Books: Bringing out the Devil by the deep blue sea

A new literary magazine is making waves from Brighton. Will it suffer the fate of all the others?
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The Independent Culture
Ivan Ginsburg is the hero of Scamp, one of two late-Forties novels by the pseudonymous Roland Camberton. Ginsburg is a louche habitue of the British Museum and, after hours, frequents Soho's cafes and bars before going home to ghost articles for a hard-pressed Fleet Street hack while rats scuttle beneath the bath. He also gives language lessons and one pupil, a middle-aged lady, is tempted to invest pounds 300 to start his own literary magazine. Ginsburg predicts profits within six months - or, at the very least, glory. But the magazine never appears, just sackloads of contributions in reply to a classified ad in the New Statesman: ''conts. invtd. for new lft.-wg propg. internat. magzne. Poems, articles, stories''. Despite that clipped manifesto, ''from parsonages and private schools had come poems and sad, weary short stories... a man in Middlesbrough submitted a tattered, yellow sheaf of handwritten manuscripts - boy scout stories.'' As Ginsburg surveys all this, he realises that it was easier to decide what he did not want than to imagine what he did want. ''Many of them were good, quite as good as those which appeared in the 'young writers' miscellanies; but they were totally unnecessary..."

That potential contributors far outnumber subscribers is wearily acknowledged by all editors of self- styled ''little'' magazines. It is only with the fillip of war (Penguin New Writing) or a publisher's subvention (Granta) that they impinge on the public at all. This is not as humiliating as it appears: copies of The Little Review with pioneering extracts from Ulysses now command a hefty price.

Such hopes fuel those who, like Ginsburg, feel the need for a new magazine. As he discovered, it is difficult to get it right. T.S. Eliot's "message" in the first issue of the London Magazine in 1954 misguidedly asserted that it was a "duty" to take out a subscription, that a subscription "is not merely an act of financial support but a declaration of moral support".This magisterial attitude explains why his own magazine, the Criterion, was so dull. A successful magazine is something to snack upon, enjoyed between weightier matters but by no means frivolous for all that. Ian Hamilton has even said that a magazine has a built in lifespan, its own era - borne out by the one which he was editing in the late Seventies, the misguidedly glossy, Martian-haunted New Review, itself a successor to his Review.

A newish magazinethat's very much of its time is The Printer's Devil, eight issues in and now hitting its stride. Although based in Brighton, it does not fall into the weary trap of the regions vs. the metropolis, but rather straddles them. It appears twice-yearly and is alert to Hamilton's strictures about longevity, as it works through the alphabet: the new issue, out this week, is numbered G. It's still some while until 2005 and the problem of what comes after Z.

It is distinctly off-beat, as quirky as the early issues of Craig Raine's Quarto. Apart from a lengthy interview, in conscious imitation of the Paris Review, it follows no pattern but, along with poems and stories, has ranged from a rehabilitation of Simon Raven (who laments the decline of a classical education) to a column by a former armed robber.

Its office is at the top of a narrow building off a thoroughfare where agents' boards plaintively offer knockdown rates until the century's end. Cardboard boxes dot the magazine's office, hemmed in by a convector heater and a filing cabinet, both of which make a greying Mac II appear bang up to the minute by comparison. On its screen is a draft episode of The Bill, the work of the baggy-trousered playwright Stephen Plaice, an expert on Brighton crime. Plaice controls the flow of faxes between four editors: Plaice himself, Fiachra Gibbons (on the staff of the Guardian) and two poets, Eva Saltzman (in London) and Sean O'Brien (now transplanted to Newcastle). The Devil toes no line, its only intention "to kick up dust," as Plaice puts it, "in an era when politics has become a dirty word". Gibbons also avoids using the phrase "literary magazine" as "that often makes for too thin a diet." Rather than eschew politics, the Devil welcomes articles that find no regular outlet in the press. "If anything, we've aimed for an 18th century spirit," says Gibbons. "Smart, but consciously against any glitz. We're trawling along, trying to churn up writers and ideas thast don't get a look-in". Its political alignment appears to be of the Left, but Plaice feels "we are in for interesting times satirically - Blair's shifting policies and his underestimating of the public's willingness to try well-judged radical measures, such as tax increases. And as many figures on the Left become all po-faced in the hope of a Cabinet post, they offer more satirical scope than the Tories".

In the Devil's pages you'll find a brisk account of Germany's literary precursors of the Holocaust and a reconsideration of that troubled spirit Ann Quin, who drowned herself off Brighton in 1973 after a brief life given to freewheeling sexual experiment as well as to avant-garde fiction. It is becoming strong in new fiction, with such names to watch as Nancy Ni and Julie Marie Charalambides. Agents and publishers are following it. Boldly, Plaice says that, "We limit the number of poems to those we really want to print rather than feel obliged to do for solidarity's sake." It is in a similar dissenting spirit that issue H jumps into the future to print extracts from Peter Mandelson's Diaries (beginning with this October's victory) which chronicle what amounts to a marriage between Premier and spin-doctor.

It's a fantasy slightly more savoury than that unleashed by Julie Burchill, who in a long, off-the-wall interview explains her fatal fascination about the Secretary of State for Defence. "There's no one in the House of Commons that looks more like a pop star than Michael Portillo. For good or ill, he's marvellous. You'd shag him, wouldn't you? But then you'd have to make him cry. No you'd make him cry first and then you'd do it. You wouldn't care what he did when he was up your site..." And if the Defence Secretary should unamusedly bring weapons to bear on the Printer's Devil, Scamp reminds us that, with small magazines, there'll be another one along soon.