Books: Dark Horses by Karl Miller, Picador pounds 16.99: Blood on the fax

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The Independent Culture
Karl Miller is probably best known as the founder-editor of the London Review of Books, one of the most intelligent and ambitious cultural journals of our time. It started up in 1979 while the TLS was a casualty of print strikes, and Miller left it in 1992, after he and the co-editor and LRB proprietor Mary-Kay Wilmer had, in his sober words, ceased to get on. Miller alludes to this briefly, and without rancour. There are few embarrassing revelations in this, his second volume of memoirs, many will be disappointed to learn.

Miller's editorship was distinguished by courageous features no longer evident in the LRB. There was a comprehensive coverage of new fiction; he regularly printed long and original short stories by emergent non-coterie writers, and he presided over what he calls here a "stormy" letters page. Blood was spilled on those pages over issues like the 1984 miners' strike, after Miller printed reviews that took opposing sides.

This memoir supposedly coheres by linking his experiences of four editorships at the Spectator, New Statesman, the Listener and LRB over a 34-year period. In fact much of the book has previously appeared as separate newspaper articles or as university lectures. Hence there is a certain disjointedness apparent both between and within some of the chapters. An impressive essay on the early anti-semitism of Graham Greene turns, without warning, into a short encomium on the novels of Saul Bellow. There is a brilliant chapter on the hypocritical media persecution of football stars Eric Cantona and Paul Gascoigne, though what this has to do with anything else is at first perplexing.

But about half way through Dark Horses you suddenly realise that the book is in fact impressively unified by the dialectical philosophical outlook of its author. Miller hates adversarial extremes and intolerance. He is militantly pro popular culture(football) and anti the cult of the Great Writer as exemplified in the nastier sides of D H Lawrence and T S Eliot.

In his four editorial posts, between 1958 and 1992, Miller had dealings with most of the important political and literary figures of the day. He was books editor at the Spectator in the late Fifties, when it declared itself to be anti-establishment but when Evelyn Waugh was still sending in reviews written in copperplate. In 1967 he was ticked off in the Ritz by W H Auden for ruining the Listener by injecting some zestful Sixties spirit into it. He liked to solicit reviews from sources as diverse as Tory cabinet ministers, Angela Carter and Paul Foot. The sum of all this vertiginous diversity has led him to the philosophical position of a "dialectical uncertainty" - meaning that truth is partial and that tolerance of left and right opinion, of popular culture and the abstruse is vital in all cultural spheres, whether it be in a journal, the BBC or society as a whole.

This dialectical model works impressively in his fine chapter on the fiction of V S Naipaul, of which he says: "Opposites coincide there. Extremes meet. Achievement end failure can be found in one another's arms, and so can sympathy and contempt, scorn and pity." But as a rule, his literary judgements are most acute when the writers are not his lifelong friends. His chapter on Kingsley Amis mentions him in the same breath as Jane Austen, but does not work hard enough to justify Amis as "among the very best of the comic novelists of the English tradition". I for one can't convince myself that Jake's Thing is quite as good as Peregrine Pickle.

Likewise he gives a detailed picture of the political contradictions apparent in the pro-Zionist, pro-Ian Paisley Conor Cruise O'Brien, but sunnily exculpates him by saying he has "an exceptional literary talent [applied to a] defence of the public interest and a succession of good causes". Similarly his young Ayrshire journalist friend Andrew O'Hagan and his former doctoral student Blake Morrison are also let off lightly and unconvincingly with regard to their ethically controversial studies of the Bulger case.

This is a brilliant, original, at times irritating book which eschews lively vignettes of the famous in favour of a sustained moral examination of the mediums in which they express themselves. It also has some memorable jokes. Miller at one point describes Ann Widdecombe as a "Gothic spaewife" and says of R S Thomas that "he can come on as if he were a threat to practically everyone who has ever lived, except Owen Glendower". It is worth reading for those two lines alone.