[ people - september 09 ]
By now few Cambridge people under 60 will know of, let alone remember, the long-departed University literary magazine Granta: Cambridge's 800th centenary year, therefore, seems a good occasion to reflect upon (not revise) some areas of Granta's history and to reminisce about a few of my own experiences editing the magazine in the early 1960s.
During its distinguished existence from the late 1880s to the late 1970s, the magazine proved an extraordinary and sometimes controversial breeding ground for all sorts of artistic talent. Far more than simply an iundergraduate' publication in the narrowest, often derogatory sense of that noun used as adjective, Granta (or The Granta as it was known in the 19th century) was always open to a wide range of contributors. These might be young or old - it was not necessary to be a member of the University, nor even a local. Its editors were invariably undergraduates, however, and had a considerable amount of publishing freedom.
Sometimes, though, this very freedom could backfire: for instance, in 1953 Mark Boxer was rusticated amid national publicity for publishing a supposedly blasphemous poem - in Coronation year to boot - and Granta had to go undercover briefly, reappearing for a while as Gadfly. Ironically, the original Gadfly had been outlawed by the Proctors in 1889, re-emerging as The Granta. Boxer himself describes the whole affair amusingly in The Best of Granta: 1889-1966. This anthology, edited by John Simpson and others, was published by Secker & Warburg in 1967, partly to alleviate the magazine's perennial financial difficulties and partly because the wealth of material in Granta's back numbers could and did provide an exceptionally varied selection of poetry and prose.
In fact, if you ever come across a copy, it's a fascinating selection. Part One, pre-1945, includes EM Forster, Cecil Beaton, Michael Redgrave, William Empson, Alistair Cook, Jacob Bronowski, Stevie Smith and Ronald Searle, with a description of Rupert Brooke in 1910 and an extended obituary for John Cornford dated February 1937. Part Two, postwar to 1966, features (of course) poets Hughes, Plath and Gunn, as well as Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Frayn, Andrew Sinclair, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Bamber Gascoigne, Terry Eagleton and many others. At the time, some reviewers were predictably somewhat patronising in tone, as they often are about early or apprentice work. John Gross was one, though, who found it "a lively collection" and full of interest, but he did observe that "not all the writers one might reasonably have hoped for are here: no unfledged Isherwood, no virgin Muggeridge". (Malcolm Lowry and Humphrey Jennings would also have been welcome additions, come to that, but I'm fairly sure they never actually wrote for Granta in the late Twenties/early Thirties, more's the pity.)
Another unexpected omission was a notable contemporary, Margaret Drabble, the reviewer of the book in the Sunday Telegraph. In her article, headed iClever Boys', she declares: "I never wrote anything for Granta while I was at Cambridge, because I never dared." A modest enough comment, if a little surprising from someone with a starred First, who also starred in a number of leading roles in some memorable ADC and Marlowe Society productions. She does however admit "I was once a sub-sub-editor on Granta", and I think this further piece of diffidence refers to the year before David Frost was editor; around that era, 1959-61, I can recall the names of Charles Barr, Peter Raby and the late Bernard Phillips also being on the masthead.
At that time, editors were appointed for nine issues, three per term of one full academic year. It was customary for the outgoing editors to agree upon their successors, who would usually be a triumvirate. For 1961-62, my own final year, David Frost and cohorts put me in charge of the magazine. My colleagues were to be my friend and fellow Kingsman Peter Graham, cineaste and later award-winning gastronomic writer, plus the then editor of the University weekly newspaper Varsity. The latter, an aspiring journalist, proved less than interested in helping to edit an arts periodical, and dropped out after one issue, leaving Peter and me in control of a full-colour, illustrated letterpress publication averaging 40 pages of text, price one shilling, circulation around 5,000.
Frost, notably energetic and entrepreneurial even in his earlier days, was an indefatigable networker (though the word, if not today's concept, was unknown then), and he had greatly increased the sales and advertising. This was very gratifying, but Peter and I belatedly discovered we'd also inherited a considerable quantity of taxi expenses, all too many of them involving production journeys to-and-fro, meters blithely ticking outside the printers... Since we couldn't afford to cut quite such a dash, we did have to cut down a bit: staff and friends would walk or cycle to the printers with copy, and we'd proofread like hawks. And there ensued a sort of jocular love-hate relationship with our excellent printers, the long-established local firm of Foister & Jagg.
Still, we were fortunate in our design and lay-out team, (Peter) Fluck and (Roger) Law - later of iSpitting Image' fame, but Art College students then; the typographer and printer Sebastian Carter was also a King's friend and contemporary - another whose contributions to the magazine were invaluable. Sebastian had in fact hand-printed my first collection of poetry in a beautiful edition of 100: entitled Lobsters, and priced 2/6d, this sold out in a couple of days, after which it seemed appropriate to celebrate by devouring the modest profits in a restaurant on King's Parade.
So the magazine itself invariably looked attractive and professional, but what of the challenge of producing a readable, intelligent journal, every three weeks during term, alongside one's weekly essays? I found myself, in current jargon, on something of a learning curve. My qualifications for editing a long-established and prestigious literary organ were largely a matter of youthful enthusiasm, a love of language, and a vague yet somehow urgent desire to communicate with others through writing. I'd previously contributed to my dreadful school rag and had edited a small literary pamphlet-size magazine at King's, but I had no very clear idea or intention of making a literary career, although by then literature itself had become something of a passion.
I was reading English at that time, though I'd been writing poems and stories ever since I first learned the language, at the age of six. In fact, in Granta 1207 Frost and colleagues did me a good turn by printing the opening section of my first novel, written when I was 18. (This typescript would be published in full, after 30-odd rejections, by Anthony Blond some six years later as The Summer Ghosts, when it became a bestseller and something of a Sixties cult book.) I was subsequently approached by various publishers and agents and was lucky enough to acquire a top London agent, James MacGibbon of Curtis Brown, before even getting a degree. In effect I managed to attract a certain amount of attention in literary circles without actually seeking it.
As for further unsought publicity, this was to follow (how naïve we all were in those days!) though not, as we feared, in response to six whole pages of Picabia's Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère - translated by artist Rackstraw Downes as Jesus Christ Ponce. No, both Jesus and the 1920 Dadaist were long enough gone, and nobody turned a hair. It was with our next issue, March 1962, that we ran into trouble. The printers, Foister & Jagg, balked at printing a short extract from my second novel, then in progress, Zones (eventually published by Blond in 1966). Peter Graham and I and others thought F&J's objection nonsensical, both absurd and unreasonable. Apparently the problem was a single description of stains on a black skirt - "the disgusting snailtracks of his lust", I seem to recall. But our deadline was tight: with no time to spare, and after advice from a couple of friendly dons and a hilarious, fudging written statement from the Chief Constable, we decided to play safe. Granta went to press with three pages blank but for brief Editors' and Author's Notes, apologising to readers - we couldn't begin to explain what had transpired - plus a drawing originally intended to accompany the extract. All of us were fiercely opposed to any kind of censorship, especially if arbitrary or indeed as exercised by printers, and this was very soon after the Chatterley trial. Various daily newspapers (via an item in Varsity) picked up on this rather parochial affair, and it briefly became front-page news in the Express, the Mail and others.
Nowadays such publicity would be regarded as priceless and everyone, especially agents, would be seizing a variety of opportunities to cash in on it and keep the media ball rolling. But in the early Sixties we weren't so career-conscious, nor so generally indebted, unlike students these days; we were also working toward Finals. Peter Graham and I therefore simply came in for much humorous backchat about 'that Blank Page Issue', its pristine purity unsullied by Messrs.Thruster & Shagg, etc etc. I did at least have the satisfaction of seeing those selfsame pages published soon after my Finals, in Transatlantic Review no less, where my name sat on the front cover proudly alongside William Burroughs (on censorship!) Paul Bowles, BS Johnson, George MacBeth and Richard Yates.
Was I paid handsomely for the hassle? A couple of guineas at most, perhaps. No matter. In any case, I knew myself to be immensely privileged, living as I did in King's. My rooms overlooked Webb's Court, which meant that I had a very useful central base while editing Granta and was easy to contact. There were public telephones as a last resort, but we rarely needed to resort to them: Cambridge was and is a small enough place to cross easily.
But Cambridge was also, and is still, a vast pool of talent and intellect to draw upon. As regards English, I have described elsewhere the stimulus and pleasure of being supervised by such inspirational educators as Tony Tanner, George Steiner and JB Broadbent, and of being able to choose to attend lectures by the likes of Leavis, Donald Davie, Raymond Williams and even, on one memorable occasion, Vladimir Nabokov. In fact it was a vintage time too to be editing Granta. I hope here to prove the point by listing just some of our 1961-2 contributors. (And who cares about accusations of namedropping when and if there are worthwhile names to drop?) Visual arts: Charles Harrison, Paul Overy, Nicholas Taylor, Rackstraw Downes, Stephen Frears, Charles Barr. On the literary and critical side: Pat Rogers, Michael Grant, Tony Tanner, Richard Boston, John Fortune, Adam Hopkins, Stephen Bann, David Holbrook, John Barrell, Richard Griffiths, Jonathan Benthall, David Rubadiri. Music pages featured Hugh Macdonald (classical), Lionel Grigson and Alun Morgan (jazz). We ran illustrated interviews with Henry Moore, Alain Resnais and François Truffaut; articles on Burroughs and the Beats; and turned down work from such as Bill Oddie and Terry Eagleton… At the end of our run of issues we handed over the editorship to a trio who would later prove as distinguished in their respective fields as those other contemporaries I've listed: Tom Lowenstein, Pat Rogers, and - yet another friend and Kingsman, for whose appointment I make absolutely no apologies - Angus Calder.
Angus Calder surely merits a paragraph to himself here. Angus, like all too many of the above, is unfortunately no longer with us, and I had the melancholy honour of being one of many contributors to his recent festschrift. The highly influential author of such classics as The People's War, and The Myth of The Blitz, Angus became a much-loved and much-travelled academic. He was even then a fine poet and critic, and we'd published him in both capacities. A hard-drinking Scot, like Peter Graham himself, Angus shared many of our cherished concerns - cinema, cricket, jazz, Socialism, CND and so on. It saddens me to be writing about him in the past tense, and with hindsight I miss those inimitable, interminable, sometimes infuriating but more often hilarious, telephone calls from him in Edinburgh, especially when there's a Test match in progress.
Angus was of course a stickler for historical accuracy and for drawing just and proper conclusions from facts. Revisionism for its own sake was not his style, and he said he agreed entirely with the gist of a letter to The Observer which I wrote in response to a huge lead article in their Review at the end of 2007. Angus knew perfectly well, as I did, that it wouldn't be printed: for the record however, one should never let any shoddy or partial journalism pass unchallenged, while a drink and a laugh were anyhow always in order.
The Observer piece was headed 'From Student Rag To Literary Riches', and gave the American publisher Bill Buford a grandiose spread, lengthily eulogising his undoubted editorial and entrepreneurial skills. Confusingly enough, it avoided any serious mention of Granta's post-Plath but pre-Buford days. Readers, especially younger ones, might imagine that Granta after WW2, and before Buford's irelaunch' and ireinvention' of the magazine in 1979, had simply dwindled into the "32-page mimeographed journal that had previously been published sporadically and erratically by the University society". The author of this rather misleading feature observes dismissively that "before its reinvention Granta would move as lazily as the river". He claims that "The new Granta would not settle for juvenilia and the work of students" - but then, as I hope I've shown, neither did the old. The eulogist (himself an admirer published by Buford's new empire) should have set the record straight: old Granta was an independent and readable, if not always absolutely professional, magazine - not just the bedraggled lame duck irescued' by Buford.
This isn't of course to detract from Bill Buford's achievements from 1979 on. Some readers may well be asking at this point: Isn't Granta a rather good, heavyweight London publishing firm, that boasts a regular, glossy book-size periodical, a house magazine of ithemed' new writing? They're right of course, yet Buford annexed, developed and re-marketed a journal which after nearly a century could sport a fine tradition, a quality brand-name and a seriously impressive backlist. How could he lose? He moved on, naturally, and went back to the USA, where he continues to be successful, on The New Yorker, I believe. The best of luck to him in any case. I do wish however that Granta had managed to continue as the pre-eminent Cambridge literary magazine. Everyone who contributed to and/or edited it over the years, usually against the clock and always for love not money, gained invaluable experience, made a wide variety of friends and had plenty of passionate discussion and laughter in the bargain. Not at all a bad part of a great University education.