Anthony Thwaite died in April at the advanced age of ninety. I first met him over forty years ago, when, as a guest of the school literary society, he attended politely to some drivelling poem I had written. While we were never intimate friends, I certainly knew him well enough to be the butt of his highly ironical sense of humour. ‘The reason you’re so good at this, David,’ he once drily remarked as I stepped down from the platform at the King’s Lynn Fiction Festival, having just conducted some sparkling conversazione with, as it may have been, Beryl Bainbridge, ‘is that you lack modesty.’
d j taylor
When the Going was Good freelancer. And so the modern-day Thwaite, if such a creature exists, will probably be found in some relatively new-fangled arts world institution: directing the affairs of a ‘writers’ centre’ in some provincial city, say, or teaching creative writing at the University of Saffron Walden, or ornamenting some Arts Council commissariat. All these are highly dignified callings, naturally, but guaranteed to squash any thought of personal independence like a toad going down beneath the harrow.
The truly remarkable thing about Thwaite, who began his career back in the foothills of the early 1950s, was the number of jobs he managed to hold down. As well as writing reams of distinguished poems and editing his old friend Philip Larkin, he was a BBC producer, literary editor of the New Statesman, co-editor of Encounter, custodian of the Secker & Warburg poetry list, a professor at several foreign universities, a reviewer for The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement, an editorial director at André Deutsch, a fixture of the British Council’s touring parties and a whole lot more besides.
Thwaite, in fact, was one of those buzzing, super-industrious, all-purpose literary men without whose efforts domestic literature of the past two hundred years or so would have been a very different place. You can imagine his avatar ranked alongside Captain Shandon in the Cave of Harmony in Thackeray’s Pendennis (1849–50) as the inky-fingered editorial committee of the Pall Mall Gazette sits down to plan its next number, or propping up the bar at the Wheatsheaf with X Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room (1971) – the latter environment being one in which Thwaite actually existed, as he knew Julian Maclaren-Ross, the model for Trapnel, in the 1950s and survived to contribute to a Radio 4 celebration of his career.
Critics very often talk about such and such a writer being ‘the last of the men of letters’ (an invidious term, as there are plenty of women of letters too). Is it possible to live the kind of literary life that Thwaite lived in 2021? The immediate answer would seem to be no, with emphasis. It is not just that Secker & Warburg no longer has a poetry list and is called Harvill Secker or that firms such as André Deutsch (and the books they used to publish) are as dead as the passenger pigeon, but also that in the majority of cases the funding that sustained these enterprises no longer exists. A handful of American newspapers and the London Review of Books excepted, there is no money in book reviewing; the British Council gravy train ran into the buffers years ago; and foreign universities, much less Anglocentric in these postcolonial days, prefer to hire locals.
It would no doubt be possible to do many of the things that Thwaite did – a little editing, a little arts administration, a little prize-judging, a little BBC programme-helming – but it would be very difficult to perform these tasks as a literary
Evelyn Waugh published a selection of his prewar travel writing in 1946 under the title When the Going was Good. When was the going last any good for the serious writer – defined as the kind of author who has his or her own aims to pursue, whether or not they conform to commercial notions of ‘taste’, and would very much like to make a living out of it – here in the UK? At a guess, the boom years were the mid1980s, an era in which huge amounts of mostly American money rolled into British publishing, books became fashionable in a way that had scarcely been seen since the 1950s and a writer shortlisted for the Booker Prize could expect to be handed a quarter of a million pounds and told to come back with a masterpiece in four years’ time.
As one who published his first novel in 1986 (advance a modest £750), coincidentally with Secker & Warburg, where my fellow authors included both Thwaite and his wife, Ann, I was a bit late for the boom years. Nonetheless, I was able to take advantage of the last hurrah of newspaper journalism that followed Rupert Murdoch’s defeat of the print unions. The bounty available from these sources was, by modern standards, simply stupendous. At one point in the late 1980s, there were five quality Sunday papers, all with proper arts budgets and berths to spare. Why, you could get annual contracts, under which the Sunday Times, say, would agree to commission two dozen reviews a year from you and have to pay you whether they actually did so or not.
They were great days, and it was a joy to be around in them. Thirty years later, I never hear of some talented youngster newly disgorged from one of our leading universities and avid for a career in the world of books without asking myself: how does this person expect to make a living? The freelance life was always precarious. Here in 2021 it is more or less unsustainable, unless one is prepared to make the kinds of compromises that instantly take away the pleasures that used to make the old-style freelance life worth the living.
One of these, naturally, is independence. Most of the really depressing aspects of the modern world of books – its orthodoxies, its pieties, its Twitter spats, its long, anxious lines of people queuing up to say the things that they think will be acceptable rather than the things that they truly believe – are the result of an institutionalising process that has been going on for nearly thirty years. We need more Anthony Thwaites, and yet the current state of Literature UK seems almost expressly designed to stop them being produced. The fightback starts here.
july 2021 | Literary Review 1
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