Editor’s Note: A long and not always smooth history

Jason Cowley recalls his first lunch with Peter Wilby, a warning from Tony Howard and champagne with Norman Mackenzie . . . who describes how dreadful Dick Crossman was, and how great Kingsley Martin.

New Statesman.
The New Statesman centenary issue. Photo: New Statesman.

Melvyn Bragg has described how he discovered the New Statesman in the library of his grammar school in Wigton, Cumbria, and how it opened for him a window on the “Great World”. My father, the son of a bus driver from east London, must have felt something similar when he first began buying the NS in the 1950s, more for the poetry and the book and music reviews than for the politics. He was still buying it but not as regularly in the mid-1970s, which was when, as a child, I first became aware of its presence in the house. By the early 1980s, however, he had given up on the NS, as many others had, and it would be many years before I was reacquainted with it.

Stranger in paradise

The first piece I published in the NS was in the summer of 1997 when I was working as a staff feature writer on the Times while moonlighting as a Booker Prize judge. Peter Wilby, who was then the NS literary editor, having recently been sacked as editor of the Independent on Sunday, had read and liked a couple of articles I’d written – probably cocky denunciations of the contemporary English novel – and he invited me for lunch. He took me to his “local”, Gran Paradiso in Victoria, an eccentric and rather run-down Italian restaurant, popular with Conservative MPs of a certain vintage. During that first visit we saw Norman Lamont huddled at a corner table – or was it Michael Mates? The details were in the eyebrows.

Peter enthusiastically drank the house white throughout the lunch. He spoke in a low, deep mumble and I wasn’t sure if he could hear what I was saying. At one point he took from his well-worn wallet a letter he’d received from the proprietor of the Indepe­dent on Sunday after his sacking and asked me to read it. It was a letter of praise and of regret, something private, and I was surprised he was sharing it with me. At the end of the lunch, he stood up abruptly, barked-shouted the words, “Very good,” opened his arms like an umpire signalling a wide and prompt­ly knocked over an artificial tree.

A week or so later, I filed the piece he had commissioned at the required length and on time. A few days after this, I received a faxed proof (the Times did not have email until 1998). Peter’s judicious editing had immeasurably improved what I’d too hastily written. I was impressed. It was the beginning of a long association.

Adventure’s end

The first issue of the NS was published on 12 April 1913. It was founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb with £5,000-worth of donations from friends, including £1,000 from George Bernard Shaw. Beatrice was pessi­mistic about the prospects of her weekly review of politics and the arts. “If I were forced to wager, I should not back our success,” she wrote in a diary entry.

The Webbs felt the need for their own magazine to promote their top-down, “scientific” Fabian transformation of society for which they campaigned so ardently. But very quickly the NS slipped free of its moorings. In 1922, Sidney Webb resigned as NS chairman, unhappy that the paper he had helped to create had become too liberal in its disparagement of the Labour Party. “A melancholy ending to our one journalistic adventure,” Beatrice wrote in her diary.

An absent friend

When I became NS editor in the autumn of 2008, I received a handwritten note from Tony Howard, who had edited “the paper”, as he always called it, from 1972-78. I’d got to know him when we were colleagues on the Times (he was obituaries editor, his last job before retirement). “I am glad it is you,” he wrote with his usual kindness. “It will be very hard. But you must hang on until the centenary.”

I was mildly alarmed by his choice of the phrasal verb “hang on”, with its implied subtext of struggle and difficulty – I knew how many previous NS editors had resigned in despair or been sacked – and I had no idea that the paper was approaching its centenary. It seemed a long way off to me then and not something I should be concerned with. And now here I am writing these notes. I’m only sorry that Tony, who died suddenly in 2010, is not here to celebrate with us.

Homeward bound

One person who is still with us is Norman Mackenzie, who joined the NS as assistant editor in 1943 after being recommended to the editor Kingsley Martin by Harold Laski of the LSE. Norman, who is 91, had been forced to leave the RAF because of ill health and, as he writes on page 104, his interview took place at Martin’s cottage in the north Essex village of Little Easton, near Dunmow. It went well. Norman remained on the paper until 1962, when the then editor, John Freeman, called him the “rock on which the best of the NS has been founded”. He went on to have a distinguished career as an academic at Sussex University, where he founded, with others, the Open University and wrote many books. His political journey took him from the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to Labour and then the Social Democratic Party.

Last year, Norman was given only two months to live and yet, although in poor health, he remains resilient and lucid. I met him for the first time last autumn when the historian Hugh Purcell and I visited him at the home he shares with his wife, Gillian, in Lewes, Sussex. I returned to see him again in February, only to find that he’d broken his hip in a fall and was confined to bed.

Although it was late morning we opened a bottle of champagne and sat beside Norman as he talked without sentimentality and with great wit and epigrammatic flair about his days on the NS – about Martin (“He was the epitome of his readers, instinctively understood them and was never a bore”), George Orwell (“He was a difficult man; no one was close to George”), J B Priestley, the cartoonist Vicky, C H Rolph, Asa Briggs (“The only man I know who was ever a snob about himself”), Richard Crossman (“He was an awful New Statesman editor, the sort of man who would review his own books”), Arthur Koestler (“a clever shit”) and others.

“Here’s to the next 50 years,” he said, raising his glass and looking at me. “You might even make it.”

