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The Outsider – Scottish Review of Books

The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine

Gerry Cambridge
Happenstance Press, £12.00, ISBN: 978-1-910131-29-9, PP184
by Alan Taylor

The Outsider

November 18, 2016 | by Alan Taylor

In Edinburgh of yore, many moons before it was dubbed a ‘city of literature’, it was a common occurrence in one of its many frowsty watering-holes to encounter late of an evening the editor of a literary magazine hawking her latest issue to dour drinkers clinging mollusc-like to the bar.

This was how I was first introduced to Chapman and Joy Hendry. Founded in 1970, the soi-disant ‘little’ magazine had a difficult birth and an even more troublesome upbringing. Some issues were healthily fat, while others verged on the anorexic, which seemed to reflect its changing circumstances. It was serious, print-heavy – one, 100-page issue I have before me, number 49, published in the summer of 1987, has just three black and white illustrations – and by and large bereft of advertising. Of its few adverts several are for other magazines, such as Radical Scotland, Cencrastus and Wales-based Envoi (‘the poetry magazine that cares’), which suggests no cash changed hands.

Much of the content is given over to hymning Edwin Muir. ‘At meal-times,’ recalls one memorialist, ‘Edwin was often quite thoughtful, or, as we said then, would fall into a dwalm.’ There is also, however, a generous amount of space given to the work of other writers: poems by Kathleen Raine, Meg Bateman and Sheena Blackhall; an innovative short story about a disruptive pupil by Anthony Duffy; a diary by playwright Tom McGrath; and eight pages of ‘edited highlights’ – no one then had heard of attention deficit disorder – from a feisty, formative conference on the need for a national theatre. A further fifteen pages are devoted to reviews which are printed in a point size readable only by those with magnifying glasses. Subsidy came from the Scottish Arts Council, predecessor of Creative Scotland, while support – what form this took is unspecified – was given by the City of Edinburgh District Council.

The real support, however, was that supplied by Hendry who, from its inception until it ceased publication with its 110th issue in 2010, nurtured her precocious, bawling bairn with maternal devotion. How she, let alone it, survived for so long is one of the wonders of late twentieth-century Scottish literature. Throughout those four decades, while helpmates came and went, Hendry soldiered on, like a Salvation Army conscript flogging copies of The War Cry to all and sundry. Once, the magazine’s finances were in such a parlous state that she had to foot a £600 printer’s bill from her own dwindling savings. Never did she manage, throughout the magazine’s whole history, to pay herself what might be called a living wage.

Such devotion, and such longevity, is unusual if not unique. Such publications come and go like football managers. It is no small achievement then to keep one breathing for twenty years and more, as Gerry Cambridge has The Dark Horse. It was born, as he recalls in The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine, in the autumn of 1994, as are so many such ventures, in a pub, The Goldberry Arms in Kilmarnock, where, ‘surrounded by empty glasses’ and enveloped in clouds of smoke, he and a drinking buddy decided to take the plunge. Seed money came from the Scottish Arts Council, which had given Cambridge, a 35-year-old autodidact with ‘psychological peculiarities’, a writing bursary. At the time he was living in a caravan on the Cunninghamhead Estate in Ayrshire which, from the photographs reproduced here, was not the most salubrious or comfortable place to live. In winter it was an icebox while in summer – believe it if you will – it was an oven. This was Cambridge’s garret, his Parisian atelier, for two decades. ‘Gerry,’ asked Philip Hobsbaum, critic, connecter and encourager, ‘how on earth can you expect to keep a woman? You have no property, you have no degree, you have no financial resources, you don’t even have a driving licence!’

The name for the magazine, Cambridge recalls, came without too much forethought. ‘Briefly, The Corncrake was also a possibility; I liked it, as a lifelong bird person, for its unfashionable unexpectedness and its pastoral note. Then I began thinking that calling a poetry journal after a rapidly declining land rail likely to become extinct in Britain might not be the most auspicious idea. The Dark Horse – the outsider, the unknown quantity, the unexpected winner – gradually asserted itself in my mind.’

From the outset, Cambridge was eager, like countless editors before him, to produce the kind of magazine he wanted to read. His aim was to publish poetry with a ‘taste for the genuine’ but that was also ‘lit with anarchic energy and humour’. He was keen, too, to run prose written ‘with some of the virtues of higher journalism’ and took Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age as his model. In a riff on ‘Editors & their magazines’ he mentions various kindred publications, including Eddie Linden’s Aquarius, but, curiously, not Chapman or other indigenous magazines published concurrently.

