Miriam Gross's damnably readable memoir

An Almost English Life: Literary and Not So Literary Recollections - review.

Miriam Gross's memoir
Miriam Gross's memoir. Photograph: Getty Images

An Almost English Life: Literary and Not So Literary Recollections
Miriam Gross
Short Books 256pp, £12.99

Labelled a “short book”, this memoir has the quality of a long conversation with a very interesting woman. From the first line (“My mother, though Jewish, was not a ‘Jewish mother’”), one hears the voice – clipped, measured, nononsensical. It’s a discreet memoir – particularly on family, marital and extramarital matters. But it has enough packed into its 250-odd pages to supply other writers with material for any number of jumbo-sized novels.

Kurt and Vera May, with their only child, Miriam, barely escaped the clutches of Hitler. Gross’s early childhood was rootlessly cosmopolitan – not something she regrets. “Much, perhaps too much, has been said about the importance of ‘roots’,” she thinks. She was born, unrootedly, in Jerusalem in 1937. Her lawyer father set up a fashionable ladies’ clothes shop – the higher rag trade. It thrived. Miriam was brought up speaking German, with a mild revulsion for Israel (specifically Zionist “terrorist tactics”). For 30 years, she avoided visiting the country “mainly because I was too busy”.

There followed a spell in Switzerland and then six years as a boarder at Dartington Hall School in Devon. Her parents were determined their daughter should not be brought up a “German”. Miriam kept the language but was in her late teens before she was aware that something called the Holocaust had even happened. Dartington, it was intended, would anglicise her.

Under its owners, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, Dartington in the 1930s was a rather zany commune devoted to art, beauty and spiritual freedom. Attached to it was the “liberal” school. It was co-educational and nude bathing was permitted in the school swimming pool. Pupils, Gross primly notes, never went “all the way”. “Petting” was indulged, as were homoerotic “pashes”. Lucian Freud spent a couple of years there galloping horses across the Devonshire moors, without learning to read or write.

Dartington, as intended, anglicised Miriam May. The process, she realised, was complete when her parents visited and she found herself horribly embarrassed by their accents. She graduated a sophisticated adolescent, adept in French kissing (and French), a connoisseur of Dixieland jazz, possessed of some nifty jive moves on the dance floor and disabused of any great reverence for the opposite sex – something that would stand her in good stead in the career to come. She was formidably well read and six months cramming got her into Oxford to do English where, as was normal at that period, she was criminally neglected by tutors who regarded undergraduates as pests.

The negligent Oxford gave her space to grow into herself. “All the way” was now on the cards. The whole of her life, she confesses, until her second marriage in 1993, was spent “pining for, or agonising about, or impatiently anticipating, a meeting with a loved one”. “Usually male,” she slyly adds.

The pining must have been as often on the other side. Miss May was whip-smart and, as Zadie Smith put it in presenting herself as an unpublished young author to Faber, she did not resemble the back of a bus. She still doesn’t, as the flap photograph confirms.

She caught the eye of Isaiah Berlin, about whom she writes fondly. A J Ayer’s wife, with whose son she was having a steaming affair, arranged for her to be fitted with a diaphragm. She slept with Kris Kristofferson, then a Rhodes scholar, but he couldn’t get it up. “Perhaps a very discreet premature ejaculation,” she charitably surmises. He probably has a rueful ballad about it somewhere in his knapsack along with memorials to Bobby McGee.

With a respectable Second, she drifted into the London literary world. The magazine Encounter needed someone fluent in German and it was there she met her first husband, John Gross. She moved on to the Observer to work for 15 years under, and eventually alongside, Terence Kilmartin, who represents, for Gross, everything that was best in London literary journalism.

The London literary world was not at the time open to all talents – particularly female talent. John Gross would write a book called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. No need to add “woman”. Letters and women, in the 1960s, did not collocate any more than men This woman’s work: Miriam Gross in the mid-1960s and washing up. The oafish Philip Toynbee, a star writer on the book pages, would come drunken and leering into the Observer office, and even poked her breasts. Anthony Crosland eyed those same features appraisingly and asked Kilmartin, in her hearing, “Is this your new au pair girl?” Kenneth Tynan, the paper’s theatre reviewer, was more gallant but the mirrors on his bedroom ceiling put her off anything serious with him – close as she came.

Over her decade and a half at the paper, she developed a lofty editorial scorn for “contributors”. Copy would too often come blemished with “grammatical blunders, non sequiturs and sloppy arguments”. It was hard labour making their stuff “readable”.

One kissed the rod. The literary-critical authority of the national dailies and Sunday papers in this era was Olympian. They were taste-forming journals. The Observerwas selling close to a million every week (it clears a quarter of that today). The fourth estate – and its higher journalism – doesn’t have that massive authority any more and perhaps never will again. As Gross wearily observes, it’s merely an armature, and by no means the most important, of the book world’s PR machine. Gross finished her career as a senior editor on the Sunday Telegraph; it was tactfully intimated to her, when she was 67, that seniority was not high on the paper’s list of priorities any more. She gives a parenthetic account of her “emotional life”. She and John Gross remained married but lived separate, friendly, lives for most of their years together. A six-year-long, tormented affair with a married man is described in some detail but she does not name him. Her second marriage, with a former editor of the Financial Times, has been happy. The book is dedicated to her two successful journalist children, Tom and Susanna.

Gross is better at demonstrating her qualities as a higher journalist than describing them. Pride of place goes to the literary interviews she did for the Observer. Five of her interviews are included in the last section of the book. Her technique was to ask simple questions and charm the pants off her interviewee. She and Harold Pinter got tipsy together and he talked and talked. In the Philip Larkin conversation, it becomes increasingly clear that he is chatting her up, throwing his prize Larkinisms her way (for example, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”). One sees the satyr’s glint flash behind the horn rims. These interviews would adapt into wonderful radio plays. One would be tempted to say that they, alone, make the book worth buying – if it weren’t that the rest of it is, to use Gross’s highest term of literary commendation, so damnably readable. And short.

John Sutherland’s most recent book is “Lives of the Novelists: a History of Fiction in 294"