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Circus of Dreams — bright young things and booming book sales

There’s the dropping of names. Then there’s carpet-bombing. Then there’s blitzkrieg. The scattershot of grand writerly personalities throughout John Walsh’s coming-of-literary-age memoir sometimes makes you want to duck for cover. And to wonder whether this author ever spoke to anybody who wasn’t, or wasn’t to become, famous.

But Walsh can be forgiven, since this isn’t quite, or at all, a conventional memoir. It’s also an immersive literary history of a particular period. The names, though there’s always an element of swank, are integral.

And Circus of Dreams, which begins by charting the young Walsh’s growing-up in books and reading, takes a rather different turn once he has achieved his stated ambition: to be a literary editor by the age of 35. He managed this by way of a stint in business journalism, another in the publicity department of an old-school publishing house (Gollancz) and then the Evening Standard gossip pages, finally making it in 1988 into the literary editor’s chair at that paper, recently vacated by his friend Valerie Grove, an important source for this book.

Though still told through the author’s personal lens, the account then settles down to its parallel function: to document that extraordinary moment in British writing and publishing.

Between 1978 and 1992, in Walsh’s account, there was an explosion of brilliant literature that smashed through the fog of insipid prose and even more insipid attitudes of mid-century Britain, “moribund, backward-looking and stale”. Walsh launches off with a fanboy gush for the young Martin Amis, who “seemed to be in the air I breathed”. His other literary heroes quickly emerge — among them Anthony Burgess and Angela Carter, whose “rapturous use of language” stood out like “a clump of Venus flytraps in the agreeable bluebell wood of contemporary English prose”.

Angela Carter and David Lodge at a party in London in 1985 © Dafydd Jones

The 1980s was indeed an astonishing decade in which to be alive, and young, and eagerly reading. New writing was exciting in a way not seen before (or, arguably, since): writers were celebs, publishing boomed, sales soared and with them sums of money that drew gasps when reported. The newcomers were young, brash, out to shock: while the older commentators yelped about the nastiness, the repulsive imagery, the sexual braggadocio, readers couldn’t get enough.

The year 1984 alone brought an amazing crop of novels. It was also the year I got my first job as a very junior publishing editor, in a warren of shabby Covent Garden rooms high up a rickety staircase with worn lino. But from those crummy-quaint surroundings and others like them emerged, in 1984, Anita Brookner’s Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Martin Amis’s Money, Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, Anita Desai’s In Custody and a whole handful of others.

These leading players of the decade, who also included of course Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Alan Hollinghurst, Penelope Fitzgerald and Rose Tremain, were joined by startling talents that brought an essential injection of new life: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo, Ben Okri, Hanif Kureishi, Peter Carey. That English letters rapidly became un-Englished — or rather, that their previously narrow parameters were joyously expanded by other voices and other perspectives — is very much part of this story.

Walsh not only charts their achievements, at several points he does a deep dive. His long life as a literary critic makes him unable, it seems, to resist re-reviewing Midnight’s Children, for instance; invoking everything from the Keystone Kops to James Joyce, describing Rushdie’s “distracted logorrhoeic cascade of words and subjects” that left him “dazzled, impressed, bewildered and frankly exhausted”, Walsh displays his own verbal fireworks and critical credentials.

He is good at conveying the ecosystem of the Golden Age. The writers didn’t, couldn’t, do it alone. There were the great personalities in publishing — Liz Calder and Robert McCrum creating superb fiction lists; the launching of Bloomsbury and other independents. There were the publicists, almost a new concept in that business; bookshops and the creation of Waterstones; and festivals, with Hay-on-Wye leading the way. Literary prizes made the front pages. Importantly too there were the literary pages and papers: with the pre-internet expansion of weekend newspapers, yawning column inches both created and responded to the new books craze. It was a perfect creative storm: self-generating and self-sustaining.

Through it all, Walsh was there. First as an eager wannabe, then as a full-blooded insider. Any disappointment that his own efforts at a novel didn’t prove a ticket to the dream-circus was quickly mitigated once he discovered his potential as critic, commentator and general facilitator, swishing through the forest as interviewer, literary judge, pundit, speaker, partygoer par excellence. The journalistic aspect is hardly seen as a secondary creative force in this brave world: in fact, it’s a critic and academic, John Carey, who emerges as the unlikely overall hero of Circus of Dreams.

John Walsh (right) with Anthony Burgess in 1988

Walsh tells the story not just with first-person intensity but in full-on reportage, complete with detailed dialogue. Whole conversations, from 40 years ago? Not for nothing is there a forward note in the book about memory, in which the author claims his licence in advance, drawing on “the vast lumber” of recollections in his own head and from others he’s consulted. Whatever the accuracy, or lack of it, it’s a style that makes the book highly readable, if occasionally irritatingly solipsistic.

And the decline? The aftermath of this magic moment? Walsh does briefly chronicle the later careers of his heroes but only touches on what came next, another new generation, characterised perhaps more by sociopolitical and real-life concerns after the louche extremism, narrative wildness and verbal fireworks of their elders. Is the post-internet writing world more or less innovative, adventurous, artistically bold? Readers can make up their own minds, after this.

Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World by John Walsh, Constable £25, 432 pages

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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