When Claire Tomalin was looking for a job in journalism in the late 1960s, the editor of the Observer David Astor told her she should stay at home and look after the children. That she ignored him was to the great benefit of the NS books pages, which she was instrumental in shaping over the next decade, first as deputy to the literary editor Anthony Thwaite from 1968 to 1970, and then as literary editor from 1974 to 1977.
Tomalin will turn 90 this year. In the house in Richmond that she shares with her husband, the playwright Michael Frayn, surfaces are stacked with newly arrived books and magazines, from Der Spiegel to The Keats-Shelley Review. She recalls how Neal Ascherson told her that literary editors are people who prevent writers from getting on with their books – with each commission, then, “you want to make it seem irresistible”. At the NS, Tomalin successfully distracted the likes of VS Pritchett, Marina Warner, John Carey, AS Byatt and Eric Hobsbawm, all of whom wrote for her.
In her first Spring Books issue in 1974 she let her new reviewer, the 25-year-old Martin Amis, elegantly destroy Iris Murdoch’s new novel; the following year she invited him to become her deputy. She writes about their affair – a charmed interlude that involved exploits such as scaling the gate to Hampstead Ladies’ Pond for a sultry August after-dark swim with Amis, Christopher Hitchens and Tomalin’s three daughters – in her 2017 memoir, A Life of My Own.
Tomalin’s career as a biographer began in the NS: a piece she wrote on Mary Wollstonecraft in 1971 provoked such interest that she was quickly signed up to write a biography. Life-writing became her vocation – and yet her fondness for the congenial bustle of the office remains. “I felt at home, like it was what I was meant to do.”
[See also: Julian Barnes on 110 years of the New Statesman]
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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue