David Blackburn

Pigeons, pros and amateurs

Text settings

A flurry of new reviews of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English has landed in recent days, coinciding with a new edition of the book. Kelman’s debut divides opinion. Lewis Jones thinks it ‘miraculous’. Catherine Nixey thinks (£) that it’s ‘exuberant’ but ‘miss-steps’ occasionally. And I found that a pigeon is a less than engaging narrator, even if its appearances are sparse. Reading the book made me recall the story of Kingsley Amis throwing a copy of his son Martin’s book, Money, across the room in frustration, and I wondered how the old devil might have dispatched of Kelman’s opus.

All of which brings me to this piece by Alex Gallix about the death of literature. This exhaustive and exhausting navel gaze will irritate all but the interested, but its value lies in sketching the recent history of literary theory. Equally, it's a fine example of what our friends at the Omnivore think is wrong with literary criticism and book reviewing — as one commenter on Gallix’s piece cuttingly put it, ‘Was he paid by the impenetrable paragraph?’. Theory often has that effect on people.

The antidote to the theorist is the amateur man of letters, an increasingly rare beast in this era of multiple qualifications and professionalism. John Gross was, to those who knew him, the archetypal man of letters — witty, well-read and personable. A year on from Gross’ death, Geoffrey Wheatcroft continues to mourn his passing. Here is Geoffrey's column on the subject, in case you haven’t seen it:

The Truest Man of Letters, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Spectator, 7 January 2012.

In 1969 an author in his early thirties published his first book. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters won the Duff Cooper prize, delighted the reading public, introduced them to the name of John Gross, and marked the beginning of what would be an illustrious and fascinating literary career. It ended with his death on 10 January 2011, a great sorrow for the many people who loved and admired John.

A year ago, copious tributes were paid to this remarkable man, as writer, editor, critic, friend, which I wished I had joined in. He was the best-read man in the country, said Victoria Glendinning, or for Craig Brown, ‘the man who read everything’. His capacity for reading was indeed almost inhuman, and his memory frightening. One friend recalled casually asking him if they were any literary examples of a ‘disputed succession’ apart from Hamlet, to which John immediately suggested Wilkie Collins’s The Dead Secret, Ibsen’s The Pretenders and Trollope’s Is He Popenjoy? 

No doubt I read at the time, but had forgotten until coming across it again, since I quite lack his total recall, something he wrote here in 1983, an entertaining review of a biography of Sir George Lewis, the famous and immensely influential Victorian solicitor whose clients included the Prince of Wales. In an aside, Gross gently wondered why the biographer hadn’t mentioned that Lewis ‘appears by name in Conan Doyle’s “The Illustrious Client” — a pretty broad clue to the client’s identity’. Yes, he had read everything, high and low.

Since his death, I’ve thought often about John, and reread him. The breadth of his reading and his memory made him the perfect anthologist, and he edited half a dozen Oxford Books of ..., from Aphorisms to Parodies. He also wrote three books of his own, and I wish he had written more. Shylock is a learned and highly original study of that singularly problematic character and his play, while A Double Thread is a beautiful short memoir of Gross’s London childhood, ‘double’ because both English and Jewish. But I now see that the defining point came with his brilliant first book.

Although he and Kingsley Amis were disparate personalities, to say the least, Gross would have shared Amis’s contempt for anything which ‘makes a statement’, and his disdain for the idea of ‘importance’. But I believe that The Rise and Fall is a truly important book. It wasn’t just an item on Gross’s list of publications, it was part of his own story, and it made a statement of its own: a repudiation of the attempted monopoly of literary criticism by ‘the university’ and the larger academic appropriation of our common culture.

Taking as his starting point the great age of the Edinburgh Review and its rivals two centuries ago, and ‘The Rise of the Reviewer’, it runs from the days when Carlyle could call the man of letters the true modern hero, through the flowering of weeklies (like this one) throughout the 19th century, until the later 20th century. Some writers — most academics — would have made a dull catalogue or phenomenology out of this, but every page of Gross’s book is enjoyable, and many are very amusing.

Some of his characters are still remembered, or just about, Frederic Harrison,  John Morley, Frank Harris (though not for his distinguished editorship of the Saturday Review), some are forgotten. If anyone has now heard of William Magin it’s as the model for  Captain Shandon in Pendennis, rather than the sorry scribbler who ended with a ‘reckless plunge downhill into gin-sodden obscurity’.

With his eye for detail, Gross notices that the first editors of a number of famous London periodicals, including The Spectator, were Scotsmen (plus ça change…). He brings to life faraway literary gangs, the Fraserians, ‘the Henley regatta’, the Squierachy. His humour is delightful, not least when he writes about ‘that most forlorn of creatures, an English Humorist’. A passage about James Payn mentions a line in his reminiscences saying that ‘there is less jealousy among literary men than in any other profession’, to which Gross adds in a footnote that this view ‘has not yet been confirmed by subsequent research’.

He scolds with light sarcasm — if Andrew Lang ‘had one consistent policy as a reviewer, it was to ridicule or disparage practically every truly important novel which came his way’ — and although he doesn’t glorify the past, there is a touch of awe when he observes that ‘all the Conservative prime ministers of the Victorian and Edwardian period were men of some literary or scholarly attainment’ (that has changed). The last Liberal cabinets, before the Great War, were even more impressive in terms of literary ability, although Gross pounces with glee on Augustine Birrell, writer as well as politician, insisting that ‘every author, be he grave or gay, should try to make his book as ingratiating as possible’.

That was the age of the Home Rule Bill and the suffragists, but also of something else: the coming of ‘Eng. Lit’. As Gross says, 200 years ago, and for much of the 19th century, ‘the idea of a university offering to teach “English” would have seemed ludicrous’. Anyone who suspects that it still is will find ammunition in Gross’s book. In the early days of the last century the first professors of English were ‘men of letters’ to a fault, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, George Saintsbury. But then comes the academic professionalisation and specialisation, with the dominant English department at Cambridge to the fore.

This leads to Gross’s brilliant dissection of F. R. Leavis, the heresiach of Cambridge English for nearly half a century from the 1920s. Few people under 30 will now even recognise the name — Martin Amis has written derisively that ‘When Leavis died, in 1978, his clerisy collapsed in a Jonestown of odium theologicum. It left nothing behind it’ — and you need to be well over 50 to remember the extraordinary thrall he once exerted. Far beyond his own university, ‘Leavisism’ spread its tentacles through other colleges and schools, and many of us can remember being taught in the sixth form by disciples and epigoni who tried to drum into their unfortunate charges all the dogmata, and the ‘canon’, from the anathematisation of Paradise Lost to the beatification of D.H. Lawrence.

Although Gross tries to recognise certain merits in Leavis, his account is devastating. He recoils from Leavis’s hectoring tone, with its ‘distortion, omission and strident overstatement’, and he picks up an immensely revealing phrase, where Leavis contemptuously dismisses newspapers and films and most of contemporary society as ‘the whole world outside the classroom’. As Gross said, ‘the whole world?’ So it seems, and a classroom where only one subject is taught, ‘and there is only one real teacher’. He drily demurs from any idea that he is ‘trying to bracket Leavis’s followers with the Christadelphians or the Elim Four-square Gospel Church’,at which point I find that I have pencilled in the margin long ago, ‘Why not?’

In 1991, Gross wrote a new Afterword for a Penguin edition. He sighs over the coming of ‘literary theory’, the reduction to absurdity of ‘English studies’, as well as ‘the shift in criticism from “literature” to “university”’. And he returns to Leavis, reminding younger readers how powerful his influence had once been, and explaining why sharp strictures had been needed against a man who had attempted, as no one had before him, ‘to pronounce a death sentence on the entire man-of-letters tradition’, and attempted also ‘to police literary studies and impose one man’s will on them’. 

And then I realised that not only this book but John Gross’s life had been a practical repudiation of ‘the classroom’, and a defence of the real world. A brilliantly precocious schoolboy and Oxford undergraduate, Gross spent a couple of years in publishing before becoming an Eng. Lit. don, in London and then as a Fellow of King’s. But he left Cambridge in 1965 after only three years, to write, and to earn his living in journalism. Without quite saying so, he seems to have tired early of teaching, or at least teaching English, or maybe recognised the limitations of this supposed discipline. After all, you can teach people to think but you can’t teach them to feel; or as Gross says: ‘How do you organise the wholesale teaching of imaginative literature without putting the bird in the cage? How do you construct a syllabus out of the heart’s affections, or award marks for wit and sensitivity?’

His own example showed that there was life after Cambridge: not Leavis’s ‘felt life’ but real life. In the course of that eventful career, Gross was briefly (and unhappily) literary editor of the New Statesman, then a very successful editor of the TLS for seven years, and then literary editor of The Spectator, though that time so briefly, a matter of days in 1983, that he is said to have commissioned just one review before he left for the New York Times. Returning to London, he was for years an excellent theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph.

At his death, friends recalled not only John’s erudition but his charm and wit. Like much about him they were elusive, but he could be very funny. Some years ago, he was bidden to a colloquy at an Italian villa in the company of supposedly like-minded writers and savants, by a hostess who hoped that they would discuss the Future of Culture or whatnot. John told me later that this event might have been called ‘I’m a literary intellectual — get me out of here’.

He was, I suppose, a literary intellectual, but what he really was — what else can you call him? — was a man of letters: if not the last, then one of the best. I miss him.