Failing Better: Ian Hamilton and The New Review

June 7, 2012 | 13 books mentioned 5 12 min read

If you could travel back in time to a particular literary era, like Woody Allen’s characters in Midnight in Paris, where would you prefer to drop in? The New York of Mailer and Capote? The Paris of Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald? Not me. I’d defy all the glamour and glitz and go to soggy ’70s London. Specifically, I would waltz into the Pillars of Hercules, an ancient pub on Greek Street in Soho, and report to the poet, critic and editor Ian Hamilton, who would no doubt be holding down the fort at the bar, an emperor-sized scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other (they didn’t call him High-Tar Hamilton for nothing), and ask to review a book for his monthly magazine, The New Review. Its offices were just upstairs from the pub, but all the real business was completed bar-side. There in the Pillars I might encounter Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, Jonathan Raban, or Clive James, possibly even an ageing and manic Robert Lowell, ensconced by wide-eyed admirers. With any luck, I would become audience to one of Hamilton’s celebrated witticisms, like the one about the young poet who came down from Oxford to write for the magazine. According to legend, Hamilton took him downstairs to the pub at 11:30 in the morning and bought them two large scotches. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” the poet demurred, “I must give it up, it’s doing terrible things to me. I don’t even like it anymore.” To which Hamilton indignantly remarked: “Good god, man! None of us likes it.”

covercoverKarl Miller once remarked that you could write an anthology of Hamilton’s pub-sayings. Accordingly, much of the written material concerning him tends toward the personal-anecdotal: everyone seems to have their favorite Hamilton-zinger. Julian Barnes, for instance, whose go-to drink in those days was a gin and bitter lemon (hardly a pub-drink), recalls that “the first time Ian offered me a drink in the Pillars and I told him what I wanted, he didn’t react, no doubt confident that he had misheard me. He was generously willing to stand me the round, but unable to pronounce every word in case the barman got the wrong idea. ‘Large whisky, pint of Old Skullsplitter, a gin and …you say it.’ ‘Bitter lemon,’ I admitted, completing the order and my shame.” Hamilton makes a fictional cameo in Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow as the “charming, handsome, litigious, drink-drenched, debt-ridden, women-infested Neil Darlington,” and in North Face of Soho, the fourth of his so-called “Unreliable Memoirs,” Clive James devotes a couple of pages to his old friend and editor. One and a half of those pages are devoted to his old friend’s sexual success, which was by all accounts considerable. “At the height of his pulling power,” James writes, “he never had to do anything to get a woman he wanted except fight off the ones he didn’t, so as to give her a free run to the target.” Hamilton’s good looks, in collusion with his poetic air and understated cool, caught the attention of more than just a few women. But there was an attractive darkness, too; an ironic, reserved demeanor that hinted at something broken or damaged. “He had the knack of embodying self-destruction in an alluring form,” James writes. When the two of them did a reading together in Oxford they were approached by a gorgeous young student. Smitten, Clive James invited her to drop by at the Pillars when she was next in London. When she did, James greeted her enthusiastically at the bar. “Is he here?” was all she said to him.

It’s tempting to romanticize this kind of set-up, what with all pub-hub and boozy camaraderie, but it shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging the achievements of the magazine itself.  Hamilton, though fearless, was a dream-editor. He launched his first literary journal, Scorpion, when he was in the sixth form at Darlington Grammar School, skipping class to ensure its distribution and getting in trouble for publishing it on the same day as the official school magazine. “It was an anti-school magazine,” Hamilton said. He would have much rather been playing soccer (a life-long passion; he was a self-professed “soccer bore”), but a heart condition prevented him from joining in with his fellow classmates. “I reached for my Keats,” he said. “I developed a kinship with sickly romantic poets who couldn’t play games.” When asked what eventually happened to that heart condition, Hamilton observed wryly that “it went away as soon as I started drinking.”

His editorial breakthrough arrived in the form of The Review, a journal bulging with poetry that followed the failure of Tomorrow, a “rather awful magazine” he’d launched in 1959 while a student at Oxford. The Review appeared in part because of the money Hamilton owed the printer of Tomorrow — a pattern that repeated itself with The New Review. Along with like-minded poets such as John Fuller, Colin Falck, and the American Michael Fried, The Review established a reputation for its acidity and combativeness. “I saw myself protecting poetry against the pretenders, the charlatans, the fakes,” Hamilton explained. It lasted 10 years. During that time, Hamilton moved to London and became the Times Literary Supplement’s poetry editor, not to mention a published poet himself. A pamphlet, Pretending not to sleep, had appeared in 1964 as part of a special edition of The Review, while his debut collection The Visit was published by Faber & Faber in 1970.

When it was revealed that the cultural magazine Encounter, launched in 1953 by the poet Stephen Spender, was being covertly funded by the C.I.A., Spender left in protest, as did other high-ranking officers like the late Frank Kermode, and steps were taken by England’s Arts Council to launch a counter-Encounter. After years of meetings and lunches (presumably to discuss next week’s meetings and lunches) the project ultimately failed to materialize, but a sizable amount of money had been put aside and was, in Hamilton’s words, “just lying there.” Charles Osborne, the Council’s literary director, didn’t object when Hamilton suggested the funds be used to re-launch The Review as a monthly magazine. A year later, in April 1974, the inaugural issue of The New Review appeared, featuring contributions from Robert Lowell, Clive James, Al Alvarez, and Martin Amis, among others.

The magazine, with its glossy pages and design-conscious format, immediately caused a stir. This was the time, as Hamilton explained it, of widespread labor protests and Edward Heath’s three-day work week, and here was a large, baronial litmag priced at 90p an issue. “It did come under a lot of fire on all the waste-of-public money issues — which was bollocks, because public money paid only for about half of any single issue,” Hamilton said. The money was a mixed blessing at best. The Council’s Literature Panel, a committee made up of fellow writers, turned out to be a pharisaical outfit. “The truth is that when you give a bunch of writers any kind of money-muscle, they go slightly mad,” Hamilton wrote in a later essay printed in Granta:

And when you put them on committees that give money to other writers, they go madder still. I can hear their voices now: “Mr Chairman, on a point of order, I feel it my duty to observe…” And this would be some foppish, dreamy-faced poetaster fresh from a three-absinthe lunch. But nearly all of them behaved like this. Wild-eyed anarchic novelists would transmute into prim-lipped accountants. Tremulous lyric poets would rear up like tigers of the bottom line. Book-reviewers who, I knew, lived in daily terror of being rumbled by the Revenue were all at once furrow-browed custodians of public funds.

Of necessity, Hamilton became one of literature’s great hustlers, jingling with money knowhow. “Knowing how many days pass between a final notice and a cut-off, knowing much time you gain with a carefully-phrased ‘WAFDA pdc’… such information is the small change of a life that’s sometimes financed by small change.” When the poet Craig Raine worked as books editor on Fridays, he once met a bailiff on the stairs who asked him if he was Ian Hamilton. Raine took him upstairs to the office and asked Ian Hamilton if he’d seen Ian Hamilton. “No,” Ian Hamilton said, “You just missed him.”

Hounded by debt collectors, pressured by printer’s fees, fearful that the Arts Council would come through on its threats to pull their funding (not to mention more local troubles, such as the mental illness of his first wife and their eventual divorce), Hamilton was ever under intense strain. “He was the only person I knew who was sued by his own solicitor,” Christopher Hitchens recalled. On one occasion his thick, dark hair began to turn white and fall out in clumps. Eventually it grew back again.

In 1999, two years before his untimely death at age 63, the Cargo Press published a festschrift, Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems and Reflections, in which many of Hamilton’s old friends and contributors paid homage to the man who took a chance on their work and half-destroyed himself doing so. In his contribution to the book, Ian McEwan memorably evokes what it was like in the Pillars, amid all the fumes and vapors and drink:

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 [New] 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.

McEwan goes on, like practically everyone else who contributed to The New Review, to emphasize the central importance of Hamilton to the magazine. Despite a reputation for being coolly reticent with praise, and devoutly more butch with dispraise (he apparently once told a writer that, if torn into small strips, his piece might serve nicely as cat litter), he was an editor writers were eager to please. He encouraged them to do their best — even if they weren’t getting paid (which they often weren’t). “There was no house style at all, but it had the personality of its editor, who was both hugely enthusiastic and encouraging and capable of scowling sardonically at what he thought was phony,” the writer Jonathan Raban recalls. “Hemingway famously said, ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit-detector,’ and was what Ian provided for us.” Scanning its back catalogues, The New Review’s quality is glaringly obvious: fiction by Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Jim Crace, Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and John Cheever; poetry by Tom Paulin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Zbigniew Herbert; essays and reportage by Jonathan Raban, Frank Kermode, John Carey, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Terry Eagleton, A. S. Byatt, and Germaine Greer. There were special features on Scientology, Jaws, and the IRA; entire plays by Harold Pinter and Bertolt Brecht; interviews with Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal. There was a recurring satirical column by Edward Pygge, a fictional name used to poke fun at the Modish London Literary World.

coverIn The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, a small book published in 1976, Hamilton looked closely at some of the most influential of the 20th century’s little magazines: The Little Review, Poetry, New Verse, The Criterion, Partisan Review, and Horizon. What characterized them were “small resources, small respect for the supposed mysteries of ‘how to run a business’, small appeal outside a very small minority of readers.” It’s hard to shake the sense that Hamilton, whether he is writing about T. S. Eliot and The Criterion or Geoffrey Grigson and New Verse, was also writing about himself and The New Review. He would definitely have sympathized with Eliot’s complaints to John Quinn in a letter of 1923: “I wish to heaven I had never taken up The Criterion… It has been an evergrowing responsibility… a great expense to me and I have not got a penny out of it: there is not enough money to run it and pay me too… I think the work and worry have taken 10 years off my life.” And no doubt he must have been a little inspired by Grigson’s sardonic willingness to make enemies, even of his friends. Just as practically all poet-contributors to New Verse would eventually see their own work savagely debunked in its pages, so Hamilton never shied away from publishing reviews that were critical of the writing of friends or contributors. Before John Carey’s panning of Clive James’ The Metropolitan Critic appeared in The New Review’s pages, Hamilton showed James the typescript over drinks at the Pillars. “In the name of editorial integrity,” James wrote, “he not only didn’t mind making enemies, he didn’t mind hurting his friends either.” James, however, didn’t hold a grudge: his second collection of essays, published five years later, bore the title At the Pillars of Hercules.

covercovercover“Each magazine needs a new decade,” Hamilton wrote, “and each decade needs a new magazine.” Clearly The New Review was the magazine of the ’70s, and though he believed that the ideal lifespan of a little magazine was 10 years, it only ever made it to five. The Arts Council pulled the plug in 1979 and The New Review collapsed under a ton of debt. Hamilton remained in financial rubble for years to come, though eventually made a living from his journalism and, later, as the author of acclaimed biographies of Robert Lowell (Robert Lowell: A Biography) and J. D. Salinger (Ian Hamilton, being Ian Hamilton, was naturally sued for In Search of J D Salinger — by Salinger himself). He wrote learned and entertaining volumes about the lives of writers and their biographers — Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 (1990); Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992); A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (1998); Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets (2002) — as well as several volumes of essays and reviews, not to mention two books on Paul Gascoigne, the once-controversial English soccer star. “I think every book I’ve written has some strong autobiographical element in it. That seems to me okay,” he told Dan Jacobson in the London Review of Books shortly before his death.

Nothing was more autobiographical than his poetry, and turning from the wry, self-deprecating voice of his journalism to the spare, somber voice of his verse is something of a shock. His deeply personal subject matter — his father’s illness and early death when Hamilton was just thirteen; his first wife’s mental illness; his divorces and disappointments — are not, like the later poems of Robert Lowell, evoked with all the reticence of a tell-all tabloid spread. Instead, Hamilton’s poems are like eavesdropping on one half of a private conversation. Stripped of personal context, whatever private crisis was there has to be inferred by the reader — Hamilton remains stoically silent. But the emotional intensity, though sparing, is anything but:

I am dumpy, obtruse, old and out of it.
At night, I can feel my hands prowl over me,
Lightly probing at my breasts, my knees,
The folds of my belly,
Now and then pressing and sometimes,
In their hunger, tearing me.
I live alone.

coverThe poetic voice comes as a jolt when compared to the prose, but the two are in no way contradictory. They are contained in each other.  In a little analysis of the “none of us likes it” quip that I opened with, the critic James Wood rightly observes that the joke implies a “stoical tragi-comic world…a picture at once funny and sad.” Hamilton was funny in the way of a proverb from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Excess of sorrow laughs.” His self-deprecating tone is amusing and charming but, like the tip of the iceberg, is sustained by the bulk of private terrors submerged beneath it. In the long interview he gave to Dan Jacobsen in the London Review of Books at the end of his life, the same note is struck again and again. Of The New Review he says: “Looking back, I think I should probably have done it differently, but I didn’t, so there it was. And it still looks pretty okay to me and has some really quite good stuff in it.” When you look at those back issues, pretty okay and quite good are not exactly phrases that leap to mind — nor do they seem to be phrases Hamilton deployed merely out of a sense of false modesty. The New Review, after all, was a result of serial failures, and in the end must have seemed like something of failure to its creator, too. When it folded and he left the magazine racket for good, he went on to occupy an uncertain ground as a sometime-poet and occasional-biographer. There would have been plenty of occasions for the intense self-doubt he admired in Matthew Arnold. In his book on Arnold, published very late in his life, he put a quote of the poet’s at the beginning that he was very fond of:

It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits — and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.

Posterity isn’t usually kind to editors, biographers, critics, or even poets. Hamilton was all four, sometimes by accident, always by virtue of his wit, intelligence and quiet rebelliousness. Still, he very likely saw himself frittered away piecemeal and, if not exactly as a failure, then as less than he imagined himself. It’s fair to say, I think, that he made a career of his many failures: his failure to become a soccer star, his failures in the magazine business, the private failures that fuelled his poetry. He tried, he failed, and then he failed better. At certain moments we may wish to acknowledge the inevitability of this — in writing as in life. Those of us who lack the madcap artistic genius of a Lowell or a Salinger, and whose greatest gift to literature may simply be to serve it, will often feel that we have courted failure. Though he was not a genius or a great artist, Hamilton served literature by setting a great example (The Lowells and the Salingers of this world are hardly exemplary). In a kinder world, his achievements would have yanked him from the penury of posterity. But no matter. I still want to time-warp back to the Pillars, when Hamilton, in the words of his poem “Returning,” was at his best:

Dear friend, I wish you could have seen
This place when it was at its best,
When I was,
But it isn’t far. It isn’t far. Come with me.

is a freelance book critic. He has written for Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Quarterly Conversation, among others.


  1. This essay was a real treat. Ian Hamilton (no relation, alas) is one of those figures who enabled so many great writers, but is nowadays rarely acknowledged.

    I remember passing the Pillars of Hercules one night last year and going in just to see if I could soak up any traces of the literary atmosphere. There were no other customers and I finished my drink quickly. I don’t know what I was expecting.

  2. This is terrififc. I’m a big fan of the writers of this period and how they all seemed to converge simultaneously in the pubs and magazines of the time. You really nailed at least a small part of what it must have felt like to be there. I was transported!

  3. Great essay, Morten. I’ve been an admirer of Hamilton for many years (his prose has the knack of speaking right off the page), so it was a thrill to come upon your wonderfully polished piece.

  4. Fascinating. A very sophisticated and interesting treatment of a figure who is going to become more and more well known, though clearly already a legend in certain circles.

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