The Dark Horse’s unique selling point was, and to an extent still is, its affinity with American poetry, in which Cambridge was youthfully immersed. In his first, bullish editorial, he stated that his was not a magazine for ‘partly-achieved work among which the occasional fine poem glints like a diamond; nor is it intended only to be interesting to those who appear in its pages; nor will it feature backslapping and only partially sincere reviews’. He subscribed to a sect known as the New Formalists, an American-inspired movement which promoted a back-to-basics approach to metrical and rhymed verse. Indeed, as he relates, one of its high priests, Dana Gioia, agreed to become a ‘conduit’ for work from the US, with the proviso that The Dark Horse aspired to be ‘of more than local interest’. Intriguingly, Cambridge readily assented to this imperial edict, reasoning that ‘it helped lift the magazine clear of what is often a problem in any small country’s literature – parochialism of the worst kind (there is a best kind), nepotism, lack of self-criticism and self-evaluation. And, in its early loose alliance with New Formalism, it helped give the magazine an identity’.

It is one of the marks of Scottish culture and its promoters that, in desperation to avoid being smeared parochial or insular, they veer the other way, embracing and inviting and subsidizing the efforts of those from afar often at the expense of local artists. This is all very well and worthy, not to mention generous – especially in these cash-strapped times – but one can’t help but wonder if the same selflessness pertains elsewhere. Is there, for instance, in the US a magazine that is as welcoming to Scottish poets as The Dark Horse has been to their American counterparts? It is, needless to say, a question of which Cambridge is aware and which he perceives may have caused Scotland’s ferrety and peppery poetry ‘community’ problems.

In saying so, this is not to denigrate the quality of the material published in The Dark Horse. From the beginning it published work of a generally high standard and added a teaspoonful of paprika to our literary broth. Apart from the fore-mentioned Gioia, a regular presence in its formative years, it championed contributors such as Kirkpatrick Dobie, William Neill, Douglas Dunn (‘at the time of writing, Scotland’s pre-eminent senior poet’), X.J. Kennedy (‘one of my favourite American poets’), Wendy Cope (‘greatly admired by a number of the New Formalist Americans’), the aforementioned Hobsbaum and Edwin Morgan, whose dismissive review of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ‘was one of the few… of that book by an equally gifted contemporary’.

The obliteration of New York’s Twin Towers on 11 September, 2001, Cambridge acknowledges, changed The Dark Horse’s relationship with its transatlantic partner to a degree. In the aftermath of the tragedy there was ‘a great sense’ of the US closing its borders, which made him less inclined to venture west. While after 9/11 what he calls the ‘American element’ of the magazine continued, he believes that in retrospect the loosening of the connection was for the better: ‘the magazine had been in danger latterly of seeming only the vessel for a clique of favoured writers’. This coincided, he adds, with an ‘episode still sometimes referred to with amusement’ in Creative Scotland, the successor of the SAC. When he applied for a grant to what was known as the Grants to Magazine panel, The Dark Horse was awarded an ‘additional’ sum – on top of how much is not disclosed – of £1,360 a year, on the understanding that it should be ‘strictly ring-fenced’ for paying the contributors. ‘I refused the money,’ writes Cambridge. ‘For one thing, I hadn’t asked for it. For another, I wrote that “the funding body was simply assuming my willingness to be its unpaid administrator”. I suggested that “it supply extra funds for such administration or, ideally, administer such payments itself”.’

One admires his chutzpah and his cussedness. It is illustrative of the stress involved in producing a publication that is unlikely ever to reward its editor with anything other than the occasional, patronizing pat on the back, an honorary gong from a third-rate institution of learning and a footnote in the literary annals. As the years marched on Cambridge began to review his own performance. By 2009 and issue 23, for instance, he noted ‘a new lively note’ which was ‘perhaps influenced by recent positive developments in my private life’, though what these were remains unspecified. Marketing, he concedes, was never his strong point, and we are not told how many copies The Dark Horse sold or sells. Nor, indeed, does he reveal whether contributors are paid. What is apparent is the development of his skills as a designer. Typographically, The Dark Horse is a covetable object. By 2010, the same year Joy Hendry pulled down Chapman’s shutters, Cambridge believed his magazine had ‘entered its maturity’ and was ‘firmly established as one of the longer-running poetry journals’. As its editor, he insists on receiving two copies of any book under review, not so he can purloin one but so he can keep an eye on his reviewers. ‘Writers can be extraordinarily slapdash… in the accuracy of their quotations from source texts, so all quotations are checked against their originals.’ As for himself, Cambridge is confident that the deluge of submissions and review copies screaming ‘ego! ego!’ and ‘listen to me!’ has not impaired his own work as a poet. At the last, however, he offers an insight into the petty politicking of the poetry world. Not long after he started editing the magazine he took a call from a fellow editor who informed him that a collection of his poetry had been sent out for review. What the unnamed editor wanted to know was whether, quid pro quo, his own book would be reviewed in The Dark Horse, which of course it was not.

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