Boyd Tonkin: 'Literary London' is dead. Good riddance

The Week In Books

The third London Literature Festival begins next Thursday at the Southbank Centre. With that invigorating poet and performer Lemn Sissay - Lancastrian by upbringing, Ethiopian by heritage - as its artist in residence, the programme showcases a vision of the capital as a global entrepot of writing. Authors whose work has a marked within-the-M25 flavour – Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Waters, Peter Ackroyd, Jake Arnott, Courttia Newland – mingle with starry visitors from the international circuit of fiction and ideas, with an emphasis among guests on those continents (Asia and Africa) where so many modern Londoners have roots: Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Helon Habila, Aravind Adiga...

All of this feels so routine, so automatic, that we easily forget just how recently metropolitan literary life changed its face and its mind. If writers grow in London or come to London, they will – we now assume – meet and interpret the whole world there.

Our carnival of pluralism rolls merrily on, fit adornment for a global city-state. Yet, a mere generation ago, literary life in London meant something utterly alien to today's cosmopolitan sprawl. In the post-imperial capital that staggered on into the Thatcher era, many aspiring writers still hankered for a single focus of authority. Outsiders might travel hopefully in search of an entrée to this inner sanctum. Look at VS Naipaul's mortifying early career. But few doubted that some secret chamber of wisdom and patronage persisted - if only they could find the door.

The nostalgic yearning for "literary London" throbbed on like a post-amputation phantom limb. Whether located in the gossipy backroom of a murky Fitzrovia pub, the threadbare Soho offices of some highbrow magazine or the elegant parlour of a well-connected patron in Hampstead or Chelsea, the notion of a tight-knit secular version of the papal curia long outlived any solid reality. The Information, Martin Amis's excoriating satire from 1995 about the demise of that in-group dream, saw print roughly a decade after it had dwindled into pure fantasy.

Yet the idea of a quasi-masonic cabal of metropolitan taste-makers dies hard. The young Clive James, an overseas wannabe in the Naipaul vein, had better luck than Sir Vidia. Fresh from Sydney and Cambridge, he began to contribute to The Review and The New Review. Those magazines, stringently edited by Ian Hamilton for 15 years after 1962, wrote a stylish valedictory chapter to the story of a cohesive "literary London". Hamilton's own hawk-eyed, hard-muscled poetry – which Craig Raine sketched as "the laconic lifting into lyric. Tight-lipped. Vulnerable. Irresistible" – has now been gathered by editor Alan Jenkins into an exemplary complete edition, with an incisive preface (Collected Poems; Faber, £14.99).

In scores of essays, as well as via the comic sidelights of his memoir North Face of Soho, James has kept faith with Hamilton's model of the exacting editor-writer as incorruptible gate-keeper. This stern custodian of values would turn the key only for a few rigorously chosen newcomers (Amis, Barnes, Paulin, Raine and James among them).

One can hear that fond longing for a time when a tiny handful of tough-minded selectors laid down the law echo through James's lastest entertaining harvest of articles and reviews, The Revolt of the Pendulum: essays 2005-2008 (Picador, £15.99). Near the end comes a tribute to the late agent Pat Kavanagh – very much Hamilton's no-nonsense counterpart in her neck of the woods.

Revealingly, James comments that "the literary world in London is quite small and everyone knows everyone". Sorry, Clive: it isn't any longer, and they don't. Shorn of fulcrum figures such as Hamilton, today's messier map has multiple addresses, with some doors open wider than before. However noble ther old arbiters, we should not mourn the change. "Literary London" is dead. Long live literature in London.

P.S.Three of Britain's most illustrious publishers mark big birthdays this summer. Faber & Faber turns 80, while Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Thames & Hudson reach 60. Could I embarrass their parties by suggesting that they all chip in for a present to a deserving younger colleague? Salt, that enterprising specialist in adventurous and beautifully designed poetry and short-fiction titles, has hit a cash crisis and is asking readers to buy just one book to help them through it. To choose, go to its easy-to-navigate website: www.saltpublishing.com (Salt has a state-of-the-art online operation). As supporter Griff Rhys Jones puts it, "If the recession is going to take things down... let it be bad banks, let it be chains of fast-food restaurants. We can lose a few of them, but we don't have enough small independent and daring publishers like Salt."

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing