It may seem perverse to start at the end, but then Alan Ross was not himself immune to perversities.
The last time I saw him was at a dinner at the Garrick Club. We were both members of the Literary Society, which met once a month (except for August and September in case people were away shooting) for a mixture of gossip, reminiscence and backbiting. Books were occasionally mentioned. It was all rather old-fashioned and comfortable and English. Alan loved the Literary Society – but not as much as he had. The problem was that there had been a recent decision to allow women to become members. This revolutionary suggestion that women could write had been agreed by almost everyone, often grudgingly. Two members in particular, Andrew Devonshire and Alan Ross, were firmly opposed. The Duke never came again, and Alan grumbled but continued to come.
And here we come to the first of Alan’s perversities. To put it delicately, he was known not to be averse to female charms. He was prepared to pay attention to all sorts of new literary trends, but in many respects he was deeply traditional. The Literary Society had lasted close on two hundred years without women, so why change?
On this particular evening Alan and I left the Garrick together. As we often did, we strolled as far as St. James’s Street, and then made our separate ways home. We fixed a day to have lunch. It was not to be. When I telephoned the London Magazine office to confirm the day, I heard the news that Alan had died. No more lunches, no more gossip.
I knew Alan’s name long before I met him, for two very disparate reasons. When I joined the distinguished publishing company of Hamish Hamilton in 1961 one of the more menial, but curiously never boring, tasks was to keep the stock list of titles in print up to date. In those days books never seemed to go out of print, however minute the annual sales were. The word ‘remainder’ did not seem to exist. While I was running my eye through the list, I noticed what seemed to be an anomaly. In the section devoted to children’s books there was the name Alan Ross. And in the extremely small part given over to Sport (Hamish Hamilton, though a keen rower and boxer himself, did not feel that sports and games should be written about, unless it were Neville Cardus on cricket) there was Alan Ross again, with books on MCC tours of the West Indies.
Alan had a passion for cricket. He wrote elegantly about the game, and he organised a celebrated match every year. At his memorial service Harold Pinter, no less, spoke about Alan and cricket, and so did the cricket correspondent of The Times. And here we come to the second of Alan’s perversities: the range of literary genres to which he contributed. He was a very fine poet. He wrote some wonderful travel books, in particular one on the Baltic states. But cricket? Children’s books? How did all of this meld?
The second reason for Alan’s name becoming familiar to me stemmed from my period as a member of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council. It was a turbulent time. The Arts Council supported a large number of small literary magazines, some with challenging titles like Bananas, others more circumspectly called the New Review or the London Magazine. It was the latter which always engendered the most debate, usually heated, often vituperative. The discussion went along these lines: ‘Why do we give money to the London Magazine when its owner is married to a chocolate heiress? Can’t Alan Ross pay for the costs himself?’ This always seemed to me rather unfair. Some of the other magazine editors had often substantial means. But they were currently in favour, so they got the cash. The London Magazine was, of course, impeccably edited, it always had interesting stories and poems, it was nicely produced. We could all agree over that. But should the State support what some people might consider an elitist magazine? The Arts Council could, like the BBC, be extraordinarily lavish, but occasionally mean-minded. So, every year, we discussed the London Magazine yet again, often cutting the grant, and, after I left the Panel, removing it altogether.
Soon afterwards I began doing the occasional review for Alan. And here we come to another perversity. I had recently written a book about France called That Sweet Enemy, taking its title from Sir Philip Sidney’s double-edged remark. Alan became convinced that I was the greatest living expert on France and the French. Books on the French Resistance, collections of short stories by the latest trendy writers, biographies, learned works of history, all flowed from Thurloe Place to my home, conveniently close by. Better still, I would walk towards South Kensington, find Alan surrounded by mounds of proofs and books and his black Labrador, tucked away in the shed at the bottom of his garden. Then off we would go to Alan’s favourite Italian restaurant or to the late-lamented Hilaire up the Old Brompton Road. William Boyd, one of the many fine novelists discovered by Alan, said that one of the greatest surprises of his career as a writer was his first lunch with Alan, a lunch fuelled by cocktails (usually Negronis), wine and, above all, gossip.
Gossip was very important. Alan seemed to have known everyone in the literary world, writers, publishers, Nobel Prize winners, Fleet Street hacks. If you wanted to hear a disobliging story about Cyril Connolly or Maclaren Ross or any number of Fitzrovia soaks, Alan Ross was your man. His anecdotes were always funny, often faintly malicious, sometimes distinctly surprising. An eminent publisher or novelist, with unsullied reputation, would suddenly creep out into a rather colder, and no doubt truer light.
But this was only one side of Alan. He was also one of the kindest men I ever knew. If you looked after a writer who needed a piece of arcane information about London in the 1940s you knew that a brief telephone conversation would produce the right reference or contact. His memory was amazing. So, too, was his modesty. He possessed that sine qua non for a literary magazine editor: taste. But he never crowed about the writers he had helped start on their careers. Editors of other magazines would claim to have spotted the talents of this novelist or that poet. Usually, these writers had actually been discovered by Alan and first appeared between the covers of the London Magazine.
In spite of Alan’s gregariousness and conviviality, there was a terrible black hole of despair deep down in his psyche. During the Second World War he had served with great distinction on the Murmansk Convoy. From this period in his life he derived his love of the Baltic. But he also witnessed too many of the horrors of war at first hand. He never spoke of these experiences to me, but one could sense a measure of the blackness and bleakness in his books. Clinical depression is difficult to combat, impossible to cure. Medication can merely alleviate. When the Russian submarine, the Kursk, sank, imprisoning the crew in appalling and eventually fatal conditions, Alan was deeply affected. The frightfulness of the Murmansk Convoys re-emerged. His resilience had been used up. And so our planned lunch never materialised.
How does one conjure up Alan Ross? What made him tick? On the surface, he seemed charming, erudite, witty, kind, marvellously perceptive about life, and people, above all about writers. He would be appalled by modern trends in the world of books, at the sight of all too many bookshops and what they hope to sell, by the grip of technology (e-mails and Twitter and Facebook would not have delighted his heart).
Deep down, though, he would still be discovering new talent. And that thirst for perfection and its encouragement was what really made Alan tick. An editor sans pareil. And how he would have curled his lip at that encomium … Time for another Negroni!