Fathers review: The life of the ‘London Review of Books’ editor Karl Miller
Sam Miller’s book about his father is elegant, illuminating and deeply personal
Karl Miller: literary editor, critic, memoirist, social commentator and great dad. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Karl Miller, who died in 2014 aged 83, was one of the great literary editors of the 20th century, as well as being an outstanding critic, memoirist and social commentator. He was also, on the evidence of this book by his son Sam, an exemplary father.
Not that there is anything hagiographic about Sam Miller’s Fathers. It takes a sharp look at family life, at the mores of the 1960s and 1970s, at Karl Miller’s history and complex personality, and at friendship, death, revelation and affirmation. It is subtle and reflective. It is, above all, as the author says, his version of his father’s life.
He starts with biographical facts, gleaned from family conversations and his mother, Jane Miller, as well as from a couple of his father’s books. The “working-class orphan from a Scottish mining village” had already set out some aspects of his early years in his memoir Rebecca’s Vest (1993), in which the theme of duality, the divided self, is to the fore.
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Miller was, in fact, only a quasi-orphan, as both his parents were alive, although separated from each other and from him. His maternal grandmother brought him up, with input from aunts, near Edinburgh. Young Karl won a scholarship to the Royal High School in the city. A glittering school career was followed by Cambridge University in the early 1950s, with the alarming FR Leavis as a tutor and plenty of excitements and miseries. Cambridge friends included Mark Boxer, Thom Gunn, Nick Tomalin, Rory McEwen and, most importantly for Fathers, Tony White, a maverick figure exuding a “boundless generosity and zest”.
Before the decade was over Miller was established in London, married to Jane Collet, the father of one son, Daniel – peeked at in his pram by Ivy Compton-Burnett – and about to become literary editor of the Spectator. Then came the New Statesman and then the Listener, which he edited in a way not pleasing to WH Auden, who accused him of having ruined it.
A Scottish intransigence marked his dealings with these and other periodicals. It was undercut, however, by a dour charm and instinct for excellence. His own words about Henry Cockburn, “pugnacious, militant, mercurially wise”, might apply to himself. The phrase occurs in the book Dark Horses (1998), his memoir of editing, assessing and extolling.
This work, of a luminous idiosyncrasy, has a chapter on the London Review of Books, the journal Miller is most strongly associated with. He cofounded it in 1979 and was its editor until circumstances brought a painful break with the magazine, 13 years later.
As well as the public Miller, Fathers uncovers the private individual, the lover of Scottish ballads and soccer, the amiable tease, the champion of his children against wrong-headed teachers and encourager of all their juvenile interests. (They had a delightful mother too.) At the same time Fathers lets us in on a well-kept family secret. Once it’s revealed we see how this has determined the construction of the book, which moves backwards and forwards, circling its themes and perceptions, but always homing in on the central fact of Miller’s death, his unique gifts and singular outlook on life.
He reached 83, but some of his Cambridge contemporaries died earlier, including Tony White, who suffered an embolism after a football injury. In the late 1950s he and Miller founded Battersea Park Football Club. White had his own plentiful eccentricities, first abandoning an acting career to become a lamplighter and later transplanting himself to a cottage in Connemara, where he tried his hand at lobster farming and failed to become a published author.
His death occasioned a number of elegies by poet friends. One of these, Tony White 1930-1976, by Richard Murphy, contains the line “His presence made the darkest day feel clear.” His presence as a free spirit was also appreciated by the Miller household in Chelsea, where he danced at parties and watched the FA Cup final on television. Because of all this, and his enduring friendship with Karl and Jane Miller, White has a prominent role in this book.
Miller died after falling downstairs at his home – a catastrophe recounted by his wife, Jane, in her book In My Own Time (2016), as well as by his son. His ashes were scattered on the Pentland Hills, near where his life began.
Fathers, elegant, illuminating and deeply personal, is a fitting tribute to a distinctive man. It affords new insights into someone especially hard to pin down. Miller was Scottishly wry and dry, occasionally ill humoured but more often amusing, acerbic and kind – altogether a compound of opposites, as he puts it in Rebecca’s Vest, “which keep converging”.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her most recent book is Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading