Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton contributed many exact, funny and unsparing pieces on poetry, on novels – and on football – to the LRB. He died in 2001.

Two Poems

Ian Hamilton, 14 January 2002

Pretending not to Sleep

The waiting rooms are full of ‘characters’ Pretending not to sleep. Your eyes are open But you’re far away At home, am Rhein, with mother and the cats. Your hair grazes my wrist. My cold hand surprises you.

The porters yawn against the slot-machines And watch contentedly; they know I’ve lost. The last train is simmering outside, and overhead...

When Allen Tate died in 1979, Simon and Schuster speedily commissioned a biography, to be written, they announced, by Ned O’Gorman, a poet of some reputation and a friend of two of Tate’s three wives. O’Gorman, it would seem, got going in the usual way, writing to all the obvious Tate contacts and attempting to interview key intimates. He also trawled through at least some...

Two Poems

Ian Hamilton, 19 April 2001

Family Album In this one you look miles away And I’m wearing a tolerant half-smile That seems to say I’ve fixed things rather well. What things?

The turreted edifice behind us I don’t recognise at all. Nor can I place These avenues of trees, abundant But municipal, well-kept.

It’s evidently summertime, and getting late, A little before supper-bell, I’d guess, Or...

Tough Guy: Keith Douglas

Ian Hamilton, 8 February 2001

Keith Douglas was 24 when he was killed in action, in 1944, and although quite a few of his poems had by then appeared in anthologies and magazines, he was not generally thought of as a significant ‘war poet’. But then, who was? ‘Where are the war poets?’ was a familiar journalistic cry from 1939 to 1945, and few answers were forthcoming. There were two main poetic...

Do you have a friend who keeps a diary, a journal intime? If so, you’d better watch your mouth – indeed, watch everything about yourself, the way you dress, the way you eat, and what you eat, how much you drink, who pays the bill, and so on. Be careful, but be careful not to seem too careful:

Dec. 14: Lunch with IH. Shifty fucker, absurdly self-conscious. Ate next to nothing and...

‘Forget England v. Germany. It’s all about Des v. Gary,’ proclaimed the Guardian TV Guide on the opening day of Euro 2000. As things turned out, the Guardian was right – indeed, righter than it could possible have known. Within days of the tournament’s kick-off, a doleful Gary Lineker was telling his BBC1 viewers to brace themselves for some ‘bad news’: his employers, he had just been told, had lost the right to screen highlights of Premier League soccer games on Saturday nights. In other words, Match of the Day, the show that Gary had inherited from Desmond Lynam, would shortly be no more. As from the season after next, ITV would be screening its own highlights package and that package would be Fronted by, yes, Des.’‘

Philip Roth likes, or has liked, to describe himself as a ‘suppositional’ novelist. Much of his writing practice, he has said, takes off from a ‘what if?’ What if Franz Kafka had made it to America and there lived on to become a New Jersey schoolmaster? What if Anne Frank had survived and found out about the publication of her diary from a chance reading of Time magazine? What if a man could actually become a breast? What if a decent, shamefaced Jewish boy were to extol the joys of masturbation?‘

When Philip Larkin first met Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the early 1940s, he was appalled, he later said, to find himself ‘for the first time in the presence of a talent greater than mine’. Did he really believe this, or was he just measuring his own late adolescent bumptiousness? And what did Amis feel? According to his 1991 Memoirs, Kingsley found Larkin just a shade offputting. Togged up in wine-coloured trousers plus checked shirt and bow tie, this gangling provincial seemed to be projecting himself as some kind of dandy aesthete: ‘a little ridiculous in appearance, anyway outlandish, unlikely, on one’s hasty summing up, to be attractive to girls’.‘

Ashamed of the Planet

Ian Hamilton, 2 March 2000

In April 1965, Randall Jarrell’s just published book of verse, The Lost World, was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Joseph Bennett. Bennett quite liked four of the poems but the rest of them, he said, were ‘taken up with Jarrell’s familiar, clanging vulgarity, corny clichés, cutenesses, and the intolerable self-indulgence of his tear-jerking bourgeois sentimentality … His work is thoroughly dated; prodigiousness encouraged by an indulgent and sentimental Mama-ism; its overriding feature is doddering infantilism.’‘

Glittering Fiend: John Berryman

Ian Hamilton, 9 December 1999

In one of John Berryman’s more lucid dream songs (No. 364), there is amusing reference to the reading habits of Henry, the song sequence’s screwed up protagonist:

For quite a few of us, I’d guess, the name Ku Klux Klan suggests a rather creepy style of nightwear. When, as a boy, I first saw pictures of those Deep South nocturnalists in their crazy all-white strip, I had the notion that they had just sprung from their Alabaman slumbers, roused maybe by a sudden seizure of race-hatred, and had simply grabbed the nearest uniform that came to hand. A couple of peep-holes in the pillowcase and off we go a-lynching, so to speak. For a Northern English kid whose Beano routinely dressed its ghosts in bedsheets, these gangs of white-garbed spooks on horseback fitted easily into one’s line-up of night terrors. At the same time, though, they were nothing like as spooky as my Beano visitants. After all, I wasn’t black. Well, not black-skinned.

Diary: Whoop, whoop, terrain

Ian Hamilton, 29 April 1999

‘Fucking shit! It’s fictitious. Everything is fictitious!’ So said the pilot in charge of AeroPeru Flight 603 from Lima to Santiago. The date was 2 October 1996 and within a few moments Flight 603 would crash into the sea. When he spoke the pilot had just realised that he might shortly die. It had suddenly become clear to him that none of his cockpit instruments was working properly. The ‘air data’ he was getting from his dashboard panel were inaccurate, all wrong – ‘fictitious’. When he tried to slow down, his speedometer said that he was accelerating. When he tried to lose height, his altimeter insisted he was soaring. ‘Everything has gone!’ he yelled to the control tower at Lima airport. But the control tower could not help. The plane was ‘flying blind’. It didn’t know where it was or what it should be doing. The flight’s final seconds were recorded thus:

A to Z: Schmidt’s List

Ian Hamilton, 4 March 1999

Yalden, Hammond, Stepney, Fenton (Elijah) and Hughes (John): where are you now? Ten of the 52 poets represented in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets fail to make an appearance in the Oxford Companion to English Literature. On its own, of course, this doesn’t prove a thing. At the same time I would guess that these poets are known about today – if they are known about today – simply because they were once biographised by Dr Johnson. Thanks to Johnson, and thanks also to the Dunciad, it has not been easy for minor figures of the 18th century to achieve absolute literary-historical oblivion. Fenton, Hughes et al do seem to have got closer to the final darkness than most other dunces of their day. Let us remember them for that.’

Diary: Poets Laureate

Ian Hamilton, 7 January 1999

When Cecil Day Lewis was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968, he got – within days of the good news – a letter from his bank manager. ‘The whole Midland,’ it said, ‘rejoices with you.’ And this, it might be felt, comes close to summing up what’s wrong with being Poet Laureate. Since banks began, poets have received many letters from bank managers but few have been at all like Cecil’s. To send the Midland into raptures of this kind, a fellow would surely need to have done something rather seriously unpoetic.’‘

In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered in his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.


Ian Hamilton, 1 October 1998

In February 1940, a Reynolds News reviewer wrote of the three Sitwells, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell: ‘Now oblivion has claimed them, and they are remembered with a kindly if slightly cynical smile.’ And this, I suppose, is more or less how they are thought of now. Edith’s dark vowels still find their way into anthologies. Osbert’s plush and ponderous five-volume autobiography is always likely to be named in surveys of books that are unjustly out of print. And Sacheverell still holds his surprise niche in Michael Roberts’s classic Faber Book of Modern Verse. Sachie is also valued as the prince of self-help publishing: according to the Oxford Companion to English Verse, between 1972 and 1978 he ‘privately printed’ no fewer than 43 collections of his verse.‘

Diary: the World Cup

Ian Hamilton, 30 July 1998

So: what was your big World Cup thrill? Hadji’s shuffle? Branco’s kangaroo jump? Suker’s pulse-check? Or was it your first sight of those 11 yellow-haired Romanians? Earlier tournaments are now known by their ‘defining moments’. In 1970, we had Moore and Pele swapping shirts; in ’82, there was the demented Altobelli; in ’86 the Hand of God; in ’90, Gazza’s tears. I’m not sure what it was in ’94: Romario and Bebeto doing that baby-cradling thing? Or was it about Maradona and his drugs, or Escobar’s calamitous own goal?‘

One of the most amusing – or, if you prefer it, one of the most heartwarming – episodes in the history of early Modernism centres on Ezra Pound’s attempt to ‘liberate’ T.S. Eliot from his clerk’s job at Lloyds Bank. In 1921, Pound started up a fund called Bel Esprit and set about trying to persuade 30 subscribers to fork out ten pounds each: £300 p.a. would, he believed, enable Eliot to forsake his regular employment – employment which, as Pound saw it, represented ‘the greatest waste in ang. sax. letters at the moment’.’‘

Redeemable Bad Guy: Rabbit and Zooey

Ian Hamilton, 2 April 1998

‘His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humour, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present America.’ This was John Updike in 1961, saying of J.D. Salinger what critics since have been saying of John Updike: that here is a novelist uncannily responsive to the ‘personality’, if we can use the word, of his own culture.‘

The Di Castro Travel Agency in mid-town Alexandria has an eerily compelling window display: a shrine to the memory of Dodi al-Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales. The shrine has as its centrepiece the front cover of the magazine al-Musawwar depicting Di and Dodi on their wedding day that never was. The couple are shown hand in hand: she in a white bridal gown, clutching a bouquet; he in a dark morning-suit with a carnation in his buttonhole. They both seem very happy – or, shall we say, they don’t in the least seem to mind having their heads mounted on some other couple’s torsos. Di might not have been too thrilled with the mass-market-looking dress that she’s been made to wear, but Dodi looks straightforwardly elated. What neither of them knows is that, printed in bold red letters across the bottom left-hand corner of their wedding pic, a headline asks: ‘Who killed Diana?’’‘

The least you can do is read it

Ian Hamilton, 2 October 1997

Cyril Connolly is famous now, and was famous in his lifetime, for not having written a masterpiece. A peculiar sort of fame: after all, many thousands of literary persons share the same distinction. Connolly, though, made a career out of insisting that his failure had a special poignancy, a poignancy which we should all attend to.

Frown by Frown

Ian Hamilton, 3 July 1997

R.S. Thomas’s four autobiographies (four memoiressays, really) were written in Welsh, and the most substantial of the four – first published in Wales a dozen years ago – was titled Neb, which means ‘nobody’: as in ‘a nobody’ or ‘nobody very special’. And this fits with our uncertain view of Thomas these past four decades. Has this poet been too humble? Or has he been too proud? Is he to be admired for self-effacement or chastised for self-absorption? Over the years, Thomas has asked himself such questions many times, and his replies have been as non-definite as ours.’

Diary: Who will blow it?

Ian Hamilton, 22 May 1997

Saturday’s FA Cup Final has been billed as something of a connoisseur’s delight. The question being asked is not so much ‘Who will win?’ as ‘Who will blow it?’ Which of the two contestants will jettison a handsome half-time lead or snatch an ingenious own goal in the last minute? Which of them will come out of it more poignantly? Chelsea and Middlesbrough have this season been the soccer aesthete’s dream teams: bristling with Italo-Brazilian flair but inconsistent, full of attacking wizardry but suspect in defence. In other words, too good for their own good. No wonder we like them, as Kingsley Amis used to say, though not of course re soccer.

Just what are those teeth for?

Ian Hamilton, 24 April 1997

‘I do not come to Lilliputia with a measuring stick.’ This was Gore Vidal, a week or two ago, when asked to say which of our two main parties was the more right-wing. The British election, in Gore’s lofty view, is ‘parish-pump politics’, a juvenile charade compared to America’s great billion-dollar circuses. Even our sleaze strikes him as laughably small-scale: ‘just kindergarten stuff’. In Vidal’s native land there is no need of cash-for-questions. The deal there is cash-for-answers. And the answers are delivered in the form of ‘special legislation’. In America sleaze makes a difference.

Diary: I ♥ Concordances

Ian Hamilton, 22 August 1996

What was T.S. Eliot’s favourite colour? Which season – summer, autumn, winter, spring – would you expect to feature most often in the works of Philip Larkin? And which of these two poets would you reckon was the more self-centred, fond of flowers, susceptible to hyphens, keen on using the word mother?


Ian Hamilton, 20 June 1996

In 1915, Ford Madox Hueffer became Ford Madox Ford – by deed poll. Around the same time, at the age of 41, he enlisted for active service in the British Army: ‘I have never felt such an entire peace of mind as I have felt since I wore the King’s uniform. It is just a matter of plain sailing doing one’s duty, without any responsibilities, except to one’s superiors and one’s men.’’


Ian Hamilton, 25 January 1996

For years – since boyhood, really – I’ve seen myself as an above-average soccer bore. At my peak, I would happily hold forth for hours about the rugged terrace-time I’d served, at Feet-hams, White Hart Lane, the ManorGround. And when it came to the archival stuff, if you could spare the time, well, so could I. ‘Name three of the Spurs’ double side’s reserves,’ I’d say, or: ‘How many of the 1964 West Ham cupwinning team had names beginning with a B?’ Or it would be: ‘Pick an XI in which every position is taken by a Gary. I will start you off. Gary Bailey in goal. Gary Stevens right back. Now you carry on.’’

Four Poems

Ian Hamilton, 3 August 1995


Who turned the page? When I went out last night his Life was left wide-open, halfway through, in lamplight on my desk: The Middle Years. Now look at him. Who turned the page?


Where do we find ourselves? What is this tale With no beginning and no end? We know not the extremes. Perhaps There are none. We are on a kind of stair. The world below Will never be regained; was never...

‘How could a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon bar brawler set himself up as pilot of a sophisticated, elegant magazine?’ This was Ben Hecht’s way of phrasing the Big Question about Harold Ross, the question that was asked repeatedly throughout Ross’s twenty-five years in charge of the New Yorker, and is still sometimes asked today: how did he do it? Or rather (Ross loathed italics), how was that done by him? – ‘that’ being the last word in journalistic chic and ‘him’ being, well, just look at him: a Colorado bum.’

Smartened Up

Ian Hamilton, 9 March 1995

Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography? He died comparatively young – aged 55 – and was outlived by almost everyone he knew: wives, girlfriends, classmates, colleagues. He led an active public life, had two careers – in universities and with the BBC – and was well known as a poet from quite early on. He was a pub-dweller, he travelled a lot, and through his radio work was in contact with many talkative celebs: actors, musicians, singers as well as literary types. For a quick-off-the-mark chronicler, there might have been rich pickings.


Ian Hamilton, 26 January 1995

In the title story of Edward Upward’s new collection, a forgotten Marxist author of the Thirties dreams that he is approached by a present-day admirer, a ‘lecturer at a Yorkshire polytechnic’. At first Stephen Highwood is suspicious. He doesn’t expect people to know who he is. His books have long been out of print and are not to be found in public libraries. In surveys of modern literature, his name barely rates a mention. ‘Are you some kind of highclass tout?’ he asks. ‘Which books of mine have you read?’

Tel’s Tale

Ian Hamilton, 24 November 1994

‘I feel like the man who shot Bambi,’ said Alan Sugar in May 1993, shortly after sacking Terry Venables from his job as manager and ‘chief executive’ of Spurs. Sugar presumably meant Bambi’s mum. Bambi, as everybody knows, is still alive, still kicking, and now manager of England.

Call me unpretentious

Ian Hamilton, 20 October 1994

When John Major ascended to 10 Downing Street, the wits were at first unsure quite how to set about him. There was the obvious, the elementary ‘grey’ approach: the Burton suits, the haircut, the delicious fry-ups and so on. On this reading, Major could be presented as a drearier-than-either cross between James Stewart and J. Alfred Prufrock. He was prime minister by accident, or for-a-day. He’d won the premiership in a raffle, or had it laid on for him by Jim’ll Fix It.

Young Wystan

Ian Hamilton, 8 September 1994

W.H. Auden once revealed his ‘life-long conviction that in any company I am the youngest person present.’ This confession, made when he was 58, perhaps raised a shifty smile among those of his acolytes who had grown used to the crotchety, old-womanish persona of his later years – the early nights, the carpet slippers, and so on. Old when young and young when old: the ageing of our most-wrinkled-ever poet has always seemed a somewhat mysterious process.’

Being there

Ian Hamilton, 7 October 1993

When Ved Mehta enrolled as an undergraduate at Balliol in 1956, he thought he had arrived in heaven. He was at ‘the holiest of holy places’. For three years he would be dwelling ‘among the world’s liveliest minds, in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet’. As a child in India and as an adolescent studying in the United States, he had been told, by his father, his teachers, by the books he read, that Oxford for the British was ‘like the Hardwar of the Hindus, the Mecca of the Muslims, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs’. To be an Oxford man was to enjoy a ‘state of being’ akin to the sublime. He also learned that, of all the Oxford colleges, Balliol was the tops, the cream: it housed young men who would one day ‘grow into some of the most notable figures in British intellectual and social life’. Had not this one college supplied India with three viceroys?

Disastered Me

Ian Hamilton, 9 September 1993

On the train, sunk on dusty and sagging cushions in our corner seats, Lotte and I spoke of our attachment to one another. I was as weak as I could be when I got off the train We made our way to the gates of Downing, where – I hope in candour, meaning to show her what I was – I gave her my terrible diary to read in a terrible tea-room, while I entered the college, at five p.m. sharp for my little chat.

Irving, Terry, Gary and Graham

Ian Hamilton, 22 April 1993

It’s 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 31 March. Instead of writing this I could/should be watching England’s World Cup game with Turkey live on my public service BBC TV. As it is, I will have to wait until 10.10 tonight to get the highlights. Between now and 10.10 tonight I will also have to not buy the Evening Standard, not watch the Nine O’Clock News and not pay my usual early-evening visit to the pub. All information outlets must be shunned. Some public service.

Bugger me blue

Ian Hamilton, 22 October 1992

There is a story that when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming ‘Hi, Norman!’ in the Index, next to Mailer’s name. A similar tactic might happily have been ventured by the publishers of Philip Larkin’s Letters: the book’s back pages are going to be well-thumbed. ‘Hi, Craig,’ see page 752, you ‘mad sod’; ‘Hi, John,’ see page 563, you ‘arse-faced trendy’; ‘Hi, David,’ see page 266, you ‘deaf cunt’, and so on. Less succinct salutations will be discovered by the likes of Donald Davie (‘droning out his tosh’), Ted Hughes (‘boring old monolith, no good at all – not a single solitary bit of good’) and Anthony Powell, aka ‘the horse-face dwarf’. There is even a ‘Hi, Ian’: he calls me ‘the Kerensky of poetry’. Not too bad, I thought at first. Alas, though, the book’s editor advises me that Larkin almost certainly meant to say Dzerzhinsky, or somebody – some murderer – like that. He had probably misread a communication from Robert (The Great Terror) Conquest.’

Evil Days

Ian Hamilton, 23 July 1992

When Henry James’s play, Guy Domville, was booed off the London stage, the embarrassed author remarked that at least some of the audience was clapping. These approvers were powerless to out-clamour the ‘hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs’, whose roars were ‘like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal zoo’, but for James they represented ‘the forces of civilisation’.


Ian Hamilton, 28 May 1992

Damon Runyon is famous for shunning the past tense, as in: ‘I am going to take you back a matter of four or five years ago to an August afternoon … On this day I am talking about, the Lemon Drop Kid is looking for business.’ Even when one of his stories has been told, is over, and he permits his protagonists a little late-night deconstruction, there is still this unrelenting attachment to the present. ‘“Well, Mrs B,” he says. “You almost get a good break when old Doc News drops dead after you stake his wife to the poison because it looks as if you have her where she can never wriggle off no matter what she says. But,” Ambrose says, “my friend Mrs News is cute enough to seek my advice and counsel.” ’ This speech belongs in the past tense, but the author is determined not to put it there. By this stage in Runyon’s career, to have done so would have brought professional dishonour.

Cold Shoulders, Short Trousers

Ian Hamilton, 12 March 1992

When Evelyn Waugh died in 1966, his son Auberon felt that a ‘great brooding presence’ had been lifted ‘not only from the house but from the whole of existence’. Auberon was in his twenties then, and – as he tells it in his book of memoirs – he had long ago got used to living in the shadow of his famously unpleasant dad. ‘It was many years before I could break the habit of viewing every event with half an eye to the bulletin I would send to my father.’ ‘The strain of living two lives, one on my own, and the other through his eyes, was greatly relieved by his sudden death.’’

One for the road

Ian Hamilton, 21 March 1991

Kingsley Amis has a reputation for not liking other people, but – these so-called Memoirs might seem to permit us to enquire – does anyone, could anyone, like him? Is Kingers himself, at the end of the day, the sort of bloke you’d want to run into at – well, at the end of the day, at the club, or the pub, or at some crappy dinner party?’

What’s wrong with Desmond?

Ian Hamilton, 30 August 1990

The titles of Desmond MacCarthy’s books must have seemed to him unassailably offhand – Remnants, Portraits, Experience: titles nicely in tune with his well-known view of himself as a chap who could surely have done better. One of his favourite lines of poetry was Hartley Coleridge’s ‘For I have lost the race I never ran’ and early on in his career he got used to being spoken of as having squandered a great gift. Part of MacCarthy’s charm was that he had no serious quarrel with this view. In 1932, he decided – was persuaded – to issue a selection of the book reviews he had been turning out for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. It was typical of the man that he should call it, simply, Criticism.’

Four Poems

Ian Hamilton, 26 July 1990


‘We die together though we live apart’ You say, not looking up at me, Not looking up.                        ‘I mean to say, Even were we actually to die in unison, Evaporating in each other’s arms, We’d still have ended up – well,...

They never married

Ian Hamilton, 10 May 1990

On the dust-jacket of the latest supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography there are photographs of David Niven, Diana Dors, Eric Morecambe, John Betjeman and William Walton. Dors has a leering ‘Come up and read me sometime’ expression on her face and Niven wears his yacht-club greeter’s smile. Morecambe seems to be laughing at one of his own jokes. Amiable images, devised no doubt to lure us into a placidly elegiac mood: death can’t be all that bad if it gets you an entry in the DNB. But what’s the matter with Betjeman and Walton? They look glum and sulky, as if they’ve been put in the wrong graveyard by mistake.


Ian Hamilton, 28 September 1989

In a 1982 essay called ‘My War’ Paul Fussell described how – at the age of 20 – he became a full-time ironist: one who, by means of his experience in combat, had learned to perceive ‘some great gulf, half-comic and half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds’. And in his book The Great War and Modern Memory, the soldier poets and memoirists who featured most prominently were those who had found themselves stranded in that same ‘great gulf’, learning firsthand how wrong they had been in their imaginings of what awaited them in France.’

Two Poems

Ian Hamilton, 2 March 1989


Imagining you on your own, I’m vigilant. You’ve heard me, I can tell. A rustle in the kitchen leaves Above your head, a semi-stifled click Somewhere below, an errant chime An hour or so into your sleeplessness: Ghost tremors, They don’t keep you company, Not now, and they won’t bring me back, Not this time. ‘Please Leave me alone,’...

Phil the Lark

Ian Hamilton, 13 October 1988

Philip Larkin, we are told, left instructions in his will that certain of his writings had to be destroyed, unread. His executors obeyed: the word is that several of the poet’s notebooks, or journals, are now ashes. Did Larkin expect to be so obeyed? Or did he imagine that perhaps someone, somehow, might take a peek at the material before it reached the flames? And if such a thought did cross his mind, why didn’t he destroy the stuff himself? He must have known that, by not doing so, he was bequeathing at least the possibility of a dilemma. But then some of his most moving poems contrive a subtle, unsettlable dispute between revelation and concealment. There is a wanting-to-be-known that can desolate or undermine our self-sufficiency.


Ian Hamilton, 1 October 1987

‘About the only enmity I have is towards pride.’ Seamus Heaney said this in an interview, and since we know him to be the most over-interviewed of living poets, perhaps he shouldn’t be forced to say it again here. Put in its context, though, this too-worthy-sounding protestation has much to reveal about the disposition of Heaney’s work so far, and can even be read as a riposte to those critics who complain that, for all its verbal richness and its moral courage, his work is strangely without personality.

Diary: Little Magazines in Canberra

Ian Hamilton, 9 July 1987

I have already reported here, in verse, on my recent trip to a Conference on Literary Journals in Canberra, Australia, and on the death-struggle that did not take place there, but perhaps should have, between – shall we say – Theory and Practice. I won’t go into all that again, although there is plenty more that could be said. By someone else. My own role at the conference had little to do with debates about critical theory. I was there as a kind of relic from the past, as someone who used to edit ‘little magazines’.’

Poem: ‘An Alternative Agenda’

Ian Hamilton, 25 June 1987

Not actually spoken by the Convener of a Conference on Literary Journals held last month at the Australian National University at Canberra

We’re gathered here today In Canberra To discourse on The Literary Journal: It’s role – Now, Then, Tomorrow afternoon, when (by the way) We have a change Of personnel. Jon Culler has got toothache; In his stead (relax, you kiwis), An...

Poem: ‘Larkinesque’

Ian Hamilton, 19 March 1987

Your solicitor and mine sit side by side In front of us, in Courtroom Number Three. It’s cut and dried, They’ve told us, a sure-fire decree: No property disputes, no tug-of-love, No bitching about maintenance. Well done.

All that remains Is for the Judge to ‘wrap it up’, and that’s how come We sit here, also side by side (Although to each of us we are ‘the...

Real Questions

Ian Hamilton, 6 November 1986

Julian Barnes once trained to be a barrister and he’s been asking questions ever since – questions, mostly, about questions. In Before she met me, the hero of the book actually suffered from interrogation-mania: try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself wondering about the details of his wife’s past loveaffairs. In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator is a biographer – another snoopy type. In his case, even the answers to his questions are really questions-in-disguise. In Barnes’s books, people don’t get worn down by compulsions of the flesh, nor deranged by the pursuit of fame and money: they fall victim to exhaustion of the brain – they become, as Barnes himself might put it, all quizzed out.’

Diary: Sport Poetry

Ian Hamilton, 23 January 1986

Today, Live Soccer returns to ‘our screens’ after a six-month haggle between TV and the Football League. It’s Charlton versus West Ham in the Cup and we are being exhorted to look out for West Ham’s new ‘goal-machine’, the Scottish striker McAvennie: ‘Now you’ll be able to see him for yourself,’ the papers say – an oddish line for journalists to take, I would have thought, but there we are. What matters is that soccer Is Back, and that we can all happily plug in again on Saturdays: Frank Furillo might be cool in dead-ball situations but he’s no Glenn Hoddle, and we all know that at Hill Street no one ever heard of a slow-motion replay …’

The Waugh between the Diaries

Ian Hamilton, 5 December 1985

If I were a trendy left-wing homosexualist, or an old age pensioner, or a half-Jew, or a young novelist, or a Negro, or an Anglican archbishop, or Harold Evans, or even the editor of an Arts Council-backed literary magazine, I suppose I would find some sections of this often amusing book offensive. Actually, more than offensive. I think I would want to do something pretty unpleasant to A. Waugh.

Diary: It's a size thing

Ian Hamilton, 19 September 1985

In the current issue of a magazine called The Face there is an article on Norman Mailer’s recent visit to this country. He was here, it seems, to promote Tough guys don’t dance, his latest novel: he did some ‘major’ TV interviews, a bit of radio, and – towards the end of his stint – he called a press conference in order to complain about the low quality of the reviews he had been getting. His tone was querulous. He felt that we (I myself was one of the ‘wimp’ critics he objected to) had been made nervous by his powerful masculinity and, to cover up our fear, we had tried to get macho with his book. Mailer was angry, says The Face, and he was spoiling for a fight.’

Diary: A Hoax within a Hoax

Ian Hamilton, 15 November 1984

Years ago, when I was serving as an anonymous hack on the Times Literary Supplement, one of my duties was to pen sprightly paragraphs for a weekly books column. The idea was to mop up publications which were not considered worth full-scale reviews but which nonetheless had to be ‘covered’ by a journal of record such as ours. Things like: A Dictionary of Spy Writers or The Balladeers’ Handbook or Henry Williamson: My Friend. Usually, there was a brisk supply of such material and it was easy enough to knock out the required eight or nine paragraphs per week.

Martin and Martina

Ian Hamilton, 20 September 1984

‘Dollar bills, pound notes, they’re suicide notes. Money is a suicide note.’ So says John Self, the hero of Money: A Suicide Note, and what he means is that money is destroying him. Self-destruction (along with several of its hyphenated pals: indulgence, interest, loathing) has become Self’s hobby, what he does in his spare time, and what he spends his money on. But it’s money’s fault that this is what he spends his money on. It’s money’s fault that he hasn’t got anything better to do with his spare time. ‘The yobs are winning,’ said a character in Martin Amis’s Success, and one could almost take this as the ‘burden’ of his work so far. In earlier books, there have been yobs aplenty, and from the beginning Amis has scrutinised the species with some ardour. With John Self, though, he shifts the enemy to centre-stage, so that this time he can give him a real going-over.

Diary: Francis Hope, and Tom and Vic

Ian Hamilton, 15 March 1984

On 4 March it will be ten years since the death of the writer Francis Hope – killed at 34 in the Turkish Airlines DC10 crash outside Paris – and this last week I have been going through a small mountain of his journalism, for a possible collection of his ‘literary essays and reviews’. For about twelve years, Hope wrote regularly for the New Statesman, the Observer, the TLS: he also contributed to several smaller journals – including my own verse periodical, The Review, which he served for a decade as a member of the editorial board (indeed, so far as I can remember, he attended all three annual general meetings). He worked both as a magazine essayist and as a ‘real’ journalist, and even for a time appeared as a reporter for TV’s Panorama. I guess that over the years he must have published more than a quarter of a million words. Enough for a book? That remains to be seen. So far, the message seems to be that five one-thousand-word pieces on five separate novels by Saul Bellow don’t actually add up to a five-thousand-word appraisal. In the meantime, though, I’ve been reminded just how good Francis Hope was as a reviewer: deft, sardonic and wide-ranging, valuably unenchantable throughout the dopey Sixties.

Three Poems

Ian Hamilton, 2 February 1984


If you were to look up now you would see The moon, the cars, the ambulance, The elevated road back into town....

Diary: Two weeks in Australia

Ian Hamilton, 6 October 1983

‘Australia?’ There was a punishing stress on the second syllable and the tone was one of idle disbelief: ‘But why?’ This was over seven years ago. I had just been invited to a literary festival in Adelaide; no fee, but they’d pay my Qantas. It seemed to me an Opportunity Not to be Missed. In the week or so before I set off, however, almost everybody I bumped into (including at least one Australian) seemed to think that I’d gone off my head. Nobody, I was told, went to Australia just for the sake of Going to Australia. I must be mad. Or was I ‘up to something’?

Diary: At Lord’s

Ian Hamilton, 15 September 1983

August 24. I am writing this during a patch of rained-off play at Lord’s Cricket Ground and I can already feel my prose style being drained of zest. Out on the field, the wicket has been covered with low, corrugated sheds and a dozen burly groundsmen have just finished carpeting the surrounding turf with huge lengths of grey tarpaulin. Up on the pavilion balcony, the Middlesex captain stares irritably at the heavens, which are also grey. And a grey, or going-grey, trickle of spectators moves pensively towards the exit gates … See what I mean? There is something about cricket grounds, and cricket, that enervates the language. Perhaps it is because cricket writers are for ever straining to catch the kind of leisured exactitude that the game itself is noted for, and end up sounding merely sleepy and pedantic. Or maybe they too do their writing in the rain. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll continue this at home …


Ian Hamilton, 16 June 1983

His bushy hair is white and cropped more conservatively than in the past … his eyes are clear and surprisingly blue. He moves with the grace of the boxer he has sometimes pretended to be … his ample waist looks solid rather than soft … He is remarkably fit for a man of 60, which is what he became last Jan 31.

Diary: New New Grub Street

Ian Hamilton, 3 February 1983

Frank Kermode’s review of the new Gissing biography (page 9) brings to mind a project which I have long thought someone ought to tackle: a fearless update of New Grub Street. The job wouldn’t be too taxing – indeed, in many cases, it would be all too easy to attach contemporary names to Gissing’s sunken literary types: his principled dullards as well as his sleek chancers. And then there are the grim trappings of Gissing’s version of the Literary Career – the foundering periodical, the doomed synopsis, the already spent advance. All in all, the book’s whole world of seedy, profitless endeavour is worryingly up-to-date.


Ian Hamilton, 21 October 1982

‘To me it’s just a job. They get on, they get off and get dressed and that’s it.’ Thus Sharon of Birmingham, one of several matter-of-fact working girls interviewed by Eileen McLeod for her study of Prostitution Now. Most of McLeod’s interviewees would go along with Sharon’s view of her vocation. Here’s Carol: ‘When they give me the money I say “Look then get on with it I haven’t got all day,” and they say “I hope you’re not going to rush me,” and I say “Look cock, you’ve got a certain amount of time here I don’t expect you to be in and out in two minutes, but I don’t expect you to spend two hours here”; they say “Fair enough.” ’ ‘Fair enough’ may indeed be what they say to Carol, but it’s probably not what they are saying to themselves. Yet there they are again, the punters, once more forking out good money for bad sex. Carol and Sharon have little need to brood on the niceties of customer-relations.

Here are some quotations from my week’s reading – see if you can place them, or at any rate make a guess at where they might be from. 1. ‘I cannot exaggerate my seriousness about the trivialities of life, lack of know-how, nervousness, shyness – coupled, though of course it is hard to judge how effectively, with masks designed to hide my deficiencies.’ 2. ‘It is by thinking myself back into the person I was then, that I can enter imaginatively into the thoughts and feelings of the fanatic, for instance the committed revolutionary, the persecutor, the gauleiter, the commissar. Perhaps I should be grateful.’ 3. ‘We all know that it is self-centred and dangerous to concentrate too much on becoming prime minister or on making a fortune, but are there no analogous dangers in concentrating on one’s own spiritual progress? Is not a life spent in fighting self-centredness itself self-centred? The problem will always haunt me … In my own case there is the whole area of family life, duty and love, where my own performance, though it might pass muster externally, could be vastly improved.’

Diary: Locating the G-Spot

Ian Hamilton, 5 August 1982

In America, when conversation stalls, your host will usually fall back on Current Talking Points. There are, you soon learn, two types of CTP. The first is to do with what he thinks is on your mind; the second with what is actually on his. Last week, the obvious ‘topic’ for a visiting Britisher was the Palace break-in – an event I had read about, though briefly, on the flight over. ‘What really happened?’ was the question put to me at least six times during the four days I was there. I was made to feel quite bad about not knowing. Taxi-drivers in particular would get rather shirty when it turned out that I had gleaned less from my Times than they had from their Daily News. One or two even seemed to think that I ought to know the guy who did it. They would say: ‘What’s he like, this Fagan?’ Or: ‘Is he nuts, or what?’ One particularly thoughtful fellow was convinced that the security collapse was the fault of those ‘big furry hats’ that guardsmen wear: ‘I mean, those things have gotta soften up the brain some, am I right?’

Diary: Wold Cup for Alexithymics

Ian Hamilton, 15 July 1982

June 25th: the first phase of the World Cup ended yesterday with England stumbling to a narrow victory over Kuwait and with Northern Ireland somehow getting through their game against Spain without conceding a penalty. And on Monday, the serious bit starts. A nice moment, I had thought, to venture a few pundit-like predictions for you to scoff at (or admire) in ten days’ time. Will grit and ‘character’ undo the flashy pirouetting of the Argie, the robot-like pre-planning of the Hun? That kind of thing.

You may not have noticed it, but this has been an important month in the shaping of our more low-grade literary values. Or so it says in the brochure in front of me: ‘Do you want to know what’s out in June? All the old ideas about readers of women’s novels. That’s what’s out, baby!’ The brochure, some twelve glossy pages of it, with a big girl in keep-fit (or is it ballet?) gear as centrefold, has been issued by Pan Books, and it inaugurates a new series of paperback novels, novels on which Pan are about to lavish ‘their biggest ever advertising campaign’. The ‘target – market’ is ABC1 women between the ages of 15 and 35, women too worldly-wise to wallow in the old formula romances, but too busy to tackle anything too heavy: ‘Each Pavanne novel is a sophisticated diversion for the bright, modern woman who likes her romance bitter-sweet, and expects a novel to reflect today’s world.’

Ugly Stuff

Ian Hamilton, 15 October 1981

William Trevor is bewitched by childhoods and by second childhoods: the ‘grown-up’ bit in between is for him a dullish swamp of lies, commerce, lust and things like that. For Trevor, the only way to recapture childish purity is somehow to hang on until you’re hugely old, or to have a grown-up life that is so deeply marked by memories of childhood that all the other grown-ups think you’re odd. These memories can be both good and bad: lyric moments of sweet bliss or some too early and therefore traumatising glimpse of the ugly stuff that lies ahead.

The Comic Strip

Ian Hamilton, 3 September 1981

Raymond’s Revuebar is usually thought of as Soho’s superior strip club. It stages not mere skin shows but Festivals of Erotica, it sells Dunhill or Lambert and Butler cigarettes, and it gets itself listed in the daily papers under Theatres. Svens and Ottos have no need to look shifty when they sidle into Raymond’s. This is no quick stop-off for provincial wankers. Raymond offers leisured pornography for the international connoisseur.


Ian Hamilton, 2 July 1981

The first ‘poems’ by Clive James I can remember seeing were in fact song lyrics written to go with the music of Pete Atkin. I call them ‘poems’ because that’s what Clive wished them to be called. In fact, I’m not sure what they were: highbrow lyrics or lowbrow verse? Set to music, they sounded more or less OK, but ‘on the page’ they seemed sentimental and pretentious – endearing if you happened to like Clive, but almost embarrassingly overanxious to establish that the pop mode could accommodate a finely-educated literary talent. The ‘education’, I need hardly say, came over in the form of dropped names and flowery adjectives, and as for the pop, one could all too easily imagine teeny-boppers wondering how this booksy troubadour had ever found the time for bona fide heartbreak.

Hard Man

Ian Hamilton, 16 October 1980

Gordon Williams, formerly Gordon M. Williams: born 1934, educated at the John Neilson Institution in Paisley. Worked in Scotland as a farm labourer and newspaper reporter before undergoing National Service in Germany with the RAF. Has worked as a novelist for 16 years, based mainly in Soho but with a spell of rural isolation on the edge of Dartmoor. Two of his novels have been filmed, one of them netting big money. Hobbies: drinking, day-dreaming (Scottish style) and soccer …


Ian Hamilton, 20 March 1980

The thing about John le Carré used to be that he was a brilliantly ingenious spyhack but couldn’t really write; and one way of getting back at him for being rich and famous was to mock at his almost lovably transparent wish to have this judgment changed. He had said one or two testy things about the arrogance of highbrow critics, their unwillingness to see quality in the so-called lower genres, and he would regularly pepper his spy books with quotations, literary references, browfurrowing Germanic aphorisms and the like. And after a bit, he even went so far as to serve up a whole novel (The Naive and Sentimental Lover) which had scope, depth, acres of fine, angsty writing and not a whiff of the old commercial tradecraft. This, needless to say, was a bad miscalculation. The critics – with no need this time even to concede his readability – cheerfully weighed in: it was bad enough, they seemed to say, that the upstart kept applying for membership, but to go around pretending he’d already joined! The blackballing was thorough and, some may have hoped, conclusive. Certainly, next time round Le Carré was back in the Circus with his moles and lamplighters.

Blowing It

Ian Hamilton, 6 March 1980

The scene: a New York literary dinner some nine months ago. The topic: who I’d seen or hadn’t seen since my arrival, who I planned to see, etc. Me: ‘Well, I’ve seen X’ (‘Oh yes, how is X?’) ‘and tomorrow i’ll be seeing Y’ (‘Oh good, give my regards to Y’). ‘And on Friday, I’m having lunch with Norman Podhoretz.’ At this, the table froze. ‘You’re doing what? I repeated it, gently but with resolution, and the freeze froze even deeper. ‘But, but’ – and this with genuinely aghast reproach – ‘but, Ian, really, why?


Ian Hamilton, 8 November 1979

The date of that evening was Tuesday, 6 July. That particular day had no significance in anything which was to follow; but there came to be some significance, which strangers didn’t completely understand, in the actual neighbourhood.


One Is Enough

9 March 1995

Ian Hamilton writes: ‘Introduced’ was the wrong word perhaps. On page 157 Jon Stallworthy writes: ‘Wystan and Louis had, of course, been acquaintances at Oxford. Louis had since given Auden’s Poems (1928) a respectful review, and meeting again under the Dodds’s hospitable roof, they became friends.’
Ian Hamilton writes: Let me rush to say that I had no wish to offend the editors of Scripsi. They are good fellows and terrific hosts, and I shall be fond of them until the bitter end. Also, I had no wish to put anyone off reading their magazine. It is, as they say, full of things other than Poundian/Objectivist special pleading; if I had been reviewing it, which I wasn’t, I would probably have...

Literary Magazines

7 November 1985

SIR: Memory’s a funny thing, and Clive James’s memories are usually funnier than most. When I heard he was writing a piece about The New Review Anthology, I rather hoped for some rollicking anecdotal stuff about his Days and Nights in Soho. After all, Clive was pretty close to the action in those days. Curious, then, and just a bit middle-aged and sad, to find one’s old drinking buddy...


19 September 1985

SIR: There is a misprint (or was it what I typed?) in the Diary I wrote for your last issue. The published text has me describing the young transient Clive James as ‘a bundle of bread, booze and borrowed blankets’. The ‘bread’ should be ‘beard’.
SIR: Re Raymond Daoust’s letter on Le Carré (Letters, 5 June), my point about the plot of Smiley’s People was (simply) that if Karla is as clever as Smiley makes him out to be, it seems unlikely that he would engage such obvious, almost caricatured bunglers for an assignment of this order. If the hired hands hadn’t been such slobs, Karla would no doubt still be safe today in...

Enisled: Matthew Arnold

John Sutherland, 19 March 1998

The last few decades have been good for Matthew Arnold. In 1977, R.H. Super completed the 11-volume Complete Prose Works, a venture that seemed quixotic (‘all those school reports!’)...

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Main Man

Michael Hofmann, 7 July 1994

When you get onto the big wheel of writing (or the little wheels within wheels of poetry), it seems clear to me that the people you look to and feel an affinity for are not – to begin with,...

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The Three Acts of Criticism

Helen Vendler, 26 May 1994

This handy compilation (to which I myself contributed a couple of notices) covers, according to the jacket copy, ‘some 1500’ poets and ‘charts the shift from...

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John Sutherland, 5 November 1992

A man of many literary parts, Ian Hamilton came to biography late and triumphantly with his life of the dead but still warm Robert Lowell. Riding high, he went on to attempt an unauthorised life...

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Bonded by the bottle

Michael Wood, 14 June 1990

The writer, grizzled, sun-tanned, wearing only desert boots, shorts and sunglasses, sits outdoors in a wicker chair, checking a page in his typewriter. The picture appears on the covers both of...

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My Wife

Jonathan Coe, 21 December 1989

Bloomsbury have again brought out their hefty collection of contemporary writing just in time for Christmas, and indeed the enterprise is suffused with a sort of Christmas spirit. This...

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The Salinger Affair

Julian Barnes, 27 October 1988

Listen to Jeffrey Robinson, American biographer of figures such as Sheikh Yamani, describing how he goes to work: What I usually do is get two or three months’ research under my belt...

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Every three years

Blake Morrison, 3 March 1988

Now that poetry has been brought into the marketplace, and publishers have discovered how to make a modest profit from it, and now that publication outlets can be found in any good-sized store,...

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With more than eight hundred high-grade items to choose from, London Reviews gets the number down to just 28. But already it is the third such selection from the London Review of Books. Is three...

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Some Names for Robert Lowell

Karl Miller, 19 May 1983

Robert Lowell is not difficult to represent as the mad poet and justified sinner of the Romantic heritage. He is the dual personality who breaks the rules, kicks over the traces: he did this in...

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