The unconscious of the middle class: The life and times of Kingsley Martin

Kingsley Martin, the longest-serving and arguably the greatest editor of the <em>New Statesman</em>, came from a Nonconformist, questioning background that produced in him a distaste for dogma and confrontation. Norman Mackenzie recalls his old boss.

Kingsley Martin. Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

In May 1943, I went to see Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, at his house near Dunmow in Essex. I was 21 and had just been discharged from the RAF on health grounds; Harold Laski, my former professor at the London School of Economics, had recommended me to Kingsley as a staff writer. It was a job interview but I remember we spent much of the afternoon speculating about the war and playing chess. It was only when he took me to the station afterwards that he sprang his catch question. Picking up the Evening Standard, which I had not seen, he asked, “What would you do now if you were Stalin?” I blurted out, “I would abolish the Comintern.” He laughed and said, “How did you know? You must have seen the paper already!”

As we waited for the train, he told me how he had been appointed editor of the NS in 1930. He had been interviewed over lunch at the Savoy by the company chairman, the novelist Arnold Bennett, who had asked him what he thought of the fish. By pure luck, Kingsley had seen a newspaper report of the cargo carried by the first planes flown from Geneva to London. “Excellent lake carp,” he had replied, sounding convincing.

I arrived at the NS offices at Great Turnstile a few weeks later. They were in a very Dickensian corner of London, in an alley off Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The environment set the character of the paper – it was indeed a sort of Dickensian club. I walked in without any letter of introduction, references or evidence of my writing experience. Kingsley was not there so the receptionist told me to go along the corridor to room five, the last door on the left. Inside was one of the most unusual men I have ever met. He could have played the sardonic character in a Restoration comedy; he was smoking a cigarette, pro­bably in his fifties. He was holding a page of typescript: “Here you are then, laddie, I’ve nearly finished this piece; why don’t you correct it?”

It was only then that I noticed he was wearing full military uniform: ribbons, buttons, the lot. Here was a hawk-like creature from the War Office working part-time for the anti-militarist NS! He was Aylmer Vallance, a former editor of the News Chronicle, now a lieutenant colonel in War Office intelligence. He was also an assistant editor of the NS, for which he wrote ano­nymously. His talent was writing “fillers”. If there was a space of 200 words, Aylmer would fill it instantly by writing about – let’s say – the effect of rearmament on the billiard ball industry.

This was wartime. As I discovered, a num­ber of NS writers besides Aylmer – such as Richard Crossman, Ritchie Calder, Peter de Mendelssohn and later myself – doubled up working on propaganda for the secret services. The linkages were often bizarre but we were all out to defeat Hitler.

If I had to fit the NS of Great Turnstile into the English tradition of radical writing, I would say it goes back directly to Richard Steele’s early coffee-house congeries of mid-18th-century London that gave rise to Tatler magazine. That is certainly how Kingsley saw it. The NS interlocked the old Whig radicalism centred around Whitehall with the Fabian parliamentary radicals of the LSE and the art, crafts, music and theatre crowd from Bloomsbury. Great Turnstile was right in the middle, literally.

When Kingsley became editor, his first deal was to acquire the Nation, with its Lib-Lab viewpoint. In the 1920s, the Nation had bought up that great Victorian literary weekly, the Athenaeum. When Kingsley added the Week-end Review in 1934, he found himself master of a vehicle largely of his own design, a literary omnibus carrying star writers from the left spectrum – H G Wells, J B Priestley, Malcolm Muggeridge, C E M Joad, Harold Laski – and a coachload of glitterati from political and artistic circles. He was a very inclusive editor. That remained the strength of the NS for 40 years. We were a sort of club of intellectual gentlemen, like the Savile or Garrick: not so high class but similarly collegiate.

At the centre of the NS was the London Diary, written throughout this period by Kingsley, calling himself “Critic”. It was his rolling commentary and that is how he put his character into the paper. He would rather write a diary piece than a leader and he saw himself more as a writer than as a managing editor. It was his way of commenting on the news, with a light touch and a dry sense of humour, in a critical state of mind.

It was also his way of airing his conscience. Particularly in the 1930s, the struggle in Kingsley’s mind between pacifism and war was played out in his Diary and thousands of readers identified with him. He was the son of a Nonconformist minister, brought up as a fluctuating Liberal on the Manchester Guardian. That is what his views came back to. I did not find him preachy but he had a sense of reputation.

Is this the right thing to do? The not unkind nickname given to the New Statesman and Nation, as it was officially titled, was the “Staggers and Naggers” and this referred, perhaps, to Kingsley’s vacillating conscience and nagging morality.

He loved the English countryside, gardens and pubs. He had a long relationship with his gardener in Essex, Mr Park, whom he relied on for gossipy bits of the Diary. He would come in on a Monday morning rolling with laughter and say, “Mr Park has coughed up again.” One day, he said that the weather over the weekend had been particularly calm down at Dunmow. Mr Park had said: “It’s bound to be calm, these days. There’s no wind since they took the windmills away.” These were the little sayings Kingsley liked.

