Later this year Granta will move from its present address to new offices in west London. After the next issue the familiar words ‘2/3 Hanover Yard, Noel Road, London N1 8BE’ will no longer appear on the imprint page. To a reader, this won’t matter: who cares where a magazine is put together, so long as it’s successfully put together? Does anyone still mourn the passing of Scribner from Fifth Avenue or Cape from Bedford Square, or every London newspaper from Fleet Street?
To people who have worked here for a few years, it matters a little. You get used to offices. You can even become fond of them. Many people (including me, at one time) spend more of their waking hours in offices among their colleagues than they do in their homes among their family, and for this reason sometimes know them better. I can look around this office and its heaps of manuscripts and remember trivial — though not at the time trivial — moments in literary history. To those who know where to look the place is stained by evidence of an old and now-proscribed way of life. The black mark on the blue carpet is where my colleague Robert Winder set a waste bin on fire after throwing away his still-burning Camel Light. The dark brown marks on my desk show where cigarettes have fallen from the edges of ashtrays. Over five or six years, the ceiling above my head turned from white to buff, just like (I used to imagine) the plasterwork of the Cafe Royal, which became famously stained by decades of smoke from writers’ cigars: Frank Harris and Oscar Wilde, puffing and quipping. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hanover Yard is that it hasn’t burned down.
Granta came to this yard behind an Islington pub in 1990 from rooms above a hairdressing salon in Cambridge. Islington wasn’t then as expensive or fashionable as it’s since become — Brad Pitt has been sighted in another nearby pub — and in the geography of London publishing our offices were rather out of the way. I like the neighbourhood: as well as working in it, I’ve also lived in Islington for nearly forty years. I tell visitors that the office used to be a piano factory, which somebody told me once and may be true (cheap upright pianos, unlike other musical instruments, were a branch of the furniture trade, which, needing stacks of timber, grew up beside the canal wharves of north and east London). I also tell them that, until anti-German feelings ran high in the First World War, Noel Road was called Hanover Road: the patriotic renaming authority simply forgot to change the name of the yard that’s attached to it. If they seem interested in literature, which some do, I say that on their way back to the Tube station they should look high on the right, where a plaque on one of Noel Road’s Georgian terraced houses remembers that in 1967 the playwright Joe Orton was hammered to death in the top flat by his jealous lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who then killed himself with Nembutals. The woman in the downstairs flat remembers the police knocking at her door that August morning. She is Elena, the oldest and most distinguished restaurant hostess in London (Elena’s L’Etoile is named after her) and occasionally I meet her in the street on her way to or from work. She uses a stick now—she must be well into her eighties—but still catches the bus to her restaurant. She once said to me, ‘I liked Joe but I never cared much for that Halliwell.’
She and her husband Aldo came from Emilia-Romagna to Soho before the war, and when I meet Aldo, who always looks like a man sauntering his way happily towards a game of cards, he sometimes says, ‘You need to cheer up!’ I count this among the worst reprimands a person can hear and immediately wonder what is making me look so miserable, abstracted or anxious. A disappointing submission by a writer? Some interpersonal difficulty in the office? My own inadequacy? Offices, and especially small offices, contain lots of emotion. One of the best editors ever to work at Granta used to say, ‘I just want to kill everybody!’ when she eventually turned up as a tall storm, just before lunch. But a lot of work has also got done. Making a quarterly magazine may not sound like a lot of work, but somehow it requires a surprising amount, if it’s to be any good. I would like to think that after Granta moves the memory of all that has happened here will survive spirit-like in the atmosphere: the ghosts of deadlines past, whispers on the stairs at midnight (‘We need to cut four pages from Theroux’). But I know it won’t be so. I have never heard the noise of old piano-makers joyfully exclaiming at, or cursing, the quality of their wood.
