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The pantomime horse

Jonathan Derbyshire looks back at his predecessors in the literary editor’s chair.

A few weeks ago, I commissioned John Sutherland to review a book about the relationship between British writers and the intelligence services. In his review, Sutherland sought to defend Stephen Spender against the familiar charge that he had known more about CIA funding of the magazine Encounter than he’d let on. The author of the book in question had described Spender as “the editor of Encounter”. He wasn’t, Sutherland wrote. Spender was the magazine’s literary editor. “He was no more influential on the political front half of Encounter than, I suspect, the literary editor of this magazine is on the New Statesman.”

The assault on my amour-propre implied in those words was less interesting or significant than Sutherland’s casual acceptance of a particularly tenacious and influential picture of the physiognomy of the NS. In 1963, the writer and critic V S Pritchett – a prolific contributor to the back half of this magazine for more than 30 years and, for a brief period in the late 1940s, himself literary editor –wrote that “this journal has always been torn in half”, engaged in a more or less permanent “marital quarrel” between the political front and the literary back. (Pritchett’s stint in the literary editor’s chair, it should be noted, was somewhat ill-starred. His biographer, Jeremy Treglown, says that he was “persuaded” to take the job after the end of the Second World War but that the experiment wasn’t a success. Pritchett, it seems, found the administrative demands of the job excessively onerous.)

Literature and the arts, Pritchett observed, had always “zig-zagged this way and that across the line of political and social policy”. The result was that the “conversation” (and the word was well chosen) in the back half was altogether breezier, more expansive and urbane than in the front.

This had been true ever since the founding of the New Statesman in 1913, when the first literary editor, J C Squire, was hired on a salary of £300. Squire had made his name as a parodist and minor versifier. T S Eliot once described a poem of his as “original and rather impressive”, but Squire never returned the favour. On the contrary, he condemned The Waste Land as “scarcely worthy of the Hogarth Press”, which had published it.

This judgement was entirely characteristic of Squire’s gentlemanly conservatism in critical matters. He used his influence in literary London – his acolytes, many installed in positions on the review pages of the major newspapers and journals of the day, were known collectively as the “Squirearchy” – to rail against the depredations of modernism and the high-aestheticist effusions of the Bloomsbury Group.

Although he enforced the division between front half and back, Squire was, in fact, rather versatile. Edward Hyams, in his history of the first 50 years of the New Statesman, says “there was no part of the paper which he could not write”. And Squire was frequently called upon to stand in for the editor Clifford Sharp, when he was absent, drunk.

Squire left the magazine in 1920 to edit the London Mercury. He also became the Observer’s lead reviewer. He was knighted in 1933, by which time his enthusiasm for the job of literary critic seems to have waned. It is said that he regarded giving the first BBC commentary on the Boat Race as the high point of his career. He eked out the later decades of his life in semi-alcoholic squalor in a hotel in Surbiton. On one of his rare trips up to London, he appeared at the Athenaeum wearing, according to his biographer, “white flannels, black evening slippers, a badly moth-eaten, blue, highnecked pullover, a wing collar, and an Old Blundellian tie”.

His successor, Desmond MacCarthy, moved the back half in a direction more favourable to Bloomsbury than it had been under Squire. And this orientation persisted at least until Pritchett’s day. Mac- Carthy and his successors were left to their own devices, more or less, by Sharp and his successor, Kingsley Martin. Martin’s supervision of the literary pages was, Hyams reports, “diffident and tactful”.

When John Freeman replaced Martin as editor in 1960, he decided on a policy of “integration” of the back half with the front. To this end, he hired as literary editor Karl Miller, a flinty Scot and, as a former student of F R Leavis, a sworn enemy of Bloomsbury. The dissociation of sensibility that had long characterised the NS may have been attenuated somewhat under Freeman, but Miller protected his patch as zealously as any of his predecessors. “John didn’t achieve integration,” Miller told me. “He may have wanted it, but I wanted a free hand. And he was not at all interfering as an editor.”

The same couldn’t be said of Paul Johnson, who took over from Freeman in 1965. “He thought I was priggish and Leavisian,” Miller remembered. “He felt I must be reined in and not publish too many obscure articles. I published William Empson, who was not always intelligible.” Miller left the New Statesman in late 1966.

None of the literary editors who followed Miller either desired or achieved integration. Indeed, one of them, Martin Amis (literary editor from 1977-80), wrote with some pride, in his memoir, Experience, of how the back half on his watch survived the slow death of the front (the latter expiring, he said, along with the “conscience of the Labour Party”).

If, today, the New Statesman appears less broken-backed, or Janus-faced, than it has done in the past, this may have something to do with the current editor’s background. He was NSliterary editor in the late Nineties (his deputy was Lisa Allardice, who now edits Guardian Review) and has presided over what one might describe as “integration” from back to front; the intrusion into the political part of the magazine of a temperament and cast of mind – sceptical, ecumenical, liberal in the best sense of the word – that has always reigned at the back.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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