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Ian McEwan **

Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, & Reflections on Ian Hamilton     I don’t remember what led up to my moving to London in January 1974 from my cheap, comfortable flat in Norwich. I took an attic room among the roofs and TV aerials of Stockwell, in a house belonging to an antiquarian bookseller called Cyclops. He had left school in his mid teens and gone to live in Paris, in the Beat Hotel during its one brief moment. There he developed a romantic passion for literature the like of which I haven’t come across in anyone else since. He had an eye patch and tough guy good looks and was able to bring home a series of impossibly beautiful women. One of them, a West Indian girl from Brixton, moved in with us. She and I sometimes overlapped in the tiny kitchen where I would be preparing my lunch while she thought about her breakfast. All afternoon she would bathe, make up and dress, in preparation for Cy’s return from his shop on the King’s Road. Then the good time would begin, and the house would throb until dawn.

     Part ex-hippy, part country mouse, I moved warily about this household. I thought I had left this kind of high life behind me in Kabul two years before. I was serious, I was here to write. I had cut my hair well clear of my shoulders and had grown a scholarly beard. Cape was bringing out a collection of my stories, but not for another eighteen months. Up in my attic I began work on more stories, but I soon began to wilt in the discovery that every writer never stops making -- writing is not enough. And it’s difficult to do in isolation. Where was the city, the life, I had discarded Norwich for? My one literary contact was Jonathan Raban who had given up his teaching job at the University of East Anglia and gone freelance. He lived in Earls Court, in the basement flat of a house belonging to Caroline Blackwood and Robert Lowell. Here I learned about a new magazine rising out of the ashes of The Review and was advised to call on the editor.

     I’ve never bought the myth of Ian Hamilton as literature’s flinty enforcer, the man of ‘eyelids thin with scorn’ who slashed your copy to tatters and waited there contemptuously while you fixed it. True, even back then he had the face of a capo di capi, and a useful, understated cool, but I came to think of him as a kindly sort. We sat in his office at 11 Greek Street and I explained what I was up to. His manner was pleasant, even avuncular. He took the story I had brought and suggested we went downstairs for a drink. The Pillars of Hercules was The New Review’s outer office and unofficial club room. It was midday and there was no one else around. We stood at the bar drinking large gin and tonics -- a novelty to me then -- and Ian asked me questions about my family background. I suppose I could, or should, invent a riotous story about our first meeting but the memory of it blurs into the next dozen occasions. The bar behind us fills with writers, many of them poets I had never heard of, and the long office party of the mid-Seventies begins.

     In The Pillars I met ‘my generation’ of writers -- male, born in the late forties -- and made friendships that will last me a lifetime -- among them Amis, Barnes, Raine, Fenton, Reid. Most of us had yet to publish our first books. We read each other with close, gossipy attention. It was a given that there was nowhere as good to place a story or poem as The New Review -- at least, until the Amis-Barnes era began at The Statesman. If this was a literary clique, it was remarkably open. I took various friends along who weren’t really writers at all, but Ian treated them as though they were and gave them books to review. Anyone, it seemed, could wander in and get a drink. Junkies came in to shoot up in the lavatories upstairs. If you wandered in too often, you were likely to be given an unpaid job. Mine was at a desk in a corner of the packing room on the second floor. Ian asked me to read the short story slush pile and tell him if there was anything worth his consideration. It took me two weeks to discover that there wasn’t. We tinkered with the idea of publishing a selection of the covering letters whose emotional range had impressed me. Later, I helped with distributing the magazine and learned where all the bookshops in London were. There were surprisingly few in those days.

     Because of the hospitality in The Pillars, The New Review attracted unfriendly coverage in the press. The magazine was said to be too expensive, too glossy, too obscene sometimes and generally too self-confident for a publication humbly dependent on public funds. Above all, it stood accused of being an excuse for a piss-up. There was a grain, a dram, of truth in this, but the writing and editing got done, and to the highest standards. Ian was the sort of editor writers wanted to please. He didn’t hand out praise, or even condemnation; it was silence, neither lofty nor benign, more a kind of butch restraint, that worked the trick. I was never told that the story I had brought along that first time had been accepted. The fact trickled out somehow and I sensed that it was correct to hide one’s delight. I was made aware that if I presented another story, there was a chance it might get read. There was no method to this minimal touch -- it was simply a consequence of Ian’s character. A few years later I worked with Richard Eyre and found that he unconsciously worked a similar trick; he stood back at rehearsals, open to whatever might come up, and the actors worked intensely to appease the reticence that awed them.

     Back in my Stockwell attic room, I worked more happily as the months passed. I had somewhere to take my fiction, I had contemporaries to talk to and read. The trips to Greek Street gave me a short story ‘Pornography’. Sometime in early 1975 I had a long conversation at the bar with Ian about the difficulties writers face with their second books. Out of this came a story,’Reflections of a Kept Ape.’ Excited by the new poetry I was reading, I handed in a poem about a man who was turned into a dog by a vengeful woman. Considerate as ever, Ian lost it. He started an occasional series in which writers reminisced about family life -- writers and their families have been a running concern in his own work. I promised to contribute, but after a week I was stuck. When I complained that I was finding it difficult to write the truth about my family he said curtly, ‘Make it up’. This was how I began my first novel, The Cement Garden.

     The story goes that none of the contributors to The New Review was ever paid. This wasn’t quite true. I was paid for almost every story Ian published. You had to show persistence, and you stood a better chance with him if you didn’t have a regular job. I remember going into The Pillars once with Seamus Heaney, whom I had just met. We found Ian at the bar, bought him a drink and got him into a dark corner -- we didn’t want the sight of his chequebook starting a general stampede. I came away with thirty pounds and Seamus with ten. Over lunch at the Chinese fish and chip shop in Berwick Street, elated by my success, I offered the poet expansive advice on raising his earnings. When I met him again, a year later in California, he kindly pretended to have forgotten the incident.

     The younger writers who hung around The New Review came of age in the Sixties. Ian, however, was a child of the Fifties. In the hot summer of 1976 a dozen of us were eating supper at pavement tables outside a Greek place on Charlotte Street. This was at the time of a reckless fashion among certain writers for smoking cannabis in restaurants. A smouldering parsnip-shaped concoction came Ian’s way and he stared at it with contempt.
      ‘What’s this?’
      ‘You smoke it.’
     He took three or four long drags, then screwed the rest into his ashtray. ‘You’re meant to pass it on,’ someone protested.
      ‘But you gave it to me.’
     We watched him closely for signs of transformation. He took a slug of his drink, picked up his cigarette and went on talking. Not a flicker. Very cool. We were impressed.

     This was an exciting time for me, so it would be easy to sentimentalise The New Review. I had no involvement with the running of the magazine, but it was clear to everyone in the Pillars that Ian was under pressure. There were debt collectors, problems with distribution and circulation, a hostile press, the Arts Council threatening to pull the plug -- which it finally did. There was also some heartache in the private life, as well as domestic problems that sometimes required Ian to go chasing across central London in the small hours for the protection of someone close to him. He didn’t complain. In fact, he didn’t talk about it much and you got the feeling he didn’t want to be questioned. But it wasn’t always possible to conceal the strain -- on one occasion his hair turned white overnight and started to fall out. Within a week or two it was black again and starting to grow.

     Apart from the occasional double issue and a sudden shrinking of format for the final two issues, the back numbers of The New Review retain nothing of this turmoil. In fact they’ve stood up well against almost a quarter of a century. Turning the pages now, what’s apparent is a rare combination of cultural openness and fierce literary standards. Another triumph of The New Review was entirely transient, and not one that history is likely to thank the editor for; however, Ian’s achievement has some bearing on the question of how we support writing in this country. What he managed, probably without meaning to, was to create a milieu. Writers gathered around The New Review, as they had around The Review, because they respected Ian’s ideas of quality and they felt flattered to be included. I doubt if there has been a period in English literary history when so many writers have filed through one pub. Writers read each other, obviously; they are bound to deny it, but they write for each other too, in a remote and buried sense. This is particularly true for those at the beginning of their careers. We might prefer to portray ourselves as lonely beacons in a dark world, but when our first stories or poems are printed it means a lot to know that a few contemporaries we admire are reading them.

     When I am asked how -- or whether -- writing should be subsidised, I always say this: what writers, particularly young writers, need is a classy magazine with a charismatic editor; it should be culturally eclectic and have exacting literary standards. It should be metropolitan, because most writers and readers live in cities, and its editorial offices should be near, or above, a pub. The contributors should be decently paid. Ian probably looks at his complete set of back issues with mixed feelings and memories -- those were turbulent days, not always happy, but the writing got done. When I look at my old New Reviews, however, I tend to think that this was one of the wisest pennies the literature panel ever spent.

** Originally published in Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, & Reflections on Ian Hamilton. Edited by David Harsent. Cornwall: Cargo Press, 1998. 81-86. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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