The New Statesman: A nursery of talent

Claire Tomalin looks back on her time as an NS staffer.

I was working at the Evening Standard when I heard that there was a job going as deputy literary editor on the New Statesman. I remember thinking, that’s perfect. It was three days a week and I had children, but I could make that work – so I applied for it and got it. That was in 1968; Paul Johnson was the editor and Anthony Thwaite the literary editor. When Anthony went for his holiday the next summer, he said, “I’m off for a month and I haven’t really set anything up,” and it was an absolutely divine moment. I had a headache for a month and the best time of my life.

It was a very good time in literature. Criticism was taken seriously. There were lots of young dons in the universities – people such as Alan Ryan and Alasdair Macintyre, who were full of enthusiasm. I also had a very strong feeling about the tradition of the back half of the New Statesman: earlier literary editors had included Desmond MacCarthy, David Garnett, Harold Nicolson – really good people. Above all, Victor Pritchett, who had been literary editor and who was still writing for the paper, which was marvellous. I learned so much from him about how to write, just from looking at the way he constructed a review. He would write out his copy and his wife, Dorothy, would type it out very badly and he would go over it and it would be covered in spidery marks. His light touch was wonderful – you just felt it was the most natural thing in the world. Terence Kilmartin on the Observer taught me a great deal about how book pages should be run. He thought every week there should be at least one word that readers had to go and look up. He was not a believer in making everything easy for everybody but he had good judgement about how you approach reviewing. He didn’t try to be too clever.

I thought it was a glorious thing to be a critic and to be a literary editor, and one was really doing something that mattered: to keep up standards, to take books seriously. The offices then were in Great Turnstile, on the corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The literary offices were upstairs and you came to recognise the steps of different cont­ributors because everybody brought their copy in. It was before technology. It was an extraordinary time – the Vietnam war, les événements in Paris, Harold Wilson. I remember in 1968 marching round Grosvenor Square with Eric Hobsbawm, holding his arm, protesting against the Vietnam war.

I was the deputy until I left, just before I had my son Tom. When I was off, I wrote a piece about Mary Wollstonecraft and got letters from publishers and agents saying you must write a book about her. I decided to do it but just as I finished, my husband [the journalist Nick Tomalin] was killed in Israel reporting on the Yom Kippur war. By then, Anthony had left, John Gross was the literary editor and Tony Howard was the editor. John said to me, I’m going to edit the TLS and you must come and be literary editor here. So I went back in 1973.

In my first issue I had a full-page poem by Clive James. I had very good critics: Jonathan Raban, Shiva Naipaul, Marina Warner, Hilary Spurling, Paul Theroux, Dennis Enright. We had parties, lunches – we used to sell the review copies to pay for the drinks. I gave Martin Amis his job – he was working on the TLS and I read his first novel, The Rachel Papers, and thought he was much better than Kingsley. Tony was very keen to get him, so we offered him a job as my deputy. Tony was very good at spotting talent – he had Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton, too. It was a nursery of talent. We knew Julian Barnes and we wanted a new television critic. He applied for the job and Martin and I interviewed him. He was very funny. There was some rivalry because Clive James was a famously wonderful television critic for the Observer, but Julian built up a very good following.

It was also a time when feminism was stirring, which was very important. Increasingly, books came in that were polemical, from writers such as Eva Figes and Germaine Greer. There was also much more editing of diaries and letters – of Virginia Woolf and 19th-century writers who hadn’t been edited and published before. I liked reviewing books about women that hadn’t been much noticed.

When I wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft I found that here she was, in the late 18th century, going to work for the Analytical Review. What was the Analytical Review? It was a magazine that dealt with politics and literature. I thought this is too ridiculous that this tradition is so old and so powerful – but it just is a very, very good way of doing a weekly magazine. I have been left-wing always, from childhood. My father was a socialist and my grandfather was a socialist and I remember the 1945 election and the excitement of that. So to go to work for the New Statesman I felt was a thoroughly good thing and I was extremely happy there.

Claire Tomalin’s most recent book is “Charles Dickens: a Life” (Penguin, £9.99)

Claire Tomalin at home in Richmond. Photograph: Charlotte Player

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue