Magazine article The Spectator

High-Tar Hero Hamilton

Magazine article The Spectator

High-Tar Hero Hamilton

Article excerpt


edited by David Harsent

Cargo (tel: 01326 281 040), 25, pp. 151

Early in 1960 a little magazine was born in which the reviews of poets and poetry were described by someone as lightly disguised assassinations. The Review was edited by the youthfully implacable Ian Hamilton, who usually wore black, habitually spoke out of the corner of his mouth and was clearly a tough hombre devoted to riding the bad guys, bad writers, out of town. In the Seventies the Arts Council made him editor of the New Review in which he gave many writers their start. Some of these have now come together to deliver a festschrift for his 60th birthday.

`The Pillars' of the title are the Pillars of Hercules, a gloomy Soho pub that was next door to the offices of the New Review. Clive James calls it a `sticky-carpeted dive' and describes Hamilton entering his fiefdom: The place fell silent as he strode slowly in, dressed in black like Doc Holliday breasting the swinging saloon doors of Tombstone. Gripped in his lethal right hand were the galleys of his little magazine, The Review, in which established reputations were riddled and left for dead. Propped against the bar, his worshipping acolytes tried unsuccessfully to look casual as they sensed his entrance. Which of them would be next for the bullet?

Something in his personality clearly did inspire worship. Taking his cue from Hugo Williams, Julian Barnes calls him simply `the Gaffer - someone whose presence and example make you write as well as you are able.' He was `the sort of editor writers wanted to please' (Ian McEwan).

He didn't hand out praise, or even condemnation: it was silence, neither lofty nor benign, more a kind of butch restraint... True, even back then he had the face of a capo di capi, and a useful, understated cool, but I came to think of him as a kindly sort. In the Pillars McEwan got to know Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Christopher Reid; Hamilton had become godfather to a literary generation. Those who think `little magazines' small beer must think again. Art has a way of secretly refreshing itself in unexpected places, and a sticky-carpeted dive is as good as any, but it needs a capo di capi, a godfather, a Hamilton.

Strange how heroes have to be larger than life, in corny ways. Heavy Drinker -- Hamilton eyes a barely broached litre of wine nervously, and orders another; no drunkenness is recorded, our hero is not as other men. …

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