Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Introduction |
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The Dreaming Swimmer : Introduction

Even in America, only the specialist student of the Algonquin circle would nowadays recognise the name of Alexander Woollcott, and only the specialist in Alexander Woollcott would remember a line he wrote. Fluent without talent — perhaps the most enviable talent of all — he had, however, celebrity. Wolcott Gibbs hadn’t, though he wrote with the easy-seeming colloquial snap for which Alexander Woollcott could offer only jocose verbosity as a substitute. Today, with his achievements, if they are mentioned at all, invariably attributed to his giftless near-namesake, Wolcott Gibbs is a separate identity only for the reader who believes that a serious note can be struck in casual journalism, and struck most truly when the touch is light.

But for any reader who does believe that, Wolcott Gibbs is important. More than thirty years ago, when I was majoring in extracurricular activities at the University of Sydney, I committed his collection of pieces called Season in the Sun to memory. Today I own both the American and British editions and would buy every second-hand copy of the book I came across if that did not mean depriving some young browser of the same discovery. Gibbs’s profile of Henry Luce, written in a parody of early Time style and featuring the much-misquoted tag-line ‘Backwards run sentences until reels the mind’, pioneered a form of criticism in which he had many imitators but no peers. His book reviews amusingly exposed the gap between ambition and attainment. He was a truly witty theatre critic where Dorothy Parker was merely witty at theatre’s expense. In my opinion, freely given to my fellow aspirants on the staff of the Sydney University newspaper honi soit, Gibbs ranked with A. J. Liebling and S. J. Perelman among the New Yorker writers who had transcended the house style and made the voice of America their own. They all collected pieces rather than wrote books.

The same was also true of most of my old world models. George Bernard Shaw’s six Standard Edition volumes of music and theatre criticism constituted, for at least one admirer who would read aloud from them at parties unless forced not to, the most powerful single recommendation for a practical critical engagement, as opposed to an academic detachment. Later on I mustered some appreciation for academic detachment as well, but when young and more impatient I liked the immediacy, the quotability, and, of course, the brevity, of the periodical article written to a tight deadline. Even Shaw’s marathon critical effort was really just a collection of weekly columns. His creative personality gave it coherence. It still does, when so many of his plays lie dead. I can’t imagine ever wanting to read the preface to Man and Superman again, but I still return to Our Theatres in the Nineties, and find it just as difficult now as long ago to read five pages without reading fifty.

In the ensuing decades I have built, without really trying to, a whole library of critical works — weighted inevitably, the times being what they are, towards the scholarly and the academic. But at the heart of it, and among my favourite books of any kind, are those books that the conventional wisdom would have us believe are not really books at all. Some of them — for example Edmund Wilson’s two key collections The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials — are simply the richest concentrations of critical thought in modern times. Of those, most would never have been published if the publishers had shared the conviction, nowadays most often propagated by book reviewers themselves, that collections of reviews are to be deplored. No opportunity should be lost to condemn that view as illiterate. As publishers become more reluctant to amortise a low-selling book against a high-selling one, even if they are both by the same author, it needs to be emphasised that some of the best non-fiction books are composed from casual journalism. It should also be said that the prospect of being able to republish their work in a collection was one of the things that used to make casual journalists write with care. The reviewer who dismisses his colleague’s collection of articles as a pretentious claim on posterity would sound more persuasive if his review were energised by the same ambition. But increasingly it isn’t written to last the time it takes to read it. London literary journalism has not benefited from so easily accepting its latter-day status as irredeemable ephemera. The result, ever more in the ascendant, has been a kind of ignorant knowingness, a whole new brand of aggressive modesty. I preferred the old conceit, which the first section of this book is unapologetically intended to perpetuate.

The second section is the product of strange circumstances. Since Mrs Thatcher launched her mischievous assault on Britain’s broadcasting system, nobody living in the target area has been able to escape involvement with the underlying politics of an institution vital not just to this nation but — surely the claim is not too large — to the world entire. Ordinarily it would have been sufficient commitment just to make the best possible programmes, which need a long week’s work for a good half hour, and absorb more energy the easier they look. But morale in the broadcasting system collapsed so rapidly under the government’s attack that it became a dereliction not to engage in polemics. Against my inclination, I found myself making speeches. It simply had to be done, ready or not, win or — more likely — lose. Where politics is concerned, in the margin of history (Sir Lewis Namier’s excellent title for one of his several lastingly instructive collections of essays) is where I prefer to be. This one time I was mixed up in the action. For the theoretical treatise about television I might have written in an ideal academic world, these pieces are the contingent, shop-soiled substitute. Composed on trains and in the backs of cars, typed late at night when I should have been asleep, they are not without deficiencies, and may well be without virtues. But they took all I had at the time, so I am betting that some of the urgency still comes through, if only as a sense of strain.

The third section consists of non-fiction in verse form: pieces which would have had to wait a long time for my next collection of poems, but which I was keen to see safely under cover. Mixing prose and verse in a single collection is not without precedent. In the pre-Nazi German-speaking world, a rich culture which included the dismembered but still productive Austro-Hungarian empire, there was an agreeably easygoing tradition by which the Kleinkunst practitioners would from time to time publish mixed collections of their recent periodical writings: feuilletons, reviews, sketches, aphorisms and poems all cohabiting on the untroubled assumption that the reader cared less about categories than about what the individual writer had been up to lately. Republished post-war as part of a determined but forlorn effort to put a shattered civilisation back together, the same material was tidily sorted out into its appropriate genres, leaving once unclassifiable writers looking dauntingly monumental — a polite way of saying dead, which most of them were, and prematurely at that. Glad to possess such thoroughgoing multi-volume standard editions, I still prefer those first, airy, disordered little volumes, which I search out all over the world in the cities to which the refugees fled and where their children, having grown up understandably alienated from the old language, sold the books. I find them with cracked hinges, stacked spine-up on the floors of airless rooms in New York, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Kurt Tucholsky, Alfred Polgar, Egon Friedell, Alfred Kerr, Egon Kisch, Anton Kuh — light stylists of the heavy heart, their sentences, which once sped too fast to be weighed, caught between covers like cosmic rays in a bubble chamber.

Until recently the same sort of one-man cabaret book could be done in Britain too. Paul Dehn’s For Love and Money has been with me for thirty years: reviews, essays, lampoons and poems all packed tight into one little volume, and yet somehow constantly shifting to illuminate one another from an unexpected angle. Dehn, the inheritor of James Agate’s library, eventually vanished into affluence as a screen writer (The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Deadly Affair), but his early pieces, whether in paragraphs or stanzas, were individual in every phrase. Urbane, well-informed, elegant without being precious, it was the kind of writing which the influence of Dr Leavis scared out of the courtyard, to our lasting harm. Without Dehn’s film reviews, my own television column would not have taken quite the tone it did. He was only one of a dozen influences — if there isn’t more than one influence you can’t be influenced — but he was crucial, because he showed how learning could be brought to bear in defence of simplicity, and that the only attack worth launching is in defence of a value. My biggest and perhaps most presumptuous ambition as a writer of fugitive pieces is that they might have the same enabling effect on the expectations of some up-and-coming young critic as Paul Dehn’s once did on mine.

The last section might look like blatant self-publicity but I can only plead that the self being publicised is a performer, who must bark for his act if the press won’t do it for him. When I began presenting full-scale television programmes I soon found that there was no point giving a round of interviews and profiles in the hope of a plug. That approach had long since ceased to be rewarding when it was time to publish a new book. To expect helpful coverage for a new TV show was to go too often to a well that was already poisoned. I don’t, except in weak moments, blame journalists, to whose ranks I belong. But if I am not interested in talking about my private life, and the profile-writers are not interested in talking about my work, then there is nowhere for them to escape except into speculation. I bore them towards fantasy, which accumulates in the clippings file, hardening into myth under the pressure of its own weight. Thus, on the mercifully sparse occasions when it is my turn to be turned over, I get a chance to read about some calculating poseur who will do anything to display his erudition, while simultaneously plunging ruthlessly down-market in search of viewers. How anyone could successfully do both those things at once is hard to fathom, but perhaps they mean that I am doing it unsuccessfully.

Meanwhile I have to publicise my upcoming programmes somehow: the BBC isn’t giving me all that air-time just to be coy. So when the editor of the Radio Times asks for six hundred words he gets the piece as quickly as I can do it. But that still means as quickly as I can do it well. As with any other writing task, you can write it to throw away or you can try to make it stick. For millions of readers who are mostly too busy during the day to build up a stock of obscure cultural references, I must strive to express myself in as unadorned a way as possible while being entertaining enough to ram home the message that their lives will be blighted if they don’t see the show. Vulgarity is always a hazard. But if the flyer is sometimes garish, for the circus I make no excuse. Television for the mass audience is part of my vocation. I didn’t choose to do it out of calculation; I am compelled to do it out of impulse. I sometimes hear about a version of myself who is pitifully unaware of the discrepancy between literary criticism for the discerning minority and mass-channel spectacle for the viewing public. I don’t believe in that gap but wouldn’t care if it were an abyss. What could I do if I fell in except try to make the fall look like a dive?

(London, 1992)