Category: London Review of Books

‘Doris and Me’ (The Jenny Diski Memoir, Part V)

In the London Review of Books

Parts III & IV are behind the paywall, and you should consider subscribing to the LRB if you don’t already to be able to read them. Here’s part V:

I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’ Which was curiously whatever is the opposite of prescient; I’d actually been raped the previous Easter when he’d refused to let me go.) I was quite heavily chaperoned by the responsible, 25-year-old son of Doris’s best friend, Joan Rodker. He kept a watchful eye on me against the CND hordes, and more particularly against one of his womanising friends who, not long after the march, became the first boyfriend to test out the virginal, patiently waiting Dutch cap.

Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about. For the first time I heard that moral qualifier Doris used almost automatically and almost always for a man: ‘Poor Ted.’ Over the years the name changed, ‘Poor Roger’ (my first husband), ‘Poor Peter’ (her son), ‘Poor Martin’ (or any other man who she thought had been treated badly by a woman). But as far as I was concerned the death of Sylvia was before my time, if only by weeks, in the same way that the end of the Second World War was before my time at my birth in 1947. The two events marked seminal moments in my life, but, for all that I was surrounded by people intimately involved in both affairs, Sylvia’s suicide and the Second World War felt less real to me than historical events that had taken place centuries earlier. I think it’s a way of avoiding the intolerable fact that the world and the people in it got on, well or otherwise, in the years and days without my presence, as indeed it and they will in my next and final absence.

It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.

I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.

For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure? We went several times in those early weeks to the beloved Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. Memorably, I saw Les Enfants du Paradis for the first of many viewings. Doris and her friends had already seen it, but rhapsodised for my benefit, picking out telling scenes or shots (Vous êtes toute seule, madame?), laughing at the way they’d been made to cry by such sentimental froth. But Les Enfants was too marvellous to be seriously criticised. It was certainly marvellous to me, and I listened to the talk after the viewing trying to find out why, along with The Seventh Seal, Le Mépris, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it was considered a marvel, and why Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, charming though it was, failed because it was self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art, and I couldn’t understand how they didn’t manage to avoid such an obvious pitfall, when it was so clear to the viewers. Although I relied heavily on others for instances of brilliance or ruination, surely the makers and artists knew what was good and what wasn’t? Everything was talked about, judged, argued over. None of Doris’s friends just went to the movies or the theatre for fun, however much they enjoyed it. Enjoyment wasn’t enough. You needed to know how what you were seeing and hearing ‘worked’ or didn’t, which sometimes was quite separate from how enjoyable it was. A film or a play was an event that only began with the experience of it. They were the basis for opinions, for conversations and for arguments that went on sometimes late into the night, over red wine, or occasionally a joint of the marijuana that, as an experiment, Doris had grown from seed in the garden the previous summer and which she dried in the airing cupboard with the towels.

Freud, Marx, Foucault, Canetti, Martin D’Arcy, Derrida, the anti-psychiatrists, even the behaviourism of Desmond Morris and Konrad Lorenz were to different extents the background to the chat for some, while others, Doris among them, relied on a belief in their own grasp of the effects of heart and mind on individual or crowd behaviour. But at that time, of all the ways of seeing in the world, understanding unconscious psychological motivation was everything, told you everything, i.e. the truth, while surfaces, behaviour, the overt story were so much gaudy wrapping – false reasoning, self-deceit.

I listened furiously, trying to take all this in and find out how it was done. To start with, I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them to have a point of view, to know how and why things ‘worked’. ‘Working’, the pivotal valuation, was never defined. There seemed to be too much to learn. I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis – from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought – from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study? Many people were dismissed as stupid, especially academics, who apparently lacked good judgment, yet who seemed at least as learned as Doris and her friends. How could they be stupid? At 15, I felt it was already too late. I hadn’t read enough, seen enough, been to enough places, talked to enough people. I felt that nothing of interest had happened to me, not understanding that every life is ordinary to its owner, that looking for interesting events was to search in the wrong direction for something that isn’t absent because it isn’t the point. I felt that I was burdened with a lifetime’s weight of unfinished homework. I would never catch up. Never read enough. See all the movies and plays. Never learn how to think. These people all seemed so finished, so confident. And they wrote and were read, and by doing so they were deities to me, the hopeless unfledged writer whose sentences were never buoyed with confidence.

I stayed shtum. I listened. But I’d always been verbal. When I was researching for my book Skating to Antarctica, I visited an old couple who had lived in the flat next door to ours when I was a child. ‘You never let anyone get the better of you,’ she said. ‘They were all older than you. You were only three but you kept up and answered back.’ Already, when I was three. Protected. Armoured. Using words to get the better of bigger, older children. I learned soon enough around Doris’s table the rudiments of conversation, even if I hadn’t the faintest underlying faith in what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t stay silent for too long, that silence wouldn’t earn me a place round the table at which I was the only one who wasn’t there thanks to their entertainment value, what they did, or how they thought. I gradually stepped into the conversation, like the three-year-old keeping up with the bigger children. First with questions and queries, occasionally with comments and interventions. I set myself to learn, and asking questions didn’t seem to annoy people. Listening carefully, I showed myself, offered myself to them as a young person who was eager and quick to learn. They were happy to teach me. So I learned to speak, rather than sing, for my supper. But I never, at any time, had any confidence in what I said or thought. Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essentialtaste or understanding.


Writing Machines

Tom McCarthy on realism and the real

A new London Review of Books is just out (and still no review of Zone!). But there is a good piece by Tom McCarthy on the fallacy of the realist project:

In the introduction to the 1995 reissue of his 1973 masterpiece Crash, J.G. Ballard discusses ‘the balance between fiction and reality’. ‘We live,’ he writes,

in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

The paragraphs that follow are a little disappointing, as Ballard unquestioningly endorses some rather conservative beliefs about writing: first, a psychologism (the writer ‘offers the reader the contents of his own head’), then a positivism (he must ‘devise hypotheses and test them against the facts’), then a moralism (his novel’s main purpose is cautionary, a warning against a brutal technological future). But there’s still something important here, hinging on that word ‘invent’. Ballard doesn’t tell us that novelists should ‘discover’ or ‘intuit’ or ‘reveal’ reality: they must invent it. Reality isn’t there yet; it has to be brought forth or produced; and this is the duty and stake of writing.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about reality in fiction, or reality versus fiction. Take the many articles about the ‘true’ writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard, or the huge amount of attention paid to David Shields’s polemic Reality Hunger. Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real. Perhaps we should have another look at the terms ‘the real’, ‘reality’ and ‘realism’.

Let’s start with ‘realism’, since it’s the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention. Ford Madox Ford, in a passage from Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, brilliantly skewers the claim that a certain prose style – that of realism – faithfully and objectively captures historical events and mental activity:

Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminium paint … If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the City of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr Slack – then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him! Mr Slack again came into his garden, this time with a pale, weaselly-faced fellow, who touched his cap from time to time. Mr Slack will point to his house-wall several times at different points, the weaselly fellow touching his cap at each pointing. Some days after, coming back from business you will have observed against Mr Slack’s wall … At this point you will remember that you were then the manager of the fresh-fish branch of Messrs Catlin and Clovis in Fenchurch Street … What a change since then! Millicent had not yet put her hair up … You will remember how Millicent’s hair looked, rather pale and burnished in plaits. You will remember how it now looks, henna’d: and you will see in one corner of your mind’s eye a little picture of Mr Mills the vicar talking – oh, very kindly – to Millicent after she has come back from Brighton … But perhaps you had better not risk that. You remember some of the things said by means of which Millicent has made you cringe – and her expression! … Cox’s Aluminium Paint! … You remember the half empty tin that Mr Slack showed you – he had a most undignified cold – with the name in a horseshoe over a blue circle that contained a red lion asleep in front of a real-gold sun …

Once we’ve stopped snickering at the conjunction of the words ‘Slack’, ‘erect’ and ‘Cox’ (which, given the coy erotics of the passage, the way Millicent moves and stirs beneath its link-ups, strikes me as far from accidental), we have little choice, whatever our aesthetic disposition, but to surrender to Ford’s argument. This is, of course, exactly how events and memory both proceed: associatively, digressing, jolting, looping.

William Burroughs makes the same point when discussing his cut-up technique: ‘Take a walk down a city street … You have seen a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments … Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.’ He’s right as well. We don’t walk down the street saying to ourselves: ‘As I walk down the street, comma, I contemplate the question of faith, or adultery, or x or y or z.’ It turns out that the 20th-century avant-garde often paints a far more realistic picture of experience than 19th-century realists ever did. But it’s also the case that realism’s founders – if not their descendants – fully appreciate the scaffolding of artifice holding their carefully wrought edifices up, and take delight, from time to time, in shoving poles and ladders through the parlour windows. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, often held up as one of 19th-century realism’s triumphs, but he also wrote Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which two semi-educated men try to translate a series of cultural paradigms (‘being’ a gentleman gardener, ‘being’ an aesthete or a lover) into experiences that they might live (or re-live) in an ‘authentic’ manner, even re-enacting the postures from book illustrations in their bid for this imagined authenticity – with effects as farcical as those produced by their 16th-century predecessor Don Quixote. Balzac generated all the counts and countesses of his Comédie humaine – rounded characters who are so often admired for the way they seem to live and breathe – but his novella Sarrasine is a ruthless laying bare of the very mechanism through which the fantasy of the ‘natural’ operates. In mistaking a castrato – a simulacrum that has no original – for the most genuine and unadulterated embodiment of woman, the sculptor Sarrasine enacts the error at the source of realism itself. When his error is revealed, both he and Balzac’s readers are confronted with the fact that, as Barthes put it in 1970, ‘realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real’; it ‘copies what is already a copy’. It is no coincidence that Bouvard and Pécuchet are trained, like Melville’s Bartleby, as copy-clerks.

It’s an interesting paradox that the 19th-century realists took the counter-realist impulse much further than the 20th-century anti-realists. Ford and Burroughs put forward a claim to have helped pioneer new and radical ways of depicting lived life accurately. But Balzac and Flaubert whip the rug out from under the very possibility of doing this. What opens up beneath the place where we wrongly thought a solid floor lay is an abyss, endlessly regressive, of convention on convention, code on code, reading of reading of reading. (It’s telling that Flaubert’s last text, the end-point to which this trajectory carries him, is a dictionary: the Dictionary of Received Ideas into which Bouvard et Pécuchet tapers off.) That such blatant and splendid take-downs of naturalism are written into the core of the realist tradition makes the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over, all the more simple-minded.


West End Boy

Adam Shatz on Anders Behring Breivik in the LRB

Adam Shatz on Anders Behring Breivik, perpetrator of the Utøya massacre, in the London Review of Books:

Before he went on his mass killing spree in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik was a regular at the Palace Grill in Oslo West. He looked harmless: another blond man trying to chat up women at the bar. ‘He came across as someone with a business degree,’ one woman recalled, ‘one of those West End boys in very conservative clothes.’ Indeed he had tried his hand at business, though he’d never completed a degree, or much of anything else. And he was a West End boy, a diplomat’s son. Yet there was the book he said he was writing, a ‘masterwork’ in a ‘genre the world has never seen before’. He refused to say what it was about, only that it was inspired by ‘novels about knights from the Middle Ages’. He did little to hide his obsessions. One night in late 2010, he was at the Palace Grill when a local TV celebrity walked in. Breivik launched into a speech about the Muslim plot against Norway, and about the Knights Templar. The bouncers threw him out. On the street, he said to the celebrity: ‘In one year’s time, I’ll be three times as famous as you.’

This story appears in Aage Borchgrevink’s superb book, and it plays like a scene from a horror film because we know the barfly will make good on his promise. Breivik was hard at work on 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a 1518-page screed exposing the Muslim plot to conquer Christendom. In large part a compendium of extracts from counter-jihadist websites, 2083 was posted online on the day of the attacks under the name ‘Andrew Berwick’, one of Breivik’s several aliases. The signs of Europe’s creeping Islamisation were everywhere, he argued, from Bosnian independence to the spread of mosques in Oslo. Muslim men were having their way with European women, while declaring their own women off-limits to European men. Breivik and his fellow white Norwegians were ‘first-generation dhimmis’ – a term for non-Muslim minorities under Ottoman rule which, like most of his ideas, he’d found online – in what was fast becoming ‘Eurabia’. Worst of all, Europe’s ‘cultural Marxist’ elites had caved in, like a woman who would rather ‘be raped than … risk serious injuries while resisting’. Even the Lutheran Church – ‘priests in jeans who march for Palestine and churches that look like minimalist shopping centres’ – had surrendered. Fortunately, there were ‘knights’ like Breivik who had the courage to defend Europe’s honour.

2083 isn’t just a manifesto: it’s also the would-be inspirational memoir of a man who has rejected the ‘Sex and the City lifestyle’ in favour of his sacred duty. The leap from empty hedonism to murderous heroism is also a recurring theme in the biographies of the young men who leave Bradford, Hamburg, Paris and Oslo for Syria. As Borchgrevink writes, Breivik’s hatred of Islam didn’t prevent him from proposing a tactical alliance with al-Qaida against the liberal state he hated even more. The desires that motivated him scarcely differed from those of his jihadist enemies: revenge, adventure and fame.

Breivik was born in 1979. His parents never married, and separated before he was two; he was raised by his mother, a nurse, who turned out to be unstable and emotionally abusive. By the time he was four, the home had become so turbulent that the state welfare services recommended he be removed. But the recommendation was never acted on, and Breivik grew up hating his mother, whom he accused of ‘feminising’ him, and idolising the father he rarely saw. He was drawn to tough boys like his pal Rafik, the son of Pakistani immigrants who claimed to know members of the notorious ‘B Gang’ in Oslo East. Breivik was a ‘potato’, a white boy, but under Rafik’s tutelage he bought himself a pair of baggy trousers and learned to steal and speak what Borchgrevink calls ‘Kebab Norwegian’. He ‘bombed the city’ with his graffiti tag, Morg, inspired by a Marvel Comics villain. But the friendship with Rafik gradually unravelled, partly because Rafik and his cohort seemed to be a magnet for the white girls who rejected him. Breivik joined a ‘white pride’ gang, and even found himself a girlfriend – but then she dumped him for a Pakistani.

He didn’t do much better in his attempt to become a millionaire, though in his twenties he did make some money selling cheap mobile phone contracts and fake diplomas, mostly to immigrants. He joined the right-wing Progress Party, whose opposition to immigration and higher taxes chimed with his own resentments. But what appears to have transformed him was discovering the writings of Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen, a blogger who wrote under the name ‘Fjordman’. Fjordman’s online manifesto, Native Revolt: A European Declaration of Independence, gave meaning to Breivik’s failures by situating them in a global war between Christendom and Islam. Rafik, he realised, was no mere hoodlum: he was a secret jihadist. ‘The petty-criminal subculture of the 1990s was reborn as a religious conflict,’ in Borchgrevink’s words, and Breivik was now a knight in the war to save Europe.

Keen to make contact with his fellow knights, he introduced himself to Fjordman, who found him ‘as boring as a vacuum cleaner salesman’. He turned up at a pro-Israel meeting organised by the Friends of, a far-right website edited by Hans Rustad, a former soixante-huitard who claimed that Muslim men were using sex as a form of warfare, inflicting a ‘slow castration’ on Western men. Rustad felt ‘there were some inhibitions missing in [Breivik’s] head.’ No one with inhibitions would have wandered into Monrovia during the Liberian civil war, which is what Breivik did in 2002. He told friends that he was going to buy blood diamonds, but his real purpose was to pay his respects to Milorad Ulemek, known as the Dragon, an ultra-nationalist Serb who’d fought in the Special Operations Unit of the Serb army: the Serbs, in Breivik’s view, had been Europe’s front-line defenders in the battle with Islam, only to be cruelly abandoned in their hour of need. Nothing much came of these encounters, but he now felt himself to be part of a community. In 2006 he moved back in with his mother, so that he could contribute to right-wing websites, play video games and work on 2083. But he was afraid of becoming ‘a bitter old goat behind a computer’: ‘Convert your frustration and anger to motivation and resolve,’ he told himself. He began taking steroids, and dressing up in a red uniform covered in badges; his mother thought he’d gone ‘all Rambo’.

On the morning of 22 July 2011, Breivik uploaded his manifesto to his favourite websites, and emailed it to 1003 contacts in Europe and Israel. He’d timed the launch to coincide with the events he’d planned for later in the day: a bombing in central Oslo, followed by a strike on Utøya, an island 40 kilometres north of the city where the Labour Party Youth had their annual retreat. He’d been preparing the attack since 2002, he claimed when interrogated by the police. He had bought his Ruger rifle and Glock pistol legally; the rifle bore the inscription ‘Gungnir’, after Odin’s spear. He built the 950 kg bomb with fertiliser he’d purchased for a farm he set up in 2009 on land rented from elderly farmers north of Oslo. Five months before the massacre, a UN-directed anti-terror programme identified him as one of 41 Norwegians who had imported chemicals that could be used for fertiliser bombs, but the Norwegian security services didn’t investigate. They were worried about radical jihadists, not West End boys who lived with their mothers.

Mary-Kay Wilmers remembers Karl Miller

In the London Review of Books (obviously)

Karl Miller, the founder of the London Review of Books, died last week. Mary-Kay Wilmers remembers him in a ‘Diary’ piece for the ‘paper’, as they both took to calling it:

I got to know Karl Miller in the 1960s, when I was in my mid-twenties and he was in his early thirties. He was the literary editor of the New Statesman and I was a junior editor – ‘a young editor here’, my boss used to say – at Faber and Faber. I didn’t know him well – a friend of mine, Francis Hope, was his assistant – but I talked to him at parties and once or twice I had lunch with him (I remember being told to eat my meat). He was a charismatic figure, tall, fair, slim, nattily dressed, flirtatious and a little wayward – a head-spinner. But severe too. You minded your words and that was part of the attraction. When he gave me a book to review I thought my life had met its moment. The book was by Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans, and it’s the obvious thing to say but true: I really thought my life would end, that I would have to end it, if I couldn’t get my sentences sorted.

Eventually I sorted them and took the piece to the Statesman’s office in Great Turnstile. When Karl had read it he said: ‘You’re a writer now.’ He was liable to make patriarchal remarks of that kind, and for better or worse – either way it’s a confession – I was very susceptible to them. When he gave me a second book and asked me to add a sentence at the last minute and I demurred he said: ‘You’re a journalist now.’ In his eyes it was a thing to be proud of, a calling of sorts. ‘You’ll be the laughing stock of Fleet Street,’ he used to threaten at the LRB when he thought someone had made a stupid suggestion, though by then the reference to Fleet Street just seemed quaint. (When at a later point I decided that I wanted to give up being a journalist and go to medical school instead he was nonplussed.)

John Sutherland’s obituary of Miller in the Guardian is also worth seeking out: he’s described as ‘the greatest literary editor of his time, and one of the greatest ever’. You might also look at Leo Robson’s in the New Statesman, which puts particular emphasis on Miller’s Statesman and Listener days.

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