Ian Hamilton has published just sixty poems in sixty years, but literary London has produced a surprisingly compelling Festschrift in his honour.by Kate Kellaway / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Ian Hamilton is a biographer, critic and poet. He was editor of the poetry magazine Review until 1972 and later of New Review. He is also the thwarted biographer of JD Salinger. Hamilton may have courted a career of literary obscurity up to a point (choosing off-beat subjects such as literary estates in his book Keepers of the Flame), but he will not succeed in becoming as elusive as his quarry. Especially not now that his friends and former colleagues have produced a Festschrift for his 60th birthday called Another Round at the Pillars.
Blake Morrison, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Christopher Reid, Clive James, Harold Pinter, Craig Raine and others press reminiscences on us as if thrusting a drink into our hands to toast their friend.
The book looks like a drab example of vanity publishing with its grey dust jacket and in-joke title, and I wondered what Hamilton (the notoriously deft Scissor Man of literary journalism) would have done with the book had he been editing it. I was surprised to find myself reading it at all-and then with such fascination. I was curious to get to the bottom of it. How often, after all, do literary people celebrate each other, let alone this band, most of them better known than their subject? Poets, in particular, are seldom moved to make benign collective gestures. I began nervously to fear that Ian Hamilton must be not just 60, but very unwell, too. Some essays seemed suspiciously close to obituary, a pile of pre-funeral bouquets left outside Hamilton’s door. Reading between complimentary lines, it was also clear that some writers were doing their best to mothball their earlier reservations about Hamilton’s poetry (Blake Morrison and Peter Porter are especially adroit at covering their own critical tracks. Michael Hofmann is the best chaperone to the poems).
Before writing this, I was assured by Faber that Ian Hamilton is in rude health and the book is what it says it is. It remains an unusual one-off, more conversation than biography, and in some ways more interesting. As each friend lights a candle for the birthday cake, a portrait emerges. Hamilton evidently was, and still is, somebody whom others want to please. As editor of New Review, he rendered his young contributors excessively self-conscious. Julian Barnes devotes much of his essay to recalling his own chagrin when at the Pillars of Hercules, the…