‘When everyone appears to be of one accord in thinking the right thing, go the other way.’ This was, broadly speaking, the maxim by which J.C. wrote his weekly N.B. column for the Times Literary Supplement, after inheriting it from David Sexton in 1997. Tonally different to the rest of the paper, N.B. under J.C. became a place where a contrary spirit found its expression in a series of ongoing, in-joking set pieces. From updates on the latest grammatical or linguistic dicta in the (mythical) TLS Reviewer’s Handbook, ‘perambulations’ among bookshops in search of forgotten or out-of-print works, and a set of satirical prizes, such as the Jean Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal, the column was a friend as well as ‘a dependant’ for its author.
The aim was miscellany, as James Campbell, the unmasked pen behind the J.C. persona, points out in his engaging and (naturally) scrupulous introduction (no doubt due to all that exposure to the TLS Reviewer’s Handbook). What’s collected here amounts to about a twelfth of the 15 million words produced during J.C.’s stint, and provides a mixture of the familiar and long-running with the freshly noticed. Literary scandals, exasperating academic jargon and shameless back-scratching were all ripe for the N.B. treatment. But it was never a gossip column, not least because ‘I rarely attended literary lunches and went to few book launch parties’.
Campbell is funny on the complaints his column provoked, which latterly became known by the letters’ page editor as ‘Poor J.C.’; and while his duty was firstly to entertain, he took on certain other tasks with diligence – a humorous note never erasing the serious purpose of the barbs administered in defence of clear English usage or against hypocrisy and the creeping segregations of identity politics, an especial feature in the last years of his tenure.