LITERATURE / 'It just sort of happened': Some of our best literary talents have been nurtured in Alan Ross's garden shed. Sabine Durrant talks to the gambler about runners and writers

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The Independent Culture
The editor of London Magazine used to own racehorses, hang Sidney Nolans on his walls and commute in from a large house in Sussex. But not any more. He hasn't exactly fallen on hard times - unless your definition encompasses a mews pad in Fulham and a special table at the local Italian - but he's certainly tightened the belt of his rather raffish suede jacket. Some might blame the erosion of his resources on his expensive habits (the Negronis, the Villigers), or the regular flutter (four bets a day). But the cocktails and the cigars and the visits to the turf are airy nothing to the draining power of his literary dedication. This is the man who sells the paintings to benefit the careers of other people.

Alan Ross, biographer and autobiographer, poet, one time cricket correspondent, gambler and bon viveur, has owned and edited London Magazine - a bi-monthly assemblage of new writing, short stories, poems and reviews - since 1961. It was in tight financial straits then (he bought it, with private funds, from John Lehmann, who was, Ross claims, 'very puritan - always in trouble with the backers') and it's been going from strength to tight financial straits ever since. But when corners get tight - the Arts Council grant was scythed from pounds 30,000 to pounds 19,000 in the early Eighties and the office rent has crept up from pounds 700 to pounds 9,000 - Ross has sold an object or taken a risk with the tote. He's never paid himself a salary: 'It's the sort of magazine,' he says, 'that you would be very silly to be involved with unless you felt passionate about it. It really would be very foolish . . .'

But 31 years of almost single-handed hard graft with scissors, Sellotape and obstreperous printers may now have paid off. Picador has taken over the promotion and distribution of London Magazine, a similar agreement to that between Penguin and Granta, and their purchase of 3,000 copies 'to flog around the country' may double its circulation. It's a small victory for a man who is not uncommonly compared to Cyril Connolly and for a journal that, says Bill Buford, the editor of Granta, 'has evolved directly from the English magazine tradition of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties in that it doesn't shout read me, buy me. It has an intellectual indifference to sales - it's a connoisseur's pleasure'.

Not that these new developments seem to have caused much of a stir in the London Magazine headquarters - a one-room shed squeezed into the small backyard of a house in South Kensington (they moved out of the main building 10 years ago after a disagreement with the landlord). Ross, who sits amid a card-castle of boxes and books and papers, against a wall papier-mached with cuttings and photographs (horses, dogs, family members), isn't interested in publicity or self-promotion. He has a quiet, clipped delivery and is prone to non-committal comments like 'anything might happen' or 'this sort of thing', or 'something like that, yes'.

It was in this style that he was outlining the Picador negotiations ('It came about bit by bit and then it just sort of happened') when a woman came in to lunch with his one-day-a-week deputy, the writer Jeremy Lewis. Ross stood up eagerly: 'I read your ex-husband's book the other day,' he told her, grinning and waving his arms, 'and I thought it was very funny - goes off a bit, but it is very funny. The father's terribly good . . .'

This is where Alan Ross's heart lies. Unlike Granta, sustained by a coterie of established writers, London Magazine is known for its 'discoveries'. Buford says it has 'the best record for picking up writers of promise, of helping younger writers find a voice'. And Picador clearly agrees - its shiny new display units proclaim: 'Which of this month's contributors will make the Booker Shortlist in 2002? Whoever they are, read them first in the LONDON MAGAZINE'. Picador has also assembled a list of Ross's talent-spots: William Boyd, Helen Harris, Christopher Hope, Hilary Mantel, Graham Swift, Derek Walcott . . . the list goes on. 'I think writers who are on the way up,' says Ross, 'or on the way down for that matter, are much more interesting than those who are already there.'

Unsurprisingly, then, Ross tugs a lot of gratitude in his wake. (Not just because he is that rare thing, an editor who always pays on time, and not least because, from 1966 to 1986, he also ran a publishing firm, London Magazine Editions, reasoning that 'it was a pity for those who wrote for the magazine to disappear into thin air'.) Graham Swift, whose first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, was published under the aegis of Ross and whose most recent, Ever After, is advertised on the back of the February / March issue, feels he 'probably owes more to him than anybody else in the publishing world'. London Magazine printed Swift's first story, 'Recreation Ground', in 1976: 'It was more ambitious than anything I'd written before,' he says now. 'It released a bit of energy that needed releasing and I think Alan recognised that. He's a very good judge, sort of an instinctive thing with him, but he never gets heavy about his critical faculties. I remember him saying, 'The manuscripts I don't like I give to my dog.' '

It is 'the nicely personalised rejection slips', though, that Swift treasures most ('not just 'sorry', but 'keep going' '). John Whitworth, whose first poems were accepted by Ross seven-odd years ago (and who thinks that 'if there was any justice in the world, they'd be handing out gongs to him') got even shorter shrift than Swift - but liked it: 'He would carry terseness to a T; they'd be just a single word, 'nearly' or 'not quite'. When you're starting out that's just what you need, not reams of stuff telling you what's wrong with the piece. And when you get that simple one saying 'Yes', it's a great thing. Eventually I got an 'I like this one but you'll have to alter the last line' and he was right.'

William Boyd was asked to change the title of his first story from 'Patience at Spinoza's' to 'Next Boat from Douala' - 'It made sense,' he says, ' it was very pretentious.' Ross gave him his first taste of literary life. 'After he'd accepted that story, he invited me to lunch. I came up from Oxford where I was working and went to these fantastic offices; books stacked everywhere and very good paintings - Arthur Beuys and Russell Drysdales (since sold), and at lunch he ordered me a Negroni which blew my head off. So this is literary life, I thought, not so shabby . . .'

It's perhaps a little shabbier these days, but 'literary life' continues unabated. About 50 unsolicited manuscripts arrive each day and Ross structures his time around them - he usually sets for home at 5.30pm, but only if the last post has arrived by then. Most of his day is spent sifting through the letters and the print-outs, looking for 'something individual, not common-or-garden, something that's about something'.

Many texts find their way back into their stamp-addressed envelopes - 'Last Friday I took three things that were all very good. Sometimes, though, days go by . . .' But even when the handwriting is familiar ('a lot of dear old people send things in month after month after month . . .') or the subject-matter rude ('We do seem to get quite a few sexual lunatics'), Ross will read, select, reject and reply with care.

He always will, he says. 'He'll never give up,' agrees Graham Swift, 'he's a great survivor.' Writers come and go, but Alan Ross, the editor, doesn't budge.

'London Magazine' is available from 30 Thurloe Place, London SW7, and good bookshops

(Photograph omitted)