Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Ian Hamilton

Hammerhead Revisited

Terry Kelly

The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 152pp, £13 (paperback)
Gazza Agonistes, Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 192pp, £12 (paperback)
Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951, Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 336pp, £14 (paperback)

Tough critic, acclaimed biographer and stringent but tender-hearted lyric poet, Ian Hamilton, was one of literary London’s most iconic figures.For much of the 1960s and 70s, Hamilton wielded considerable influence in the world of letters, his early acolytes including Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.

Hamilton first made his mark as editor of The Review, a small but influential literary magazine he launched in 1962. While championing the work of such future leading British poets as Douglas Dunn, Hugo Williams and David Harsent, its editor proved the sardonic, famously thinlipped scourge of certain literary elements, including the Liverpool poets and anything deemed pretentious or populist. Hamilton went on to launch the larger, glossier and often financially troubled The New Review in 1974.

Operating from a small office in Soho’s Greek Street, the chain-smoking and hard-drinking Hamilton also ran his blue pencil over manuscripts in the nearby pub and virtual office extension, the Pillars of Hercules. The pub later provided the title of a book of literary criticism by Clive James. It was the Aussie polymath James who christened Hamilton ‘Ian Hammerhead’in his satirical poem in rhyming couplets, ‘Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World’. (‘The TLS’s frozen-eyed Enforcer/Who thought that poetry went wrong with Chaucer!’) Hamilton’s influence extended to The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), where he was poetry and fiction editor for eight years, and he also edited both The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English and The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays. His acclaimed literary biographies included studies of Robert Lowell, J. D. Salinger and Matthew Arnold. While a kind of literary machismo was the better known feature of Hamilton’s literary personality, he was also a parsimonious but emotionally-charged poet, chiselling out fewer than eighty lyrics over several decades. Small in size – rarely extending beyond ten lines – and number, Hamilton’s poems circle obsessively around two basic subjects: his father’s death and a wife’s mental illness; yet they carefully eschew any trace of confessionalism. Hamilton died in 2001 and his Collected Poems, edited by his literary friend, Alan Jenkins, appeared posthumously in 2009 (a paperback edition is overdue).

As part of the Faber Finds initiative – ‘devoted to restoring to readers a wealth of lost or neglected classics and authors of distinction’ – three Hamilton titles have been republished. They have been repackaged in a plain, rather utilitarian paperback format that seems highly suitable for these recessionary times. The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, Gazza Agonistes and Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951 demonstrate Hamilton’s range of interests and unfailingly persuasive prose style. Devoid of tonal wobbles, highly informed and – in the case of the Gazza book – infused with a simple passion for the glory game, all three reissues are very welcome. Originally published in 1976, The Little Magazines is a modestly proportioned book that was almost certainly close to Hamilton’s heart. As the editor of first The Review (1962-1972) and later the even more financially precarious, The New Review (1974-1979), which boasted the same glossy format as Vogue, Hamilton was acutely aware of the discrepancy – if not the yawning chasm – between the lofty literary ambitions which inspire small magazines and their creators and the typically mundane and fraught reality of their situation. The New Review was often pursued by debt collectors, bailiffs and even unpaid contributors. (Ian McEwan recalled going into the Pillars of Hercules in the 1970s with Seamus Heaney and persuading Hamilton to divulge his rarely-seen chequebook – ‘I came away with thirty pounds and Seamus with ten’.) In his cogently written study of such famous editors as T. S. Eliot (The Criterion), Cyril Connolly (Horizon) and Geoffrey Grigson (New Verse), and possibly half-forgotten ones such as Margaret Anderson (The Little Review) and Harriet Monroe (Poetry), Hamilton skilfully delineates what he calls the ‘arrestingly largescale ambitions’ of such personalities, labouring outside the usual literary mainstream, often sustained by little more than an evangelical fervour. Rather than attempt a comprehensive overview of small magazines over a hundred-year period, Hamilton opted for a detailed examination of three English and three American editors, each of whom made their mark in terms of embodying a movement, championing a select band of writers or shaping the literary tastes of their time.

Hamilton believed little magazines generally make their mark and are most exciting in their first decade. (His own ten-year editorship of The Review and The New Review’s even shorter run appear to bear this out.) Calling a decade ‘the ideal life-span for a little magazine’, Hamilton also provides this neat summation of why small magazines matter: ‘It is in the nature of the little magazine that it should believe that no one else could do what it is doing’. It is precisely this crusading, individualistic spirit which distinguishes some of the literary pioneers in Hamilton’s sharp pen portraits. Little magazines are often fertile breeding grounds for micro-dramas and power struggles. This was certainly the case with The Little Review (which may have given its name to the small magazine genre). Its editor, Margaret Anderson, found herself grappling with the zeitgeist-maker and literary lightning rod, Ezra Pound. The author of The Cantos offered his services as the magazine’s foreign editor, filling the pages of The Little Review with new and important work by Eliot, Yeats and Wyndham Lewis. Protests duly followed from outraged readers and the Post Office eventually stepped in, seizing and burning one issue and accusing the magazine of obscenity for printing an offending article by Lewis. Soon acquiring a taste for aesthetic martyrdom, The Little Review saw several of its numbers destroyed for including instalments of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Pound’s messy departure from the magazine left the way open for the appearance of the classic eccentric, Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven. Her off-the-wall verse was matched by a similarly Dadaist dress sense, which incorporated everything from kilts to a velvet tam-o’-shanter and spoons hanging from her person.

Despite Hamilton’s reputation for critical toughness and his nose for literary pretension, he also understood the essentially pure instincts which fuel little magazines. His post-mortem on The Little Review’s fifteen-year run contains an almost autobiographical sympathy: ‘Frivolous, absurd and simple-minded, it had some kind of buried instinct for the genuine.’

When Hamilton launched The Review in the spring of 1962 from an address in Woodstock Road, Oxford it was billed as ‘a bi-monthly magazine of poetry and criticism’. (But as his literary friend, Dan Jacobson, later noted, Hamilton’s creation occasionally suffered ‘money-induced gaps’.) The magazine was set in Gill Sans typeface as a tribute to Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse. Certainly, Hamilton’s own cold-eyed literary personality seems to chime with that of Grigson rather than any other editor profiled in The Little Magazines, T. S. Eliot included. Rating New Verse as ‘the toughest and most entertaining of all the little magazines’, and describing Grigson as ‘a natural dissenter’, Hamilton could almost be defining the combative, take-no-prisoners spirit of The Review: ‘There was more than enough vitriol to go round’. Grigson’s critical severity, often tipping over into an almost personal animus, can be seen as a literary precursor of Hamilton’s own no-nonsense stance. But Hamilton believes Grigson’s ire was often justified: ‘Almost always, some genuine critical point was being made; some real weakness in the work at issue was being isolated. And more often than not the venom, when it appeared, was as much a rejoinder to the polite and tepid procedures of the general run of weekly book reviewers as it was to the specific book.’

Often Hamilton’s study of more notable little magazines is also a sounding board for his own critical beliefs. The literary scourge of Soho, who ‘spoke from the side of his mouth, like a mafioso’ (Blake Morrison), Hamilton essentially believed that even the very best literary magazines have a limited shelf life before they start to lose their critical bite. Neither is New Verse spared the rod, with Hamilton pinpointing its incipient decline from the moment it abandoned its wholesale advocacy of Auden. After this it ‘was never to be quite its waspish, absolutist, self’.

