ to it. Karl was right about that, as he was about so many things – about the difference between liars and psychopaths and impostors and beasts from the pampas, about the fact that people will never admit to being shocked, about the fact that the stage is filling with the inauthentic, and everywhere you look there’s some bigger fake advancing to greet you.
The last few years were a struggle for Karl, and he faced them, you might say, with a high and not un-Scottish regard for tough penalties. We would often sit together in the bedroom in Chelsea that became his sick bay, an anatomical model on a shelf at the foot of the bed, a few books scattered on the floor, and that old smile of his, the recognition that suffering is just part of the picture if you happen to be a human being. ‘Why don’t you sit there,’ he’d say, ‘in the preferred harsh chair.’
He was the best person to talk to about writing. Not only because he cared about it and read a great deal, but because he had a great critical mind, an instinct for winnowing the chaff from a writer’s style without losing the grain. A few weeks ago, we were discussing the poetry of Dylan Thomas. ‘Which of the poems do you like?’ he asked.
‘The one about the fields.’
‘“Do Not Go Gently Into Those Good Fields”?’
‘Which one, then?’
‘The one about the farm.’
‘“Fern Hill,”’ he said. ‘Will you read it to me?’
I got it up on my iPhone, and as I read it, he beamed and then looked up grinning at the last lines, his lips moving along with the words. ‘Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’
‘Amazing to pull that off,’ he said.
‘Good, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘Oh, tops. Really terrific. I told Ian Hamilton in his digs once that I loved that poem especially and he nearly hit me.’
‘Because he hated it. I think he thought it was a terrible effusion of sentiment. But all the superlatives and exaggerations and colloquial high spoken language works – it brings you in. It causes you to agree.’
He tired easily and he soon fell asleep, and on the way down the stairs I passed his study. I walked in and lifted a volume of Dylan Thomas’s letters from behind the desk. I knew Karl’s teacher, the great Hector MacIver, had been in touch with Thomas and, looking through the book, I found a letter dated 15 July 1949 from Thomas to MacIver where Karl’s name was mentioned. In it Thomas wonders whether the poem MacIver sent him, ‘Chant’, can really be by a schoolboy. ‘KM certainly has something there; and the echoes, though I cannot place where they come from, seem to me not unpleasant … he might be very good. The anonymous author of “Chant” I would, myself, take to be a far older boy with a taste for Scotch.’
The first time I met Karl, at the London Review of Books office in Tavistock Square, it was more than forty years on and he asked me how old I was. ‘Twenty-three,’ I said. ‘Well, that’s not very good,’ he replied. ‘You’re busy being 23 and I’m just about to step into a box in the ground.’ He told me I had a forehead just like his father and that I probably had Scotland on my mind, like he did. He wanted to talk about the television plays of Peter McDougall and said I probably knew all about the people depicted in them, working-class rowdies who preferred to create hell on a Saturday night. After a disastrous editing test, in which I rewrote a piece by Frank Kermode and introduced a dozen solecisms, they gave me the job, and I was soon fetching everybody’s coffee. I’d bring it in from Hot Favourites in Euston Station – a cup for each editor – and Karl would make me sit by him as he counted out the exact amount in two-pence and one-pence pieces. I think there might even have been a few ha’pennies in there.
‘I’m quite ill,’ he said. ‘I’m stricken with gout. I’ll probably die soon. Then you can all have a party and say I was no good.’ This, I learned, was pure Karl. He took it for granted that life was only worth living if not-living was also given its due. When he left the paper, I was sad and at a bit of a loss, not because he was always right or because he believed in me as a writer – he didn’t, it was Mary-Kay who did that – but because he made a connection to my past that I was too young at the time to make for myself. He never played on one’s divided loyalties: he understood division, and we built a friendship on jokes. After his first illness – they put ‘a cigarette lighter in my heart’ – we started making excursions with Seamus Heaney and a fellowship came into bloom. Karl felt he got a new wind on those trips; they brought together a lot of the things he cared about, poetry, friendship, the Celtic landscapes and incidents of a kind that test one’s character.
Once, at a hotel in Dublin while Seamus was off trying to find a waitress, or, as Karl put it, ‘summoning the lazy Irish Cleopatras from their dens and sleepy bowers’, he showed me a page of his diary simply headed ‘Woes’. It was without doubt the most Scottish list I ever saw. He told me it was updated daily. None of the ailments was ever crossed off. ‘Of course, you wouldn’t know about woes,’ he said. ‘Afflicted as you are with happiness.’ Even recently, when his lights were low, Karl’s comic engine kept running. He called up the old routines, and added new ones. ‘If it wouldn’t discommode you overmuch, could you pass me that morphine, and I promise I’ll give you half.’ Years ago, working to deadlines with Karl could be pretty hair-raising, but he stood up for the paper and for the people working on it. ‘Dear Professor,’ he said, dictating a letter to be sent to an obnoxious academic in California. ‘I hear you’ve just been rude to one of my colleagues. You must think you’re a very important person. Here’s your piece back.’ Not everybody embodies a sensibility, but Karl did. In the last issue, Mary-Kay wrote of an occasion at the Listener when something she did, or failed to do, caused him ‘nearly to be hospitalised’. He said a lot of things at the LRB that caused us nearly to be hospitalised. Often they were things you overheard him say on the phone.
‘You’re diving through the pampas grass looking for excuses, Martin – just send the book back!’
‘Seamus, I’m very grateful to you for your excellent poem in aid of my auld acquaintance Hugh MacDiarmid. But there’s a mistake in it.’
‘Jesus Christ, Cockburn! There’s a hole in the page. That’s right. A hole the size of Angola where your brilliant piece is supposed to be.’
Garry Runciman remembered those evening calls, ‘with the hint of menace subtly conveyed in that voice which always makes me think of honey flowing over broken glass’. His clothes could be alarming, too, but in a way that generally improved the day. ‘I apologise for the delinquent Edwardian look,’ he said to me one morning in Limerston Street. He seemed to find joy in a generally frayed existence: one time, passing Laurence Corner, the army surplus store, he nearly dragged his UCL colleague Stephen Fender in to buy one of those aviator’s pressure suits with tubes going down the back. But he liked to pretend to Scottish parsimony. Jonathan Miller remembers the first time he sat down to tea with him at Downing College. Karl offered him a biscuit, then dug to the bottom of the tin to take out the chocolate one he knew to be hiding there. Edward Said once turned up at the house for dinner only to be told to be quiet. Karl, with his face about two inches from the screen, was shaking with laughter at Spitting Image and wouldn’t consider missing even a second.
Some people look at you and only see what you don’t have, and for them there is no such thing as you at your best. I know some people found Karl disapproving, but I never did. For all the lampoons and the teasing, his grip was warm. He really liked to see funniness in other people, which not all funny people do. He put more effort into being your friend than many people half as grand, and that was one of the things that made him unforgettable to many of us who felt a bit easier in the world because of Karl. He might have been, as a newspaper said the other day, ‘our last man of letters’. I hope that isn’t true, and he hoped so too, but it must be said that the culture he believed in is not what it was, and neither are the streets and squares where he used to ‘ply his trade’, as he put it. He was our connection to the 19th century: he had a vision of style and seriousness in literature, a sense of carefulness in public affairs, a belief in the confluence of politics and culture, that set itself against a coarsening in both. It came with his lairdship of the language, his instinct to mine every syllable of common speech for the human thing. Auden once said that ‘a professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.’ Karl liked that, and that was Karl to me: the funniest man I ever knew, a perpetual friend, a Scotland of the mind.