The pantomime horse

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

V S Pritchett beside his summer house in 1974. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.