Introduction to a ‘London Magazine’ Personal Anthology

When I moved to London in 1982, to study French and German at Queen Mary College, as it was then called, part of the University of London, I saw my first copies of London Magazine. The vice-warden of my hall of residence, a sophisticated and entertaining gentleman named David Brown, who occupied a flat towards the top of the 13-storey tower, was a subscriber to the publication. On a visit to his rooms, I picked up a copy. Surely this was a magazine about the capital, I thought, so, having just moved there, I should acquaint myself with it. But, no, what was this? A magazine filled with stories and poems and and reviews and photographs artistic rather than touristic. It was a literary magazine, something I had not previously known existed. Edited by poet Alan Ross, London Magazine had been around since 1732, although Ross had been its editor only since 1961. I say ‘only’ – he would remain in post until his death in 2001. Ross’s editorship was, perhaps, the magazine’s heyday, which is why I have chosen to refer to the magazine throughout this article as London Magazine, without the definite article, which was used by John Lehmann, before Ross, and has been used by various editors since.

Many of today’s best-known writers were first published in London Magazine or appeared there, alongside authors who were already familiar names and others who were not known then and have not become ‘names’ or ‘faces’ in the meantime. Novice short story writers, myself among them, would submit work to London Magazine (and Ambit and Stand, among other publications) over and over again, encouraged by polite rejection slips handwritten by Ross – ‘Not quite for us’, ‘Not quite there yet, we felt’ etc. We longed for acceptance. But what of those whose work was accepted? One imagined that fame and adultation were the inevitable consequences of an appearance in the magazine. Was that the case? Did its effects last? And what happened to the stories themselves, which for a couple of months were available on the newsstands, or in Dillons as it was then called, or wherever one bought one’s copy? If their authors were to have a collection published down the line, would their London Magazine stories make the grade? Several of Graham Swift’s early stories appeared in the magazine, and his debut collection, Learning to Swim & Other Stories, which indeed first appeared from London Magazine Editions, the magazine’s publishing arm, included four of them. But what of a good story that didn’t get reprinted and slid, therefore, into undeserved obscurity? What particular poignancy might attach to that phenomenon?

Jonathan Gibbs’s kind invitation to compile a Personal Anthology was an opportunity to have a bit of a root around in my London Magazine collection, incomplete but not inconsiderable, ranging from the mid-1950s to the early 2010s, and see what gems might come to light. In addition to the twelve I shall write about here, there are many more I could have chosen, by Hilary Mantel, William Sansom, Alan Beard, Edward Upward, Anne Spillard and Patrick Smith, among others.

‘Pillars of Ice’ by Charles Wilkinson

Charles Wilkinson has been a London Magazine regular, to the point where he, too, had a collection, The Pain Tree and Other Stories, published by London Magazine Editions in 2000. Something went awry with the timing of publication, however, and the collection was largely overlooked, so it gives me pleasure to highlight his work by including one of his stories in this fantasy anthology. In his London Magazine stories Wilkinson writes about unfulfilled teachers and failing marriages with a keen but sympathetic eye. ‘Pillars of Ice’ is a bit different, being the story of a grammar school boy visiting a resident in an old people’s home. Restriction of point of view appears – in this and other stories – to be something Wilkinson was not particularly interested in. (In a more recent story of his, ‘Fresh Water’, published in Unthology 5 in 2014 and reprinted in Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), his numerous switches of point of view achieve a fluidity that is clearly a deliberate strategy.) As a result, we enjoy the perspectives of schoolboy Peter and his visitee, Mrs Howell, who asks him to bring in the latest Agatha Christie. Wilkinson uses this prop to devise a poignant ending which gets me thinking about the many books I buy in charity shops and second hand bookshops that contain bookmarks, or often personal artefacts used as bookmarks, such as bus passes, concert tickets, exhibition flyers etc. While it may be safe to assume that many of those mark a point beyond which the reader did not proceed, it’s quite another matter to wonder about the reasons for not proceeding. Did they choose not to reach the end of the book or did they reach the end of their life?

(London Magazine, August/September 1982)

‘Happy Name’ by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan had three stories in London Magazine; ‘Happy Name’ was her first to appear there. Readers with any degree of familiarity with her work will not be surprised to learn that it’s a dark and nightmarish piece, despite what its title might suggest. Letitia, or Miss Letty, is a young girl dreaming of being an old woman, or an old woman dreaming of being a young girl. We’re never quite sure and maybe she isn’t either. The story features a powerful father figure, a shadow-strewn house around which it’s impossible to navigate and a series of wonderfully accurate and apposite images of birds. In the mirror across the hall Miss Letty sees a ‘tall pale girl’ with the look of ‘a solitary long-necked bird, wading and peering out warily from the shadows’. Miss Letty surveys another set of shadows ‘like a heron exploring a pool’. Later, when a development in the story has diverted it on to a similar track to the one taken in Wilkinson’s ‘Pillars of Ice’, the thought of having to search for a new home ‘made the bird of panic set up a disastrous flapping inside her’. ‘Happy Name’ was reprinted in the posthumous collection Julia and the Bazooka (Peter Owen) in 1970, an edition of which remains in print.

(London Magazine, December 1954)

‘Making it Happen’ by Ailsa Cox

What I love about this story, by the world’s first Professor of Short Fiction (at Edge Hill University), is its construction. Actually I love the characterisation as well, which is achieved through a skilful combination of description and dialogue, but the construction is what made me go ‘Aha!’ The thing is, if I tell you what it is about the construction that I like so much, it would spoil the story, or that element of the story, so I’ll just say that Cox’s narrative approach in this story is elliptical and fragmented and there are considerable rewards for the reader as things start to come together. I also really like the vicarious sense of being inside a Reliant Scimitar, a car I have always confused with the Jensen Interceptor. Come on, they’re virtually identical. The issue of the magazine in which the story appeared was the first following the death of Alan Ross. An editorial note announced, forlornly, ‘This issue of the magazine may be its last.’ Thankfully it wasn’t. If you want to read one of Cox’s stories online, there’s one here http://www.paraxis.org/pages/p03/renaissanceman.html with, weirdly, artwork by me. And if you want to read ‘Making it Happen’ it’s in Cox’s collection, The Real Louise and Other Stories (Headland Publications).

(London Magazine, April/May 2001)

‘A Father’s Sacrifice’ by Roland Topor

Back to 1968 now for this surreal little story from the pen of French short story writer, novelist and cartoonist Roland Topor, author of The Tenant, memorably filmed by Polanski. The issue also contains five pages of Topor’s drawings, which I have enjoyed so much over the years (not since 1968, I should point out, although this is possibly the first issue of the magazine I ever bought, second hand, for the Topor story) those pages are falling out. In fact, the glue has gone all hard and dry and the whole issue is falling apart, which is kind of appropriate considering the story, in which a young man’s father makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep him at medical school after the loss of his fortune. If you don’t know Topor, there’s a great edition of The Tenant from Millipede Press that also has some stories and drawings and an introduction by Thomas Ligotti.

(London Magazine, October 1968)

‘Short Days, Long Nights’ by Helen Dunmore

A brilliant little story by a 37-year-old Helen Dunmore, who at the time had published three books of poetry. All her novels, story collections, young adult novels, children’s books, later poetry collections and awards were ahead of her. It would make even the hardest-hearted reader sad to read this story now, three months after her death at the age of only 64. A young woman wakes up to find a strange man in her bed. There’s beauty and precision in the way Dunmore describes the woman’s actions. You believe in her right away and because you believe in her you care about her, you’re interested in what happens to her, you’re invested in her. You want to know who the man is and what happened between them and what will happen between them. That they’re in Finland is a detail that is dropped in and it might be neither here or there, but the snow-covered street outside the window comes alive in a couple of brushstrokes. Dunmore would use the title of the story again as the title of her fourth collection of poems published the following year.

(London Magazine, February/March 1990)

‘Fingers’ by Giles Gordon

I’m always slightly thrown by bi-monthly publications when it comes to year’s end. This issue – is it December 1974 or January 1974? And if it is January 1974, as seems most logical (it is confirmed on the contents page – ‘December 1973/January 1974’), doesn’t that make December/January 1974 inaccurate, or, at best, ungrammatical? This is the kind of conundrum about which you might imagine Giles Gordon having written a whole story. Gordon, a highly regarded literary agent and co-editor with David Hughes of ten volumes of Best Short Stories, was also a novelist and short story writer. Much – though not all – of his fiction was experimental. The short pieces that make up ‘Fingers’ – there are six of them here, though this number had increased to twenty when the ‘story’ was reprinted in Gordon’s second collection, Farewell, Fond Dreams (Hutchinson), in 1975 – would today be tagged ‘flash fiction’. In one, a man walks down the street wearing his new cufflinks, despite being, as it’s finally revealed, completely naked; in another, a man goes to the top of a hill to throw away some of his words, but they return to him ‘boomerang-like’. If you are curious, there doesn’t appear to be any of Gordon’s work online, but stories pop up in old anthologies, and copies of his own collections can still be acquired from online dealers, though in low numbers.

(London Magazine, December/January 1974)