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This item is taken from PN Review 138, Volume 27 Number 4, March - April 2001.

Just as PN Review 138 was going to press, the death of Alan Ross was announced. It is a long time - too long - since his poems last appeared in PN Review. They were as full of surprise and clarity as his journal, and as lively. Early last year I asked him to send some more. Instead he sent a birthday tribute to Carcanet Press.

His name was synonymous with the London Magazine, for which he became responsible in 1965, and to which he remained committed until his death in February. He was an unusual editor, always alive to the new and unexpected, making dozens of discoveries among English-language writers (with a special eye to the Commonwealth - perhaps because he was born in Calcutta - and an occasional scepticism about American - perhaps because Americans did not play cricket), and providing some crucial introductions to writers in translation. With his sporadic London Magazine Editions (whose most recent publication is Gabriel Josipovici's extraordinary double-memoir A Life, combining a biography of his mother and an autobiography) he made another kind of durable mark. He published Tony Harrison's Loiners, discovered and sustained the poetry of Brian Jones, kept directing attention to his contemporary Roy Fuller, celebrated John Whiting, 'discovered' Graham Swift, continually reminded us of the brilliance of Keith Vaughan...

No doubt about it: Alan Ross is an editor who made a difference, indeed more than one difference, and he did so because like all good readers and lovers of art he remained an agnostic, persuadable on a number of different scores; and he remained a stylist. One also had the feeling that if one submitted work to him, he actually read it. At no stage did he quite give in (though he knew he was swimming against the tide) to the imperatives of marketing. Though his magazine was generously funded by the Arts Council, he resisted anything that looked like an editorial or commercial directive from them. Nor did he succumb to generic specialisation: all the arts and some sports were his province. And he fought against the computer longer and more doughtily than any other editor in Britain. His minute handwriting was the same in 1969 and 2000; the rejections like the acceptances were generally personalised. And finally, his libido did not grow old: he was fascinated by sex in language and in art, and most issues of the magazine included something which challenged stereotypes and satisfied his subscribers' darker curiosities.

The most important difference he made became increasingly clear as the years passed. For him a book reviewer need not be (probably should not be) an academic specialist. Certain tones seldom sound in the London Magazine, most notably the academic and theoretical. The footnote, the qualifier, were not welcome to Ross's page. Reading and reviewing entailed head-on engagement with a book and its intentions. They could never usefully be programmatic, and the academic approach with its prescribed taxonomies was anathema to the creative spirit.

When other journals were drawn into the sphere either of academia or of the higher journalism of fashion, the London Magazine, in tone and openness not unlike the Threepenny Review in the United States, stood apart. In Britain it represents a continuity of endeavour with the great magazines of the 1930s, but without a defined politics: agnostic, even in the field of social allegiance.

Long Live the General Reader, Ross's magazine says, and it is possible to read some issues from cover to cover with a variety of positive pleasures.

But as is the case with many editors and translators, his other work was ignored, and it is the other work in which he invested most of himself. Ross was a wonderful writer. His prose memoirs, in which he sets himself severe formal challenges, are brilliant. Sometimes, as in his later Harvill books, which in terms of design and editorial value were truly worthy of him, he combines poetry and prose in a single volume. The two mediums are complementary and tell different kinds of truth. He writes about cricket, about his travels, about the long lethargy and unexpected tragedy of his naval experiences during World War II... There is no better place to start reading his work than in After Pusan, a brilliant and vulnerable collection of verse and prose.

He was also a fair critic, with an understanding of creative dynamics. Writing in 1967 in the New York Times about the work of a poet he championed and in some ways resembles, Lawrence Durrell, he pulls no punches. The volume 'is not one of his best. In - The Ikons - the classical themes and subjects recur much as they have always done in Durrell's poetry - though recently southern France has been added to Greece as a backdrop - but there now seems something mechanical about his handling of them. The descriptions of landscape, once of a dazzling brilliance and originality, have a faintly tired air; the sophisticated epigrams and concise pointings-up of historical anecdote, though often imaginative and sprightly, seem suddenly less relevant. It is partly a matter of technique, the tricks wearing a bit thin through repetition; and partly a loss of pressure, the material having shed its magic and Durrell having found no fresh insights into it. - The needle has stuck somewhere, the charm acquired a period flavour.' Ross never staled, did not repeat himself, did not stand still. The more he delved into memory, the stranger and more powerful it became; and in the present memory had a way of working itself out in luminous disruptions.

In the same review he said of Cecil Day Lewis that 'as a poet [he] suffers from a certain prissiness of language and moral earnestness of tone. The language, fastidious but pedestrian, has to work hard for its keep, and as a result, whereas poems often work out as a whole and move by their depth of feeling, they don't give out a great deal along the way.' What Ross looked for as an editor was work that gave its rewards line by line; and as a writer he sought from himself the same agility.

This item is taken from PN Review 138, Volume 27 Number 4, March - April 2001.

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