Areté: a Retrospective edited by Craig Raine: Step into the literary-journalistic penthouse

If there’s a common thread to the best pieces collected in the pleasingly hefty new retrospective... it’s nothing stronger than the element of autobiography.

Areté: a Retrospective
Edited by Craig Raine
Areté Books, 504pp, £10

I have been taking refuge in Craig Raine’s “arts tri-quarterly” for almost a decade. A tidy row of copies could reliably be found under the kitchen cabinet of a Notting Hill house with a liberal door policy – the owner had been seated next to Raine at a dinner party and was subscribing by the end of the meal – and I would gravitate towards it instead of playing Snake II on my Nokia 6110. An essay on Saul Bellow or Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf perfectly filled that half-hour spot during which, having grown bored with room-hopping, I couldn’t yet be bothered to walk to the night bus. I already knew from hours of seatless reading in second-hand bookshops that Raine’s prose – as collected in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet – was earcatching, something I could steal and even learn from, and his magazine, about five years old when I discovered it, was simply an extension of his critical personality, a private paradise where the friends, students and family members he had enlisted as contributors wrote about Raine-ish subjects (British theatre, modern poetry, writers’ letters, the novel) and furthered Raine-ite causes.

It would be false to say that I was formed by Raine’s magazine in the way that people say they were formed by Scrutiny or the New Statesman. I wasn’t looking for a world-view and Areté wasn’t offering one. Despite the name (Greek for “virtue”), an emphasis on 20th-century European history, an epigraph from Matthew Arnold (“Culture seeks to do away with classes,” and so on) and a pronounced fondness for the figure whom Raine has described as Arnold’s critical and poetic son, T S Eliot, the magazine is impudent and amorphous. If there’s a common thread to the best pieces collected in the pleasingly hefty new retrospective – Lucy Sisman on being an unloved daughter, Nina Raine on working with Pinter, Christopher Reid’s poems about his late wife – it’s nothing stronger than the element of autobiography.

In his unshy introduction, Raine thanks Ian McEwan for giving Areté a chapter of a novel when it might have earned him £5,000 from the New Yorker but the advantage of this tri-quarterly is precisely not that it publishes writing that richer weeklies would otherwise have published. It’s that it publishes things that might not otherwise have been commissioned, whether by overworked freelancers (Sam Leith on being lonely in post-9/11 New York, Matthew Norman on getting stabbed in South Africa), untapped prose writers (Ralph Fiennes, Harriet Walter) or fledglings with free time (Claire Lowdon, who recalls a visit to Sandhurst). Of the collection’s more than 50 contributors, it’s only name writers – Julian Barnes, William Boyd –who underwhelm.

Even the pieces by Raine’s most gifted pals suffer from being overindulged, underedited. Martin Amis’s account of meeting John Updike, written in response to the writer’s death, might have started at its second paragraph: “My only meeting with John Updike – a two-hour interview – took place in a Massachusetts hospital.” Instead, it opens with a heart-sinking bit of Amis-ese: “America is sick about health: America, where strokes and heart attacks come with a price tag, and where the doctors carry on like slum landlords or war profiteers.” There are traces of fatuousness in the piece – Updike’s erstwhile presence “is now an absence of the same dimensions” – and incoherence – “Updike was 31, and already the veteran of many cigarettes (and then many cigars)” – and tautology – “its modest portent, its token omen, of a death foretold”. Such phrasing might not have been accepted by other publications – or by this publication, from other contributors.

If the retrospective reveals a weakness, it is in the magazine’s literary coverage, which, for all its suavity, shows a constricting institutional allegiance. Areté is an Oxford magazine in which the university’s native qualities (confidence, common sense) are used to fight Cambridge evils and those who represent them (J H Prynne, Robert Macfarlane, James Wood). The magazine has not one but two corners for those with pseud-ish tendencies (“Our Bold” and “A Good Idea in Theory”).

But the fear of being vague or fanciful produces shortcomings of its own. In his wonderful contribution (“At the Movies for Money”), Adam Mars-Jones writes that he used his Independent film column to write an “extrapolating essay”. Too often, the literary essays here fail to extrapolate and even to ruminate. It’s no good being “unafraid of long pieces” – Raine’s claim in the introduction – if the generous word count is simply used to present, at greater length, a case that could be made in 1,000 words.

Mars-Jones’s piece about his time as a film critic would merit inclusion in any arts magazine but it also appeals to the editor’s metropolitanism, his lust for peaking behind closed doors. A newspaper editor proves gentle in rebuke (“Shouldn’t be sarcastic . . . Should be four-square”). The atmosphere in a screening room is thick with dejection (“It was considered beneath us to laugh at a comedy or to flinch during a horror film”).

At one point, Mars-Jones writes that moving from the TLS to the NS was “a standard enough career ladder for a freelance reviewer, giving access not to a penthouse but something more like a tree house, if not the upper accommodation of a split-level hamster cage”. It’s a spry bit of self-deprecation, phrased with this writer’s predictable brilliance, but somewhat undermined by the surroundings in which Mars-Jones now finds himself, a sort of literary-journalistic penthouse, built partly to consecrate its owner’s tastes (“We publish anything we like”) and partly as a vantage point for looking down on others.

There is always something to discover in Areté. Photograph: Getty Images

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.