Saturday, January 05, 2008

Paging Willard Scott

The British literary quaterly Granta is about to celebrate its 100th issue, and Simon Garfield tells the story of where the magazine came from and, just possibly where it might be going.

[Former editor Bill] Buford, who is 53, is now a staff writer on the New Yorker, where he must conform to house-styles and age-old constrictions, but at Granta in 1979 it was like a playground. The first issues took over Buford's Cambridge rooms, where he was studying for a second degree in English (he soon established himself as the dominant and bullish force in the editorial partnership). He remembers sheets of film on every surface, and a final editing process that involved scissors and tape. The design - not as clean or well-spaced as it is now but nonetheless sturdy and readable - was based on an American academic quarterly. Buford intended to return to America after the first issue but when it sold out its run of 800 copies and a subsequent reprint, he thought, 'Maybe there's something here...'

The cost of a subscription was set at £3.50, although it wasn't specified how many issues a reader would receive for this investment (which was, it turned out, one of the best omissions Buford ever made). The magazine moved to premises above an art gallery, and then above a hairdresser. 'For the third issue,' Buford says, 'I got a manuscript sent to me by Tom Maschler from this new guy that everyone was excited about called Salman Rushdie.' This issue, Granta proclaimed in its portentous and painful way, 'collects work from writers and critics which suggests it might be the end of the English novel, but also the beginning of British fiction'. Clearly something was changing. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan came to Cambridge to read work in progress, and admission fees helped pay the rent. Buford recalls a later conversation with Amis in which the novelist said: 'If you were a literary fiction writer and you were a kid, your horizon was empty, there was really nothing else going on. People weren't writing fiction or talking about it - everyone wanted to work for the BBC.'

When the Rushdie manuscript came in, later to be published as Midnight's Children, Buford says: 'It was everything you wanted a British writer to be doing - it had narrative flair and culture and history, and it was very aware. Everything then broke open.'

Buford is also the author of a memoir of football hooliganism, Among the Thugs, and the very entertaining chronicle of his culinary adventures in America and abroad, Heat.


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