The Critic, issues 1 and 2, November/December 2019
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“We are born out of failure,” the editors of this new magazine declare. “The Critic finds itself in a world deeply imbued with bad ideas. Our purpose is to say that.”
Here is an evergreen motive for a magazine. Let the “self-regarding consensus of virtue” be confounded; the dogmas which dominate the civil service, the BBC, the courts, the churches, the arts, the quangos, business (which at least pays lip service) and the universities (which have become, in the words of these editors, “finishing schools of moral conformity”) be exposed and ridiculed.
But who is to do the ridiculing? The Critic is paid for by Jeremy Hosking and jointly edited by Michael Mosbacher, late of Standpoint magazine, where a great falling out occurred, and Christopher Montgomery, formerly of the European Research Group.
The contributors include many estimable writers who used to adorn the pages of Standpoint. The editors explain the spirit in which they want them to contribute to The Critic:
“The mid-century diarist Chips Channon said, ‘What is more dull than a discreet diary? One might just as well have a discreet soul.’ The same spirit informs our criticism. There is no point in speaking up if all the registers of criticism are not employed. It should be playful, sincere, earnest, knowing, informed, pointed, scabrous and refined all in turn.”
They add that their writers “will subscribe to no editorial line nor serve the interests of any party”. That is right: being told to toe a line would make for a dreary magazine.
But hiring good writers is only a start. You then have to induce them to do their best work for you. Journalism is littered with gifted and industrious people who, because they are gifted and industrious, get commissioned to write almost impossible numbers of pieces, and allow their standards to slip, so it is no longer possible to detect what used to be good about them.
A good magazine can be a refuge from all that. It can be the place to write about what interests you, with greater candour and wit and for a more discerning readership than you are offered by the ponderous media organisation which pays your bills.
I recently bought a second-hand copy of Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly from 1939-50. It is staggeringly good. Brilliant people – here is a list of some of the contributors – did their best work for Connolly.
The revival of The Spectator under Alexander Chancellor in the late 1970s showed the difference a brilliant editor, with very little money but prepared to devote any amount of time to his contributors, could make.
Chancellor not only persuaded interesting people to write for him, he also gave them the intelligent appreciation that writers most desire. As a reader, you could relax in their company, and felt they knew what was going on, but were not obsessed by politics or by success, and would laugh at people who deserved to be laughed at.
So Shiva Naipaul spent several years having lunch with Chancellor before going on a journey in East Africa and writing a series of reports which could not have appeared in any other magazine, not least because no other magazine would have realised how interesting East Africa is, once you get past the clichés to which reporters on Africa are forced to resort. A wonderful book, North of South, came out of that journey.
Richard Ingrams wrote a television column for the Spectator in which he treated telly people as the self-regarding idiots they so often are. One week he watched no television at all, but heard some through the wall of a hotel room in Hay-on-Wye.
In the present general election, it seems the function of the party leaders is to demonstrate the superior intelligence and trustworthiness of their interrogators on television.
The Critic does not have a television column, but does cover books, theatre, cinema, music, art and food. The current issue, which can be bought in W.H.Smith’s and other newsagents for £5.95, has a review by Stephen Parkinson of Anthony Seldon’s book May at 10:
“As her political secretary, I saw all but the prime minister’s personal or confidential correspondence, and Sir Anthony’s regular missives to her also caught my eye. For example, the letter he sent three months after the election ‘to convey what an excellent job you are doing’, the one from the summer of 2018 in which he told her: ‘My conviction has grown that you can achieve greatness as a PM…You have the solution, the only one,’ or the one he wrote last December to say how much he was looking forward to writing his book about her premiership, ‘which I believe will have a very good story to tell’.
“I decided to make a note of them to see how they compared with the book I knew would follow. I think it would be fair to describe them as somewhat discordant.”
Here one has the feeling one is getting something one would be unlikely to get in any other magazine. One wonders what else Parkinson might be able to write for The Critic.
This is a question neither he nor his editor is likely to be able to answer in five seconds, or in a brief exchange of emails. It deserves to be tackled at that most unfashionable occasion, a long lunch, from which the answer may still not emerge, but during which other names, jokes, scraps of gossip will come to the surface, and from which new themes – or old themes which have been forgotten – will start to emerge.
The editor begins to see what, with encouragement, a particular contributor might be able to provide, while the writer reveals, perhaps after many years of suppression, what he or she is most interested in trying to say.
The exercise of editorial judgement has still only just started. You spot a promising young writer, or a neglected older one, and commission a piece. It turns out to be dull, has perhaps been worked on too much. Do you publish it, in the hope of better things to come?
At the back of The Critic, Nick Cohen has begun a column in which he promises to explain “how to go from drunk to hunk”. His grasp of the psychological obstacles to starting that journey is unrivalled.
Patrick Galbraith, editor of Shooting Times, does a column before Cohen called Country Notes, in which so far he has shot a grey squirrel and a duck. Here is a promising excursion into a world not many of us enter.
Tibor Fischer has written excellent pieces about Samuel Richardson and Frederick Raphael. Alasdair Palmer reminds us that bad people can be great artists, and instances the Pope’s unflinching support for Bernini, “a rare man, of sublime talent, born by divine disposition…to bring light to this age”, even after Bernini has had his mistress’s face slashed with a razor, and has tried to murder his younger brother, on discovering the two of them were having an affair.
David Starkey holds forth on One Nation Conservatism, and points out how much Boris Johnson has in common with Disraeli:
“he is exotic, slippery and has a gift for language and phrase-making. Can he learn to talk as convincingly about the nation as Disraeli? If so, this election and his premiership are in the bag.”
The future of The Critic is not yet in the bag. It has made a remarkably assured start, but now depends on the genius of its editors: on their ability to draw unsuspected riches from their contributors.