1 February 1991

Commentary by Ferdinand Mount

Encounter: the end of  an era


THE printers' bills cannot be met. Encounter has ceased publication. Hope of an early resurrection is fading. Britain seems to have lost, more or less irrevocably, what must have been ist only memorable journal of ideas since the great quarterlies of the nineteenth century (Criterion , Scrutiny and Horizon were too predominantly literary to qualify).

            "Ideas" in the plural is, I think, the right term. The first obituaries of Encounter have naturally seized on the piquant coinciding of the Cold War's end and tried to associate the magazine with one single idea, namely that Communism was wrong. The intellectual defeat of Communism was certainly the cause for which it was started in 1953 and the reason why the CIA so notoriously channeled money into it through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. From Encounter's beginnings to its melancholy extinction, the fiercest debates in its pages, or at the crowded editorial sandwich lunches in St. Martin's Lane and later in Great Windmill Street, would be on some contentious aspect of the Communist world: could there be such a thing as genuine economic reform under a Communist system? Was there really a difference between Soviet Communism and the Chinese variety? How would Communism end -- with a bang or a whimper?

            Yet for the generation which grew up in the mid-50s, the anti-Communism was not Encounter's main attraction, although it was bound to be its central theme (what else loomed so large in that bleak and viewless landscape of the times?). What the magazine offered to us was the excitement of an intellectual Abroad. Every month, those block-shaped grainy pages offered a kind of adventure which the timorous British newspapers and weeklies of the late-1950s and early 1960s would not have dreamed of essaying. To us brain-starvelings, Encounter was equivalent to the first whiff of garlic and baguette at Boulogne after the lifting of the travel allowance. And Mel Lasky himself, with his relentless energy and good humor (looking not unlike Lenin after a decent lunch) was an unstoppable, unmistakably foreign trafficker in ideas of the kind that we knew our English pastors and masters would dismiss as unsound -- which made him seem all the more alluring. Through all his ups and downs, Lasky never lost his ability to needle and enthuse his contributors. He remains, after thirty years and more as Encounter's editor, a prophet uniquely without honor in his adopted country.

            I happen to see on my shelves the 25th anniversary number (October 1978). It contains not only essays and reviews by Leszek Kolakowski, Hugh Thomas, Peter Medawar, Anthony Quinton, Philip Toynbee, Bryan Robertson and David Lodge, but also fiction by William Tervor and Günter Grass and poems by D.J. Enright, Tom Paulin, Peter Porter, Douglas Dunn, R.S. Thomas, Peter Redgrove and others. The welcome to all sorts of writers, apart from Soviet hacks, was catholic. Nowhere else could one gather quite the same sense of a persisting European civilization only temporarily fractured by the Cold War.

            The magazine's center of political gravity was, I suppose, the Croslandite Left, the future of which was eternally being worried over. Yet the magazine was not too afflicted by inverted snobbery to deny a playing field for Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh to debate U and non-U. "Suicide of a Nation", "the end of ideology", "more means worse", "Arnold Toynbee is not a proper historian" -- all these encapsulations, now comfortably absorbed into the conventional wisdom, first came to us via the pages of Encounter. At their best, Encounter's pieces had a purposeful amplitude which never lost itself in vapor nor soared into vinegar.

            Where are we to find such stuff nowadays? The voluminous Saturday and Sunday supplements do not begin to try, although they like to think they do. Their audiences are too large and diverse to tolerate extended reflections on unfamilar subjects. Most readers still prefer to read the sort of thing they have already read; they want their fancies tickled, not seriously surprised. Encounter may turn out to have been a rare excursion in English intellectual life, and one which is unlikely to be soon repeated.



Encounter - Mount, TLS