Of necessity, Hamilton became one of literature’s great hustlers, jingling with money knowhow… When the poet Craig Raine worked as books editor on Fridays, he once met a bailiff on the stairs who asked him if he was Ian Hamilton. Raine took him upstairs to the office and asked Ian Hamilton if he’d seen Ian Hamilton. “No,” Ian Hamilton said, “You just missed him.
If you could travel back in time to a particular literary era, like Woody Allen’s characters in Midnight in Paris, where would you prefer to drop in? The New York of Mailer and Capote? The Paris of Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald? Not me. I’d defy all the glamour and glitz and go to soggy ’70s London. Specifically, I would waltz into the Pillars of Hercules, an ancient pub on Greek Street in Soho, and report to the poet, critic and editor Ian Hamilton, who would no doubt be holding down the fort at the bar, an emperor-sized scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other (they didn’t call him High-Tar Hamilton for nothing), and ask to review a book for his monthly magazine, The New Review. Its offices were just upstairs from the pub, but all the real business was completed bar-side. There in the Pillars I might encounter Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, Jonathan Raban, or Clive James, possibly even an ageing and manic Robert Lowell, ensconced by wide-eyed admirers. With any luck, I would become audience to one of Hamilton’s celebrated witticisms, like the one about the young poet who came down from Oxford to write for the magazine. According to legend, Hamilton took him downstairs to the pub at 11:30 in the morning and bought them two large scotches. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” the poet demurred, “I must give it up, it’s doing terrible things to me. I don’t even like it anymore.” To which Hamilton indignantly remarked: “Good god, man! None of us likes it.”