These thoughts are flavoured with a second valediction. Granta is leaving Hanover Yard and I am leaving Granta as its editor. I wish I could say exactly why I am leaving. My association with Granta began as a writer in 1987 and it has become an important part of my life, not to be lightly discarded. The best I can do is to say it just felt right. I’ve edited the magazine for twelve years and produced forty-eight issues; my predecessor, Bill Buford, lasted sixteen years and did fifty issues (though he had other things on his mind, such as funds, which were rarely a crisis in my time). You can do a thing too long—inflict your taste and judgement too often in the process of commissioning, selecting, rejecting and editing. You begin to worry that you are missing things. Granta is, after all, ‘the magazine of new writing’ and as such needs perpetual enthusiasm for what ‘new writing’ may bring. All you can do — all I have done — is to obey your instincts for the original, the interesting and the true. These instincts cannot be faked, though in the hoopla of the publishing industry, where huge talents are discovered every week, it is sometimes hard to hold fast to them. Also, in holding fast, you can make mistakes. What seemed like a piece of dutiful, unpersuasive invention to you turns out to be a work of lively genius to everyone else. Perhaps I have been too fond of clarity, and of the idea that writing, if it can do nothing else, should at least tell the reader something he didn’t know before.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Granta has never had a literary manifesto or mission statement; the editorial in its first issue promised ‘a dialogue in prose about prose’, but that, thank God, proved to be a lie. When pushed against a wall, as I have been, and asked about the kind of writing Granta believes in, I’ve sometimes said that if it were a cathedral rather than a magazine, then two of its stained-glass windows would be to Anton Chekhov and George Orwell. This is of course pretentious — we haven’t had a story from Anton recently — but to me the work of those two writers represents a touchstone for so much of what has appeared in the magazine. Partly this is because they were both masters of the short form to which Granta is suited, but partly also because they were so alert to and inquisitive of the world they lived in. Like Bill before me, I’ve never wanted Granta simply to reflect fashions in writing — what other publishers happen to be publishing or what comes into the office willy-nilly — but instead (or as well) to send writers into, forgive me, ‘the real world’ to describe the interesting or alarming things happening there which have yet to be turned into a book or a manuscript; and sometimes to publish pieces not so much for their aesthetic or ‘literary’ value but because the experience of their writers means that they have something urgent and important to tell us. Granta gets a lot of welcome, worldwide attention for its ‘Best of Young Novelists’ issues, both American and British: the media loves judgements and lists. But they are untypical of the regular run of a magazine which four years ago published an issue on global warming (‘This Overheating World’, Granta 83) and five years ago tackled global perceptions of the United States (‘What We Think of America’, Granta 77). I like to think both were illuminating and prescient.
Granta now has editions in Spanish, Greek and (more occasionally) Italian. A Portuguese edition intended for a Brazilian audience will appear soon. None of these ventures is owned by Granta Publications — they are published under licence by imprints in Madrid, Athens and Rome, and within certain boundaries their editors have the freedom to fashion the magazine as they see fit, publishing original work as well as translations from Granta in English. That they exist at all suggests that Granta has a reputation like no other literary magazine, which may be because it has always fought shy of ‘literary magazine’ as a definition of itself. If you wanted a magazine that discussed the state of literary culture or carefully reflected its fashions then, frankly, you have been looking in the wrong place. It’s not for me to analyse Granta’s enduring success — I can only touch wood — but perhaps the critic on the London Observer caught an important part of its attraction when he wrote that Granta had ‘its face pressed against the window, determined to witness the world’.
To be its editor has been a great privilege and I owe many debts. To the writers who have written for it; to the significant contribution, not only editorially, made by my colleagues and friends; to Rea Hederman, our former owner, whose generosity and commitment to Granta were vital over two decades and whose friendship will always be precious to me; to Sigrid Rausing, our new owner, whose equal generosity and commitment have assured Granta’s future; finally, to too large a group to be individually named, our readers. In his farewell editorial twelve years ago, Bill Buford described them (I mean, you) as ‘the world’s smartest and most literate strangers’ and I can think of no more accurate compliment. Granta needs good readers as well as good writers. We have been lucky to have both.