In praise of little magazines

Night and Day is relaunched.

Night and Day, a literary magazine founded and run by Graham Greene in the early 20th century, survived for six months. The fact that it is remembered at all is testament to the extraordinary hold that small magazines are capable of exerting on the memories of publishers and writers alike. It's odd, after all, that a publication that wobbled into existence so briefly should prompt two 21st-century publishers to declare that they intend to relaunch it "to celebrate our imprints' rich and illustrious history"; to "bring forth... the vagaries of publishing life and an enviable slice of literary heritage".

But what is this history, and why is it worth celebrating?

The pedigree of the magazine, in its original form, is undeniable. It carried articles, comment and fiction by Louis MacNeice, William Plomer and Herbert Read; Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen and Cyril Connolly. Yet what the magazine is most famous for is its explosive end at the hand of its editor. Naughty Greene wrote the review that brought the law knocking on the door with charges of criminal libel underarm. Shirley Temple, the child star of a new film called Wee Willie Winkie, was alleged to be a figure of the "dubious coquetry" and "dimpled depravity". Serious charges indeed. MGM tried to sue, Chatto & Windus were forced to discontinue publication, and Greene was never to forgive the dastardly WH Smith, who refused to have the infamous issue on their stand.

The opening pages of a relaunched Night and Day carry a statement of their predecessor's aim -- to showcase "a wealth of talent, invigilating over a mad world". The sentiment is noticeably wilder than the staid words of the magazine's current publishers -- and the thought of Greene and Waugh as "invigilators" is a delicious one.

The question remains: Night and Day is "hoping to establish itself once more as an irreverent but relevant literary magazine", but can literary magazines be both irreverent and relevant, or do the words just sound pretty in tandem? Parisa Ebrahimi and Tom Avery, of Chatto & Windus and Jonathan Cape respectively, are presumably not "celebrating" the loose-cannoned ways of their magazine's glory months -- they've tempered such tendencies with "heritage" and "publishing life". And this is no bad thing. Their first edition bears a stable mix of the writerly and the publishy, has a warming little picture of a beaming Jonathan Cape on the back and rides on a self-proclaimed relevance.

Perhaps such magazines are best left to be run by publishers. Writers don't seem to have done very well. Emerson's late 19th-century Dial ("Let it be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics", he declaimed, in what I imagine to be a threateningly delighted manner), didn't last very long under his leadership. Its revival in the 20th century saw it carry the first publication of T S Eliot's The Waste Land in the US, as well as Yeats's "The Second Coming". Eventually, Marianne Moore took to somewhere near the helm (she was managing editor), and the ship obediently sunk.

Likewise, Athenaeum, also now dead, didn't really begin to do well until an academic took the lead. Earlier days saw its chief poetry critic, Theodore Watts-Dunton, take it upon himself to look after notorious poet Algernon Swinburne in his Putney residence. An otherwise decent man, Watts-Dunton is occasionally criticized for hindering Swinburne's progress on an erotic sadomasochistic novel.

The Criterion, meanwhile, remains the most famous example of a literary magazine run by a poet and making a success of itself, even amid the arguments between Eliot, Middleton-Murray, Mansfield and Lady Rothermere -- there's an excellent account of these covert literary bitchings in a recent piece in the London Review of Books, and the letters between the four have recently been published. It must be remembered, however, that Eliot was not just a poet, but a senior publisher with Faber.

Night and Day might just have found its solution.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit