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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis