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.