Karl Miller again, and Auckland’s Pop-up Globe

In recent blogs I have written about sons writing books about fathers each of whom I had known: Adam Dudding’s My Father’s Island about literary editor Robin Dudding; Matthew Spender’s A House in Loudoun Road about poet Stephen Spender; and now, a third, Sam Miller’s Fathers, is about Karl Miller, editor of the London Review of Books, who last figured here only two blogs back. Each of these books-by-sons could be seen as an act of homage and of love, but each contains and reveals secrets and is in one or another sense equivocal.

Matthew Spender is respectful and affectionate about Stephen, but reveals how the father’s most serious romantic attachments were with men, and how the parents (and especially the mother, Natasha) who undoubtedly loved one another, did their best to conceal this truth from public view and to present a front of normal heterosexual marriage. Adam Dudding’s book, while revealing affection for the father and advancing a case for him as New Zealand’s most notable literary editor, also reveals how Robin, known to so many of us as a talented, and most often genial (though painfully slow) editor, was a tyrant at home, both depressive and oppressive, ruling over a household of wife, five daughters and one son, with long periods of black silence, obsessive or neurotic behaviours, and the constant threat of rage.

Sam Miller’s book, with its plural title, Fathers, reveals that the man publicly known as his father, Karl Miller, the one he calls throughout ‘my father’ and for whom his love and gratitude are revealed on almost every page, was not his biological father but the ‘best friend’ of the man, Tony White, who engendered him. This is a complicated book, probably more complicated in the telling than it needed to be, and rather odd in its intensity. I find it hard to believe it would have pleased its prime subject – but who knows?

Karl Miller. Image from Peters Fraser + Dunlop.

Karl Miller was at Cambridge with Jane Collet who was to become his wife, and with Tony White who would father Jane’s second child. He was also there with Claire Tomalin (now known as the biographer of Dickens, Mansfield and others) – and Karl was smitten. I remember him telling me this because he had a characteristically mordant (and more than slightly obscene) way of characterizing her as she was then, and the phrase (which I won’t repeat) stuck in my head. What it meant was that though Claire liked him and was accommodating, she liked others too, and for a young man in love this would not do.

Claire does not figure in the son’s book; and in fact throughout his account Sam waves away as either unknown, or simply not part of the story he wants to tell, any suggestion that Karl might have had other lovers than Jane. This is a possibility that occurs only three times in the book, briefly each time, one dismissed as untrue and the others not pursued. On p.131:

I don’t know whether my father was having an affair at that time. He did have several affairs during their marriage of more than fifty years. Did this make him feel less jealous about my mother and Tony?

And p.195

...it’s possible that subconsciously at least my mother’s relationship with Tony made him [Karl] feel less guilty about his other relationships.

And on p.196

At one point it seemed possible my father might unknowingly have had a son, of about my age, with another woman... It all proved untrue.

Those hints apart, this is a story with only four players, Sam, his mother, and his two ‘fathers’, one of whom (Karl) he calls always ‘my father’, the other he calls Tony. His memories of Karl are a child’s, detailed and fond. His memories of Tony are intermittent, from childhood, and less intense. But he constructs an image of Tony from letters and the memories of others, and attempts (unsuccessfully) to make him almost as remarkable as Karl. Tony began as a promising actor who, after Cambridge, won minor roles at the Old Vic, but gave up acting to become a writer. The rest of his life seems to have passed in writing things which no one (not even his ‘best friend' Karl) would publish – for example (p.127):

These writings were not a success: the TV play was never performed, and the short story was never published. The novel was not completed. Rejection and self-doubt hit him hard.

In 1976 at the age of 45 Tony White died of a pulmonary embolism subsequent to a broken leg incurred while playing soccer for the team of London amateurs in which he and Karl were the initiators and stalwarts. Sam was 13 at the time and had no inkling that Karl was not his biological father. A year or two later he would be told by his mother, as they were painting his bedroom together, that she and Tony had been lovers and that he was the outcome – and it is this shock which, forty years later and immediately after Karl’s death, he is dealing with by writing this strange patchwork erratic memoir.

The writing, it seems, happens in consultation with his mother, and revelations come in the course of it – so he ends the book knowing more than he knew when he began. Jane’s affair with Tony began after she and Karl and Tony had been on holiday together in Italy and Karl had to return to London early, leaving the two alone together. The affair was discontinued, but resumed twice more, the second of these, in 1960, continuing for nine months until May 1961 when Jane found herself pregnant. At this point she ended it, told the two men of her condition, discussed it with them, began the process of having an abortion, and then gave up on that and had the child.

Around this time Tony moved semi-permanently to Ireland, making only sporadic visits to London, mostly for football. Sam’s view is that the friendship of the three continued and there was no disruption to the marriage. Certainly it seems clear that Karl treated Sam as his own and that Jane’s third child, a daughter, was Karl’s.

The affair with Tony was resumed but only very briefly in 1967. After Tony’s death Jane tried to write a novel about their relationship. She called it Tales of an Adulteress and it was never finished. It was only very late, when Karl was already dying of cancer, that Sam discussed with him the fact that Tony was his biological father. Karl told him that he and Tony never discussed the matter, and letters exchanged between them on the subject have not been kept. Karl had been relieved that Sam had seemed to take the fact so well, had not appeared to be disturbed by it, and had continued to love him as a father.

Karl’s death in 2014 evoked a flood of public memories, one of the most interesting, because it left out so much, by Mary Kay Wilmers in the London Review of Books of which she is the owner and present editor, though Karl founded it in 1979, and continued as its editor until he resigned October 1992. The issue that caused the resignation had been one of who had final decision-making rights – the owner or the editor, and Karl believed it was a principle of good journalism that the one named editor took ultimate responsibility for what a paper published and therefore must be the final authority. When Mary Kay as owner (and not for the first time) challenged him on this, he wrote a letter of resignation which I’m sure at the time (though he would afterwards probably have denied it) he did not expect her to accept. When she did accept it the shock to Karl seemed enormous. His professorship at UCL ended the same year and he seemed for a time to be at a loss – seriously adrift. Five years later he had recovered sufficiently to look back on it with a certain (real or pretended) detachment:

When someone wondered whether thereafter I might be sent a copy of the paper [the LRB] every fortnight she [Mary Kay] thought not. She knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t read it, that I’d been loth to read other papers I’d left behind. Thirty years of friendship went into that refusal. (Dark Horses, p.317)

So when Karl died Mary Kay was looking back on a very long friendship which had ended in anger and severance. Remembering him as he was when she first met him, he in his early thirties she in middle twenties, she writes

He was a charismatic figure, tall, fair, slim, nattily dressed, flirtatious and a little wayward – a head-spinner. But severe too. You minded your words and that was part of the attraction.

She also says of him ‘there were few issues about which he didn’t have two views’; and concludes generously (and accurately), ‘I’d like to think this is still Karl’s paper.’

During my time as visitor in Karl’s department at UCL (1977), and in the following years of his editorship of the LRB and beyond, I felt I got to know him well. Jane I saw seldom, at book launches or lunches; but later Kay and I, on visits to London, had meals with the Millers at restaurants and at least twice at 26 Limerston Street, which figures in Sam’s book much as 15 Loudoun Road does in Matthew Spender’s – the centre of family and of social and literary networks. The Millers moved there in 1960 and were still there more than half a century later when Karl died. He writes about it with typical self mocking ardour (‘I fear I may be making my dear house loathsome with this praise’) in his memoir, Dark Horses.

We had a dinner there once with the fiction writer Francis Wyndham whose work Karl had promoted. Francis, who had been the subject of a number of portraits by Lucien Freud, brought with him a video of a movie about Freud, and the five of us watched it together. It was on this occasion that Jane gave us, and inscribed, a copy of her memoir, Relations, about herself and her two sisters and their Jewish family.

Karl figures in it only three times, and (as she figures in his) only in passing. In one of these (p.100) Jane, writing about herself in the third person, describes her own vagueness when young, and how she knew more about the pleasures and desires of others than about her own.

And what was the pleasure in knowing herself only as the object of others’ intentions and momentary covetousness? Her eyes seem too open and shining. She was learning to guard against displays of innocence and ignorance, though a few years later her husband would still have to remind her to put on her arrogant face as they wait for their hosts to open the door and usher them in.

By the time of our meeting Jane was a professor of Education at London University, charming, intelligent, articulate, confident. She and Karl spoke of their three children, two of them married to Indian Parsis. There was no hint at all of what has now emerged in Sam’s book.

In 2000 when Otago U.P. published my collection of essays, The Writer at Work, Justin Paton, then editing Landfall, had the audacious thought of asking Miller to review it – possibly because he noticed I had referred to Karl in a footnote as the Eeyore of the British literary scene, a dour but brilliant editor. I knew nothing of this; and I’m sure Paton must have been as surprised as I was that Karl responded with a long review, including also some thoughts on my novel Talking about O’Dwyer which, he pointed out, revealed Stead (contrary to one popular view) to be ‘far from indifferent or hostile to the Maori contribution to life in New Zealand’. Re-reading the review now after so many years I’m struck once again by the pleasure of something that does not by any means agree with everything I had written, but engages with it freshly, intelligently, on the whole affirmatively.

Karl’s review ended with a passage that puzzled me slightly at the time, but which I can now see in a new light having read Sam Miller’s revelations about secrets of paternity. It was a passage that focussed on something I had written about Shelley and his sister-in-law Claire Clairmont. It had been published in the LRB after Karl’s departure, so Karl would have come upon it for the first time in The Writer at Work. He had been defining my literary criticism as a kind of aestheticism, but wanting to argue that the positions I upheld were not themselves entirely free – and should not be – of moral considerations and moral preferences. He goes on

The discussion here of Ezra Pound, of whose poetry Stead is a conspicuously rational critic, is mostly biographical. Matters of paternity and maternity arise, as they do elsewhere in the book. Pound and his wife each had a child with an extramarital partner, a child who was given away to others to rear. Another essay recalls that Byron had a daughter – by Claire Clairmont – whom he sent to a nunnery where she soon died. The essay speaks well of Claire Clairmont’s letters and discusses whether or not (we still don’t know) she had a child by Shelley, in whom, Stead writes, she recognized ‘something noble’. Byron is blamed a little, but no one else is, from among these two sets of exiles in the aesthete’s haven of nineteenth century Italy. It would be contentious to suggest that this forbearance was produced by aesthetic considerations.

He is, in other words (if I understand him correctly) commending a tolerance that is not purely aesthetic but essentially moral. Thus my own argument is, if not denied, at least radically qualified, and yet in a form that is a commendation. He is saying, I think, that insofar as I have literary theories, I am not too strictly bound by them, and can, perhaps unconsciously, contradict myself. Could a critical difference of opinion be more subtly registered?

Of these three books by literary sons Sam Miller’s might be of least general value because it tells more about its author than about its subject, and because it struggles to make clear to itself what is its central purpose or point. And yet (as must be apparent from this blog) it aroused my intense curiosity and held my interest, and, quite incidentally, answered the question of why Karl’s review of sixteen years ago should have settled in its final paragraphs on the question of paternity.

In recent blogs I have written about the Auckland Pop-up Globe’s production of Twelfth Night and the London Globe’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In both of these, though excellently acted, I complained of the current fashion for tinkering with Shakespeare’s text. In the ...Dream the fairies were beefy booted chaps clumping around, and Helena with whom Demetrius falls in love was Helenus so it could all be as gay as possible. My complaint included this –

The delicacy and subtlety of the play as Shakespeare wrote it – the sylvan magic that’s there in the language – was completely lost. Let’s have Shakespeare’s vulgarity when he’s vulgar, and Shakespeare’s lyricism when he’s lyrical, but not some amateur’s ham-fisted attempts to improve him or bring him up to date or whatever it was he/she/they thought was being done.

My complaint about the Auckland Pop-up Globe production of Twelfth Night was that it was played only for laughs and so lost the wonderful rich contrast that is in the text between comedy and lyric beauty – the high and the low that enrich one another.

I was not sorry to hear the London Globe director Emma Rice had been sacked. There had been such a lowering of standards after Mark Rylance left, principally because of this relative indifference to what Shakepeare actually wrote, and eagerness to bend everything in the direction of gender ambiguities.

Someone connected with the Auckland Pop-up Globe (his name might have been Lawrence, but I’m unsure) spoke to Kim Hill one Saturday morning and was deeply upset by this dismissal, convinced (of course – what else?) that it was ‘because she was a woman’. I wish Mark Rylance had been the woman and Emma Rice the man and then we would not have had this distraction and could talk about what had actually gone wrong, and why the dismissal was appropriate.

Because of all this I was wary of Auckland’s Pop-up Globe’s reappearance this summer but thought I should risk one, and chose Henry V to take daughter Margaret and grand-daughter Bella on a visit from London. On the whole it was well done – and once again the absolute appropriateness of the Globe structure to the Shakespearean text was demonstrated.

Henry V has always been popular during Britain’s wars. My first experience of it was the Lawrence Olivier movie, where Henry’s rallying speeches at the Battle of Agincourt and Winston Churchill’s during the Battle of Britain seemed to echo one another. Churchill – ‘Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few’; and Henry’s

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.

They are wonderful rousing orations; but for the director who is disinclined to turn Henry into a hero figure there are negative aspects that can be played up, and the Auckland production not only looked for these, but seemed to add to them. When Henry condemns the traitor- earls to death, which happens in the play as Shakespeare wrote it, the gruesome details of the process of hanging, drawing and quartering were spelled out (and even added to), which is not to be found in the text. When Henry says English soldiers who offend needlessly against French citizens will be hanged we see one hanged – which again is not in the text. And when Henry’s forces are beset by a resurgence of the French and he orders the killing of prisoners, as happens in the play as written, his men react with shock and the order has to be repeated – again without the authority of Shakespeare’s text. Nor is there anywhere in any version of the play I have seen the sad (and rather beautiful) dirge about the evils of war which the cast sang twice in the course of the play.

All this is worthy anti-war stuff, but it bends the play away from the original. It was still well done, a rousing performance, and did not have the spoiling effect last year’s Pop-up Globe production had on the lyricism of Twelfth Night; but it shows again a willingness of current producers and directors to put themselves above the playwright and play fast and loose with his text.

Their Finest, currently showing, is a slightly clunky but ingratiating sunshine-through-tears movie about the making of a sunshine-through-tears World War II propaganda movie about Dunkirk, and is worth seeing for Bill Nighy as the vain and temperamental actor won over by flattery (he sings a Scots ballad rather nicely along the way), and for the Jeremy Irons cameo as Secretary for War Anthony Eden reducing himself to tears with a recital of the ‘We few, we happy few’ speech. The Producer was New Zealander Finola Dwyer whose last success was Brooklyn which won a Bafta Award and three Oscar nominations.

– C.K. Stead

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