Circus of Dreams by John Walsh review – a 1980s literary love-in

The former Sunday Times journalist can’t contain his self-satisfaction in a humorous, passionate account of his boozy lunches with literature’s big beasts

The convulsions of the 1980s – a decade of excess and agitation and collapse – reached the unlikeliest quarters. While other parts of the world dealt with revolution and meltdown, the mean streets of literary London were also in ferment. If you assumed the world of books to be a tiny backwater, John Walsh is here to make you think again. Circus of Dreams – no skimping on the grandeur there – recounts a brief period when publishing almost became bold and writers became almost famous. Books suddenly infiltrated the news pages via awards (a bolstered Booker prize) and marketing gimmicks. A major new book chain (Waterstones) appeared in the high street. A whizzy new members’ club (the Groucho) opened in Soho, the improbable brainchild of a bunch of publishers.

Occupying a ringside seat at the “circus” is Walsh, writer, broadcaster and, we must now add, illusionist. For if anyone has managed to conjure the impression of a mountain from a molehill it is he. His previous book, Are You Talking to Me?, was a droll memoir of a film-obsessed youth honing his mastery of the self-deprecating anecdote. This new one picks up the story in his early 20s when, an aspiring littérateur, he begins as dogsbody in a London publishing house Gollancz, just as its star was in decline. No matter. Surrounded by clever women and randy for attention, the young Walsh gets a toehold in this fusty-looking milieu and begins plotting his ascent to the top – ie literary editor of the Times by the age of 35. Well, what’s a heaven for?

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