There is the fall of names. Then there is carpet bombing. Then there is the blitzkrieg. The scattering of great writing personalities throughout John Walsh’s literary coming-of-age memoir sometimes makes you want to hide. And to wonder if this author has ever spoken to anyone who was not or will not become famous.
But Walsh can be forgiven for not quite, if at all, a conventional memoir. It is also an immersive literary history of a particular period. The names, while there is always an element of bluster, are an integral part.
And Circus of Dreamswhich begins by tracing the young Walsh’s growth in books and reading, takes a rather different turn once he achieves his stated ambition: to be a literary editor at the age of 35. He achieved this through a stint in business. journalism, another in the publicity department of an old-school publishing house (Gollancz) then the gossip pages of the Evening Standard, finally making him in 1988 the chair of literary editor of this newspaper, recently freed by her friend Valerie Grove, an important source for this book.
Although still told through the personal lens of the author, the narrative then settles into its parallel function: documenting this extraordinary moment in British writing and publishing.
Between 1978 and 1992, in Walsh’s account, there was an explosion of brilliant literature that broke through the haze of vapid prose and even more vapid attitudes of mid-century Britain, “moribund, backward-looking and expired”. Walsh kicks off with a gushing fanboy for young Martin Amis, who “seemed to be in the air I was breathing.” His other literary heroes are rapidly emerging – among them Anthony Burgess and Angela Carter, whose “delightful use of language” stood out as “a bouquet of Venus flytraps in the pleasant bellflower wood of English prose contemporary”.
The 1980s were indeed an amazing decade to be alive, young and passionate about reading. The new writing was exciting in ways never seen before (or, arguably, since): the writers were celebrities, publishing boomed, sales skyrocketed, and with them amounts of money that made gasp when pointed out. The newcomers were young, hot-headed, ready to shock: while the older commentators screamed about the nastiness, the repulsive images, the sexual boastfulness, readers couldn’t get enough.
The year 1984 alone brought an astonishing crop of novels. It was also the year I got my first job as a very junior publishing editor, in a maze of shabby rooms in Covent Garden up a rickety staircase with worn lino. But out of these shabby, quaint surroundings and others like them emerged, Anita Brookner’s 1984 Booker-winning Lake Hotel and that of Angela Carter nights at the circusby Martin Amis Moneyby Julian Barnes Flaubert’s parrotby Iain Banks wasp factoryby Anita Desai In custody and a whole handful of others.
These leading actors of the decade, which of course also included Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Alan Hollinghurst, Penelope Fitzgerald and Rose Tremain, were joined by surprising talents who provided an essential injection of renewal: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo, Ben Okri, Hanif Kureishi, Peter Carey. That English letters quickly became non-English speaking – or rather, that their previously narrow parameters were joyfully expanded by other voices and other perspectives – is part and parcel of this story.
Walsh doesn’t just chart their accomplishments, on several occasions he takes a deep dive. His long life as a literary critic makes him unable, it seems, to resist re-reading The Midnight Children, for example; invoking everything from Keystone Kops to James Joyce, describing Rushdie’s “distracted logorrheic cascade of words and subject matter” that left him “dazzled, impressed, bewildered and frankly exhausted”, Walsh displays his own verbal fireworks and its critical references.
He is good at transmitting the ecosystem of the golden age. The writers couldn’t, couldn’t do it alone. There were the big names in publishing – Liz Calder and Robert McCrum creating great lists of fiction; the launch of Bloomsbury and other independents. There were the publicists, an almost new concept in this profession; bookstores and the creation of Waterstones; and festivals, with Hay-on-Wye leading the way. Literary awards made headlines. There were also the literary pages and journals: with the pre-Internet expansion of weekend newspapers, gaping columns both created and responded to the craze for new books. It was a perfect creative storm: self-generating and self-sustaining.
Through it all, Walsh was there. First as a greedy aspirant, then as a pureblood initiate. Any disappointment that his own efforts for a novel did not prove a ticket to the dream circus was quickly mitigated once he discovered his potential as a critic, commentator and general facilitator, moving through the forest. as an interviewer, literary judge, expert, speaker, party animal par excellence. The journalistic aspect is hardly considered a secondary creative force in this courageous world: in fact, it is a critic and academic, John Carey, who imposes himself as the unlikely general hero of Circus of Dreams.
Walsh tells the story not just with first-person intensity, but in full reporting, with detailed dialogue. Entire conversations from 40 years ago? It is not for nothing that there is an avant-garde note in the book on memory, in which the author claims his license in advance, drawing from “the vast wood” of memories in his own head and to others he has consulted. However accurate or inaccurate it is, it’s a style that makes the book very readable, if at times irritating and solipsistic.
And the decline? The continuation of this magic moment? Walsh briefly chronicles the later careers of his heroes, but only skims the sequel, another new generation, characterized perhaps more by socio-political and real-world concerns after sleazy extremism, narrative savagery and fireworks. verbal artifice of their elders. Is the post-internet writing world more or less innovative, adventurous, artistically audacious? Readers can then form their own opinion.
Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the literary world of the 1980s by John Walsh, Constable £25, 432 pages
Jan Dalley is the artistic editor of the FT
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