The Literary Review is about to celebrate its fortieth birthday. I thought it appropriate to reproduce another memoir written for Fulfilment & Betrayal. Kathy O’Shaughnessy has become one of our leading cultural critics, but she was very much the delightful igénue when I first met her:
Life at the Literary Review
I hadn’t spoken to Naim for years, when out of the blue came a phone call, asking me to write a piece about the Literary Review. Within minutes I was experiencing his personality in full, just like in the old days. He was telling me not only I could write anything I liked, but – ‘If I was a monster, you can say I was a monster!’ (voice rising to an excited, already indignant little scream).
‘Only a very benign monster,’ I replied, but I was laughing away, as Naim’s enthusiasm and unEnglish lack of restraint took me back twenty years. He was far and away the most enthusiastic employer I ever had, with a generosity, theatricality and warmth that was extremely endearing, and a long way from corporate publishing as it is today.
I was twenty-three when I went to work for the Literary Review. I had abandoned my post-graduate degree at Oxford on Byron (‘See you at the end of the term,’ my supervisor had said on day one, somewhat dispiritingly) and begun writing book reviews for Time Out and the Spectator. Shortly after that I heard about an impossibly perfect vacancy – deputy editor at the Literary Review. I applied and was interviewed by Gillian Greenwood, the editor, who seemed at once interesting, funny, lively – the sort of person you’d like as a friend, let alone to work for. Happily she took me on, and the next day I went to meet the already legendary Naim. ‘Welcome to the family!’ he said, as he vigorously shook my hand. My eyes were wandering, however, to the far end of the office, where a stupendously good-looking blonde had materialized as out of nowhere; and this was to be a recurring feature of working for Naim: beauties popping up in doorways and offices and desks like hallucinations, each more splendid than the last.
The Literary Review offices were above a hairdresser’s and a strong-smelling restaurant: you had to climb three flights of rickety stairs to get to the two rooms in question – one for editorial (Gillian and myself), one for business (Bridget Heathcoat-Amory). And that, beguilingly, was it – so small-scale, so DIY, so very hands on! On one trestle table lay the books ready to be reviewed. Gillian sat at the large leather-topped boss’s desk; I sat at a suitably smaller desk facing the traffic of Goodge Street, and so began my career in literary journalism. (So, too, my intense career as a passive smoker, as all of the magazine’s editors smoked with a will, a few feet away from me; yet I have to admit to a nostalgic fondness for that smoky office of the past, with its piled-up books and tottering, over-spilling ashtrays, redolent of a more relaxed and less health-’n’-self-obsessed era.)
It was a dream of a job for a twenty-three-year-old. Each morning began with a pile of post: cardboard-encased books, which, like a cluster of presents, looked all the more promising for being wrapped; and the copy – typewritten, of course. It was a thrill to open the envelope and discover the copy. The typewritten pages had a presence and shadowy sort of character that today’s computer print-out could never aspire to – maybe the n’s didn’t print properly, the page might be clotted with inky crossing-outs; the very letters bore the imprint of effort expended. Then, if the copy was unexpectedly funny, or clever or just felicitous, you had the feeling of treasure-in-the-making. If it was flaccid or lacklustre – well, cutting and editing could accomplish a lot. This was my editing apprenticeship, and I loved it.
Gillian was my first and main boss at the Literary Review. Like most fine editors, she was herself a gifted writer, and I learnt all about editing and commissioning and putting a magazine together from her. It was a tiny operation, just the two of us, and it felt lucky to be part of this two-man or rather two-woman team – the job so enjoyable it was like being a child in a sweetshop. I soon began writing for the magazine myself, as well as helping with the commissioning. But then we had to do everything: sometimes even driving round London and dropping off batches of the newly printed issue at the not-so-many booksellers that took it at the time; and always spending one exhausting but satisfying day a month putting the magazine to bed at ‘the printers’. The printers were in fact a husband and wife team, Ken and May, operating out of a small house in Chatham, Kent. There we spent many hours in the dank and indeed dark basement correcting the final proofs as the magazine went to film. It was a bonding experience and we became close friends.
Part of the job was of course meeting the writers. Broke! solitary! talented, not so talented – satirical – worthy – brilliant – the whole gamut passed through the doors of the Literary Review; and if they didn’t pass through our office they very likely appeared at Naim’s parties or at his dining table in Poland Street, where you might meet Ryszard Kapuscinski on one day, J. P. Donleavy on another, Hilary Mantel on another, and so on. In the early days our contributors included, to take a random sample from the time: Francis Wheen, David Profumo, A. N. Wilson, Colin MacCabe, A. L. Rowse, John Lahr, Carlo Gebler, Max Egremont, Geoff Dyer, Sheila Macleod, John Orr, Christopher Hawtree, Martin Walker, Antony Beevor, Richard Williams, Christopher Hitchens, Grey Gowrie, Lucretia Stewart, Neil Berry, Kyril Fitzlyon and others. For their pains, they were paid the princely sums of £10 or £20! But the world of books was different then: there was less money around, marketing was less to the forefront, and those mergers between the publishing houses were still an evil mirage on the horizon.
The magazine’s offices were in Goodge Street, busy and lively with its sandwich bars, Italian delis, shoe shops, bikers dashing in and out with their important packages, and Charlotte Street with its restaurants round the corner (the Spaghetti House being our top budget outing). It was a short walk from there to Naim’s office, where we would either have lunch (his cook Charlotte was a maestro of the kitchen as well as a beauty, ça va sans dire); or debate the perennial problems of circulation, advertising and distribution; or receive Naim’s advice, and above all, almost intravenously it was so intense, his enthusiasm. Clapping his hands, exclaiming, he would tell us his idea for a mischievous article that would stir up controversy, and so help the magazine’s ailing circulation; and indeed circulation was part of the aim, but so, it must be said, was Naim’s badly concealed and infectious joy in taking on the British establishment.
At a certain point the Literary Review moved its offices to 51 Beak Street, future site of the Academy Club. But wherever we were, the spirit of Naim was always hovering around. He would ring up on the telephone, and somehow his voice lingered in the office, with its rolled r’s, and his favourite phrases – ‘at the end of the day’ – or, my particular favourite, the exclamation, ‘Bobby’s your uncle!’ In short, the experience of working on the Literary Review could not be disentangled from the experience of working for Naim, because you were always conscious of the increasingly wide-ranging activities of your unpredictable impresario boss, who had this protean fund of energy and will, to the point of metamorphosis. One moment he was publishing books, the next he was launching perfumes with the titles Avant l’Amour and Après l’Amour, unmistakable variations on a certain theme, and doubtless there would be a party held in some splendid arena such as the Reform Club or the Travellers’ Club. As Naim held one party after another, London seemed to open its doors to reveal an endless number of potential party venues.
The Literary Review filled a niche determined in part by its competitors. The London Review of Books clearly occupied the intellectual high ground; The Times Literary Supplement had its firm allegiance to matters academic; and so the Literary Review was there to be perhaps more comfortably on the ground, not highbrow, but not lowbrow either; distinctly lively; drawing on journalists as well as writers. The writers ranged from the famous to the little known, and that was one of the pleasures of working on the magazine – coming into contact with many relatively unsung writers who wanted to bring their particular sensibility and encounter with literature to paper in some form. It always seemed to me that this ‘middle ground’ gave the Literary Review freedom to run, for example, exhaustive interviews with writers that went at a serious ruminative pace, giving place to all kinds of unshowy detail that was nevertheless of literary interest.
Gradually the Literary Review became a home for maverick columnists such as A. N. Wilson or Cosmo Landesman, where humorous or odder and more free-wheeling sentiments could be expressed in pieces that were short but piquant; later on, when Auberon Waugh became editor, this bent, the sense of the magazine’s character as idiosyncratic, was to become more developed, as Auberon Waugh stamped his own exceedingly British and in some ways divinely eccentric personality on it.
There were three editors at the Literary Review during the period I worked there: Gillian, Emma Soames and Auberon Waugh. I shall always be grateful to Gillian or Gilly for taking me on. Gilly had diplomacy, patience, sensitivity and an unerring feeling for whether or not a piece worked. We ran early pieces by David Sexton (two particularly good ones I still remember, one on Tolstoy’s diaries, another on father and son in fiction, focusing on the Waughs), Paul Taylor and Andrew Graham-Dixon, and many others. The magazine was going from strength to strength when she left, to go to the South Bank Show, and a new editor was appointed, Emma Soames.
Emma was confident and instinctively clever in her judgements, and gifted with wit in abundance (certain jokes still make me laugh – ‘TAXI!’ to be shrieked when you want to get out of a situation). The magazine began to take off in new directions: we changed its typeface and logo, got in a very funny cartoon from Nick Newman and Ian Hislop, thought up the anonymous column ‘Scrivener’ (usually about the nefarious goings-on behind the scenes in newspapers); I persuaded Richard Curtis to do a television column, which was hilarious, and which he later passed on to Stephen Fry, who, perhaps less funny than Richard, was nevertheless an elegant, fluent and reliable contributor. In a relatively short time Emma had made her decisive mark as editor, and we had become great friends (we really did have a lot of laughs), but change was afoot again. Anna Wintour had come back from New York to edit Vogue and was claiming Emma as her features editor. Once more the editorship was vacant and this time Naim appointed Auberon Waugh.
