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26 September 2014updated 30 Sep 2014 10:00am

Great Scot: Karl Miller’s pilgrimage through the London literary world

The editor, critic and writer, who was literary editor of the New Statesman in the 1960s, head of English at UCL and founded the London Review of Books, has died, aged 83.

By Leo Robson

Karl Miller, who has died aged 83, was the most influential British literary editor since the Second World War, a wonderful enabler of talent, a minatory presence in magazine offices, a natural egalitarian, a frequently quoted wit, and the author of a short shelf of pungent books, including a biography of James Hogg, a study of “the double” in literature, and a pair of memoirs, Rebecca’s Vest and Dark Horses.

He was celebrated as much for his warmth and charm as his rigour and eye for talent. The so-called “kingpin of the Jerusalem the Golden generation” – a reference to Margaret Drabble’s novel about Sixties literary bohemia – he also emerged as the hero of Neil Berry’s book Articles of Faith, a history of “British intellectual journalism” that made the case for Miller as a late-20th-century descendant of Francis Jeffrey, founder of the Edinburgh Review. In discussing his own accomplishments, Miller tended towards modesty, though looking back over his career from the turn of the millennium, he accurately wrote: “a different world has ensued… Puns and footnotes were reconciled.”

Born in an Ayrshire village to a single mother, a book-keeper with socialist leanings, and raised by his grandmother and other relatives in Edinburgh, Miller was a lonely, sexually frustrated boy who read everything he could get his hands on. His diary entries from his years at the Royal High School, where he edited a magazine, show marks for his reading, with Oedipus Rex scoring 91 out of 100, Tess of the d’Urbevilles scoring 85, and Kant’s Lectures on Ethics getting an ambiguous, possibly withering “ungraded”. After completing his National Service, Miller earned a scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge, where he was taught by F R Leavis, the most famous English don of his time, an influential taste-maker far from universally admired.

Miller adopted Leavis’s exacting standards as a reader and an editor, but he dropped the moralising tone and the anti-metropolitanism. Instead, he became enraptured by the dandy side of 1950s Cambridge, early on befriending Mark Boxer, who had arrived a year earlier and was “already a star”. Boxer may have been special but he wasn’t unique. The land of the puritan Leavis, Miller happily discovered, was also “given over to the worship of wit, style and panache, to a sexual intercourse of Restoration fops, romantic lovers, Brummells, Wildes, Sebastian Flytes, Lermontovs, âmes damnées”.

Miller continued his studies at Harvard but soon dropped out, convinced that his calling lay not with scholarship but with its close relative, spectacularly well-informed literary journalism. As an undergraduate, Miller had regularly travelled down to London to chair cultural discussions for BBC’s young person’s network, and his first proper job, apart from a short time at the Treasury, was as the Literary Editor of the Spectator. He remembered it as “a jolly sort of paper”, whose “displays of brilliance and impudence looked forward to the satirical Sixties.” The satirical Sixties, when they arrived, had a large role for his Cambridge friend, Jonathan Miller – no relation, though they married sisters – but Karl Miller was a central figure in something no less significant – the general transformations of the arts and arts coverage in Britain during that decade.

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When Miller moved from the Spectator to the New Statesman in 1961, it required, he said, “no gymnastic leap”. The front halves may have diverged – Roy Jenkins, for example, was welcome in the Spectator at that time but not the NS – but Miller’s job remained much the same.

Variety was the key – and now he had “twice as much editorial space”. He always sought out the best writers working in the universities as well as jobbing writers who had real expertise. His favoured contributors on the NS included Frank Kermode, Christopher Ricks, Brigid Brophy, and Eric Hobsbawm, who wrote about jazz and rock music under the name Francis Newton. Miller was at first suspicious of a contributor he had inherited, the paper’s lead book reviewer, V S Pritchett, viewing him as a resolute amateur in an age of growing professionalism; Pritchett, perhaps sensing Miller’s resistance, liked to call the young editor’s meetings with writers “Mrs Miller’s sewing sessions”. But they soon became friends. Among creative writers willing to contribute poetry and criticism, Miller felt equally at home with the Movement school of poets and novelists – Larkin, Amis, Donald Davie, John Wain – as he did with Seamus Heaney.

