JThat someone can write does not guarantee that he can speak or that his meeting is worthwhile. “I think like a genius,” said Vladimir Nabokov, “I write like a distinguished author and speak like a child.” And when Marcel Proust met James Joyce, their whole speech, the latter remembers, “consisted only of the word ‘no’. Proust asked me if I knew the duke of so-and-so. I said, ‘No.'” He was asked if he had read Ulysses, Proust also answered: “No”. “The situation”, recalls Joyce, “was impossible”. But the literary scene is not short of Boswell, eager to rub shoulders with greater writers. John Walsh, the Sunday timeformer literary editor, now wrote Circus of Dreamswhere he tells how he inserted himself into the best literary circles of London in the 80s.
The 1980s, with their excesses, shook up British literature. Tim Waterstone opened his first bookstores. The London book review Was found. The Booker Prize has been reinvigorated. With new funds, publishers began paying six-figure advances. Literary evenings have suddenly become glamorous, with the Groucho Club to host them. Novelists were, for a time, on the verge of stardom. It now seems inconsequential, but not for Walsh. Socializing with writers and editors, he writes, “was heaven.” He wants to impress this feeling – the slightest thing becomes material for him to tell. Harold Pinter, we are told, once gave her a menacing look at a cocktail party. At first, when he was an assistant at the Gollancz publishing house, he spoke briefly with Angela Carter on the phone. He once shared a bottle of Saint-Emilion with Ian McEwan, an episode I highly doubt McEwan will include in his memoir.
But Walsh’s central thesis, that the 1980s rejuvenated British literature, is not without merit. A brilliant generation of novelists emerged, with a recognizably bold new style. “In 1980s fiction,” he writes, “the English language was cleansed of indolence, fog, and banality; in their place came hyperactivity, attack, clarity, surging storytelling. He seems to have modeled his own style on these lines, but with less subtlety. To express his enthusiasm, he repeatedly turns to martial clichés: novelists become “literary gunslingers”; Martin Amis is praised for his stylistic “swordsmanship”; Lord George-Brown is not just a dipso but a “military grade drunk”. It’s incongruous phrasing for literary matters, unless its subject is Norman Mailer, but restraint is not Walsh’s game. “Tina Brown,” he wrote, “hit the journalistic empyrean like a sleek blonde rocket.” Discovering the works of Angela Carter, meanwhile, “was like finding a bouquet of Venus Flytraps in the pleasant bluebell woods of contemporary English prose”. Roger Scruton stands next to Paul Johnson “like a top league of irascible red-headed thinkers”. His prose is just too much.
Walsh’s first (but not last) experience of “literary hero worship” centered on Martin Amis. He went to Oxford four years after Friends, but it was close enough to make him swoon. Amis had won over half the town, graduated with a congratulations first, then written a string of novels in his twenties. Success in both love and literature – “a boudoir swordsman” – he had everything Walsh wanted. Indeed, the mere thought that he could have sat in the same chair as Friends overwhelms him. “And maybe – holy shit! – that dusty seminar chair I had been sitting in for two hours was precisely the one which Mart (I had started to think of him as ‘Mart’) had actually parked his denim clad behind. His fixation soon borders on eroticism: “I thought: we will probably see each other again very soon. We will continue really good. […] We’ll probably end up, you know, sharing of excavations.” He calls his hero worship “frankly silly”, which both reinforces its honesty and truth but doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.
After graduating, Walsh worked in publishing for a few years, moving into business journalism, contributing freelance reviews for Books and deliverersthen join the evening standard. At some point, he gets into the journalistic habit of giving everyone epithets. Ted Hughes, the poet laureate, is so absurdly called the “general manager” of the poetry scene. And John Betjeman is repeatedly presented as “the national teddy bear”. Martin Amis wrote The war against the cliché, but Walsh did not subscribe to it. Conventions are “moth-eaten”. Books are not read. They are “devoured”. No one drinks a glass of wine. They “plan” them. People “hit” things. Trying not to repeat Ringo Starr’s name in two consecutive sentences, Walsh calls him “the tough Scouser”. It’s just a mock style, not the real thing. It is however not illegible, simply uninspired.
British writers of the 1980s had three common themes, writes Walsh: (1) the use of 20th century historical events and figures, as in Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard; (2) outspoken depictions of homosexuality, for example in Anthony Burgess Earth Powers or William Golding The rites of passage; and (3) the conflict between religious values and worldly corruption. Walsh is a scholar and a good guide to literature. His enthusiasm is pleasant to read. But the thrust of the book is its socialization with writers, editors, and reviewers. Here, his enthusiasm becomes excessive. He feels like he finally sees “a glimpse of high bohemian life” when he is invited to his first real literary evening, where Kingsley Amis harasses him to tell him that he is pro-torture. He had been left “in the Magical Garden, where literary dinosaurs crashed and young, wide-eyed suitors could get their first taste of greatness – and wonder how to join them”.
Walsh begins to fraternize properly when he becomes literary editor of the Sunday time. He was soon a regular at Lord Weidenfeld’s parties and a member of the Groucho Club. I grew up reading a lot of the novelists Walsh meets, so his subject should interest me, but I got bored. I’m not saying Walsh can’t be funny — he has a sharp portrayal of Rupert Murdoch — but his humor just punctuates the length. Although I can read how he met Umberto Eco, his 16-page Who’s Who of London edition is downright soporific. Why does he persist in telling us so many completely insignificant things? “I rather enjoyed management theory, though, and read several books on the subject.” Is it really deserved to have an entire chapter on how the Sunday time organized his “Best of British Writers” photo shoots of 1982 and 1983? And why is there a four-page review of The Midnight Children? Circus of Dreams is a long essay stretched the length of a book. Dross, a lot of it, is the result.
No review of London’s literary ensemble is complete without counting with the United States. He held British writers in his gravitational field simply because that was where things were happening. It was richer, bigger, wilder. Tina Brown moved to New York to ride vanity lounge. When she called Friends in London, she felt she could hear the rain in her voice. Eventually, many of the best British writers moved to the United States: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, etc. Chicago because Saul Bellow lives there. When Sonny Mehta left for New York in 1987, Walsh noted that “there was a lot of crying at Authorland” because his private parties were deemed unrivaled, but he saw no broader trend. Instead, he thinks the vector of influence has worked the other way: England exerting its weight on America. It is thus missing that London lost much of its talent because New York took it.
As an introduction to British literary life in the 1980s, Circus of Dreams has some merit. But it offers little freshness. The kind of person who might read it is probably already familiar with most of what it contains. His stories have often been told better elsewhere — if you want to read about the Friday luncheons hosted by Clive James and Terry Kilmartin, you can read what the attendees themselves said. This redundancy is noticeable, for example, when Walsh writes that Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie “of course” came on Valentine’s Day. This “of course” concedes that the reader probably knows enough about the Rushdie case to know what day the fatwa was issued. So most of what he writes about others is recycled material; unfortunately most of what he writes about himself is not very interesting. The book has some strong points – I laughed a couple times. Still, miss it.
Gustav Jonsson is a Swedish freelance writer based in the UK.