Lunching for literature

Not for the first time in his life, Craig Raine is on the Magazine Diet. You launch a literary revie

Every Friday in the late 1970s, I worked as books editor on Ian Hamilton's New Review. The magazine was under constant financial pressure. I once met a bailiff on the stairs who asked me if I were Ian Hamilton. I took him into Ian's office and asked Ian if he, Ian, had seen Ian Hamilton. "No," Ian said, "you just missed him. He was in earlier, but he's gone to Manchester to do What the Papers Say." There was a time, too, when all calls from Richard Boston - a creditor - were unanswered and unreturned.

New Review received a much exaggerated, actually meagre, Arts Council grant. There was never enough money to pay even the printer's bill. Hamilton could be seen having extended and alcoholic lunches. It is unfair to say he was indulging himself - no one cared less about food than Ian. For him, "eating" was the avocado vinaigrette he would toy with while he smoked his way through a pack and a half of cigarettes. I once ordered a mixed grill at Bertorelli's which included what Ian described as "the obligatory, inedible pork chop". As my plate was taken away, there was genuine surprise in his voice: "Christ, you've eaten the pork chop."

Ian was regularly accused by Private Eye of misappropriation of public money. Looking back, I'm inclined to think that he was in fact practising a shrewd form of economy. A good lunch was a relatively cheap way of soliciting material. Or of borrowing money. Or of explaining why payment was currently out of the question.

It wasn't only contributors who were paid in a slightly unorthodox way. The staff were paid as follows (if we were paid - there was no guarantee). After a morning of arranging reviews and subbing the odd piece, I would take a taxi-load of review copies to a buyer called Gaston's at the top of Chancery Lane. They paid half-price on even the most unsaleable books from American academic presses. They in turn supplied libraries all over England. Literary editors and their assistants were often seen wrestling large suitcases in the direction of Gaston's.

Then I'd go to the New Statesman lunch - a convivial affair started by Martin Amis, who was then literary editor of the Statesman. His assistant Julian Barnes, Mark Boxer, Kingsley Amis, James Fenton, Clive James and Christopher Hitchens were regulars. After lunch, I would wend back to Gaston's, pick up the baton of notes and cab it back to Greek Street - there, Ian would put the money in his top pocket. This was our wages. I remember Xandra Gowrie, whom Ian called the Countess because she'd been married to Lord Gowrie, taking her cash straight to the betting shop. "Otherwise, it just ain't enough." I generally spent my entire week's wages in the pub next door, where the carpets were so sticky it felt like a remake of The Fly.

It was scarcely surprising, then, that Ian's hair began to make itself scarce in handfuls. The strain of surviving from issue to issue was enormous. In the end, the magazine folded and the hair returned. Now, I'm on the Magazine Diet - you start a magazine and you lose pounds very quickly. Money is always the problem on new magazines. For a short time, I worked as books and arts editor on the Tatler when Tina Brown was beginning her successful attempt to revive its fortunes. My wages then were a free lunch for two at Langan's Brasserie in Mayfair, where the magazine had an account.

Later, I became the co-editor of Quarto, a literary monthly founded by Richard Boston to exploit the market gap that was left when the management stopped production of the Times, Sunday Times and the supplements in 1978. Before I took the job, I asked one question, based on my experience at the New Review: "Do you pay contributors?" Answer: "The parent company is financed by the Dartington Trust, Terry Jones of Monty Python and Richard Mabey, the Liberal MP." I took the job. The magazine didn't pay its contributors.

It was some time, though, before I found out. A contributor called into the office and I immediately pressed him to write another review. He agreed but mentioned that he hadn't been paid for the one before. "No problem," I said. "Clerical error." And I took him into the other office and asked the business manager to write a cheque on the spot. When I had done this perhaps three times, the manager's patience evaporated and he explained: "Every time you fucking do that [pay a contributor] it comes off our fucking wages." I had a thing or two to learn about magazines.

Two numbers of Quarto had been published before I joined. Business was apparently thriving. I soon became familiar with our advertising manager's telephone spiel, which claimed a circulation of 20,000 copies. A distribution deal was arranged with Comag for the first issue to be edited by me. A couple of weeks later, the Comag representative called to give me a breakdown on the new sales push. He was ashen. Soon, I was ashen too. They had managed to sell only 6,000 copies and still expected a few returns. He beat his breast a bit and promised renewed effort. I saw him out and returned to the office - where a party was now taking place. It was explained to me that the real circulation had been a mere 3,000. I had doubled it.

All offices are eccentric, but magazine offices are more so. At Quarto, the two basement rooms from which we operated were rent-free, but occasionally this left us vulnerable to the owner's grace and disfavour. When he had taken a drink, he might come down for a friendly chat, become irascible at some turn in the conversation and explode: "Get that earring out of your ear - in fact, get your earring out of my house - in fact, get this whole operation out of my house." And we would be banned. The first time this happened, I rang Boston in a panic. He was totally unworried. "Stay away for a couple of days, then just go back. He never remembers." True, he didn't seem to.

So what is the attraction of magazines? Fondness for a fax machine so old it is often mistaken for a fan heater? It is the capture of the microphone from the mediocre. It is care for writing in a world indifferent to the shape of a sentence. It is exasperation with the idea that art is just a clumsy way of expounding ideas - fancy packaging of no real importance. Above all, it is excitement, mischief and the sense that you are helping to make literary history. At Quarto, I published the first work by Adam Mars-Jones and by Kazuo Ishiguro, and both were quickly taken up by Faber. As editor, you feel it is you who lights the blue touchpaper.

Little magazines are easily patronised - Little Review once published a blank issue as a protest against the lack of great art; T S Eliot's Criterion had a circulation of about four hundred. And yet it was Eliot's magazine that spurred me into starting Arete. It began with no editorial, no programme - but with a disposition towards "classicism", a term whose meaning is defined only in opposition to "romanticism". The classical temper is against emotional excess, against prizing strong feeling for its own sake. It is determined to exercise reason. Its modern representative is Milan Kundera, who exclaims in Testaments Betrayed: "Will we ever be done with this imbecile sentimental Inquisition, the heart's Reign of Terror?" The classical is permanently at war with sentimentality - of thought as well as emotion. In The Sacred Wood, Eliot lays down the only sure critical method - to be very intelligent. I think we could do with more of that intelligence.

Obviously my contributors agree. They certainly aren't doing it for the money. No one is being paid. Not me. Not Jeremy Noel-Tod, my assistant editor - whose wages are a rent-free room in my house and food with the family. Not Richard van den Dool, the brilliant Dutchman who designed the cover for nothing, not the gifted Mark Alexander who drew the Arete feather for the logo, not Richard Ryan and his wife Elizabeth who are designing the website. Not Ian McEwan, Harold Pinter, Patrick Marber, William Boyd, Frederic Raphael, Peter Ho Davies or Wendy Cope - who are all in the first issue. All unpaid - in advance. A first.

"Arete" subscriptions: £21 for the year from 8 New College Lane, Oxford OX1 3BN