Like T. S. Eliot, Hamilton often paid a high price for steering a literary magazine through parlous financial waters. Staring down creditors and seeing off bailiffs eventually took their toll, with Hamilton’s hair falling out with stress. Eliot suffered too for his dedication to The Criterion, which he launched in 1922. The back story of a right-leaning magazine, often containing an awkward cocktail of poetry, sociology and polemics, is of a sensitive man with a fragile, unstable wife, trying to sustain both a senior banking career and a heavyweight literary journal. The Criterion threatened to push Eliot over the edge, as the poet confided to his friend John Quinn: ‘I am worn out; I cannot go on.’ Often a platform for Eliot’s high Toryism, The Criterion, more damagingly, remained resolutely silent on the rise of Nazi Germany. And, despite Eliot’s totemic cultural status and the magazine publishing new work by such significant literary figures as Auden, Empson and Proust, Hamilton concludes that The Criterion failed to achieve two of the basic objectives of a little magazine: ‘There was no talented group of poets or novelists contributing to it regularly,and no sense of it encouraging particular literary movements.’ (The same could not be said of either the spartan Review or the plusher The New Review. Both of these espoused acerbic reviewing standards and terse,imagist poetry with a lyrical emphasis on leaving out rather than putting in.) Ultimately, The Little Magazines can be seen as Hamilton’s vicarious, rueful reading of the essentially doomed nature of literary ambition.

English association football may be a cultural world away from Eliot and The Criterion, but Ian Hamilton’s passion for the glory game could be said to have matched his love of the written word. Not many leading critics and poets have edited an anthology of football writing. In his introduction to The Faber Book of Soccer (1992), Hamilton admits that football, unlike cricket or rugby, ‘is notoriously a sport without much of a literature’. Yet Hamilton defends the voice of the fans tired of the ‘yob label’, and – surprisingly for a critic with such stringent literary standards – applauds the raw, untutored voice of the terraces as showcased in football fanzines:

'What’s heartening about the fanzine movement is that it manifests energy in search of eloquence – and the character of that energy is not just impudent or grumpy. At its best, it really does seem to want to make imaginative sense of all those weird Saturday sensations.'

Signing off his introduction, Hamilton, a devoted Spurs fan, pays admiring homage to his favoured footballing trinity – Jimmy Greaves, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne.

It is the wayward, Geordie footballing genius that Hamilton hymns in Gazza Agonistes. First published as Gazza Italia in 1993 and re-titled for two later versions in 1994 and 1998, the book is as sharp and perceptive as the best of Hamilton’s literary criticism. Like Paul Gascoigne, Hamilton was brought up in the North-East – specifically, Darlington. Indeed, he admits this geographical affinity was one of the reasons he was drawn to the naturally gifted Newcastle United midfielder, having first spotted him in 1987 and making a mental note to see more of the twitchy but highly talented nineteenyear-old Tyneside player.

Gazza Agonistes allows us to hear a different Ian Hamilton. It gives a greater sense of the real man and his basic sporting passions, and often makes for a more sympathetic or humane prose style; but Hamilton never loses the sharp, analytical qualities he brought to contemporary verse, fiction and biography. He portrays the often mixed-up nature of Gazza – the man famously dubbed ‘daft as a brush’ by the managerial great, Bobby Robson – with enormous sympathy. Noting Gascoigne’s poor beginnings on the banks of the Tyne in Dunston, Hamilton comments: ‘Even in Gateshead terms, his family was perceived to be hard-up.’ And the sardonic poet-critic is often willing to give his Geordie footballing hero the benefit of the doubt, despite Gazza’s many alcohol-fuelled antics, reckless tackles and frequent tabloid cameos. Hamilton’s football writing is as pin-sharp and pointed as a football chant. Possessing all the anorak-y knowledge of the committed fan, he has equal facility for local football detail and wider cultural commentary. Describing Gascogine’s brilliance for England in the 1990 World Cup, and the Geordie player’s eventual tears, he notes: ‘It was the tears in Turin that pitched Gascoigne from soccer bad-boy to the status of national celebrity.’

Neither is Hamilton afraid to get his literary hands dirty. He delves through red-top tales of Gazza’s ‘benders’ in the Bigg Market in Newcastle city centre with his constant drinking partner, the memorably named ‘Five-Bellies’ Gardner. Dutifully, he also reports on the various romantic dalliances that preceded the often madcap Geordie’s discovery of true love in the arms of the married mum, Sheryl Kyle – only for that relationship too to dissolve, almost inevitably, in a tabloid haze of wife-beating and drunken buffoonery.

Reading the book with the benefit of hindsight, we can see Gazza’s personal and sporting problems mounting like a wave at sea. As Hamilton notes in a stark postscript: ‘Wasn’t the whole drift of Gazza’s story a drift towards some calamitous comeuppance, some terrible bringing-down-to-earth?’But Hamilton – who, at one point in the book, christens himself a ‘Gazzamane’ – is often willing to forgive and forget his Tyneside footballer-hero’s boozily destructive ways. He offers Gazza the kind of critical sympathy he rarely afforded certain sensitive poets. A great admirer of the similarly wayward Jimmy Greaves, Hamilton seems drawn to those mavericks of football who burn the candle at both ends.

Friends and admirers of Ian Hamilton often spoke of him as literary London’s answer to Humphrey Bogart. It is highly appropriate, therefore, that one of the Hamilton titles given a new lease of life in the Faber Finds series is Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951. Hollywood was composed of as many myths as ancient Greece, and Hamilton’s detailed study is partly an attempt to debunk many of the writerly myths which enveloped the silver screen. Among them is that of the fragile literary sensibility chewed up by the Hollywood factory. First published in 1990, the book aims to provide a more complex and comprehensive insight into the role of writers who, as Hamilton notes, were mostly in Hollywood ‘by choice: they earned far more money than their colleagues who did not write for films, and in several cases they applied themselves conscientiously to the not-unimportant task at hand. And they had a lot of laughs.’ Laughs and copious amounts of drink certainly formed part of the core mythology of the writer in Hollywood. William Faulkner and the writer-producer Nunnally Johnson allegedly went on a three-week drunk after meeting for the first time – another movie myth? More realistically, Hamilton drily speculates that they ‘did bury a few drinks. They may even have stayed up all night’.

Writers in Hollywood tells the back story of such illustrious literary names as Brecht (for whom screenwriting was ‘a racket’), Chandler, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Huxley inside California’s dream factory. It also probes the fraught, collaborative nature of movie making itself, and the fluid role of the written word.

Hamilton’s love of film was as genuine as his passion for association football. As an undergraduate at Oxford he would see five films a week and soon developed a literary-critical interest in certain screenwriters. An early passion was the work of Ernest Lehman, who co-wrote the powerful 1957 film, Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster. He followed Lehman’s other screen credits with keen interest but was dismayed when he discovered he was also the author of The Sound of Music. The story is instructive. As Hamilton’s book confirms, the purity of the written word never had any part to play in the movies; by definition they are a collaborative art form. Hamilton contrasts the more elevated literary mavericks of the golden era of Hollywood with contemporary screenwriters such as William Goldman or Paul Schrader, who fully acknowledge the organic nature of their job. It was Schrader who succinctly noted that ‘screenplays are not works of art.  'They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art, but they are not in themselves works of art’.

Hamilton brilliantly captures the competing screenwriting claims and narrative confusions still surrounding such film classics as Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Despite the now iconic status of Casablanca and its famous one-liners, the reality is that neither the director, Michael Curtiz, nor its baffled co-stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, had much idea where the film was heading from day to day. When an exasperated Bergman asked Curtiz exactly with whom she was supposed to be in love – Bogart or Paul Henreid – the director’s reply was a classic example of Hollywood’s unwritten belief in serendipity: ‘We don’t know yet – just play it well – in between.’

This jokey anecdote neatly illustrates the divide between the definitiveness of the written word and the complex, often confused nature of celluloid magic. Casablanca’s script was in reality a chaotic mess extracted from the four winds, composed by different hands, all approaching the story from various angles. Hamilton memorably defines it as ‘the comic-cynical, the soppy-elegiac, and the solemn-propagandist’. Ironically, most of the people involved in Casablanca believed it would sink like a stone. Only when the film proved a success did the battles over authorship begin. The case shows that the sanctity of the written word often played little or no role even in the very best produced by Hollywood. Writers in Hollywood is a detailed and illuminating instalment in the ongoing and welcome Ian Hamilton reissue programme.

http://thelondonmagazine.org/issues/jun-jul-12/

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