In a posting yesterday, I suggested a good reason for Clive James’s being elected vacant post of professor of poetry at Oxford. An article by Boyd Tonkin in today’s edition of The Independent reminds me that there are things which may well – and possibly rightly –work against his candidacy. His coming from the cosiness of a ‘literary London’ that now appears to be as smug and self-satisfied as any part of the establishment it once pitted itself against
Tonkin quite rightly takes a swipe at this ‘Literary London’, this “idea of a quasi-masonic cabal of metropolitan taste-makers”, that James – against his better instincts, I think – helped to foster.
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 the old arbiters, we should not mourn the change. “Literary London” is dead. Long live literature in London.
This brings up the question of whether or not one of the great apologists for the “old arbiters” is necessarily the right man for the Oxford professorship. Personally, I think he still is, but I’m very sure that I meet who’ll disagree.