A little while back I wrote something wildly unpopular and an acquaintance noted that I didn’t seem to mind. “Why would I?” I asked, genuinely interested. We drilled down to what seemed to me a rather important truth, one that I suspect many, if not most, writers share. Which is that it bothers me less what millions of people think than does the judgment of a small group of people (probably no more than ten) whom I listen to and who would cause me to worry if they felt I had got something wrong.
This is, I suspect, a common if unspoken fact about writers, that although we should like the reading public to approve of what we do, experience trains us to lose the terror of their feedback — never more so than in this communication age. If a writer today took on board every reader’s opinion they would become a husk in minutes.
We all have an audience in our heads, the ideal critic, the person whose judgment matters
It is the same — perhaps more so — with television. One person says you were too aggressive. Another that you were not aggressive enough. One that you looked quite lovely. Another that they have never seen anyone look worse. One proclaims you a genius, another an ignoramus. So you work out that the twin impostors of praise and hate must be ignored in equal measure. Yet we all have an audience in our heads: the people we are really writing for.
Some years ago Martin Amis delivered a eulogy for the editor and critic John Gross. Describing what the young writer had learned from the older one, Amis concluded by saying that everything he wrote, whether it was for one of Gross’s journals or not, he would always in some sense pass by John Gross’s desk. “I still do that,” Amis concluded. “And I always will.”
Whether or not we have the ideal reader in mind, we all have the ideal critic, the person whose judgment matters. For most writers I imagine that that includes some close family and friends. But it will also feature people we have sought out.
today the word “mentor” has a slightly soppy quality. But perhaps because of the precariousness and unusualness of the life, having people to look up to, learn from and be guided by is vital for writers.
Some people describe themselves as being lucky in their discovery of a particular mentor. But luck only has a small amount to do with it. Eager people gravitate towards what we call luck. The more ambitious positively clamber over each other to get to it. When I first met Christopher Hitchens I was conscious of the number of people doing just that. After events or debates they would be waiting for their moment with him, hoping to get his approval, or otherwise notice something they had done. Occasionally they would arrive with a bribe, generally the unhelpful gift of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black.
I had an advantage over them, which was that I had already come to Christopher’s attention because he had reviewed and praised my first book before I started reading him. That made my later seeking out of him a shade less stalker-y. When we did meet our interests had coincided more around current affairs than nineteenth-century literature.
But his influence over me was huge, not just because by then I had read everything but because by that stage he was already famous. Though literary fame is, as Ian McEwan once said, not real fame, still Christopher came as close as any literary person to the real thing. And this was impressive not because fame was desirable in itself, but because it suggested that it was possible for words and ideas to have a serious impact. If a public intellectual — as Christopher came to be known, without overmuch resistance — could be stopped in the streets then he must be doing something right.
To not have compromised much and to have a vast audience is an uncommon achievement. And I suppose that is one of the things in the selection of mentors worth keeping in mind: that the better they are the better you might be. A mentor who is brilliant but who nobody wants to hear from is a questionable blessing, not because they may not nurture you and teach you, but because your sights may settle lower than they could be.
I started to send Christopher my early political pieces. And he would often — though not always — respond with approving remarks. This was nectar, of course, and what took him a matter of minutes to read and respond to would fire me up for a long time after. Some people run off a small amount of cherished praise for a whole lifetime.
When people talk about the formation of character, let alone of resilience, it is these stores that people probably most need to stock up on: the admiring or encouraging remarks of people who they admire in turn. Defending an unpopular cause but knowing that Christopher had admired your “tough thinking” or similar made it possible to weather a fair bit.
But what then? What is the search for? What things does someone learn or acquire from such a person?
Today, young readers who know about Christopher will occasionally ask me about him and I know what they are hoping is that I will give them something that he gave to me. To pass something on, as in some very wobbly line of succession. And I wonder what it was I might have acquired from him. Some attitudinal things, for a time at least, but anybody might have picked that up just from watching and reading him. An acquaintance wasn’t necessary for that.
A particular phrase might slide onto the page and I erase it, in part because I see Christopher wincing at it
So what was it? I would say that the willingness to encourage people was something I saw and admired. Mean-spirited people might hold things back for fear that their meagre stores would be pilfered, but Christopher showed by his generosity that he also had an abundance of words and ideas.
It is hard for me to analyse or identify what did stick with me, beyond the conversations. But I know it did because as Amis said with Gross, Christopher is one of the small group of people who I still have in my head when I write. I no longer write to get his attention, of course. Nor do I ever play the game of wondering if he would approve of an opinion. But I am conscious of him at my side as one of my fine-tuners while I write. A particular phrase, usually a cliché, might slide onto the page and I erase it, in part because I see Christopher reading it and wincing.
As I was starting out, I was conscious of the pull of Christopher and his views. But they were neatly counterbalanced by the pull I also felt towards Roger Scruton. The two men were very dissimilar — diametrically opposed in many ways — and Christopher had been characteristically unkind about Roger in an essay. But I remember being struck one day over lunch in DC that when I mentioned to Christopher I had just come from the Scrutons’ new place in Virginia, Christopher immediately said, “I’d heard they were over here. I must look them up.”
Given his slightly overwrought swipe at Roger as “a recreational vulpicide”, this provided a mini-lesson. Why would you, for reasons of mere partisanship, offer up the opportunity to meet anyone serious and learned? When you are looking out for signals and directions in how to operate in the world I wonder if tiny signals like that don’t in the end count for more than any overt advice.
I had met Roger because he and his wife Sophie both had positions at an online magazine that I had begun to intern at as I restarted my career on the lowest rung of the journalistic ladder. Slightly guarded and cautious with strangers though he undoubtedly was, Roger was also exceptionally generous with every aspect of himself. We worked out not only that there were common interests (firstly music), but also that we were the only remotely conservative figures — he at the top, me very much not — in an office dominated by a different tribe. “You’ll have realised by now,” Roger said to me one day, “that it is you and me against about 50,000 leftists. So it’s a fair fight.” He was subtle, as well as practised in his encouragement.
As our friendship grew I became aware of how filled his time could be with efforts to help people whom he had no particular reason to help — certainly no financial advantage — but whom he felt it his duty to nurture. Once at a conference on the continent I asked him when he had come in and he quietly admitted that he had arrived the morning before. It turned out (and he was certainly not desperate to impart this fact) that there was a young man who lived near the town in question who in great perturbation of spirit had reached out to Roger who (never having met the person before) made the effort to see him and try to help.
Since his death in January a lot of people like that young man have emerged and written in blogs, articles and emails about the personal impact Roger had made, and the interest he had taken, in their lives. It is quite a network — far too large to map in the course of a lifetime. But Roger had an instinct for nurturing. He did not have the enjoyment of stardom that Christopher clearly did. But he knew when he was surrounded by friends and when he might perform a little because there were people who were easily shockable. He was immensely practised, perhaps the world master, at the art of lobbing conversational hand-grenades, always delivered with the deadpan that allowed everyone present to hear someone gasp.
We were once at a musical event in the countryside and someone mentioned that the Live 8 concert was also happening that same evening. “I think Live Aid was one of the worst things that has ever happened,” Roger said calmly. I think the follow-on discussion was about public versus private virtue. It wasn’t the funniest thing he ever said, nor do I think he especially meant it. But he knew that social occasions, like the written word, can get predictable, and that one way to make them less so is for everybody to feel jolted into having to think again and defend their corner.
All this might seem rather abstract. And for anyone starting off, learning rhetorical tricks, or attitudes, is nothing compared with the practical matter of how to earn a living. Roger was deeply aware of this practical side of things, perhaps because he had struggled to make a living for parts of his life, and always lived with considerable frugality. He remembered his own struggles (perhaps felt they were ongoing) and would always help wherever he could.
I still feel him, near the writing desk, suggesting avenues that might be worth going down
Early on he identified an organisation that had need of some contributions each month and had some money to pay out. Roger put me onto them and carefully suggested that although the money was not much (I thought it a lottery win) I might think of using it to double up and to live on while writing not just the pieces but a new book. Such practical guidance is what really gets you started. And it is just one of the reasons — apart from the width and depth of his knowledge and the warmth of his friendship — why I will always treasure him. Like Christopher, I still feel him, somewhere near the writing desk, suggesting avenues that might be worth going down, and gently guiding me away from ones that are not.
I agree with Christopher in his memoir, Hitch-22, that we really don’t have the right to write about the living without their consent. I only mention this because there are some people alive who I look to as mentors, people who I mentally or literally pass my copy by. Some are well-known, some not. But all have something of the thing I looked for in Christopher and Roger: signals, sparks, course-correction, mild remonstrance where needed. Naturally I feel lucky when I look back, lucky to have been able to be friends with, and in the orbit of, two writers of an older generation who explained themselves as well as anyone in their day.
Still I wonder how much you do have to meet people, let alone befriend them, in order to acquire that nurturing a mentor ought to give. Of course it helps, and makes for better stories. But it can happen from the page or from the stage as well. When I read in February the news that George Steiner had died it took a moment for the brain to catch up and remember that I didn’t know him, had never even met him. But I had felt as though I had because as a schoolboy I once sat in a lecture theatre and heard Steiner give a talk so riveting and deep, so packed with stories, figures and a desire to dig right down to the source of things that I knew at the time I would never forget it.
It is a curious thing, the impact other people can have. When a fire goes out it is natural that the people who have been closest to it are the ones who retain its warmth the longest. But in the world of ideas there is also that other fact. Which is that in some way we will never be able to chart, thank goodness, the tiniest spark can also float off in the wind and ignite other fires, lighting up places never seen.
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