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Circus of Dreams

Paperback / ISBN-13: 9781472133472

Price: £12.99

ON SALE: 2nd February 2023

Genre: Biography & True Stories / Biography: General / Biography: Literary

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Something extraordinary happened to the UK literary scene in the 1980s. In the space of eight years, a generation of young British writers took the literary novel into new realms of setting, subject matter and style, challenging – and almost eclipsing – the Establishment writers of the 1950s. It began with two names – Martin Amis and Ian McEwan – and became a flood: Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Graham Swift, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Pat Barker among them. The rise of the newcomers coincided with astonishing changes in the way books were published – and the ways in which readers bought them and interacted with their authors. Suddenly, authors of serious fiction were like rock stars, fashionable, sexy creatures, shrewdly marketed and feted in public.

The yearly bunfight of the Booker Prize became a matter of keen public interest. Tim Waterstone established the first of a chain of revolutionary bookshops. London publishing houses became the playground of exciting, visionary entrepreneurs who introduced new forms of fiction – magical realist, feminist, post-colonial, gay – to modern readers. Independent houses began to spend ostentatious sums on author advances and glamorous book launches. It was nothing short of a watershed in literary culture. And its climax was the issuing of a death sentence by a fundamentalist leader whose hostility to Western ideas of free speech made him, literally, the world’s most lethal critic.

Through this exciting, hectic period, the journalist and author John Walsh played many parts: literary editor, reviewer, interviewer, prize judge and TV pundit. He met and interviewed numerous literary stars, attended the best launch parties and digested all the gossip and scandal of the time. In Circus of Dreams he reports on what he found, first with wide-eyed delight and then with a keen eye on what drove this glorious era. The result is a unique hybrid of personal memoir, oral history, literary investigation and elegy for a golden age.

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[An] elegant and elegiac memoir . . . the vigour of the book's attack and the hilarity of its anecdotage ... [shows he was] one of the great power-brokers of literary London . . . He was (and is) a good thing and I salute him.
D. J. Taylor, Literary Review
This is by no means just a book of literary history, fascinating though much of that is. Walsh also gives us plenty of terrific stories/gossip from those far-off days when newspaper offices were full of typewriter noise and cigarette smoke, and the choice of lunchtime drinks was definitely not restricted to still or sparkling.
Reader's Digest
John Walsh's Circus of Dreams sent me reeling nostalgically back to the literary 1980s, where I may remain happily trapped for some time to come
Through it all, Walsh was there. First as an eager wannabe, then as a full-blooded insider. Any disappointment that his own efforts at a novel didn't prove a ticket to the dream-circus was quickly mitigated once he discovered his potential as a critic, commentator and general facilitator, swishing through the forest as interviewer, literary judge, pundit, speaker, partygoer par excellence . . . An immersive literary history . . . highly readable
Financial Times
Alternately fascinating and provocative
John Sutherland, TLS
Reading John Walsh's adventures in the literary world of the 1980s is like donning a pair of spectacles that bring blurred memories into sudden, sharp focus . . . Walsh describes people, events and places with such accuracy that he will transport oldies back to the era, allowing them to reappraise and appreciate it afresh. His memory - even if dependent on a diary - is prodigious, and his anecdotes polished till they sparkle.
The Oldie
Walsh makes London seem like the place to have been. The stage was smaller; everything burned more brightly; more angels teemed on the head of a pin . . . One of the best things about Circus of Dreams is Walsh's memories not of the big beasts of literature, but of the smaller players - the editors and agents and clubmen and hacks and P.R. people, the various legends in their own lunchtimes.
New York Times
Walsh's enthusiasm for the writing of the 1980s is infectious
Irish Times
Walsh's appetite for celebrity gossip is supplemented by a keen understanding of the business moves behind the invention of these literary stars, while his candour about his own shortcomings is endearing . . . [this] memoir is highly recommended
Irish Examiner
Elegant and entertaining
Very funny . . . I laughed long at the set-piece lunch with [Martin] Amis
Circus of Dreams, the critic and journalist John Walsh's rambunctious and hugely entertaining history of the British literary scene in the 1980s, summons up something of the excitement, and the absurdity, of the period
Spectator World
An entertainingly gossipy memoir of the period . . .
The Week
[There's a] mixture of high and low, sacred and profane, running through Walsh's account of literary London in the 1980s that makes it such a joy
Sunday Times