Morten Høi Jensen remembers Ian Hamilton and The New Review
Jensen returns to Britain in the 70s to reflect on the talent and failures of Ian Hamilton's big little magazine @ The Millions.
If you could travel back in time to a particular literary era, like Woody Allen’s characters in Midnight in Paris, where would you prefer to drop in? The New York of Mailer and Capote? The Paris of Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald? Not me. I’d defy all the glamour and glitz and go to soggy ’70s London. Specifically, I would waltz into the Pillars of Hercules, an ancient pub on Greek Street in Soho, and report to the poet, critic and editor Ian Hamilton, who would no doubt be holding down the fort at the bar, an emperor-sized scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other (they didn’t call him High-Tar Hamilton for nothing), and ask to review a book for his monthly magazine, The New Review. Its offices were just upstairs from the pub, but all the real business was completed bar-side. There in the Pillars I might encounter Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, Jonathan Raban, or Clive James, possibly even an ageing and manic Robert Lowell, ensconced by wide-eyed admirers. With any luck, I would become audience to one of Hamilton’s celebrated witticisms, like the one about the young poet who came down from Oxford to write for the magazine. According to legend, Hamilton took him downstairs to the pub at 11:30 in the morning and bought them two large scotches. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” the poet demurred, “I must give it up, it’s doing terrible things to me. I don’t even like it anymore.” To which Hamilton indignantly remarked: “Good god, man! None of us likes it.”
Karl Miller once remarked that you could write an anthology of Hamilton’s pub-sayings. Accordingly, much of the written material concerning him tends toward the personal-anecdotal: everyone seems to have their favorite Hamilton-zinger. Julian Barnes, for instance, whose go-to drink in those days was a gin and bitter lemon (hardly a pub-drink), recalls that “the first time Ian offered me a drink in the Pillars and I told him what I wanted, he didn’t react, no doubt confident that he had misheard me. He was generously willing to stand me the round, but unable to pronounce every word in case the barman got the wrong idea. ‘Large whisky, pint of Old Skullsplitter, a gin and …you say it.’ ‘Bitter lemon,’ I admitted, completing the order and my shame.” Hamilton makes a fictional cameo in Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow as the “charming, handsome, litigious, drink-drenched, debt-ridden, women-infested Neil Darlington,” and in North Face of Soho, the fourth of his so-called “Unreliable Memoirs,” Clive James devotes a couple of pages to his old friend and editor. One and a half of those pages are devoted to his old friend’s sexual success, which was by all accounts considerable. “At the height of his pulling power,” James writes, “he never had to do anything to get a woman he wanted except fight off the ones he didn’t, so as to give her a free run to the target.” Hamilton’s good looks, in collusion with his poetic air and understated cool, caught the attention of more than just a few women. But there was an attractive darkness, too; an ironic, reserved demeanor that hinted at something broken or damaged. “He had the knack of embodying self-destruction in an alluring form,” James writes. When the two of them did a reading together in Oxford they were approached by a gorgeous young student. Smitten, Clive James invited her to drop by at the Pillars when she was next in London. When she did, James greeted her enthusiastically at the bar. “Is he here?” was all she said to him.
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