Jhe convulsions of the 1980s – a decade of excess, turmoil and collapse – reached the most unlikely quarters. As other parts of the world faced revolution and collapse, the wicked streets of literary London were also in turmoil. If you thought the world of books was a little backwater, John Walsh is here to make you think again. Circus of Dreams – without skimping on greatness – recounts a brief period when publishing became almost audacious and writers became almost famous. The books suddenly infiltrated the news pages via awards (a beefed up Booker Prize) and marketing gimmicks. A new big book chain (Waterstones) has popped up on the high street. An awesome new members club (the Groucho) has opened in Soho, the unlikely idea of a bunch of publishers.
Walsh, writer, animator and, it must now be added, illusionist, occupies a place at the forefront of the “circus”. Because if anyone has managed to evoke the impression of a mountain from a molehill, it is him. His previous book, You’re talking to me?, was a funny memoir of a movie-obsessed youngster honing his mastery of self-deprecating anecdote. This novel picks up the story in his early twenties when, a midshipman writer, he began as a dogbody in a London publishing house Gollancz, at the very moment when his star was declining. Never mind. Surrounded by smart women and eager for attention, the young Walsh thrusts himself into this musty-looking milieu and begins to plan his rise to the top – that is, the literary editor of the Time at the age of 35. Well, what good is a paradise?
Its most attractive quality – it has general application in life – is enthusiasm. Her passion for the novels of Martin Amis and the poetry of Craig Raine is touchingly ardent, while her appetite for socializing is Boswellian in character. He knows it’s not a job for the wallflower. That said, he would need to chill his prose sometimes. “Tina Brown hit the journalistic empyrean like an elegant blonde rocket” is a bit difficult, as is her judgment of Angela Carter’s work – “like finding a bunch of Venus flytraps in the pleasant woods of bellflower of English prose”. These campy flourishes are like drum solos: a little goes a long way. After a brief misstep in business journalism, he nabs a spot on Books and deliverers magazine and adopts the Grub Street routine of reviewing, interviewing and partying.
Yes, was happiness in this dawn of being alive, but reading books for your bread was truly heaven. I know this because at the end of the 1980s, I was making my way through the business, delighted with the idea of a freelance life. (I still have the letter from the editor reads ordering my first book review for the Independent.) So Circus of Dreams should be catnip for me – and maybe for five other people. For what generalist reader could be interested in the stories of this subculture, rarefied at the time, totally insignificant today? Much depends on Walsh raiding his clippings file for material. I could take another interview with hero Friends, or a boozy night out with Graham Swift, but a four-page review of Rushdie’s The Midnight Children is beyond suffering. Sometimes self-involvement is Pooterish. An interview with William Trevor in Devon (“the train ride to Exeter was two hours”) continues with lunch with the author and his wife (“delicious roast lamb…parsnip from the garden”) and ends through a melancholy reflection on why he cannot, like Trevor, transform his experience into “spectacular fiction”. Would this book have functioned as a novel? Perhaps. At least then we could have sensed something was at stake.
As things stand, Walsh has no distance with his subjects. Once he is anointed like the Time literary editor (Sunday version) he gets down to dealing seriously with the big literary beasts. The launch parties are remembered in the lists of celebrities in attendance, “and mehe adds, just in case we forgot he was there too. You notice how often he calls a writer 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 a “man of alarming brilliance”, may have felt uneasy. In the chapter Throws, Lunches, and Lust, I thought Walsh was going to pass himself off as a “boudoir swordsman,” as he calls an opportunistic leap of his acquaintance, but he remains coy about it. He seems set to do it a second time when he speculates on Ivo Sponge’s real-life counterpart, a priapic literary editor in Amanda Craig’s novel. A vicious circle, famous for “The Sponge Lunge”, but again he strays away from self-incrimination.
He can be very funny and I laughed a long time at Lunch with Friends (again) when he orders too many vegetables and compares his steaming plate to “Crimean War field cooking”. His character sketch of his ex-boss Rupert Murdoch is similarly inspired, the old man’s face with his many tics and pouts looking like “one of those Popperfoto contact sheets, representing the full range of expressions available. for mortal beings”. He is a good observer when the mood suits him. Alas, his book does not escape the impression of a flea market. The story of [radio presenter] Frank Delaney’s affair with Princess Margaret, like many others here, is velvet worn to baldness by overuse.
While you couldn’t wish the book was any longer, it’s quite surprising that Walsh fails to mention one of the most illustrative stories of the excess madness of the book world in the 1980s. A mainstream publisher was preparing an offer for the three-volume whopper of a renowned historian on the 20th century (or something like that) when he received a letter from his agent by fax: they wanted £500,000 for the three books. The fax, handwritten, was examined at headquarters and eventually the publisher agreed to pay £900,000, in instalments. Eh? A “5” had been misread for a “9”, so the author pocketed another 400,000,000 for now. Circus of Dreams? Send the clowns.