I had met Bron, as he was universally known, at a Spectator lunch, but nevertheless his columns at the time, which could be so provocative, filled me with apprehension. The Literary Review was an extremely small ship. As deputy you sat about five feet away from the editor, and all day you shared an office, just the two of you in the one room; if one of you was on the telephone, for example, the other heard everything you said. In short, it was essential to get on.
However, when Bron did appear, wearing that memorable hat, I liked him immediately. It was in fact impossible not to. He was courteous, kind, considerate, but none of these words (though true) get what was fun about him, which was his drollery, his immensely discerning eye, his effortless dry intelligence – which he wore, almost as a point of honour, lightly. Nor was he ever affected. I couldn’t imagine him ever adopting a sentiment that wasn’t truly his. He had an original interesting mind, and was without fail interesting to talk to.
I think Bron was grateful for my help because of course it was new to him, running a literary magazine. But it was clear to me that he viewed me sometimes as a sentimental leftie. We always tried to run a short story and we were inundated by short stories, most of which were, to put it bluntly, screamingly terrible. But I remember one on the slush pile depicting a mining community devastated by pit closure. It seemed to me a moving story, that felt authentic, even though the treatment of the subject was in no way surprising; and I showed it to Bron. He read it and was horrified by my suggestion that we run it, seeing it as predictable in the nth degree. I suspect we both had a bit of a case.
As a team, we had our comic moments. I remember that if I arrived and Bron had got there first, perhaps even just fractionally earlier than me, and was sitting ensconced at his desk, I would feel extremely guilty, as if his silent diligence were a reproach. Later, as we became more relaxed colleagues, it turned out that he experienced the identically persecuted sensation if I had preceded his arrival.
With such a small staff there was always a great deal to do. There were proofs to correct and re-correct, proofs to be sent out to authors, authors’ corrections to transfer, ‘shouts’ on the cover to be decided, illustrations from publishers to be chased up, short stories to read, and so on; and it was characteristic of Bron that shortly after arriving he advertised for a ‘slave’ to work gratis in the LR office, on the grounds that this menial apprenticeship would be the gateway to future triumphs. I was sceptical if amused, but sure enough, the next month found Grub Smith, whose very name seemed to beggar belief, like some fantastic projection of a Dickensian imagination, sitting at an exceedingly small and low table, almost child-level, below the intercom phone near the door, our slave for the immediate future. Bron was proved right.
Auberon Waugh did to a degree re-mint the magazine in his own image, with his opening column ‘From the Pulpit’, and that was very good for the magazine’s profile. At the same time the magazine became more hospitable to a strand of literary activity that was in some ways proudly anti-intellectual (I always remember him saying that Proust would have written a good book had he kept it to one volume), yet in other ways deeply committed to the concept of the literary, even if it came to that notion by ranging it against a partly exaggerated foe, the too-intellectual or the narrowly academic. Perhaps this battle too found its secret expression in Bron’s commitment to placing, at all costs, the word ‘sex’ on the cover (no dry magazine this). Thus it became a running and well-known joke: even if this month’s literary offerings refused to yield anything involving sex, there might be a piece by David Sexton, that would then get cover billing, as in – ‘David SEXton on Kingsley Amis’, and so on. And then obviously there followed all sorts of things like the ‘Bad Sex’ competition, all of which earned the Literary Review more publicity. But by this time I had followed Emma to Condé Nast, to edit the arts and books section of Vogue.
During all this time Naim was the kindest and most supportive of bosses. Although he sometimes got a mixed press, being often depicted as a very sexist employer, the truth is that Naim defied simple labelling. In the world of British publishing he always seemed to me to be something of an innocent who, like all essentially good-hearted people, expected the same in return – windfalls of goodwill. One has to remember certain things about Naim: that it was he who also owned and funded The Women’s Press, and published an imprint like Quartet Encounters, run by Stephen Pickles – a less commercial, more riskily high-minded list would be hard to find.
When I came to leave the Literary Review, I helped Bron find a successor (pointing him in the directon of Kate Kellaway, for which he was always grateful). But before then various candidates came along, including the sadly late Linda Brandon. Linda – who was to die tragically young – was extremely intelligent, with an exceptional CV. She had also become a lesbian, and wore short hair and dungarees. Accordingly we had an interview: Naim, Bron, Linda and myself. Bron, who was usually utterly unlike the persona of his more extreme kind of column, behaved briefly like the said invented persona – as soon as Linda had gone, he dismissed her completely. Naim on the other hand was perplexed by the single-mindedness of Bron’s response. All he could see was this incredibly impressive CV, and her pleasantness as a person. Naim and I argued for her, but Bron was resolute.
That was typical of Naim, who had a disinterested open-minded respect for achievement, and at the risk of stating the obvious, an appreciation of women above and beyond their appearance.
Well, to be fair he liked that, too. But then, to recycle that great last line in cinema, nobody’s perfect.