The NS was going through one of its great periods – circulation hovered at around 100,000 – and Miller’s pages were widely admired. When Robert Silvers and his friends took a newspaper strike as the opportunity to start a literary paper to rival the New York Times Book Review, it was to Miller’s New Statesman pages that they turned as an example and inspiration. Peering at an issue of the New York Review of Books featuring articles from many of his contributors, he said: “This is the best Review that I ever edited”. (When the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge described Miller as an “auto-intoxicated, young and ambitious Scot”, she missed his dryness.)

Unlike Leavis, whose journal Scrutiny was an extension of his own small set of concerns, Miller proceeded without a fixed agenda, though his commissioning showed a strong egalitarian streak. Writing about the Movement, Miller recalled the much-made case-against which he happily ignored: “They were teddy boys. They were lower-class. They didn’t know Latin or Greek, or French.” He also nurtured writers from the Commonwealth, the South African novelist Dan Jacobson and the Trinidad-born Indian V S Naipaul.

When Miller first joined the New Statesman, he felt to the right of the paper, but by the time he officially departed in early 1967 he was somewhere to the left of it. The new editor, Paul Johnson, a public-school Roman Catholic growing more reactionary by the hour, was Miller’s opposite in almost every way, though their falling-out wasn’t over politics but literary criticism. Miller had always been eager to allow specialists into his pages. Johnson wasn’t convinced. In a memo, he singled out a review by William Empson as “incomprehensible” and “quite unsuitable for the NS”. Miller, feeling that his liberty as an editor was compromised, chose to resign, prompting a letter signed by numerous contributors, among them Christopher Hill, Mary McCarthy, Kermode, Ricks, and Empson, expressing their “appreciation of the work he has done as Literary Editor.”

An enjoyable period of “Luciferian free fall” came next, abruptly ended when Miller was approached to become editor of the Listener, a BBC magazine with a smaller circulation than the New Statesman but plenty of influence. Before his arrival, the Listener had mostly been given over to transcripts of radio programmes, and he went about broadening its contents. One of his first moves was to ask Mark Boxer to contribute a regular cartoon based on Alan Bennett’s television characters, the String-Alongs, a trendy north London couple modelled on Nicholas Tomalin, Miller’s Cambridge friend and New Statesman successor, and his wife Claire. He also resumed his old habit of commissioning academics with a light touch and journalists who possessed scholarly authority. William Empson, after seeing a copy of the magazine, told Christopher Ricks that Miller seemed to be doing “all right.” W H Auden wasn’t so sure, and on meeting Miller, said: “You are the man who ruined the Listener”.

Whatever the case – all right or in a state of ruin – Miller brought his usual precision to the role. The journalist Neil Lyndon, who had previously worked on countercultural magazines, told me that joining Karl Miller’s Listener “was like going to All Souls from Altamont. At my very first editorial conference, Karl led a 20-minute discussion over the use of a semi-colon in an article – not a common question on Time Out.”

While at the Listener, Miller continued to publish the poets he loved, such as Larkin and Heaney, but he also became part of a new move, an extension of 60s counterculture, to destroy hierarchies. Miller did not quite discover Clive James – he had already written for Nicholas Tomalin at the New Statesman, among others – but he made him a crucial offer. James had been writing a column on radio without much interest and after an especially poor effort, Miller gave him a dressing-down before asking if James would consider writing about television instead. James willingly agreed, joining a revolving roster of television critics that also included John Carey, Miller’s latest academic contributor. Their relationship resumed happily until James received a lucrative offer from the Observer. “Falsely assuring me that he lacked the words to express his contempt,” James recalled, “he invoked historical parallels with Culloden, Vichy France, the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and other episodes in which devious opportunism had played a role.” (James later portrayed Miller in his satirical poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World as the fearsome ‘Klaus Mauler’.)

Before long, Miller left the Listener himself, after a dispute with the management of BBC Publication about the direction of the journal. But he landed on his feet again when Frank Kermode vacated the position of Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at UCL, and recommended Miller as his replacement. He took up the job in 1975. A literature professorship sponsored by a press baron, the Northcliffe role is often mocked – F W Bateson likened it to “the Mammon Professor of God”. But the job, situated in the most metropolitan of English departments, also united two once-unlikely bedfellows whose connection Miller had always emphasised: journalism and academia. Bestsellers were added to the syllabus, and even films. While he was there, he allowed a junior colleague, Jeremy Treglown, to take a job at the TLS (he later became editor), but he also moved traffic in the opposite direction, working to bring writers into the university. A S Byatt, already ensconced, and the newly hired Dan Jacobson were, Miller wrote, “full-time tenured members of staff… rated internally as no more specialized, and as no more ephemeral or peripheral, than those colleagues whose skill lay in the field of textual editing or grammar.”