The Monday morning editorial meeting, it is said, is the worst time on a weekly paper – unfinished copy, weekend problems, and so on – but ours was a kind of jamboree. Kingsley was often in an ebullient mood, rarely irritable and always ready to listen to another point of view. Conflict made him uncomfortable, although he would show anger at the state of the world. He would stand by the window with the small editorial staff sitting around. The guest writers would wander in if they had something to say and form an outer circle. A J P Taylor would come in to pick a book to review from our library and stay. During the war years, we had a number of refugee journalists from eastern Europe, such as the Hungarian Pál Ignotus, who would write for us and broadcast for the BBC from Bush House. They came, too, but we were all waiting for Vicky.

There would be a knock on the door towards the end of the meeting and this minuscule figure would enter, carrying an enormous black portfolio, almost as big as himself. This contained cartoons he had drawn over the weekend, sometimes after a phone call with Kingsley. He would hold them up for our reaction. We did not vote but often we would agree: “That’s the one.” This always made him happy. In his heyday, Vicky was irreplaceable.

He was probably closer to the spirit of the New Statesman than anyone except Kingsley. He had more heart and sentiment than anyone else around: a delightful sense of entertainment but a permanent sense of sorrow. He loathed above all else two things: ill-treatment of prisoners, and the atom bomb. It was the bomb that killed him in the end. In 1966, aged only 52, he could not bear living with it any longer and took his own life.

Vicky and I were the links with Tribune down the road in Exeter Street, by the law courts. We had lunch on most Tuesdays with Michael Foot, and later with Dick Clements and occasionally George Orwell, who called us “a stall in a joke bazaar” because Vicky made it a point of honour to arrive a little late with at least two new cartoons. Tribune and the NS had an annual “Alice in Wonderland” cricket match, in which Vicky was not allowed to be out. One year, I remember, he was given ten not-outs in seven overs. The serious point was that Tribune took part wholeheartedly in Labour politics, becoming the Bevanite paper of the Keep Left group, whereas the New Statesman’s attitude to Labour was hesitant and uncommitted. These lunches were a way of keeping in touch.

I liked Orwell very much. He and Kingsley were very similar, except that Orwell was more intellectual and he had an edge of bitterness about him. He was not an easy man but his socialism was the same as ours – he shared with Priestley and Laski a socialism that was in the non-Marxist, English tradition.

Orwell had a lasting dispute with Kingsley that dated back to the Spanish civil war. The NS had refused to publish his articles from Catalonia about the splits between the Spanish Communist Party and the Trotsky­ites of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Uni­fication. Kingsley had thought that they were too disruptive at a critical stage of the war. I think he was wrong. It was probably why Orwell later included Kingsley in his notorious list of “crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or [those] inclined that way who should not be trusted as propagandists”, which he gave to the Foreign Office in 1949.

This was all a great pity, because the two men would possibly have done great things together. All we got was Orwell’s sour, though justified, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

By the end of the war, weekly sales of the NS had reached 70,000 copies, despite the shortage of paper. As it was estimated that each copy had on average six readers, that was a congregation of nearly half a million. It was beginning to make money, too. The trouble was that Kingsley wasn’t keen on spending it.

That is why, for years, the foreign coverage was very erratic. Kingsley did not like paying the correspondents. He thought that if they were working for someone else – as was the case with Alexander Werth, who covered the Soviet Union for the Manchester Guardian – then their copy would be all the better for being volunteered. This was very hit and miss. The NS was dependent on what foreign correspondents, which the magazine was getting on the cheap, wanted to write about.

Writers’ pay was based on column inches. I used to watch Kingsley measuring up with a ruler and then deducting a few inches if he did not like the article. It never seemed to work the other way round. One day, at lunch, he suggested that we should share the bill. I remember distinctly that each of our meals cost nine shillings and sixpence and we each put in a pound note. When the waiter arrived back with the change, he scooped it all up and put it in his pocket. I suggested that some of it could be the waiter’s tip. “You should pay that,” he said, “as you ate more than I did.” Remember that he was the editor and I was a junior assistant at the time.

Kingsley was never a dogmatist. That is what drew so many readers, who found the air of independence at the NS more attractive than the ideologies promulgated in the 1930s and 1940s. At his memorial service at Central Hall in 1969, someone said he was the conscience of the left. I said, no, he was the unconscious of the middle class and that’s why he had such power. He had a very deep sense of his readership and of himself in behaving justly. At the end of his autobiography, he quoted T H Huxley to describe the era that covered Kingsley’s birth in 1897 and the death of H G Wells in 1946: “[It saw] the worst calamities . . . the prostitution of the mind, the soddening of the conscience [and] the dwarfing of manhood.” That’s what Kingsley fought against with all his ebullience and anger.

Norman Mackenzie worked on the New Statesman from 1943 to 1962