David Prycejones

Earning brownie points

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Thinking Aloud: The Best Prospect, 1995-2005

edited by David Goodhart

Atlantic, pp. 320, £

Prospect is a monthly magazine with high aims, and it is therefore welcome. To borrow from the old advertisement for Mars Bars, it fills the gap. It is hard to think of any comparable outlet in this country — as opposed to the United States — where it is possible to publish contributions of 5,000 words and upwards. David Goodhart had the idea of it, raised the money and is the editor. Top marks for all that, with excuses for the horribly arch pun in the title of this selection from ten years of publication.

A monthly magazine of this kind ideally promotes its version of right opinion, and scotches its version of wrong opinion. T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, or F. R. Leavis’s Scrutiny, dictated a certain literary and artistic taste, in each case unconditional. As the editor of Encounter, Melvin Lasky was out to prove that everything from politics to poetry prospered under capitalism and not communism. The success of these magazines depended on house writers able to mix creativity and polemics, thereby making and unmaking reputations.

On the evidence of this selection, Prospect has no discernible literary or political ideals. There are no short stories or poems in it, and there is nothing for the reader to take on to the hustings or into the voting booth. Far from discovering new writers, the magazine seems to turn invariably to the obvious contributor in each and every field.

The tone is uniformly bland. The Blair regime may have made mistakes, but they are not grievous. Almost everybody may loathe the European Union, but it is ‘noble’. The answer to the prevalent yobbishness is, ‘We used to be better than that and we can be again.’ The one and only knock-down-and-drag-out review is by Martin Wolf of some lefty who doesn’t know what she is talking about. But that’s all. Polite regret is what the diehard communist Eric Hobsbawm receives, and all that is wrong with the architectural designs of Norman Foster is ‘the overpowering desire to be airborne’.

The editorial ambition is evidently to make friends and avoid enemies. The magazine too often tries to earn brownie points by covering topics that everyone else is covering, for instance genetic change, student education, animal rights, the future of the family, Islam, climate, a comparison of Amis father and son. Sociology rushes in to fill the vacuum thus created. Much of the writing is pedestrian commentary upon some proposition of interest to the foot-soldiers of the academy or the think-tank, clogged up with polls and percentages and extrapolations from them.

The autobiographical contributions, in contrast, are far stronger. Jens Reich describes being a dissatisfied German, first in the East and then in the unified country. Vanora Bennett writes about a man who built a black market in caviar, was caught, and became a poet in prison, typifying the Russian roller-coaster today. Sally Laird has a scintillating little account of being in a Danish hospital. Sarfraz Manzoor grew up in Luton, and in some dismay confronts the next generation of Muslims there. Perhaps the star reportage is by James Fergusson, who found himself caught up in the case of an Afghan immigrant accused of rape, and is unable to decide whether or not justice was done.

The New Yorker would have accepted any of these pieces. How to explain the gap between the excellence of the first-person writing and the ordinariness of the analytical essays? Those with a personal story can still tell it with flair and feeling, but the gloomy thought arises that intellectual life today has had the originality standardised out of it, and is winding down either because there’s nothing to say which hasn’t been said, or because what hasn’t been said is thought to be too incorrect to be sayable. In which case, it is not Goodhart’s fault that he isn’t providing the material that would allow him to be another Connolly or Lasky.