John McGahern, Ian Hamilton and the New Review

An Exploration

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From beginning to end, John McGahern’s writing career was driven by his relationships with literary magazines: his earliest published work, an extract from the still unpublished first novel, ‘The End or the Beginning of Love’, appeared in X: A Quarterly Review in 1961, and his last, a short essay titled ‘God and Me’ was published by Ian Jack at Granta in April 2006. Between those poles he developed happy working relationships with a whole host of magazines, among them the New Yorker, the London Magazine, Encounter, the Listener and the Atlantic. The fees paid by these publications were a crucial support, especially in the early decades of McGahern’s career when he was critically acclaimed but not selling large numbers of books. But perhaps more important than the money were the networks of fellow artists to which these periodicals permitted McGahern access.

     Of the many editorial relationships developed by McGahern over the years, one of the most fruitful was with the English critic, poet and man of letters, Ian Hamilton (1938-2001). Four years younger than McGahern, Hamilton was a Norfolk grammar school boy who, after serving his national service in Mönchengladbach, went up to Keble College, Oxford to read English. From his earliest schooldays, Hamilton had a fascination with literary magazines and their influence. As a secondary school student he established a magazine named The Scorpion that survived for 2 issues. Then at Keble, towards the end of his first year, he founded Tomorrow, which lasted for 4 issues, including publishing an early Harold Pinter play. These youthful, shortlived efforts at editing a little magazine proved useful practice for what would become one of the most successful postwar British poetry periodicals, The Review, established by Hamilton in 1962, surviving till 1974 and running to a total of 30 issues. Among those whose work it championed were Al Alvarez, David Harsent, John Fuller, Hugo Williams, Robert Lowell and Hamilton himself. It was all intensely male.


     In its early years The Review survived on a wing and a prayer, very much Hamilton’s baby, edited from his Beechcroft Road accommodation in North Oxford. The back cover of number 3, a collection of Hamilton’s own poetry titled Pretending Not to Sleep, is instructive in its pleading: “The Review is sorely in need of support by subscription – future numbers can only be planned with confidence provided that we know they are going to sell.” Unlike Hamilton’s earlier efforts at editing, The Review had enough about it to survive and relocate to London: later issues are published from 11 Greek Street in Soho with offices next to a strip club in what was then a decidedly seedy part of the city. Colin Falck was taken on as an associate editor, with an editorial board consisting of Michael Fried, John Fuller, Francis Hope, Clive James, Gabriel Pearson and Stephen Wall, and the magazine had secured funding from the Arts Council. Prior to receiving funding, Hamilton had to be more imaginative in keeping himself afloat. In 1965 he took a three-day-a-week job at the Times Literary Supplement, which soon grew to be the position of poetry and fiction editor, a post he held until 1973. And it was also in that year that he became involved with the Cheltenham Literature Festival as a director, a position that allowed him that summer to invite John McGahern to come and read from his work.

     To have McGahern as a guest writer in October 1965 gave Hamilton the opportunity to enter into a very live debate around literary censorship, The Dark having been banned by the Irish Censorship Board on its publication by Faber the previous May. The only surviving letter from McGahern to Hamilton among The Review papers in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds sees him writing from Garrucha, on Spain’s southern coast, in July 1965 to tentatively accept the offer to read at Cheltenham. McGahern had gone to Spain from London in late April with his Finnish theatre director wife of 6 months, Annikki Laaksi, in order to avoid what he knew would be the inevitable brouhaha surrounding publication of his explicit novel that details the sexual awakening of an Irish boy in an abusive and violent home. The novel was greeted with almost unanimously complimentary reviews: Julian Jebb in the Sunday Times called it “a perfectly written tour de force” and concluded that “there are few writers in their twenties whose future work can be anticipated with such confidence and excitement.” Yet while feted in England, the book became the last great cause célèbre of Irish censorship culture. The time spent with Hamilton at Cheltenham between the 4th and the 9th of October proved to be the calm before the storm: on 11 October McGahern returned to his Clontarf school after a year’s sabbatical only to be dismissed on the spot.

     Losing his job, coupled with the fact that Annikki disliked Dublin and did not want to live there, McGahern felt he had to relocate to London where he lived in a series of addresses across the East End over the next three and a half years, working unhappily as a supply teacher in Chingford. With Annikki pursuing theatre work in Finland, the couple drifted apart and the marriage rapidly failed. In Autumn 1967 McGahern started a relationship with Madeline Green, an American woman he had first met when promoting The Dark in New York the year before – over the remainder of the year and on into 1968 the couple conducted a relationship between McGahern’s London base and Green’s Paris apartment.

     In London of the late 1960s McGahern was friendly with a small group of literary figures in London, among them JR Ackerley, onetime editor of the BBC’s magazine The Listener; Julian Jebb who had reviewed The Dark so positively and became John’s most trusted British reviewer; Charles Monteith, influential editor at Faber; Richard Murphy, the Anglo-Irish poet published by Faber; and Ian Hamilton. For John and Madeline, still in the first flush of courtship, their time in London of 1968, apart from the continuing drudgery of school work, was a very happy one and they socialized widely. Murphy introduced John to DJ Gordon, Professor of English Literature at the University of Reading, who gave John teaching work there in the autumn term, thus allowing him to escape from Chingford. John and Madeline saw a good deal of Ian Hamilton and his wife Gisela Ditzel – Madeline recalls being at football matches where she would speak to Gisela and John and Ian would be completely absorbed in the game. Hamilton was a fanatical Tottenham Hotspur fan and in later years wrote two books on the rise and sad fall of one of the club’s most celebrated sons, Paul Gascoigne: Gazza Agonistes in 1993 and Gazza Italia the following year. McGahern increasingly gravitated towards Spurs himself though continued to attend matches at both West Ham and Fulham in this period. A favourite pub for McGahern and Hamilton to meet was The Olde Bell Tavern on Fleet Street, described thus in The Evening Standard Guide: “Built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren as a hostel for the workmen busy on the re-erection of St Bride’s Church – which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London… Although dripping with history, the Olde Bell is far from claustrophobic, and it is an excellent meeting, eating or drinking place for the printers and journalists who make up most of the clientele.” This guide was co-authored by Martin Green and Tony White, the latter a former star actor at Cambridge and friend of Richard Murphy’s who became part of John and Madeline’s social circle and who had sublet his Notting Hill flat for a period to John and Annikki. White was another football fanatic who eventually died from complications after injuries sustained in a Sunday league match.

     The only work by John to appear in The Review came in the April 1968 number in the form of his short story ‘Why We’re Here’, a classic piece of rural Irish spleen that would, two years later, form part of his first collection, Nightlines. It is not surprising that this was the only McGahern work to be published in the magazine which was given over almost exclusively to poetry and poetry reviews. But Hamilton had greater editorial ambitions which were to be realized in April 1974 with the launch of the larger format, New Review, a journal that was also funded generously by the Arts Council and survived for 50 issues. Published from the same Soho offices as its predecessor, it quickly became the most high profile literary magazine in Britain, becoming synonymous with names such as Clive James, Jonathan Raban and Hamilton’s friend, Robert Lowell, ten of whose new poems appeared in the first 96 page issue. Hamilton’s opening editorial was characteristically combative, taking aim variously at an edition of FR Leavis’s letters and the practice of publishing anonymous reviews at the TLS, a practice, incidentally under which McGahern had received his only shaky review for The Dark – quickly discovering that the author was his countryman Anthony Cronin, he never forgave the sniping.

     The launch of this ambitious venture coincided with a new and fertile period in McGahern’s writing life. He was on the point of completing The Leavetaking, his first novel since The Dark, having spent the early 1970s dividing his time between Cleggan, Co. Galway; Paris; London; Colgate University, New York; and Achill Island. Autumn 1974 saw him moving with Madeline to Newcastle upon Tyne to take up a two year Northern Arts Fellowship held by Newcastle and Durham universities. It was agreed with Hamilton that he would publish extracts of the forthcoming novel in the New Review along with author photographs by Fay Weldon, one of which was chosen in 2021 as Faber’s cover for The Letters of John McGahern. The two men met for lunch in London with Hamilton keen for McGahern to join the editorial board. But John, with the exception of his late involvement with the Irish Arts Council, was never a joiner of clubs, and, though happy to be published in the magazine, ducked getting involved any deeper. Hamilton was a great admirer of The Leavetaking and pushed John to make sure Faber had put the novel forward for consideration as a Booker winner. While reviewed favourably – bar a savage filleting in the Irish Times – the book did not come close to the exalted company envisaged by Hamilton.

     Meetings with Hamilton generally took place in The Pillars of Hercules public house or in nearby Soho restaurants where Hamilton chain smoked, pushed his food around the plate and doled out generally strident, exacting and well informed editorial advice. Al Alvarez recalled Hamilton as “a hard man to please and almost impossible to fool”, having “a beady eye for whatever is phoney or sentimental”.[1] McGahern had a similar disdain for sentimentality, as is evident in the toughminded, dark stories he published in the New Review: ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’, set among Irish navvies on a London building site; ‘Doorways’ and ‘Along the Edges’, stories of painfully failed love; and ‘The Beginning of an Idea’, one of McGahern’s attempts to look back on his failed marriage to Annikki. “It is plain that this author will never be surprised out of his own sadness”, wrote the TLS reviewer when the stories were published in book form as Getting Through in 1978.

     By Christmas 1975 John was in serious conversation with Charles Monteith about collecting the stories he had been making such progress with in Newcastle into a book. Alongside the stories headed for the New Review, ‘Swallows’ was published by Alan Ross in the London Magazine; ‘The Stoat’ in Vogue, thanks to John’s friendship with Derek Mahon who was then working at the magazine; ‘All Sorts of Impossible Things’ in Encounter; and ‘A Slip-up’ in Jon Silkin’s Stand, the local little magazine in Newcastle. John writes to Monteith on 6 December to say that he has just completed another story, ‘Along the Edges’ and is working on a further three, presumably ‘Doorways’, ‘The Wine Breath’ and the story with which he eventually chooses to close the collection, ‘Sierra Leone’.[2] These last two are the strongest stories in Getting Through, a fact reflected by John’s success in having them both placed in the New Yorker in 1977, a triumph that would lead indirectly in April that year to a memorable Harvard reading alongside Robert Lowell, the poet’s final such event before his untimely death later that autumn.

     By the time that McGahern had conquered the New Yorker (he did have one early success with a version of ‘Strandhill, the Sea’ in 1963, followed by a decade and more of failure), the New Review was beginning to lose some of its early momentum. Nobody knew better than Hamilton that it was the fate of most literary magazines to blaze bright and then stumble and fail. That boyhood fascination with the form never waned and he used the New Review to publish a series of his own essays on several celebrated magazines and their editors. These pieces were collected and published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1976 as The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors. Hamilton’s preface, in which he tries to define the genre, captures his abiding fascination:

There have been large magazines with tiny circulations and there have been diminutive sheets which have reached thousands of readers. But all ‘little magazines’ have been small in one or another of these ways, and usually in both. They have had small resources, small respect for the supposed mysteries of ‘how to run a business’, small appeal outside a very small minority of readers.

     And yet most of them have had arrestingly large-scale ambitions, a deep sense of the unique importance of their task. They have usually felt that they were making points, supporting gifts, promoting tendencies which would otherwise have been fatally neglected. They have seen themselves as nurturing literary growth at a level subtler and more crucial than could ever be imagined by the commercial or ‘established’ press.[3]

     But the end of the New Review and McGahern’s rise to the heights of the New Yorker did not mean an end to his and Hamilton’s friendship. In 1989 Hamilton was taken on as guest editor of Bloomsbury’s stylish anthology, Soho Square. Several of those writers who had worked closely with the New Review again populated these pages: Al Alvarez, Ian McEwan and John McGahern. The Irishman contributed ‘Monaghan Day’, an extract from what would be his next novel, the magnificent Amongst Women. It was a fitting end to a longstanding editorial association.

Frank Shovlin is from the West of Ireland and is a graduate of University College Galway and the University of Oxford. He is Professor of Irish Literature in English at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool and is author of several books on Irish literature, including The Irish Literary Periodical 1923-1958 (Oxford, 2003) and Touchstones: John McGahern's ClassicalStyle (Liverpool, 2016). His edition of The Letters of John McGahern was published by Faber to critical acclaim in 2021 and he is now writing McGahern's authorized biography.

This essay is supported by The Foyle Foundation

[1] Al Alvarez, ‘Ian Hamilton’, in David Harsent (gen. ed.), Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems & Reflections on Ian Hamilton (Tregarne: Cargo Press, 1999), 34.

[2] See The Letters, 409.

[3]Ian Hamilton, The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), 7.