The convulsions of the 1980s – a decade of excess and agitation and collapse – reached the unlikeliest quarters. While other parts of the world dealt with revolution and meltdown, the mean streets of literary London were also in ferment. If you assumed the world of books to be a tiny backwater, John Walsh is here to make you think again. Circus of Dreams – no skimping on the grandeur there – recounts a brief period when publishing almost became bold and writers became almost famous. Books suddenly infiltrated the news pages via awards (a bolstered Booker prize) and marketing gimmicks. A major new book chain (Waterstones) appeared in the high street. A whizzy new members’ club (the Groucho) opened in Soho, the improbable brainchild of a bunch of publishers.
Occupying a ringside seat at the “circus” is Walsh, writer, broadcaster and, we must now add, illusionist. For if anyone has managed to conjure the impression of a mountain from a molehill it is he. His previous book, Are You Talking to Me?, was a droll memoir of a film-obsessed youth honing his mastery of the self-deprecating anecdote. This new one picks up the story in his early 20s when, an aspiring littérateur, he begins as dogsbody in a London publishing house Gollancz, just as its star was in decline. No matter. Surrounded by clever women and randy for attention, the young Walsh gets a toehold in this fusty-looking milieu and begins plotting his ascent to the top – ie literary editor of the Times by the age of 35. Well, what’s a heaven for?
His most attractive quality – this has a general application in life – is enthusiasm. His passion for the novels of Martin Amis and the poetry of Craig Raine is touchingly eager, while his appetite for socialising has a Boswellian bumptiousness. He knows this is not a profession for the wallflower. That said, he could do with cooling his prose at times. “Tina Brown hit the journalistic empyrean like a sleek blonde rocket” is a bit try-hard, so too his judgment on Angela Carter’s work – “like finding a clump of Venus flytraps in the agreeable bluebell wood of English prose”. These campy flourishes are like drum solos: a little goes a long way. After a brief misstep into business journalism he grabs a berth on Books and Bookmen magazine and embraces the Grub Street routine of reviewing, interviewing, party-going.
Yes, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to read books for your bread was very heaven. I know this because in the late 1980s I was making my own lowly way into the trade, thrilled at the idea of the freelance life. (I still have the lit ed’s letter commissioning my first book review for the Independent.) So Circus of Dreams should be catnip to me – and possibly about five other people. For what general reader could be interested in stories from this subculture, rarefied at the time, utterly inconsequential today? So much of it depends on Walsh raiding his cuttings file for material. I could take another interview with hero Amis, or a boozy night with Graham Swift, but a four-page review of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is beyond sufferance. At times, the self-involvement is Pooterish. An interview with William Trevor down in Devon (“the train ride to Exeter took two hours”) extends into lunch with the author and his wife (“delicious roast lamb… parsnips from the garden”) and concludes with a wistful reflection on why he can’t, like Trevor, turn his experience into “spectacular fiction”. Would this book have worked as a novel? Maybe. At least then we might have felt that something was at stake.
As it is, Walsh has no distance from his subjects. Once he’s anointed as the Times literary editor (Sunday version) he gets down to serious hobnobbing with the big literary beasts. Launch parties are recalled in lists of celebrity attendees, “et moi”, he adds, just in case we’d forgotten he was there too. You note how often he refers to a writer as a “genius” (JG Ballard, Rushdie, C Northcote Parkinson) or a “great man” (Seamus Heaney, Anthony Burgess, George Barker et al). George Steiner, described only as an “alarmingly brilliant man”, may have felt hard done by. In the chapter Launches, Lunches and Lechery, I thought Walsh was going to out himself as a “swordsman of the boudoir”, as he styles one opportunist pouncer of his acquaintance, but he remains coy on the matter. He seems about to do so a second time when speculating on the real-life counterpart of Ivo Sponge, a priapic literary editor in Amanda Craig’s novel A Vicious Circle, famous for “the Sponge Lunge”, but again he veers away from self-incrimination.
He can be very funny and I laughed long at the set-piece lunch with Amis (again) when he over-orders on the vegetables and likens his steaming plate to “a Crimean war field kitchen”. His character sketch of his ex-boss Rupert Murdoch is similarly inspired, the old man’s face with its many tics and moues resembling “one of those Popperfoto contact sheets, depicting the complete range of expressions available to mortal beings”. He’s a good observer when the mood suits him. Alas, his book can’t escape the impression of secondhand stock. The story of [radio presenter] Frank Delaney’s hook-up with Princess Margaret, like much else here, is velvet worn to baldness by overuse.
While you couldn’t wish the book were longer, it’s quite surprising that Walsh omits to mention one of the stories most illustrative of the book world’s nutty excess in the 1980s. A mainstream publisher was preparing an offer for a renowned historian’s three-volume whopper on the 20th century (or something) when it received by fax a letter from his agent: they wanted £500,000 for the three books. The fax, handwritten, was mulled over at HQ and eventually the publisher agreed to pay £900,000, in instalments. Huh? A “5” had been misread for a “9”, so the author pocketed an extra 400 grand for nowt. Circus of Dreams? Send in the clowns.