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

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