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

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear