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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution