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.