DARK HORSES: AN EXPERIENCE OF LITERARY JOURNALISM KARL MILLER, PICADOR, pounds 16.99
Tuesday 09 June 1998
But not quite. This book strives to re-create something of the excitement and peril of being an editor and teacher when the contours of culture - literary, sexual, political - altered. He dedicates it "to the writers I have published": a creditable stable, including Brigid Brophy, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Kingsley Amis, VS Naipaul, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Hugo Williams, Craig Raine. Miller as editor made a difference. But it's hard to put a finger on what that difference is. It has to do with standards, critical debate and engagement, forging a generation; and with the promotion of a kind of no-nonsense philistinism, hostile to Modernism ("still news, when I was a boy. It is now history"). Frances Partridge remarked of an evening with him, "it was like a night out with stockbrokers". He doesn't like stockbrokers, or Bloomsbury for that matter.
He was a young man in a hurry, abandoning Leavis and Cambridge, and going over to the enemy: London, the media. The young man survives, sporting the same chips on his shoulder. He says he is vain, unprogrammatic, with a republican, Scottish, Labourite bent. Time and teaching have made him less iconoclastic than he was at The Spectator, the New Statesman, and - dramatically - at The Listener. Miller traces his editorial antecedents back to 1802, to Francis Jeffrey's Edinburgh Review. Like Jeffrey he's a severe Scot, pitting the Enlightenment against the Establishment, agnostic before the institutions of culture.
Even in retirement, Miller remains reckonable. As a young writer, I knew he was the editor to send things to. As a middle-aged editor I regard him as a star to take bearings from, if not to steer by. What makes his memoir uneasy reading is his double standard. He forgives Amis, Naipaul and O'Brien for opinions he condemns in writers in whom he has a smaller investment. The stockbroker again.
The author of Dark Horses comes over as a malcontent. He allows himself one epiphany: "that night in Ireland" when he attended a ceilidh with Seamus Heaney in Belfast, with the Irish fiddle, elbow-pipes, recitations and singing. "The house was filled with airs that hurt not," says Caliban, "and it seemed like holy ground, though far from clerical ground, or holy- war ground." How far? A gathering of friends - Republican friends - in Belfast in the Seventies. Miller acknowledges himself as the occasion's "sentimental monoglot over-interpreter", but he won't let go his abiding joy at this inclusion. He talks of camaraderie but celebrates outsiders. Duality again.
Martin Bell, who contributed to the London Review of Books, has moved from "balanced, dispassionate, objective" journalism to a "journalism of attachment". Miller seems to concur. A practical man, he knows that responsible criticism and journalism clear spaces for creative, as for political, action. The dynamics of working for his four journals propelled him towards "attachment", especially in the Thatcher years, with the founding of the London Review of Books, Miller's (Mary-Kay Wilmers's, and Susannah Clapp's) indispensable legacy. In Miller's journals, the sense of deliberate design was compelling. LRB controversies had the delicious sense of having been choreographed. Storm clouds were gathered by a deliberate hand; the thunder and lightning might go on for weeks.
Dark Horses is cobbled together. Miller cannibalises his Northcliffe lectures, introductions and journalism. It is no doubt good ecology to recycle, but journalism and lectures are different in kind from book-writing, unless the book is a mere collection of journalism. The pace of Dark Horses is uneven. Miller wants to reflect his multifarious concerns - Eric Cantona, Richard Rorty, Richard Crossman, Fanny Hill. He should have started from memory, making those risky juxtapositions which were the news of Modernism.
Almost-revelations tease us: it's still not clear why Miller left the LRB. He sets out bare facts but doesn't flesh them out. I wish he had; it was an important creation and departure. Perhaps we'll never hear the full story from the horse's mouth. We leave him on his bed, netsuke in hand, gazing out of the window, and beyond it, to the deep blue air ...
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