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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser