NB by J.C.: A Walk Through the Times Literary Supplement
The Literary Supplement of The Times came into being on January 17, 1902, a few days before the first anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria. It was conceived as a convenience, a bearer of excess baggage from the overloaded Times—“a makeshift.” The idea was to find a place for the increasing numbers of book reviews, with their accompanying column-length advertisements, now clogging up the pages of the newspaper. With a busy parliamentary session in prospect, the management wished to keep space free for debates about the conduct of the war in South Africa and related matters, such as the construction of the original concentration camps—an innovation of which The Times disapproved. Casting back in 1930, the TLS’s editor Bruce Richmond found it “almost a shock to look at the first number with its hesitating announcement that ‘During the ensuing session of Parliament’ a supplement dealing with books will be published”—during that session but not beyond. It is easy to assume now that continuation was certain from the start but, in fact, the Lit Supp, child of 1902, hadn’t a licence to survive into 1903.
When the parliamentary session closed, it was expected that the makeshift would close with it. Thanks to the manager of The Times, Charles Moberly Bell, however, the Supplement was discreetly steered into a second year. In his letter of 1930 to Mrs. Moberly Bell, Richmond remembered how it staggered past the final week of Parliament, “when your husband . . . immersed in graver troubles, seemed to have forgotten to stop it.”
Only seemed to have. During those busy days, Moberly Bell was present in the editorial office with another member of the management, “coasting round and round the room jingling his keys and discussing high matters,” while Richmond busied himself with the new books. “Without any apparent interruption of his talk [he said] in a sort of stage whisper as he passed me—‘If I were you, I shouldn’t remind anybody.’” So, Richmond concluded, “I reminded nobody—and here the thing is to this day.”
Richmond guided the thing through one world war, on to the brink of another, navigating two further premonitions of closure, before stepping down in 1938. Having spent thirty-six years in the chair, he is the longest-serving editor of the TLS, possibly the most enduring in British weekly journalism—neither Robert Rintoul, founder of the Spectator and its editor between 1828 and 1858, nor Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman (1930–1960), outdo him. The first threat, in 1914, was followed by another eight years later. The proprietor of The Times by then was Lord Northcliffe, crudely characterized by some as the Rupert Murdoch of his day. “Send for Richmond,” Northcliffe instructed one of his lieutenants in telegraphese on March 27, 1922. “Tell him Lit Supp deprives Times 20,000 readers. Literary side of Times very weak since Supp started.” He threatened to do away with the Literary Supplement, not because it was failing but thriving. “Shall merge Supplement in Times beginning with Friday week’s number.”
How close Northcliffe came to killing off the Supplement was recorded in an article by one of Richmond’s editorial assistants, Harold Child (TLS, January 18, 1952):
The number of March 30 was almost ready for press when a sudden order came from Lord Northcliffe: the next number but two was to be the last, and this death-sentence was to be published. . . . Into the leading article on the front page a “box” was introduced, announcing in italic type that No. 1056 (April 13, 1922) would be the last number of the Literary Supplement. . . . But once more the journal was to owe its continued existence to something like an oversight. The order had not penetrated into every department concerned. In one quarter there was some doubt about its validity. Twenty minutes before the paper went to press, the box was removed from the front page, and the number of April 13 showed no sign of its narrow escape. That summer Lord Northcliffe became too ill to take an active part in his business. In August he died.
In common with two long-serving editors of a more modern era, William Shawn of the New Yorker and Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, Richmond rarely, if ever, wrote anything for publication himself. His talent was to enable the writing of others. In a fond tribute published in the TLS in 1961, T. S. Eliot recalled that Richmond “did not hesitate to object or delete, and I had always to admit that he was right.” Like other victims of the blue pencil through the ages, Eliot might have felt on occasion that those deletions were wounding, if not plain wrong. But, again like those others, once obliged to see his work from a different viewpoint, he came round.
Virginia Woolf on the whole shared Eliot’s esteem for the exacting editor, though at times she flinched at the pencil’s sharpness. Her first review was turned down. The book was Catherine de’ Medici and the French Reformation by Edith Sichel. Richmond told the twenty-two-year-old hopeful that his preferred style for pieces in the Literary Supplement was more “academic” than this effort (he later found someone else to write about the book; Sichel herself was a regular reviewer). Given a second try, Virginia Stephen, as she was then, received two guidebooks, one to “Thackeray Country,” the other to “Dickens Country.” This time it was a success. The piece appeared under the heading “Literary Geography” on March 10, 1905, and the Lit Supp had a new, bright, young writer. The relationship occasionally dipped, with the editor’s readiness “to object or delete.” Years later, Woolf protested to her Diary that there would be “no more reviewing for me, now that Richmond re-writes my sentences to suit the mealy mouths of Belgravia.” She persisted, however, and was to become one of the paper’s most prodigious reviewers.
Editors of literary journals are forever in search of new voices and bright ideas with which, when combined, they hope to attract young readers. This in itself is not new. Writing to the books editor of The Times on Christmas Eve 1901, three weeks before the appearance of the first Literary Supplement, Moberly Bell lamented: “I find The Times patronised mainly by older men and alas they die. . . . I don’t want to abandon the traditions of The Times but I want to move with the times.”
Thus do things continue from one era to the next—the thing in this case being the one referred to by Richmond in 1930. In the second half of the century, it became familiarly known as the TLS.
The NB (Note Bene) banner was an attempt to introduce something new and bright into the TLS in the autumn of 1987. It was not at first the portal to the freestanding column it would later become, but sat at the top of a page as a section heading, sheltering a miscellany of non-review articles. The reader turning the page on to this version of NB, near the middle of the paper, would be aware of a modulation from the plainsong of TLS book reviews to something sparkier—a scherzo or a minuet—intended to create a more journalistic mood, occasionally lighthearted, though no less serious for that. The introductory acts on that first NB page of September 11, overseen by Isabel Fonseca, were a discussion by Anthony Glees of Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher (“probably the most important publishing event of the decade”) and a report on the Nicaraguan Book Fair, a gathering that was mixed in with “celebrations of the eighth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution.” The author, Amanda Hopkinson, told readers that Alice Walker refused to sign copies of The Color Purple at the official United States stand.
Over the following weeks, K. K. Ruthven wrote about Ezra Pound’s happy habit of treating other writers’ verses as the raw material for his own, Jane O’Grady discussed the phenomenon of mushrooming literary prizes, and Timothy Garton Ash and others wrote retrospective evaluations of literary magazines and specialist periodicals. A hint of NB to come can be traced to Christopher Hitchens’ full-page American Notes, by then a regular feature of the paper. In December, however, Hitchens announced at the foot of his monthly column that, as he had been writing American Notes for five years, “I should prefer to stop while there is still a chance that people will ask why instead of why not. Godspeed to the NB page, on which I still hope to appear from time to time.”
The NB page was also the progenitor and original guardian of Hugo Williams’ Freelance column, one of the most popular features ever to appear in the TLS. It took a hesitant step out of his Islington living room on January 8, 1988, with the observation, “Coffee is the drug of the chronic freelance.”
In time, Freelance would be overseen by me, and Hugo would come to be identified with the column. He would carry on writing it for over twenty-five years, irregularly at first, then fortnightly, going down to monthly in the new century. The burden was shared by other writers, notably P. J. Kavanagh in Gloucestershire and Michael Greenberg in New York—each acting as Hugo’s foil on the alternate week, the intention being to offer a different tonality. The routine changed again when I assembled a team of writers that included A. E. Stallings in Greece, Adam Thorpe in the Cévennes, Zinovy Zinik dreaming of Moscow in Chalk Farm, Lydia Davis in and out of her garden in Upstate New York, Alan Taylor roaming Edinburgh and its environs. It was my hope to have each of them give the reader a sense of reporting from his or her own patch.
In addition, I made regular columns ready for the page by William Boyd, D. J. Taylor, Caryl Phillips, Will Self, Sean O’Brien, Barton Swaim, Katherine Ashenburg and others. Dealing with them was almost always a pleasure: querying an obscurity here, requesting smoother continuity there, cutting an excess sentence at the top, suggesting a concluding one near the bottom. These working partnerships are, ideally, instructive to both writer and editor. I conceived of the page as Isabel Fonseca—and no doubt the paper’s editor at the time, Jeremy Treglown—had thought of Hitchens’ American Notes: as an invitation to the reader to take a lighter step in the weekly tread over the firm ground of the TLS.
When it emerged as a separate entity, the NB column had a similar purpose. It arrived as part of a new design on February 8, 1991. Both the feature and the design—“we hope that readers will find the lay-out clearer and more attractive”—were introduced by the paper’s incoming editor, Ferdinand Mount, who had lately taken over from Treglown. Occupying at first about a third of a page, the column was the work of David Sexton, already a respected critic and the first staff appointment made by Mount.
Sexton wrote a waspish, cheeky NB with a satiric touch. He had a predilection for taking on, and taking down, the establishment: prize-giving committees; literary festivals that were barely literary, more like celebrity parades; Arts Council of England bureaucracy; the well-publicized daytime and nighttime doings of a band of successful male writers who were then around the age of forty-five. His first column addressed the row in progress between Salman Rushdie and John le Carré, over a harsh review by Rushdie of le Carré’s latest novel, The Russia House.
For Rushdie, it was cuttingly personal: he alleged that le Carré had accused him of having brought the Iranian fatwa down on his own head on purpose, “to profit from the notoriety that would result.” Put like that, it was an absurd notion; more likely, le Carré meant to raise an objection, in response to a sour review, to what he and some others saw as a characteristic arrogance in aspects of Rushdie’s behavior—“almost colonialist arrogance,” le Carré called it. As to the criticism of his own latest work, he suggested that the author of The Satanic Verses disliked books that offered readers “accessibility.” Rushdie rejoined that, in the role of critic, he had a responsibility not to let an exalted reputation stand in the way of “calling a turkey a turkey.”
It was rapid-fire stuff, relayed by Sexton with a feeling of being written off the top of the head. At the foot of each dispatch were fixed the initials “D.S.” As it grew familiar to TLS readers, the column began to lay claim to a regular half-page. A colophon was devised, depicting two cherubs, one grappling with a massive fountain pen, the other holding an open notebook, on the pages of which the pen was inscribing something or other—possibly that week’s NB. A well-stuffed hobbyhorse for the contentious columnist was the growth of political correctness. Some of D.S.’s comments from the early 1990s would seem topical if printed for the first time thirty years on:
Alison Prince was asked to change the opening phrase of her book, A Job for Merv: “Things were looking black” was objected to in favour of “things were looking bad.” . . . Another author had a list of racial pejoratives removed from a book even though they were “roundly condemned in the text.” A publisher, Heinemann, actually sent a contributor a list of suggested names for ethnic characters. An illustrator, Val Biro, reported being required to fill a racial quota.
When David went on holiday, or had pressing business to attend (a stint of jury service, for example), he asked me to housesit. So it was that I began an apprenticeship as the NB scribe. The first stage in the process happened in July 1993.
The lead item for the week tackled Susan Sontag, who was the object of worldwide admiration at the time for her audacious plan to mount a production of Waiting for Godot during the siege of Sarajevo, at the heart of the war in Bosnia. Sontag ignored many of Beckett’s strict stage directions, while at the same time taking liberties with the text. A large section of the play was cut. Beckett was no longer alive to extend or withhold his blessing, and the director and her team, hunkered down in Sarajevo, did not wait for permission from his famously obstinate estate. Possibly they did not even ask. “Sontag plans to enlarge her troupe to include actresses in her production of the all-male play,” I wrote. “She wants ‘three Vladimir-Estragon couples,’ she told the Observer. ‘One woman-woman, one woman-man, one man-man.’”
Who could object? It’s not clear that the Beckett estate ever did. Yes, but I had a column to fill, and bland gestures of solidarity in the direction of the entrenched theatricals were not likely to be of much interest. I happened to know that Beckett had once refused to endorse an all-female production of Waiting for Godot by a troupe from Holland. After his death, they took it to court, as a matter of freedom of expression, and a Dutch judge ruled in their favor. They went ahead with an announcement stating the objections of the playwright’s estate made from the stage each evening before the house lights went down.
From a sceptical point of view, it could appear that the play that had made Beckett’s name was no longer his by right. “Sontag seems similarly disposed to disregard an author’s prerogative,” I wrote, after making reference to the Dutch actors, following up with a quote from Sontag: “Beckett was still thinking in that old way of thinking; that if these characters are to be representative then they should be men.”
This was an example of sheer cant. It wasn’t an “old way of thinking” to suggest that performance rights in theatrical works, and conditions attached to granting them, rested with the authors of those works (or with their estates); just as publication rights in Sontag’s books should lawfully remain with her. Asked at that feverish time if she would have endorsed a pirate publication of one of her books by a Sarajevan publishing house, she might well have uttered a spontaneous “certainly,” but few would encourage the precedent.
A remark made by an exasperated Vladimir Nabokov regarding Lolita came to my mind and added a little ballast to the argument. He was addressing the wily and exploitative French publisher Maurice Girodias, of the Olympia Press, who had dared to issue Nabokov’s once untouchable novel, then had shamelessly assumed ownership of it. “Dear Mr Girodias, I wrote Lolita.” And, said J.C., “Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot.”
One commentator had suggested that Sontag on the stage was fiddling while Rome burned. With more justice, we could have been accused of fiddling in a comfortable office while she took her chances in war-torn Sarajevo. You are conscious of these things at the time. But you have a story to write. The path for going against the grain was laid then. It is not all there is, but it has its value.
When Sexton was offered a job as literary editor and resident critic on the London Evening Standard, in the spring of 1997, Ferdinand Mount invited me to take his place. My two paid days were upped to three, without the obligation to appear in the office on the third, and the keys to NB were handed by D.S. to J.C.
I worked for six editors of the TLS. One of them started me off, as a reviewer, in 1980. One hired me as a part-time editorial assistant in 1983. One installed me in the NB chair. One offered space to expand NB, giving it the back page, the first article subscribers would see when unwrapping the latest issue. One tolerated the column’s campaign against the increasing, and increasingly reflexive, warnings of “you can’t say that” which began the work of deadening literary production in the second decade of the present century. The sixth had barely started on the job when management obliged him to instruct several editors to put down their blue pencils once and for all.
I encountered John Gross, my first editor, at the Times building on Gray’s Inn Road in the spring of 1980. He was standing at the entrance to the TLS offices on the second floor as if guarding his cultural project, arms folded, with a characteristic half-smile on his lips. Through the poetry and fiction editor, Blake Morrison, John gave me my first reviewing assignments for the paper. At the time, I was running a quarterly magazine in Scotland, the New Edinburgh Review. On one of my regular visits to London, I had come to Gray’s Inn Road in the company of a friend who wanted to correct the proofs of his review for the following week’s issue.
It was a notable event in my early literary consciousness, to have walked from the offices of the New Statesman at Great Turnstile, off High Holborn, where my friend worked, to climb the stairs at the Bloomsbury premises of the TLS, there to make the acquaintance of people whose names were familiar until then only from their bylines, to leave with three books in my grip, with the request from Blake to turn in 1,200 words.
The books are within reach on my shelves now: an assortment of essays, Was That a Real Poem by Robert Creeley—the second half of the question being “or did you just make it up yourself?”; an ecology tract by the California-based Beat poet Gary Snyder, A Place in Space; and a slim collection of interviews with Edward Dorn, author of the cult long poem Gunslinger and Creeley’s pupil at Black Mountain College in the 1950s. I can still recall portions of the books. Dorn’s response to an earnest question about his readers amuses me whenever I think of it: “I know almost exactly how many they are, and I even know a large percentage of them personally.” Blake asked me to write another piece, and then another.
Gross’s editorship of the TLS is regarded by many as having had the strongest cultural undertow of any in the paper’s 120-year-long course. He arrived from the New Statesman in 1974 and left seven years later. One of his first acts was to abolish the institution of reviewer anonymity—not a move welcomed by all reviewers and readers—and thereafter to establish a range of contributors whose names would make an appeal by themselves. It is startling to realize that the TLS had rarely enjoyed this advantage before. (A few freestanding essays were printed with the name of the writer attached—that of Henry James, for example.) Virginia Woolf’s association with the Lit Supp continued until her death in 1941, outdistancing even Bruce Richmond. At stages along the way her reviews appeared weekly, yet every one was printed without a byline.
On Gross’s front page, the names of the reviewers were intended to attract attention, as much as those of the authors and subjects of the books under discussion. Anthony Burgess wrote on music, Anita Brookner on art, Gore Vidal on American affairs, Lorna Sage on literature, Clive James on literature and everything else. Noel and Gabriele Annan formed one hospitable couple, John and Hilary Spurling another. Patrick Leigh Fermor had license to roam the world in typical rococo manner; the name-dropping Alastair Forbes to be shamelessly bad-mannered. The TLS as a cultural project was never more assured than under Gross. But the project was often interrupted by strikes and eventually by the management’s decision in 1978 to impose a shutdown on all the journals in the Times stable, brought about by an increasingly frustrating sequence of disputes with the printers’ unions.
Since 1967, The Times, the Sunday Times and the supplements—the Times Educational and the Times Higher Education, as well as the Times Literary Supplement—had been owned by the Canadian media group, Thomson Newspapers. In November 1979, after almost a year of closed doors, the papers came back to life, but the Thomson family had had enough, and in early 1981 sold the titles to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Gross departed, with much exasperation and not a little resentment, towards the end of that same year. He moved from one job to another: first, as an editor at the London publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson, then as a book critic and literary editor at the New York Times, and later, back in Britain, as theatre critic for the Sunday Telegraph. I’d hazard a guess that he never found anything as engaging as his work at Gray’s Inn Road. “He saw this as an opportunity to put down a marker for the kind of worldview that he espoused,” Roger Scruton told an interviewer in 2015. “He took seriously the question of developing an argument and a philosophy through the journal, just as Sartre had done, to opposite [political] effect, in Les Temps modernes.”
John Gross was replaced by Jeremy Treglown, until recently a lecturer in the English department at University College London, which was under the direction of Karl Miller. During the Times shutdown, Miller, in partnership with Frank Kermode and with the backing of the New York Review of Books, founded the London Review of Books, an obvious rival to the wounded TLS. The main financial backing came from Mary-Kay Wilmers who, until the Times lockout, had been editor of the TLS’s Commentary pages. When unions and Times management reached an accord that permitted the printing machines to roll again, Treglown left UCL and joined the TLS at Gross’s invitation. After Gross’s departure, the editorship was advertised, and Treglown was urged to apply. The other candidates on the high-class shortlist were John Gross’s deputy editor and foe, John Sturrock, the biographer and literary editor of the Sunday Times, Claire Tomalin, and the editor of the magazine New Society, Paul Barker. The interview proceedings were overseen by Rupert Murdoch.
“When Murdoch asked me what I would like to do with the TLS if he made me its editor,” Jeremy told me, “I didn’t say I would do my utmost to save the paper from Rupert Murdoch but that was my main hope.” The Murdoch takeover of The Times and the Sunday Times had led to pessimistic speculation about the fate of the TLS and the likelihood of its diminished standing in the world of letters—in short, concern about “the brand,” though the term was not then in use. Jeremy acknowledges, however, that his editorial decisions, “good and bad,” were made in complete freedom. “If, for nine years, I played a part in saving the TLS from Rupert Murdoch, neither he nor—until my last few months—any of his managerial underlings took a step against me.”
Treglown strove to maintain the intellectual standard of Gross’s TLS, but in one respect, at least, his editorial ambitions departed from those of his former boss. “The TLS had played a small part in the 1970s’ British high-cultural turn towards neoconservatism,” Jeremy says, “and one of its senior editors still seemed to draw most of his commissioning ideas from the American neoliberal magazine, the New Criterion. An element of contrarianism was something I valued in the paper but what had seemed refreshing in Harold Wilson’s day was less so now that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were in power.” Saving the paper from Murdoch “surely meant, among other things, bringing in younger, leftier voices, both among the staff and as contributors.”
He was not long in the job when he received a letter from me, now the former editor of the New Edinburgh Review and lately removed to London. I was scraping a living by writing articles and reviews for various publications, including the London Magazine, the New Statesman, New Society, the Scotsman, occasionally speaking on the radio—the bob-a-job literary life. I had also been offered a contract with a modest advance from Weidenfeld & Nicolson to write an account of a voyage by thumb and foot through Scotland, with distant echoes of Edwin Muir’s book of 1935, Scottish Journey. The commissioning editor, recently installed, was John Gross.
In my letter of approach, I asked Jeremy about the chances of office employment. I knew that the TLS had part-time editors who were also aspiring writers, or else academics with an untenured university post (usually at Oxford), who would work in the office one, two or three days a week. He lamented that there was nothing available at present, but that he would bear my name in mind when there was, and that he hoped, meanwhile, that I would continue “to write for us.”
It was a standard polite gesture, but encouraging enough. I had carved a minor niche in the pages of the paper as a reviewer of books on a variety of Scottish subjects: a collection of the literary criticism of Francis Jeffrey, for example, the co-founder and first editor of the Edinburgh Review in the early nineteenth century—a few doors down the street from the offices of the reincarnated magazine I had just left. I also reviewed an account of the history of writers, magazines and publishers in Edinburgh through the ages; a book of the uncollected criticism of Edwin Muir; the Selected Poems of Robert Garioch; a clutch of reissued novels by James Kennaway, the never-quite-but-nearly man of modern Scottish fiction who died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car in 1968, aged forty. Blake Morrison kept them coming my way and, when he left the TLS to become Terence Kilmartin’s deputy on the books pages of the Observer, his successor Alan Jenkins began to do the same.
One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1983, while preparing to make a final trip north to fuel the book commissioned by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, I received a phone call at home. Jeremy wanted to know if I was still interested in that part-time editorial post. “Only two days a week,” he said, half apologetically. If so, would I like to come in the following afternoon to have lunch and talk about it?
I was still interested—I certainly was—I could come in, and by the time the bill for our café lunch was settled, I had a job at the TLS. There was no interview with Personnel (or HR as it would later be known), no paperwork to complete, nothing to sign, no bank details to register. I came to the office, then in St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, fulfilled an editing shift of general literary duties on Monday and another on Tuesday, picked up a bundle of notes at the cash desk downstairs, and walked through Covent Garden to Soho to meet someone at the French House or the Coach and Horses in the happy prospect of spending some of it.
My colleagues for the next decade and more—the TLS wheel was slow to turn—included Sturrock, probably the most deeply informed intellectual most of us would ever work closely with but still, to his chagrin, deputy editor; Mandy Radice and Elizabeth Winter, usually paired by name, though unalike except in shared congeniality; the Alans, Jenkins and Hollinghurst; Anna Vaux, lately down from Oxford; the naturalist and jungle adventurer Redmond O’Hanlon; the philosopher Galen Strawson; Lindsay Duguid and Holly Eley, the last a sharp-nibbed editor and sharply amusing presence at her desk, from under which her black Labrador sometimes kept half an eye on office proceedings. From time to time, Holly would appear with a plump sack of freshly plucked game, shot by her in Oxfordshire a few days earlier, offered for selection by colleagues. Before long, she became Mrs. Treglown. The senior editor mentioned above by Jeremy, who “seemed to draw most of his commissioning ideas” from American neoconservative journals, was Adolf Wood, a gentle, witty man with humane and liberal views concerning his native South Africa and a stubbornly conservative outlook on his adopted land.
On my first morning in the office, I was guided to a desk next to Lindsay, then overseeing the TLS’s wide coverage of children’s books, soon to be in charge of arts and later fiction. She presented me with a two-page review in typescript and showed me how to mark it up with a pencil in readiness for the printer. “It’s our style to write ‘realize’ and not ‘realise.’ ‘Premiss,’ as in ‘the basic premiss,’ rather than ‘premise,’ which is how everybody else does it. Don’t ask me why.”
Lindsay returned to her seat, leaving me with my first office task—something to do, the new boy’s most desired objective. Or as Lindsay put it: “Just in case you need an alibi . . .”
I learned many things about the writing of a column as the years went by, some of them quickly. Writing of almost every kind demands reconsideration and redrafting to bring it within reach of the writer’s original conception. But the weekly columnist’s desire to play his or her best shot is at the mercy of the mundane timetable and the production manager’s imperative: to meet the appointed deadline for the paper’s place on the printer’s schedule.
This should seem obvious to all involved. But imagine: the deadline for putting the paper to bed in the office, before the pages are delivered to the printer—in the early days by a messenger on foot, later digitally—is five o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. This was the typical arrangement during most of the years I worked at the TLS. The jejune diarist, although short of inspiring material, has nevertheless cast his net and landed a column, consisting of three separate items, amounting to about 1,100 words (as time passed, the wordage increased).
Most of it will have been written on Monday. At first glance on Tuesday morning, it is clear that two of the items are vague or dull or unoriginal or—usually as a consequence of one or all of those faults—are trying too hard. Good prose wraps itself around a sturdy subject; without it, the words are apt to sag and stray. Poor jokes and punchlines (beware of punchlines) further cheapen the effect. Attempts to steer clear of the commonplace and say something attention-grabbing has had the effect of making the story seem artificial. Sarcasm has been given its deadening license. What’s more, in several places, facts and citations need to be checked (internet a long way off), necessitating telephone calls to publishers and publicity agents. A chore to have to make, even at the best of times, the calls are likely to elicit that easily given promise, equally easily broken: “I’ll get back to you.” In between, you might resort to ringing up a friend. “You haven’t by any chance got a copy of Heaney’s Collected to hand . . . ?”
This is the predicament of the inexperienced columnist at noon on Tuesday. He makes a further revision, cutting what he had treasured as his brightest jokes, now grey and unfunny, sets off for the sandwich shop—“If someone phones from Faber and Faber, could you . . .”—then returns to read through yet again while enduring the damp sandwich. By two o’clock, the editor of the TLS will expect to have a first look at the column, to see if—to put it at its most blunt—it is fit to be printed. There might be a minor legal point to settle (the columnist’s least favorite deadline-day announcement: “We’d better have this legalled”). In regard to the confidence it injects, the editor’s initial response means a good deal. “Lovely, lovely,” was Ferdy Mount’s typical approval. Peter Stothard was gratifyingly enthusiastic. Stig Abell’s reaction was rarely discouraging.
By the time it came to negotiating with the second and third of that trio of TLS editors, I had firm control over the delivery of my copy. But in earlier days I could imagine a scenario in which colleagues hovered behind my chair, talking in whispers at four o’clock on press day, while I wrestled with yet another draft of what was intended to be that week’s column (the earliest NBs were written on an office manual typewriter). “Do you know how it’s going with Jim?” “I thought he’d spoken to you.” I remember my desk neighbor Mick Imlah, having heard one exaggerated fear too many from me, asking if I’d noticed any white mice in my top drawer. Meanwhile, the minute hand moves to four-thirty.
The white mice were never there, even in illusory nature. Ensuring that they never would be was the first important lesson I learned as a weekly columnist.
The second thing one learns is related but more subtle, and understanding of it dawns slowly. When it did, however, I realized that it is the key to the enterprise: the secret of writing a column is not so much having something to say as having a space to fill and a deadline to meet. Once you’ve got your chops, as jazz musicians say—once you are on first-name terms with your instrument—the improvisatory imperative will see you through. After a while, you can rely on it.
In twenty-three years of writing NB, I took time off for holidays, naturally, but was hardly ever absent on account of common ailments. When the telephone brought the news from Scotland in the early hours of May 30, 2002 that my father had died, I went into the office in the morning and got the next NB ready, knowing I would be gone throughout the following week. It seemed not just the right thing for the paper, but the best way of occupying the time for me. A column is a friend as well as a dependent.
“What sort of column do you write?” The question was asked often, usually by people unlikely to read the TLS. I didn’t know how to reply, and still don’t. “A weekly look at literary life” has just the blandness I hoped to avoid. Above all, perhaps, I was eager from the start to avoid any resemblance to a gossip column and disliked hearing it described that way. I rarely attended literary lunches and went to few book launch parties for working purposes; when present at one or the other, or chatting to literary acquaintances encountered in the street, I never thought of myself as “a chiel amang ye taking notes,” in Robert Burns’s phrase. “I’ve got a good story for your column” is a well-meant promise, but it was seldom indulged, however amusing the tale might sound when related in person. I had no interest in Ian McEwan’s (briefly dramatic) family life or Salman Rushdie’s arrogance, colonial or otherwise, or Will Self’s drug-taking—only his alarmingly recondite vocabulary. I used to say that “Martin” and “Amis” were two words unlikely to be found in that order in the NB column. And stuck to the pledge, more or less, breaking it only for a trivializing biography of the writer, which gave much information about his TLS love life. There have to be exceptions.
In The Letters of Thom Gunn, published in 2021, I came across a note from Gunn to Clive Wilmer. “Do you know James Campbell? He is . . . also ‘J.C.’ who is unkind and sarcastic about a lot of people I don’t like and a few I do in the TLS every week.” That was written in September 1998, by which time J.C. had been in residence for only eighteen months, and was still finding his voice. One evening at the Poetry Society, while I was talking to Ian Hamilton—himself an old TLS hand, and on occasion a diarist (Edward Pygge) at his own little magazine, the Review—a woman poet interrupted us.
“Are you James Campbell?”
She stepped back, maintaining a hostile stare, as if devising a spell. “I just wanted to see what you look like.”
“Who was that?” Hamilton asked when she had retreated. I told him something had recently appeared in NB in connection with remarks she had made about poetry and her domestic life that had struck me as ridiculous.
“It seemed she didn’t like it.”
A Hamiltonian snort.
“I’m not surprised!”
I can’t recall now what had been said to make her so annoyed, but before issuing a retrospective apology, I turn my mind to the words of Christopher Logue, who as well as rendering Homer into English in an original way was for many years employed by the satirical magazine Private Eye. Sometimes he oversaw the entries into Pseuds Corner, the magazine’s pillory of pretentiousness. When I mentioned that my name had recently appeared there (not in connection with NB), Logue shot back without hesitation: “You must have deserved it!” (Twice, in fact; the first time I did, the second less so.)
Hamilton himself once wrote a grumpy letter to the editor of the TLS, grousing about something that had appeared in the column (neither unkind nor satirical, but inaccurate on a point of detail). My predecessor David Sexton also complained, more severely, in a telephone call, about a piece in NB on the subject of a review that was published in the books pages of his new home, the Evening Standard. I thought the NB comment was fair—Ferdy Mount agreed—and argued, Logue-like, that former colleagues shouldn’t expect special protection. He was not to be assuaged and wrote a letter to the editor, beginning, “Poor J.C.” I asked the letters editor, Adrian Tahourdin, to be sure to make that the heading if he intended to use the letter, which he did. After that, “Poor J.C.” became Adrian’s way of alerting me to the fact that another frowning letter on the subject of NB was about to appear on the page.
I mention it in the hope of showing that I wished to be open to the rough and tumble of the column-writing enterprise. Dish it out, if you feel that something pretentious or self-regarding “deserved it”; but be ready to take it in response. Give the reader the right of reply. Maybe someone else will answer in turn, even—who knows?—speaking up for Poor J.C. On we go. As we passed from the twentieth century into the twenty-first, J.C. persuaded himself—by dint of widening experience more than by others’ arguments—to be less unkind and to cut down the sarcasm.
I set out with no mission or plan, not even with a determination to establish a different tone from that of my predecessor. But a column naturally reflects the personality of its author. Paradoxically, it takes practice to let this show. The hardest thing of all in writing is to sound like yourself. And only by writing a lot can you hope to hear yourself as you do sound, to recognize which effects and devices you can control and which remain beyond your reach. In short, why you sound as you do.
The going-against-the-grain habit, evident in that outing with Sontag’s Godot, wasted little time in showing up again. When everyone appears to be of one accord in thinking the right thing, go the other way. There is something of this in the Private Eye rule, as expressed by the magazine’s first editor, Richard Ingrams: So-and-so is up? Ok, let’s go for so-and-so. An example was the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Bailey’s Prize, and before that the Orange Prize), treated by right-thinking types as indisputably a good thing, a beneficial intervention into the tired and traditional world of publishing, a modest but necessary correction in the rapidly increasing catalogue of male-enabled wrong. No matter what the personal views of the writer behind the initials might be, it is the job of the columnist to be contrary. In NB, the prize was invariably referred to as “the segregationist Women’s Prize . . .” Feel free to say it isn’t so.
Another example of going against the grain was displayed in a series to which we gave the heading “Racial segregation in the literary world.” In the late 1990s, attention began to be paid to the status of black and Asian writers in Britain, not a topic I was unmindful of in its wider scope. What failed to appeal to me was consideration of black writers as a group apart from the community at large, with supposedly innate disadvantages and special needs that required help. Wasn’t that approach what they (we) were trying to overcome?
In the columns of NB there were regular protests against the idea, and the practice, of “separate-but-equal” treatment of British black writers, which was gradually becoming embedded in the general conversation—a return to the bedrock of pre-civil rights segregation in the United States. Are “they” entitled to different treatment because they are, after all, different? It seemed so. Separate workshops for women of Asian origin sprang up in London and elsewhere, often funded by local authority culture departments eager to find worthy ways of spending taxpayers’ money. Would a woman of non-Asian appearance be asked to present ethnic certification at the door, on pain of being turned away? Anthologies reserved for black and Asian short story writers (the term BAME, standing for black, Asian and minority ethnic, had yet to come into common use) were announced, as well as prizes restricted to those who consider themselves black. If that condition of entry is broadly acceptable, then the argument is settled: we do live in a society in which people—in this case writers—are separated according to the color of their skin.
A question that raised itself in the course of considering these events was: who is black and who is not? Does the contentious question of self-identification come into it? Not many in the arts world seemed willing to engage with such complications, or even to be aware of them. Rather, the “literary establishment,” so disdained by D.S., rushed to offer a new, British form of what Americans had once called “black uplift” to this disadvantaged sector.
It had an unwelcome echo of the one-drop rule that in certain Southern states fixed the racial status of many unwilling Americans, determining their destinies, up until the 1970s and to an extent until the present day (the one drop being that of a single distant African American ancestor, bestowing “invisible blackness”). The scenario seemed to me absurd, the invidious effect being the opposite of the well-meaning intention. Apart from anything else, it was surely in contravention of the terms of the UK Race Relations Act. If there could be a book of stories restricted to so-called black writers, what was to stop someone advertising an anthology of work reserved for authors who proudly proclaimed their Aryan purity? In NB, we tried to avoid use of the term “black” to describe writers and their work; and disavowed “white,” too, which is vague and misleading in its own way.
We failed, of course, but can at least claim to have tried to do our duty as we saw it. One day a BBC producer rang up with the suggestion of making a radio programme on some aspect of the question. When he gave his name, Anton Phillips, I recognized him as the brother of a friend of mine, the Caribbean-born writer Caryl Phillips, with whom I shared an acquaintance with, and devotion to, James Baldwin. Nothing came of the radio proposal, but I retain a memory of Anton’s voice on the telephone, enlivened by a rippling chuckle. “No one else is saying this.” Why not? “Because they’re afraid.” Of what? “Of being seen to be on the wrong side.” In view of that response, we didn’t fail completely.
One of several publications overseen by NB was The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook. Its intention was to offer elementary advice to practicing writers and to give guidance to “our style.”
House style is something the common reader encounters at every journal, usually without being aware of the steadying hold it exerts over the words on the page. The rules vary from one publication to another—a simple example is the choice between -ise and -ize verb endings: “recognise” or “recognize”?—but the most important thing is that, once laid down, house-style rules should be adhered to.
This would sometimes be lost on the individual contributor. A writer might try to insist on a lower-case m for Marxism, for example, whereas TLS house style favors upper case. House style requires First World War, not World War One or the Great War, Muslim, not Moslem, italics for nom de guerre but not for nom de plume, Scotch to be used only in phrases involving broth, mist, whisky . . . and observance of numerous other little rules, some of which outsiders regard as eccentric. Upper-case the definite article for The Times but not for the Guardian; cap T for The Economist but not the Spectator. It was once the style of the New Yorker (not The New Yorker, though they style it that way themselves) to avoid “wig” and “midget.” Why? Because the editor of the time, William Shawn, said so. It doesn’t take much more justification than that. House style should, however, be open to change, and after Shawn’s departure, “wig” broke down the barrier and stormed the New Yorker’s from then on less decorous columns. Midget, too, probably. In the late 1980s, it was TLS style to avoid “gay” and to stick with “homosexual.” That changed—the homosexual usage became mainstream—and TLS style changed with it.
Good. But a going-against-the-grain columnist might silently insist on a regular non-gay use of “gay,” just to draw attention to its continued existence, while not disputing the validity of the newly accepted one. That’s good, too. Above all, The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook wished to be seen as taking a stand against lazy-minded linguistic habits.
Some advice from the Handbook: don’t use “iconic”—which has come to be applied to anything from Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony to a brand of perfume (the iconic Chanel No. 5)—except in relation to iconography; avoid “interrogate”—a fashionable item of sub-academic jargon used to indicate close reading—except in relation to criminal proceedings; do not pursue “the usual suspects,” unless in aid of a police investigation. There is never any need to use “within,” a senior colleague once insisted; “in” will always suffice. We gave him a copy of Graham Greene’s retitled novel The Man In and promised to add his name to the acknowledgements in the next edition of the Handbook.
The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook, though real enough in the world of NB, was a notional publication. It never existed beyond the back page. From time to time, a reader would write to office general inquiries (not “enquiries”) to request a copy, at the same time asking how to pay. Some had tried to order it at a local bookshop. One of many hopeful purchasers was the film director Martin Scorsese. It was pleasant to imagine these loyal subscribers eager to raise their literary level by a notch or two, and to know that they believed possession of The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook would help. To each of the requesters, including Scorsese, I wrote what I hoped was a good-humoured note, receipt of which would not provoke a feeling of being thought foolish.
Both good writing and bad writing come in many forms. It was easy to make a public display in NB of the bad kind—the Incomprehensibility Prize was set up for exactly this purpose—but establishing guidelines for the good is a risky business. Many intelligent, thorough reviewers consistently get tangled up in awkward phraseology. Just about any passage of more than two sentences is susceptible to objection on some point or other. As the years passed, and peer pressure incorporated more and more politically correct usages into common speech—we don’t say “peasant,” we say “country people”; we don’t say “he committed suicide,” we say “they took their own life”; we don’t say “slaves,” we say “enslaved people”—the advice offered by The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook went unheeded, not least by TLS reviewers.
J.C. followed a different set of imperatives from those I felt beholden to when writing under my own name. He was compelled to write quickly, with the buzz of office noise in his ears and the likelihood of interruption—anything from “You wouldn’t be able to cast an eye over this, would you?” to “Did you watch the game last night?” Without much forethought, he had to shepherd his best words into the fold marked “best order” and attempt to keep the loyal reader’s interest, week after week, with a variety of content, whether the mood was gay (there we go) or solemn.
The advantage of writing a column of 1,400 words, consisting usually of a minimum of three items, is that you cannot hang around. The lead item is likely to be between 600 and 800 words. There is no space for throat-clearing or scene-setting. To repeat one of the most usable of all nostrums of basic good style: get on with it. Get in, say what you have to say using as few words as possible while aiming for the greatest clarity, and get out. Write as if composing a letter to a friend (this takes a lot of practice). Then move on to the next topic.
Continuity between items is unnecessary—is usually undesirable—and this is another advantage to the columnist. Aim for a miscellany. After complaining about the sinister atmosphere generated by philistine but noisy bullies from the cultural-appropriation or cancel-culture camps—an atmosphere that spread during the final five years of my tenure—shift in the second item to a report on one of NB’s prizes. There was the Incomprehensibility Prize, the All Must Have Prizes Prize—for authors who have never won a prize (they have now)—the Unoriginal Title Prize, and the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal, for those who turn down an award on principle. You can turn down the Saltire Prize in Scotland, as Alasdair Gray did; you can refuse the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), with its accompanying €50,000; but you cannot turn down a Sartre. Not even Sartre did: he refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, yet his name remains inscribed in the record of the Swedish Academy as its choice of winner.
The lighter type of item can make a serious point, too. Something NB drew attention to more than once was the pointlessness of awarding sumptuous real-world prizes to authors already wealthy beyond the dreams of the average scribe who has been toiling valiantly in the ranks for years. In many cases, the riches of the repeatedly rewarded writer have derived from previous prizes. Certain writers are magnets for handouts.
There are plenty of examples. One we made use of was the 2018 Premio Cervantes, the leading Spanish-language literary prize. In late November of that year, it was given to the Uruguayan poet Ida Vitale, who turned ninety-five in the same month. The Cervantes brought with it a check for €125,000. NB of November 30, 2018 commented:
Who wouldn’t look on it fondly? Even so, Señora Vitale can barely have had time to get through the $125,000 she received at the Guadalajara Book Fair on November 24, as winner of the Premio FIL de Literatura en Lenguas Romances. In 2016, Vitale won the Premio Internacional de Poesía Federico García Lorca, which brought a handy €50,000; in 2015 the Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana (€42,000); in 2014, there was the Premio Alfonso Reyes and a few years before that the Premio Octavio Paz, neither of them skinflint awards. No one should begrudge a penny of it, but the greatest reward of all for her poetry would be readers.
Having addressed these matters, we could then divulge some confidential information about the latest goings-on at the Basement Labyrinth, the secretive headquarters of NB where the constitution and rules of engagement were subject to a continual process of refinement and dispute. Communication with the Elders in the Labyrinth was restricted to smoke signals, talking drum, homing pigeon, semaphore, or a Morse-like system of short and long knocks on radiators. The news might concern the vote on proposed strike action by indentured interns, protesting against being forced to accept wages for their work, or a proposal to grant them a week’s annual leave away from it. Their case was that they simply had too much to do—not least the task of proofreading the new Harry and Meghan edition of The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook, forever on the brink of being published.
All through my years at the TLS, I put up with people making remarks—not always good-humoured ones—about “taking the Murdoch shilling” or “working for the dirty digger.” Some refused to write for a Murdoch-owned paper. In the mid-1980s, Alasdair Gray urged me to approach our fellow Glaswegian, the novelist and short story writer James Kelman who was, Alasdair said, eager for work as a reviewer.
I duly did so. My relationship with Kelman was distant but real enough. In the summer of 1979, when appreciation of his fiction was still at local level, I had rung him at home in Glasgow to ask if he had a short story he could let me read for possible inclusion in the New Edinburgh Review. He said he would rummage around and see but admitted he had all but given up sending out short stories, having become frustrated by rejections and—worse, from his point of view—alterations by interfering editors to his punctuation and preferred ways of configuring dialogue.
I assured him that he wouldn’t encounter any such problem with us, and “Keep moving & no questions” appeared in the Winter 1979 issue of the NER. A little later, the fledgling publisher Polygon—formerly Edinburgh University Student Publications Board, home of the New Edinburgh Review—persuaded Kelman to excavate more of his work from the drawer and issued a book of stories under the alluring title Not Not While the Giro. I was pleased to see that the book included what might be regarded as his comeback, “Keep moving & no questions.” A novel followed. But a review for a Murdoch-owned paper? “I couldn’t do that,” Kelman said and replaced the receiver.
Seen from my own sheltered position, the TLS as a “Murdoch paper” never appeared to be in danger of imminent closure, as people sometimes liked to predict it was. If the worst came to the worst, surely, he would sell it off by itself to—it was pleasant to imagine—a bountiful proprietor with stately premises in a Bloomsbury square. The word was, however, that he appreciated the touch of class it brought to his stable, in other places lacking it.
A rare occasion when it was necessary to submit to the spectre of domineering proprietorship arose when Lindsay Duguid commissioned a review by Alan Rusbridger of a new biography of Murdoch by William Shawcross. Rusbridger was employed by the Guardian but had not yet become its editor, and occasionally he reviewed for us. The result was predictable. Like most people on the paper he worked for, Rusbridger disapproved of the subject’s professional conduct in certain areas and of his general cultural outlook in almost all of them. But the review contained no allegations of a more serious sort. If some well-substantiated revelation of unlawful behavior had been brought to light and deserved to be made public, the editor of the TLS might have had to convene a meeting of his staff and to offer them, one by one, the opportunity to refuse the Murdoch shilling.
But no. While the book had the appearance of endeavoring to remain impartial, the review would only end up sounding like the latest cry in what was now the routine clamor of anti-Murdoch complaint. If published, its main distinction would be that an attack on Rupert Murdoch had been given space in one of the papers he owned.
The editor of the TLS by this time was Ferdinand Mount. He read the review, then telephoned Rusbridger and said, with that suggestion of reasonable good humor that was seldom far away in his dealings with others, something like, “Alan, am I correct in assuming that you are not eager to see the TLS closed down?” Rusbridger was correspondingly reasonable, accepted a kill fee, and the piece was set aside.
Many years later, in 2006, by which time I was a columnist with a weekly space to fill, word reached me that a thriller by a well-known Guardian staff writer had been sent by the paper’s fiction editor to the crime novelist Michael Dibdin for review. The novel was published under a pseudonym, and Dibdin was in the know, but he had trashed it so comprehensively that Rusbridger, now editor-in-chief of the Guardian, intervened and instructed the books department not to run the piece.
Was there a little item here for NB? I contacted a friend on the books pages at the Guardian, to check what I knew so far. He sounded uneasy, and before the story could move along an email arrived from Rusbridger.
Jim: I gather you’ve been asking about the non-running of Dibdin’s review. If you are planning to write something I hope you can acknowledge that there are few entirely innocent pots and kettles in such matters. I can speak of personal experience: the TLS commissioned me to write a review of a book concerning one R. Murdoch. On receiving my copy the editor rang me and told me he was sure I would “quite understand” that the TLS couldn’t possibly run it. He paid me a modest kill fee. The difference with me and Dibdin was that—until now—I never blabbed about it.
Times change, and I am perfectly happy for you to include this little story were you minded to write about the Guardian.
This in itself was so elegant and “reasonable” that there was no question of doing anything other than ditching the item.
An essential feature in the continuing life of the TLS since the Second World War, if not before, has been “the brand.” It was, in fact, formulated and broadcast, without recourse to that term, in connection with the first issue in January 1902. A note about the forthcoming launch was inserted in the journal Academy and Literature, with which The Times had a connection. “A special Literary Supplement is published with The Times on Friday. This Supplement is an impartial organ of literary criticism and a comprehensive medium of literary intelligence.”
The last sentence is a stirring one. Not only that, it proved to have enduring spirit. Over the next century and more, the paper aspired to live up to it. If you were to be introduced to a group of professors of literature at the universities of Chicago or Paris or Cairo, in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s, maybe even later, with the information that you were an editor at the Times Literary Supplement in London, your hosts would know right away where to position you by way of the cultural compass—no matter that they might not have read the paper for years. There would be courteous gestures of restrained awe. There are few equivalent brands in the world of letters. A “comprehensive medium of literary intelligence” may be read as embracing information as well as critical thought, but it nonetheless evokes an element resistant to facile change in a too fast changing world, in which the standard-bearers of culture, including literary culture, are liable to appear as an array of blurred shapes from one season to the next. “Literary intelligence” holds out a promise of reliability in the realm of the humanities and sciences. Even if the TLS has been overtaken in recent times by other journals, trading in a richer currency than that devalued Murdoch shilling (taking it at its most literal: we were seldom able to pay our hard-working reviewers what they deserved), it could still claim to stand for what the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson called, in another context, “items of best being.”
My own view, intuitive as it is, is that the brand slipped into the danger zone not when it was taken over in 1981 by News Corporation, which broadly speaking supported the cultural project, but when it receded from Murdoch’s individual gaze. There had been scant attempt to exercise direct control from above, as Treglown says, except in the appointment of the editor, which will always be the proprietor’s prerogative. After Treglown’s departure, in 1991, Murdoch oversaw the appointment of Mount and then, in 2002, of Stothard, formerly the editor of The Times, keeping the TLS in motion as a medium of literary intelligence. It had changed since those words appeared in the Academy and Literature advertisement in 1902—of course it had—but its fundamental purpose remained the same. By the time of the replacement of Stothard, management arrangements at the peak of the company, now known as News UK, had undergone significant reorganization.
On February 12, 2016, my colleagues and I stumbled on a headline on the Guardian website: “Sun managing editor Stig Abell to become editor of the TLS.” The instinctive first reaction was to read it as the prelude to a parody. The author of the article was the veteran media journalist Roy Greenslade, and in a follow-up interview with Abell (May 1, 2016), Greenslade described the process by which the new editor had been appointed:
With the planned retirement after fourteen years of its editor Peter Stothard, there were vague plans to approach a high-profile figure. . . . But they were abandoned when Abell sent a two-page document with ideas for revitalizing the weekly to News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks. She showed it to News Corp’s chief executive [in New York], Robert Thomson, who said: “Go for it.”
None of those on the shop floor assembling that week’s paper had been told about the “planned retirement” of Stothard. All were left out of the “vague plans” to approach someone with a famous name to be our next overseer—blue-pencil experience not essential. We were likewise in the dark about ideas, conceived by an outsider but convincing enough to persuade the top people at News Corp, for “revitalizing the weekly.”
The new editor made his way downstairs from the Sun in due course—the offices of all the papers were now housed in the News Building at London Bridge, with spectacular views of the river Thames—and set about introducing himself to a staff with whom he had no previous acquaintance. Two and a half years as managing editor of a tabloid newspaper represented the best part of his journalistic experience. The passage of 120 years is perfectly captured in the semantics of the transition: from “a comprehensive medium of literary intelligence” to “Go for it.”
The three editors who succeeded John Gross in the editor’s chair—Treglown, Mount, Stothard—obeyed an identical impulse to that which had carried Gross’s project forward. While not necessarily aware of doing so, they were “developing an argument and a philosophy through the journal,” as Scruton put it, according to the will of the individual in question. Each would doubtless claim to be different in outlook from the one who went before, but all were fuelled in their endeavors by a common energy: the energy of the TLS itself; a consciousness, much of the time just a quasi-consciousness, of the combined values of those on whom the project most depends: loyal readers, good writers, able and dutiful desk editors; not forgetting an alertness to literary status, “the brand.” For an editor of the Times Literary Supplement to be inattentive to this status would be tantamount to drawing the cultural project—Richmond’s “thing”—to a close.
Among the humble functions of NB was the largely accidental one of acting as an extended series of footnotes to the history of the TLS. One example may be found in the brief obituary notices we included of figures who had played a part, large or small, in TLS life. Another could be seen in the series, The TLS in Literature, which unearthed occurrences of the TLS in fiction, including detective and romantic fiction; in poetry; also in film (we had a role in Iris, based on John Bayley’s book about his life with Iris Murdoch); in television soap opera (yes, the TLS has featured in EastEnders); and in art. Philip Roth put the TLS at the center of an early short story; Jorge Luis Borges included it in one of his tales. It is found in poems by John Berryman and W. H. Auden, in novels by writers as unalike as D. H. Lawrence and Barbara Pym—in the latter case proving useful as wrapping for decayed flowers about to be dumped in the bin. Imaginary books that figure in real novels—novels by Rose Macaulay, Eric Linklater, Ian McEwan and others—receive imaginary TLS reviews by imaginary TLS reviewers. Never-existing poems are accepted for publication in this never-existing journal which, however, bears the name of our own. More than once I tried to force the series into abeyance, only to have it revived by someone proposing an irresistible cameo.
In a parallel way, NB provided a way of footnoting my own life, while in the office and out of it. It brought many gifts. The most valuable was the provision of a structure that invited me to exercise my faculties at large over a long period of time. It gave me an excuse to think about affairs, in the literary realm and beyond, from one day to the next. It was NB that drew me out to poke around in dusty secondhand bookshops in remote parts of London, and over time in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Brighton, across the English Channel and in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. NB duty led me to ponder grammatical enigmas, such as the potential of “whom” to ignite class war; the invasion into British speech of the impertinent preposition (“meet with,” “next up”); the discombobulating capabilities of the apostrophe. Seated at work next to genial Old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates, it was proper that J.C. should speak up for the benefits of a Poor School education, from which the scholar emerges with qualifications in the Lesser-Used Languages of Britain and Europe (qualifications acquired, for the most part, on the day of writing), as well as Rock-and-Roll A levels and much else. NB was the Poor School. Writing the column for twenty-three years was a further education all by itself.
Assistance in these researches came from colleagues, naturally, and from readers. The basis for the next installment of the column might arrive on a Monday morning email flight from Greece or New Zealand or China—or, as likely, from Inverness or Cheltenham. To a significant degree, the relationship with readers was the raison d’être of the job. One example involves a Scottish woman living in British Columbia, who sent some French-derived words found in Older Scots usage that she remembered from her grandmother’s speech. They were added to a brief series on the subject, and she duly became an NB pen pal. In the course of a subsequent exchange, I remarked that the battery charge of the column, such as it was, came from the knowledge that it was read week after week, in places unfamiliar, by people like her.
During a trip to London, my Canadian correspondent came to the News Building, without advance warning, and left a miniature, leather-bound volume at reception: Beauties of the Scottish Poets (Glasgow, 1825). I was in the office at the time, but she didn’t attempt to make contact; only asked that the book be delivered to the initialled persona on the fourteenth floor. I was disappointed when I discovered she had been and gone, but on reflection saw the gesture as representative of the discreet exchange of feeling and opinion that exists between writer and reader.
 This essay will appear as the introduction to a collection of the author’s NB columns titled NB by J.C.: A Walk Through the Times Literary Supplement to be published by Paul Dry Books in spring 2023.