Fag ash, fact and fiction

Another Round at the Pillars - Grub Street and the Ivory Tower
July 16, 1999

Despite his having been dubbed - by Julian Barnes - "Old Stoneface" and compared with James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven , Ian Hamilton is someone it is easy to be smitten by, judging from his 60th-birthday Festschrift . Assembled in Another Round at the Pillars are lovingly recollected personal and professional details from a dream cast of Hamilton's friends and colleagues: fellow poets, fellow critics, fellow editors. Old Stoneface comes across as very much a poet's poet (Faber recently issued Sixty Poems ), but also a biographer's biographer (with his life of Robert Lowell, a non-life of

J. D. Salinger, a study of Matthew Arnold, another of Gazza, an overlooked but brilliant book on literary estates) and an editor's editor (his achievements with The Review and then The New Review are repeatedly cited as the efforts of the last great literary editor). Everybody seems to love him.

So, here are Simon Gray, Harold Pinter, Craig Raine, Ian McEwan, Hugo Williams, A. Alvarez, Michael Hofmann, Peter Porter, Clive James and others - all with appropriately cheerful words to say. The 23 (all-male) pieces concentrate on Hamilton the poet, who publishes little and who writes about "eight words a week", and Hamilton the editor of "little magazines".

David Harsent, in his introduction, says the poet and editor work off the same impulse, "critical stringency: the notion of excellence". This, of course, is important and is borne out by the praise that follows, although it somewhat misses the humour and humanity of Hamilton that is superabundant in each account. Indeed before we even get to these, much human information is revealed in the wonderful endpapers of the book - a fetishistic close-up photograph of "Ian's desk" by Robert McNab.

It is all this that is so loveable and so threatened these days. Yes, he is severe: "A hard man to please" (A. Alvarez) with his "distinctive tough-mindedness" (Blake Morrison), but who can resist a man who does not eat?

Barnes: "His plate was still piled with food that had undergone brief, sardonic rearrangement. He lit another cigarette." Alvarez: "He was being more dilatory (with his food) than usual. I asked him if he minded if I smoked while he was eating. He looked at me in amazement. 'Mind?' he said. 'I smoke while I'm eating.'" Peter Dale: "Ian regretted that you couldn't smoke while sleeping." Douglas Dunn: "Larkin ate Ian's as well as his own."

The drinking is - or at least was - spectacular too. And it had its own rigorous certainty. Barnes tells how Hamilton could not bring himself to order a gin and bitter lemon for the novelist in waiting back in the days of The New Review . The gin was no problem, but the evil mixer could not be admitted into Hamilton's pub vocabulary: "'A gin and ... you say it'". 'Bitter lemon,' I admitted, completing the order and my shame."

His enviable though damaging ability to be able to live on cigarettes and books as well as his superb prose and stringent criticism connects Hamilton to a great family tree that includes many of the writers and critics who feature in the essays that make up Grub Street and the Ivory Tower . It would be possible to trace Hamilton out of Henry Fielding by Blackwood's Magazine and so on. Barnes in Another Round at the Pillars wants to link Hamilton and his magazines in Greek Street (also home to The Pillars of Hercules pub) "to Bohemia, to Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury, back to the original Grub Street, whose inhabitants Johnson defined as 'writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems'". More recently there is a postwar golden triumvirate of literary editors that yokes together Terence Kilmartin ( The New Statesman , The Observer ), Karl Miller ( The Spectator , The Listener , The New Statesman , London Review of Books ) and our man Hamilton.

He founded and then edited The Review from 1962 to 1972. It was a poetry magazine, what he himself has called "vigorous, combatative, the champion of 'intelligent lyricism' in an age of versified prose-poetry and pop". The New Review (April 1974-1979, 50 issues) "was intended to preserve the vigour and liveliness of The Review but to extend its range into 'the arts'... On the one hand, there were the academic journals; on the other the Sunday supplements and culture pages, with their obligation to be brief. It seemed to us that there was fertile ground between the two: it was for this we aimed."

We have been here before. Jeremy Treglown and Bridget Bennett, the editors of Grub Street and the Ivory Tower , recognise this territory and assert that "there has rarely been a sharp distinction between Grub Street and the Ivory Tower as has often been supposed (or wished by some people on both sides)".

Hamilton's critical and biographical writing happily commutes between hackery and the academy. "Such reciprocities have been an essential part of literature's ecostructure," say Treglown and Bennett (though whether Hamilton would have tolerated that phrase in The New Review is another matter). We have forgotten, as Stefan Collini reminds us in one of the most sparkling of a rich seam of essays in the book, that even F. R. Leavis, the scourge of Grub Street, wrote his PhD thesis on early English journalism and literature. Hamilton, I think, has never returned to university since his ancient third from Oxford, but his work nowadays more than qualifies him for academic election. Yet the thought of that is all wrong. Try as they will, Treglown and Bennett's contributors cannot convince us that the colour and romance is anywhere but in Grub Street.

Ian Hamilton is a tatty office in the guts of London, little but ruthless magazines, a run of biographical subjects to defy all but the most intrepid, that desk, another round.

Tim Dee is chief producer, Radio Features, BBC Bristol.

Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems and Reflections on Ian Hamilton

Editor - D. Harsent
ISBN - 1 899 98006 7
Publisher - Cargo Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 151

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