Asked by Hugh if he knew the spy George Blake, Norman said: “One does have standards, my dear.” Of Dorothy Woodman, Martin’s partner, he said: “There was some­thing not quite right with her. I got on with her badly very well, if you see what I mean.”

Norman stopped reading the NS when it became preoccupied with what he called the “silly left”. He started reading it again last year. “It’s like coming back to the place after 30 years away to find someone has been polishing the doorknobs.” It’s wonderful to have the chance to publish him in this issue.

Fond farewell

As I left Norman’s house at the end of that first visit, he accompanied me to the door. “It’s terrible being 90,” he said. I knew that his wife was religious and I asked if he, too, was a believer. “No, it’s a load of nonsense,” he said. “But I’m not afraid. I just hope there isn’t too much pain at the end.” We shook hands and I left him there, a tall, slightly stooped figure, standing in the doorway as he peered out at the rain, his arm raised in a formal gesture of farewell.

In sickness and in health

Norman is approaching the end of his life and is a last, cherished link to the old world of Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman and Orwell’s London. When he’s gone, there will be no one left to recall what it was like to work at the Great Turnstile offices during the Second World War, when the NS became a dominant publication in the culture, capturing the mood and articulating the hopes and aspirations of a generation.

During the 30 years of Martin’s editorship, the circulation, helped by mergers with the Nation (in 1931) and the Week-end Review (in 1933), rose from 12,000 to more than 80,000 (it rose from 24,000 to 70,000 during the war years alone). Between 1970, when Richard Crossman became editor, and 1986 the circulation fell by as much as 55,000, and this at a time when Chris­topher Hitchens and Martin Amis were on the staff.

Many blame Crossman – who once disgracefully and successfully sued the Spec­tator for reporting what in fact was the truth about him, as he revealed in his post­humously published diaries – for turning the paper into the house journal of the Labour Party. Others blame him as well as those who followed for not modernising the design and content and for failing to channel the radicalism and upheavals of the late 1960s.

There are others who blame Bruce Page, editor from 1978-82, for making the NS too grimly “Spartist”, for destroying its sense of humour and literary heritage and for trying to turn it into a paper of investigative journalism but without the appropriate resources and staff. Paul Johnson, who edited the NS from 1965-70, certainly blames Page for “squandering the reserves”, as he put it to me when I had tea with him and his charming wife, Marigold, at their house in west London. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that no one is to blame, though Crossman does seem to have been an appalling editor (Anthony Thwaite calls him “an opinionated bully”). Each editor no doubt did what he thought was right in the circumstances and at a time of increasing competition – from expanding, multi-section newspapers, from new magazines – and increasingly widespread disenchantment with the left.

The political culture had changed, too. Johnson’s abrupt right turn is a parable of a generation for whom the god of socialism failed. By the time Anthony Barnett, who would later set up openDemocracy, applied for the editorship in 1986, the NS was in a critical condition. “The New Statesman is confronted by a crisis of survival,” he began his appli­cation, a copy of which he recently sent me. “In almost all respects the paper is close to bankruptcy.”

It was an enterprising application and one wonders what might have happened if he’d won the editorship and torn the NS away from Labour interests, as was his intention. Yet as I read his application, with its favourable references to Marxism Today, New Socialist and City Limits (all held up as examples of vibrant publications from which the NS should learn) as well as Punch, one thing struck me: none of these titles exists today and the NS does.

And now, more than 25 years later, the “magazine”, as we now call it, is off life support and returning to robust health, bolstered by an ever-growing website and a new generation of digital and Kindle subscribers who are helping to nudge the cir­culation towards 30,000. In March, newstatesman.com had another record month of web traffic: 1.4 million unique visitors to the site. Could it be that, even as many newspapers grapple with ruinous losses and falling circulation, a small, politically engaged magazine and website such as the NS, which controls its costs and is com­mitted to publishing the best long-form journalism and cultural criticism as well as spiky blogs, can not only survive in the new digital era but actually thrive?

Journey through the past

One recent afternoon, I drove out to Little Easton, the village where Martin used to live and where I’ve played cricket matches over the years. In his memoir Editor, he writes fondly of his cottage and garden: he only reluctantly sold up and left ten years after the end of the war when the “village became lethal to cats” because of increased traffic. New houses were being built and the character of the surrounding countryside was being changed by the coming of the new town of Harlow, where I grew up and which, for Martin, “had the effect of crowding the roads and all approaches to it”.

I wasn’t sure why I’d driven out to Little Easton or what, if anything, I hoped to find there – some ghost traces of long ago, perhaps, when Martin, that passionately committed nonconformist son of a Unitarian minister, used to live there and his friends from London would come to stay. I began thinking again about the war years, when he, the literary editor Raymond Mortimer and Norman Mackenzie were working together at Great Turnstile to get the Statesman out in spite of a shortage of paper and with London being plunged nightly into blackouts.

As Edgar says at the end of Lear, “The oldest hath borne most.” Those of us who came after them, the generation of the welfare state and full employment, will surely never see so much nor feel as Kingsley Martin did when, in the first issue of the NS after war had been declared, he wrote: “We have watched the degradation of standards in Europe, the growth of barbarism and the systematic use of cruelty as a political weapon.” In the depths of our own Great Recession, we sometimes too easily forget how fortunate we are in western Europe to live in peace and relative prosperity. I hope you enjoy the issue and continue to read the New Statesman in the years ahead, whether online or on paper.