Some years ago, when I was editing the books pages of the New Statesman, I solicited a couple of reviews from Karl Miller, a distant predecessor of mine in the job who’d gone on to be the founding editor of the London Review of Books, which celebrated its 40th birthday in October.
Then almost 80, Miller insisted on filing his copy by post rather than email. These missives felt like communiqués from a bygone era. Miller’s reviews — not to mention the elliptical telephone conversations that would end with me wondering whether I’d actually commissioned him or not — were a portal to what I’d always regarded as a golden age for literary and intellectual journalism in the UK, in which he played a central role. So central, in fact, that one historian has described him as the “restless ringmaster” of postwar English letters.
Miller read English at Cambridge in the early 1950s, where he fell under the spell of FR Leavis, who treated literary criticism as a kind of moral pursuit. After leaving university Miller took a job in television and in 1957 became literary editor of The Spectator, where he spent four years before moving to its leftish counterpart, the NS, then edited by John Freeman, a former Labour MP.
Miller flourished under Freeman, who sought to integrate the political front and literary back “halves” of the magazine, which had previously coexisted uneasily like the two ends of a pantomime horse. In choosing a selection from more than a century’s worth of New Statesman articles, the magazine’s current editor, Jason Cowley, says he too has ignored “artificial divisions” between politics and literature. The list of contributors he has assembled in Statesmanship is impressive, and includes luminaries such as HG Wells (albeit for a spectacularly obsequious interview with Joseph Stalin), Virginia Woolf, JM Keynes, Angela Carter and Graham Greene.
When Paul Johnson took over as NS editor in 1965, Miller knew he was on borrowed time. “He felt I must be reined in and not publish too many obscure articles,” he once told me. “I published William Empson, who was not always intelligible.” He eventually left in December 1966 but would soon find a new berth as editor of The Listener, the BBC’s highbrow weekly, where he stayed until 1973.
It was with two of his colleagues from that journal, Mary-Kay Wilmers and Susannah Clapp, that Miller would eventually launch the London Review of Books in 1979.
The paper was the accidental child of an industrial dispute which meant that the TLS disappeared from newsstands for nearly a year. Writing in a handsome anniversary volume, which gathers “artefacts and ephemera” culled from the paper’s archive, Wilmers, who put her own money into the venture and would take over as editor in 1992, recalls that the critic Frank Kermode wrote a beseeching newspaper article “on behalf of all the new books that [were not getting] reviewed” in the absence of the TLS. The LRB eventually emerged to fill the gap, first as an insert carried in UK copies of The New York Review of Books and then, from May 1980, sailing under its own steam.
There is a hint of frosty impatience in Wilmers’ recollections of Miller. She remembers that he wrote in the first issue that the LRB was “something new” but says that 40 years on, she’s “not sure that I any longer know in what it’s newness consisted except that it was to come out not once a week like the New Statesman or once a month like Encounter but once every two weeks”.
An axe is being ground here no doubt but Wilmers is right to suggest that there was little novelty in Miller’s vision. On the contrary the model he sought to emulate was a 19th-century one.
There were to be no front and back halves, so no formal division between the treatment of literature and politics. “We ran”, Miller recalled, “from first to last like the Edinburgh Review.”
The latter journal, founded in 1803 by Francis Jeffrey, was one of the ornaments of the first golden age of what used to be called the “higher journalism”.
Under Jeffrey, the Review consistently achieved a tone nicely described by Walter Bagehot, who edited The Economist from 1861-77, as “glanc[ing] lightly from topic to topic, suggesting deep things in jest”.
There is a clear echo of this in all the publications Miller worked for. He called them “minority journals of general interest”, which strikes me as a pretty serviceable description of the LRB and the NS, whose current commercial success suggests we may in fact be living through a third golden age of the intelligent literary-political periodical. Such publications, Miller thought, are “defined in terms of a certain ambivalence”, especially in their treatment of politics.
In 1993, Wilmers wrote to the journalist Anne Applebaum explaining why she was turning down the latter’s review of a book about the last days of the Soviet Union. Applebaum had “felt the need . . . to remind readers that Stalin was bad”. What Wilmers had been hoping for was a “more shaded piece . . . with more in it about the ‘grey areas’ ”.
Occasionally, the LRB’s commitment to attending to the “grey areas” has deserted it, notably in its implacable opposition to US global hegemony and its treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1984, Isaiah Berlin wrote despairingly to Miller asking: “Must you use only zealots in writing about the Middle East?” And in 2001, some of the brief reactions Wilmers solicited to the September 11 attacks — including Mary Beard’s reference to the feeling that “the United States had it coming” — led to a flurry of cancelled subscriptions.
I was interviewed for a position at the LRB a week or so after those pieces had appeared. I remember asking why Christopher Hitchens, at the time a regular contributor, had not been asked to write about 9/11. It was made clear to me that his cheerleading for a US military response in Afghanistan had rendered him persona non grata in Little Russell Street. I didn’t get the job.
The London Review of Books: An Incomplete History, Faber, RRP£35, 256 pages
Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman 1913-2019, edited by Jason Cowley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20, 432 pages
Jonathan Derbyshire is the FT’s executive opinion editor