The Old Gang were a young gang once. The best place to inspect them is in the group photograph commissioned to mark the unveiling of Granta’s “Best of British Young Novelists” promotion back in 1983. Several of those present have vanished from the public gaze, but here, looking impossibly juvenile and self-confident, are such sempiternal ornaments of the world of light literature as Salman Rushdie (b. 1947), Julian Barnes (b.1946), Martin Amis (b. 1949), Ian McEwan (b. 1948), Graham Swift (b. 1949) and Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954). There are a few women (Maggie Gee, Buchi Emecheta, Rose Tremain) sprinkled about, but you don’t need to bother with them, for the Old Gang was exclusively a boys’ thing.
A boys’ thing, and a success thing. Of the half-dozen gang members put on public display in the year of Mrs Thatcher’s second election victory, Salman Rushdie had already hit the jackpot with his Booker-winning Midnight’s Children in 1981.
Over the next decade and a half the Old Gang hovered over the prize circuit like a stormcloud and hoovered up its baubles like a swarm of locusts. Ishiguro won the Booker in 1989 with The Remains of the Day; Swift with Last Orders in 1996; McEwan with Amsterdam in 1998. And to the lustre and éclat that attended their careers could be added the very considerable sums that they acquired in publishers’ advances: the £250,000, for example, that McEwan is thought to have received for The Innocent (1990) or the eye-watering half-million that HarperCollins paid for Amis’s The Information in 1994.
Talent, naturally, played its part. Any representative bookshelf of upmarket 1980s product will be strewn with Old Gang A-graders — Swift’s Waterland (1983), say, Barnesy’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), or Amis’s Money (1984), which has some claims to be the great English novel of the 1980s. But the reasons for the stranglehold that the Old Gang soon started to exert over British literary life weren’t exclusively literary.
The UK book trade spent most of the Eighties reconfiguring itself. Independent publishers were taken over by combines; foreign money flowed in; “literary fiction” acquired a trendiness it had come nowhere near achieving in the staid old Seventies.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat of the print unions, arts journalism was in boom. There was more space for books and more space for the people who wrote them.
All this — talent, money, fashion, hype — meant that by the end of the Eighties, the British book world was dominated by a tiny group of writers in a way that hadn’t happened since the 1930s, when, as Evelyn Waugh remarked, Auden, Spender, Isherwood et al “ganged up and captured the decade”. Practically any Old Ganger who published a novel found himself reviewed everywhere, profiled in the Sunday Times, fawned over in the Observer and pictured at every literary festival worth the name with other Old Gang frat-boys.
By this time there were younger writers on the scene, but the 20 exemplars of youthful promise who constituted Granta’s next “Best of British” iteration in 1993 didn’t seem to have the staying power. And they certainly didn’t have the consanguinity. Rather than being a purposeful and self-sustaining congeries, they were simply a bunch of writers.
And what happened to the Old Gang? Well, at increasingly sporadic intervals — Swift, for example, took seven years to follow up Last Orders with The Light of Day (2003) — they continued to produce novels which, by and large, weren’t quite as good as their distinguished predecessors.
Compare a novel like McEwan’s Chesil Beach (2008) to the spiky early stories collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975) or In Between the Sheets (1978) and you’ll see what I mean. Is the Martin Amis of The Pregnant Widow (2009) as good as the Martin Amis of London Fields (1989)? No he isn’t, and yet in the context of the codes by which the book world abides this incremental falling-off scarcely matters. The literary establishment exists to support established reputations, you see, however shaky the foundations on which those reputations are now established.
It’s all horribly like the musical phenomenon known as “heritage rock” — the nostalgic fanboy fixation which finds Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury (before it was cancelled) at the ripe age of 78 and Neil Young and Bob Dylan eternally plastered over the covers of Mojo and Uncut. Meantime, the Old Gang are as busy as ever — far busier than they were in their comparatively laid-back middle age.
Amis has a new one out in the autumn. McEwan published two books last year. Swifty’s Here We Are came out two months back. Barnesy is no doubt hard at work. Sadly, all this genuflecting before a collective that, with one or two exceptions, produced its best books rather a long time ago has led to a blockage in contemporary Eng Lit. It’s time we kicked over the statues and let a few sprightly fifty-somethings up onto the plinth. The Old Gang has lurked there too long.
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