Last and best of the great literary editors

Miriam Gross's memoir is a slim volume with rich pickings

By Daniel Johnson, October 5, 2012

An Almost English Life/ By Miriam Gross/ Short Books, £14.99

Miriam Gross: exemplary

Miriam Gross: exemplary

Literary editors are much envied by their fellow journalists. The latter take it for granted that we are as louche as the literati whose company we keep, leading leisurely lives in which long lunches and love affairs loom large.

None of this is true any more, if it ever was. Books pages do not leave time for such temptations. Like publishing, literary journalism has largely given up the notion of appealing to readers’ erudition or taste, presuming instead that they have neither.

There have, however, been a few outstanding literary editors strong enough to withstand the constant pressure to dumb down. Miriam Gross is the last and the best. (Full disclosure: we are friends and Standpoint, which Miriam helped launch, first published some of these “literary, and not so literary, recollections”.)

She learned her trade on the Observer under Terry Kilmartin before becoming women’s editor there; moved to the Daily Telegraph as arts editor; and then presided over the Sunday Telegraph’s books pages during the silver age of the press, after Wapping and before Leveson. Miriam’s pages were — like their editor — serious but seductive. She took infinite pains to ensure that every word of every sentence made sense and flowed naturally. Nothing was superfluous or second-hand.

The same virtues are evident in the present slim volume. In just 200 pages, this “almost English life” emerges in all its rich pathos: childhood in Jerusalem under the British Mandate; schooldays as a boarder at “progressive” Dartington Hall; romance in Paris and Oxford; and survival of the fittest in the Fleet Street of the ’50s.

Anecdotes abound, all of them memorable, crisply told and modest, if not self-deprecating. As an added bonus, she has included four exemplary Observer interviews. The subjects — Philip Larkin, Harold Pinter, Anthony Powell and Francis Bacon — indicate the calibre of her acquaintance.

Miriam’s mentors emerge strongly: her noble father, Kurt May, German-Jewish lawyer, accidental Zionist and tireless advocate of Holocaust victims; her kindly boss, Terry Kilmartin, who protected her from the groping Philip Toynbee and the condescending Tony Crosland; and her brilliant first husband, the late and much lamented John Gross. It is to the author’s credit that she remained extremely close to John even after their divorce, and that she preserves a proper silence here not only about her second (very happy) marriage to Sir Geoffrey Owen, but also about her lovers, apart from such early exhibits as Kris Kristofferson, Julian Ayer and Kenneth Tynan.

As its title suggests, questions of identity permeate this memoir. Her secular parents left it to her to make something of her Jewishness. This she has done, with amazement and grace. Twice she returns to Jerusalem in search of her roots, only to find that she belongs in England after all. Her father had warned her that antisemitism would revive half-a-century after the Holocaust, and so it has. She holds fast, though, to George Orwell’s insistence on England’s fundamental decency. By that definition, Miriam Gross is no less English than Orwell’s old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings.

Daniel Johnson is the editor of ‘Standpoint’ and a former literary editor of ‘The Times'

Last updated: 3:22pm, October 5 2012