It’s no disrespect to John Walsh’s elegant and elegiac memoir to say that forty years ago, during the earlier part of the period it covers, books like this were ten a penny – or at any rate in their remaindered form £2.99 a throw. They had titles like As I Walked Down New Grub Street or A Bookman’s Journey, could be found in a slightly moth-eaten state in the second-hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road and were always worth reading for their authors’ memories of how they had hobnobbed with T S Eliot or babysat Anthony Powell’s children one dark winter’s night during the early years of the Attlee government.
Four decades later, publishers’ bottom lines being as they are, what might be called the belletrist’s autobiography is a practically extinct genre. There is, in fact, something gloriously anachronistic about Circus of Dreams, with its rapt accounts of the withering bons mots Angela Carter unleashed on the author in 1979 and what Andrew Neil said to him in conference in the era of the Gulf War – like a petrified dodo’s egg washed up on the Mauritian strand or the last desolate cry of the passenger pigeon sounding out above some New World forest a century and more ago. Which is to say that, for all the vigour of the book’s attack and the hilarity of its anecdotage, Walsh was jolly lucky to get someone to sponsor this benighted endeavour here in the bright, bewildering world of 2022.
Meanwhile, like some amateur detectorist puzzling over the face found gleaming up from an Anglo-Saxon coin unearthed in a Kentish field, the young literary person coming across this in Waterstones will be wanting to know: who exactly is John Walsh? The answer is that, while he remains a