Reviews of an Editor
Julian Barnes. "Bitter Lemon Days" in Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, & Reflections
on Ian Hamilton.
Harsent, David, ed.
Cargo Press, 1999. (151 p.)
ISBN: 1-899-98006-7 (hardback)
Ian Hamilton. I came to know that name a few years ago when I started collecting articles written by Julian Barnes for an as yet to be completed bibliography. Barnes's writing hit a number of targets in the 1970s and 1980s, buck-shotting the London literary scene in the usual fashion of an upstart writer in those days. What was intriguing, however, as I culled through stacks and stacks of fading, acidic newsprint, was the overwhelming presence throughout these journals of two other names: Russell Davies and Ian Hamilton. Davies is known today for his radio presence, including last year's year-long series on Jazz for the BBC. He is, I believe, one of Britain's greatest talents. The quality of his sly humor during the high days of The New Statesman in the 1970s and in Punch during the early 1980s is unmatched, and his artistic ability is best seen in the numerous ink drawings for Clive James's landmark epic poem Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage through the London Literary World. One of these classic images shows Ian Hamilton, Douglas Dunn, and Hugo Williams standing in the Pillars of Hercules, a pub once located across the street from the offices of Hamilton's The New Review. From the testimonials printed in Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, & Reflections on Ian Hamilton, one gets the impression that the Pillars was the office. Davies's drawing is reprinted on page forty of this festschrift and comes courtesy of none other than Julian Barnes, who now owns the original drawing.
As you can see, "Literary London" was, and some would argue is still, a web of connections. In the early 1980s, there was talk in the papers of a "Literary Mafia" that consisted of Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and others, but the truth of the matter was less than what was suggested. True, there were authors who tended to work for similar magazines, eat together, relax together, etc., but the suggestion that these authors somehow controlled the British literary world was unfounded. Too many market forces were entering the picture by the late 1970s. Art was being forced to fend for itself, to make ends meet when the bills came at the end of the month. As Barnes states, "The notion that a literary magazine might receive an Arts Council subsidy was regularly denounced in the press. The fact that the New Review was a large-format glossy and not printed on recycled Bronco was an extra offence." Escaping from creditors was a full-time job. As Barnes and the other contributors to Another Round develop this theme in greater detail, each story adds to the next until one can hardly imagine how Hamilton lived through the New Review experience at all. In the end, any semblance of power or control over art and writing evaporated when Hamilton was forced to end publication of The New Review. The largest and best of the literary dragons had been gutted.
Most of Another Round deals with Hamilton's New Review days, but a number of contributors recall the struggles of Hamilton's earlier literary publications, including the short-lived Tomorrow Magazine. More impressive was Hamilton's The Review, a poetry journal published for ten years, mostly throughout the 1960s. To look over issues of The Review is to watch the development of a great talent. Not in the contributors, necessarily, but in the editor. Hamilton was The Review and his influence and expectations for quality are what made it one of the most influential poetry journals of all time.
Hamilton's reputation as a literary force only grew with The New Review. He published a new generation of authors, including Ian McEwan's first short stories (detailed in McEwans's entry in Another Round), Martin Amis, and James Fenton. Craig Raine was made books editor and Barnes was made a contributing editor. Small steps, but important ones in the early days of these authors' careers. Hamilton's influence is difficult to judge, but the fact that many of these authors have contributed to his festschrift speaks volumes. Barnes writes, "[Ian] was the Gaffer, and what this means in literary journalism is: someone whose presence and example make you write as well as you are able." What greater testimony could one ask for?
-- Ryan Roberts, December 2000
Related Websites or Cited References:
"Ian Hamilton - editor and interviewer." Between the Lines. 30 July 2000. 15 January 2001.
Barnes, Julian. "One Famous Writer brought him a piece and was told it might serve as cat litter." The Guardian 17 April 1999. 25 February 2001. NOTE: This essay was also published under the title "Bitter Lemon Days" as part of Another Round At The Pillars: Essays, Poems & Reflections on Ian Hamilton, to mark Hamilton's 60th birthday.