Miller’s colleague and Northcliffe successor, John Sutherland, described this period – 1975 until 1992 – as “a departmental high point – only equalled, in my view, by the 1870s”, and a central feature of the department in those years was Miller’s own lectures. “They were intensely amusing,” Philip Horne, a colleague, told me, “but pitched at rather an uncompromisingly high level. Karl took to pausing after his finest phrases, glancing round with baleful irony, and then muttering, ‘That was by way of a joke’ – which was very funny and characteristic in itself.” Mark Lawson, one of the undergraduates for whom this show was designed, recalls that Miller “had what we assumed was a running gag that all writers were really Scots. After hearing him lecture on the influence of Burns on Robert Lowell, we got him the next week on Chekhov and he began: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it may not surprise you that my theme today is Chekhov as a fundamentally’ (long pause) ‘Caledonian writer.’” But just as Horne says that his “dry wit and ready way with a memorable, seriously amusing, often devastating phrase obscured for some the depths of his generosity”, so Lawson remembers that he “could be humanly warm and was amazingly supportive of those of us with journalistic ambitions.”

Miller also worked with PhD students on his area of expertise, writers actually born in Scotland, though he also worked with Blake Morrison on the Movement group – an example of career coming full circle. Morrison told me that Miller showed him how editing worked – “how when you pause over a choice of word, you can also open up a discussion about ideas, history, etc, as well as language.”

It was a skill that Miller was improving every week. In 1979, while continuing his work at UCL, Miller had made a return to editing when he founded, alongside Mary-Kay Wilmers and Susannah Clapp, and with help from the Arts Council, the London Review of Books, originally an insert in the New York Review of Books – another example of Miller’s career coming full circle. Miller’s time on the LRB coincided with Thatcherism, as his time at the Listener had coincided with Vietnam and the student protest movement, and as well as bridging scholarship and journalism, high culture and low culture, he also worked to bring political commentary into the literary pages, and many of the LRB’s controversies, in those years as today, related to the political views expressed in its pages.

At the LRB, Miller, Clapp, and Wilmers, who became his co-editor and later his successor, published a new generation of essayists and reviewers, including Jenny Diski and Angela Carter. Editorial recruits included John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, who remembered Miller as “the only editor I’ve known who edited poems as if they were prose. It wasn’t beyond him to suggest the removal of lines or the scrapping of stanzas – even, on a good day, of an entire poem.” (Neil Lyndon recalls that, after identifying a word in a hand-scrawled Alan Ginsberg poem as “illuminating” rather than “illustrating”, Miller took his cigar out of his mouth and said “I’ve never edited a poem before. But, in this case, it feels kind of hip.”)

For all his care and stringency, Miller’s own prose was noted for its eccentricities, in particular a taste for the passive. Writing about one of Miller’s essays, Clive James wrote: “the style is less tortuous than usual”. It was a criticism he had been hearing for decades. In February 1955, John Wain wrote Miller a letter about an article he had written called “Notes on Agreement and Elegance”. It began: “Please, Karl, could you put it a bit more clearly next time?” But the idiosyncrasies were easily forgiven, collateral damage of an intelligence trying hard to be accurate about complicated things.

Miller retired from teaching in 1992, the same year he resigned from the LRB, but he continued working – writing books and essays, judging prizes. After a long time away from the LRB, he wrote a short obituary reminiscence of Frank Kermode, in which he explained that for Kermode the roles of “scholar and journalist” were far from distinct, and then began contributing to the paper semi-regularly and produced several sharp pieces, including a fond reminiscence of Eric Hobsbawm and a less fond one of Margaret Thatcher. He didn’t contribute to the magazine’s recent round table on Scottish independence, though he had often made it clear that he wanted “to see a single country, Britain, which is several countries”, what he called “the mixed Britain”.

Miller’s last two decades were quiet compared the four that preceded them, when he had been casually revolutionising the spirit of the leading literary journals and nudging those around him towards a love and understanding of literature and magazine-making. But even in his last frail months, Philip Horne recalls, “he was always himself. It was a pleasure to know he was there, and it’s painful now to know he isn’t”.

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