Article Published in THE STATESMAN

Second Thoughts

Navtej Sarna

Passing of a friend

More than a decade ago, I was in a London on a brief visit, three unpublished short stories in a manila envelope under my arm and a burgeoning literary ambition in my heart. With some hesitation, I mailed the three short stories to a Kind literary agent.

His advice, when I stepped across to his office a couple of days later, was quick and perceptive. Send them to Alan Ross at the London Magazine, he said. So I posted the envelope and having done all I could, left London.

Within a week, I received a response in Alan Ross’s angular hand that I was to get to recognize so well. He would like to keep all three, if I had no other plans for them.

Other plans! I couldn’t believe my luck and thus, began my association with London Magazine and Alan Ross, who passed away in London in the middle of February. And in his passing, not only the London literati or young unknown writers all over the world, but India, too, has lost an old friend.

Born in Calcutta, Alan stayed in India only till he was seven but his love for the country finds evidence in almost every issue of London Magazine, the journal that he edited with such élan for four decades. He brought out a special issue of the magazine to mark 50 years of India’s independence. When I met him for lunch in 1995, he talked with obvious affection, over gin and curry, of his associations with India, his memories and the new Indian writers in English.

Alan had made the London Magazine a literary institution, each issue a collector’s item or The Times puts it: “Far and away the most readable and level headed of the literary magazines.” Taking over the magazine in 1961, he gave it a new typeface, anew kind of cover and a scope and reach that went far beyond the normal literary review. Its editorial content became eclectic – short stories, poems, critical essays, memoir, literary travel, book reviews. Unusual photograph portfolios, poetic black and white compositions, interesting angles can be found in each issue along with intriguing sketches of places and people.

Today, the bi-monthly journal has outlasted other literary reviews of the century such as the Horizon or encounter and is a fitting successor to its earlier incarnation that ran from 1820-29 and published amongst others such notables as Hazlitt, Lamb, Keats and Wordsworth. Its list of writers in the four decades may, in the long run, prove as impressive – Sylvia Plath, Lawrence Durrell, RK Narayan, Nadine Gordimer and Paul Theroux. Alan himself was not just an editor. He was first and foremost a poet and travel writer of the kind that only a poet can be. He was also a well-known sports writer, fulfilling that role for the Observer for two decades.

Cricket was his passion and he wrote a book on Ranji and the well regarded A Cricketer’s Companion. His own writing, whether poetry or travel or autobiography, is marked with the same fine sensitivity and light feathery touch that was to be found in Ranji’s leg glance.

Currently, I have his last book on my bedside table – Reflections on Blue Water that tells of his travels on the Italian isles of Capri and Ischia, home and haven to so many writers. It is literary travel at its best – elegant, rich, and illuminated with Alan’s literary insights and personal friendships.

The London Magazine receives, I understand, about 1,500 short stories a year and can print only 15 or 20. Given the paucity of avenues for the short story, London Magazine makes a great effort to bring out special short story editions to enable a few more selected stories to appear in print. This effort reflected Alan’s understanding both of the agony of new writers and the art of the short story, as unmarkable as it is attractive.

In his preface to the anthology SIGNALS, brought out in 1991- “Some of the writers have published novels, others doubtless will do so, if only to help to get their stories taken. But in almost every case, the short story will be closest to their heart. It is a pity, that in every generation, in whatever country, so few can make a living out of what they do best.

The February issue of the magazine has arrived in the post, with his name, along with Jane Rye, on the edit masthead.

It is difficult to imagine the magazine without him, but for everybody’s sake, I hope it will go on. For me, however, there is one less reason now to stop in London.

I can no longer go to meet him down in an editorial shed in Thurloe Place, among the clutter of books, manuscripts, photographs, a pen in his hand and thank him for keeping those three stories.