Literature: Old-fashioned Ambit-ion

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The literary magazine Ambit has been around for nearly 40 years, yet its quality has remained consistently high

The most subversive entry in the last edition of Ambit is "Letter from New York" by Geoff Nicholson, in which the writer compares rifling through the postbag of a NY fetish publication called Satyricon to sifting through contributions to the magazine he himself was appearing in. "There are submissions from people driven by private and inscrutable obsession," he observes, "writing that is pretentious or incompetent or too arty or too pornographic, yes, exactly like Ambit."

It must be an unusually confident editor who could wave through a remark like that. After all, the unshakeable prejudice about literary magazines, particularly those with a taste for poetry, is that they suffer acres of forest to be felled in order to pander to the nation's unhealthiest urge: scribbling.

But Martin Bax, a consultant paediatrician who set up Ambit in 1959 and has been running it ever since, can afford a few jokes at his own expense. The quarterly's quality threshold has remained high down the years; the involvement of established names such as Eduardo Paolozzi, JG Ballard and Carol Ann Duffy has helped provide an authoritative, if eclectic, selection of photographs and drawing, poetry and prose. Bax's resistance to revamps means that each volume bears remarkable similarity to the one that has gone before. The latest edition, 151, doesn't deviate: an unassuming cover and slightly whimsical sleeve notes ("we all take trains round Eastern Europe") herald pages of a clean, no-nonsense design and unflashy writing.

Perhaps it is the old-fashioned feel that has enabled Ambit to endure, although Bax insists that much of the material he sifts through at night after work is by the youth of today - "the danger after so many years is stultification, which is why I'm constantly looking for fresh blood". The launch event for 151 showcases young and old talent: Kate Foley, whose first collection, Soft Engineering, has just been published, will appear alongside Ambit regulars Alan Brownjohn and Ken Smith. There will also be a reading of poems written by Edwin Brock (the policeman turned ad- man and poetry editor 1961-97), just before his death. Not weighty names, then, but writers who help keep the craft afloat. "We couldn't afford to pay someone like Nadine Gordimer," says Bax. Unfortunately for Ambit, the South Bank can - the South African writer will be reading her latest, The House Gun, together with William Boyd, who shows off his new Armadillo. Coin-tossing time, again.

Launch of 151, Waterstone's Islington, N1 (0171-704 2280) Tue 7pm , free; 'Ambit' available from 17 Priory Gardens, Highgate, N6 (0181-340 3566) pounds 6; Boyd and Gordimer 7.30pm, Tue, Purcell Rm, SBC (0171-960 4242) pounds 6/pounds 3.50

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