John Gross, 1935-2011

Death of a man of letters.

The writer and critic John Gross, a former literary editor of the New Statesman, died yesterday at the age of 75. After a brief career in academia, Gross gravitated in the mid-1960s towards Grub Street, where he rapidly established a reputation as one of the country's subtlest yet most productive literary journalists.

Gross was made editor of the Times Literary Supplement in 1974, a post he held until 1981.The TLS as we recognise it today owes much to Gross's editorship, the principal and most controversial innovation of which was the introduction of signed reviews (until then, reviewers had written anonymously). Gross didn't abandon scholarly work altogether, however, and in 1969 he published his first, and perhaps best known, book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, which A N Wilson described as a paean to the "the ideal of a human life, spent reading, and making a living by what one reads".

NS editor Jason Cowley, reviewing Gross's memoir of his East End Jewish childhood A Double Thread in 2001, saw in him a fine practitioner of the literary essay, a form that, "as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, E B White and Lewis Lapham . . . strives for literary permanence and concerns the search for a personal voice". Gross's book, Cowley concluded, had all these attributes and was a reminder that "the best essayists are those, like Gross, who have the gift of digression, those who surprise the reader and themselves, who are able to luxuriate in language and to elaborate and inflate any chosen subject".

In October 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Gross's masterpiece, the critic D J Taylor wrote in the NS that, with one or two "trend-defying exceptions", the man of letters as Gross imagined him was extinct. Until yesterday, one of those exceptions was Gross himself:

[Gross's] Man of Letters can range from a simple "bookman", snug in his study with 3,000 novels for company, to the kind of highbrow critic whose followers invest his cult with well-nigh religious significance, or the moonlighting MP who sees literature as a kind of default setting for his political schemes. What unites them is a passion for books, a fixation with the culture in which books get produced and evaluated, and an assumption that, as Gross puts it in his final sentence, "the idea of the man of letters has a place in any healthy literary tradition".

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies