AMBITIOUS OUTSIDER: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMBIT EDITOR MARTIN BAX
Ambit is Britain's leading literary magazine: an unswervingly eclectic blitzkrieg of newly surfacing talent and violently distinguished voices. Boasting an experimental, anti-establishment ethic spanning six decades of indestructible ambition, Ambit's formidable cast-list of contributors includes the likes of Michael Moorcock, Ralph Steadman, J.G. Ballard, Fleur Adcock, John Sladek, Peter Blake, Peter Porter, Eduardo Paolozzi, Brian Aldiss, David Hockney… and me. In a 3A.M. exclusive, H.P. Tinker interviews Ambit's founder and editor, Martin Bax.
HP Tinker interviews Martin Bax
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: The 60s seem a particularly interesting time, when people like Ballard and Moorcock first emerged.
3AM: Firstly, tell us about the origins of Ambit. What was your original impulse behind it?
"Ambit is a repository, a laboratory and a think-tank for experimental artists and writers. Ambit is a surreptitious peak inside a private world. Without Ambit such vital sparks of inspiration could well be lost forever."
MB: Ambit started in '59; there were various impulses behind it. I'd been interested in the writer John Middleton Murray, who was married to Katharine Mansfield. He had run a magazine from about 1910 onwards for two or three years called Rhythm that attracted writers like D.H. Lawrence, and Katharine Mansfield of course. What was striking about it - you could look at it in the V&A library - was that Murray, who really knew nothing about art, had met a Scottish artist called Ferguson who was sending over from Paris artwork by "young" artists like Picasso, Miro, etc. They looked quite startling in this 1910 magazine. And the idea, that Murray never developed, of trying to produce a magazine that had literary and visual material really working together, came to me out of that. But the other initiatives were more simple. There weren't many magazines about then because the possibility of what everybody can do now -- produce a magazine from a 'desktop' in quite small numbers and for not very much money -- didn't exist. But electronic things were just starting to happen, and the first number of Ambit we partly set ourselves on a machine called a variotyper. It enabled us to paste down visual work of which we had some good drawings from an Australian artist, Oliffe Richmond, in this first number and enabled us to begin the notion of producing an arts magazine rather than the traditional poetry or Eng. Lit. magazine. I'd say there's still no magazine in the country that combines high class artwork, produced and found by Mike Foreman over the years, alongside writers who I think are exciting.
3AM: I like the ebb and flow of Ambit, from poetry to photographs, from short stories to drawings. Quite unusually, the art seems just as important as the prose.
MB: Yes, the art is very important to the ethos of the magazine.
3AM: Also, the story illustrations by people like Ken Cox seem to really add something to the text, like an abstract commentary or precis.
MB: In our special Art number, there's a conversation between Ron Sandford and Peter Porter all about the way that images and text work together, and have done historically. The issue was turned around so that writers wrote responses to pictures. We did the conversation partly to answer a critic within the Arts Council panel who had written 'what are the pictures DOING in Ambit?'!
"If it is done properly, it is an illustration for the words. Not a reproduction of the image these words suggest, but something purposeful: I think the word illustration means shedding light on somewhere… When the Renaissance painters, or Blake, illustrated something they dealt with it very seriously, worked very hard… to shed light on whatever was being said, or whatever was being suggested. A real relationship."
(Ron Sandford, "Art Into Ambit", Ambit 154)
MB: There's obviously a frisson associated with publishing a writer and artist who becomes, or is, well-known. But I think what one looks for is that frisson of excitement from the material in each number and, in a way, one tries to come up with something fresh and exciting with each number, irrespective of whether the authors are known or not.
3AM: You wouldn't consider them (or anyone for that matter) to be archetypal Ambit writers, then?
MB: No, I certainly hope there isn't an archetypal Ambit writer. That would be against the whole spirit of the magazine, which is to be varied, with varied references, and never to be the same.
3AM: Some Ballard stories you published, like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race", famously went on to form part of The Atrocity Exhibition. I read a quote by Ballard himself saying one of them led Randolph Churchill to demand that the Arts Council withdraw your grant.
MB: Yes, he thought it was offensive to Americans!
"'Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy' was written in 1967 and published in Ambit, the literary magazine edited by Dr Martin Bax. Somehow it came to the attention of Randolph Churchill (son of Winston), a former Member of Parliament and friend of the Kennedys. He denounced the piece, calling it an outrageous slur on the memory of the dead President...."
(J.G. Ballard from The Atrocity Exhibition, New Revised Edition, RE/Search)
3AM: Did you ever guess these stories were going to be so inflamatory?
MB: Not really. I thought they were good!
3AM: Did the association with such a controversial major work affect Ambit at all, even if just in the way it was perceived?
MB: You tell me!
3AM: Ambit's anti-establishment reputation does seem to get you into trouble though…
MB: Yes. We were strongly advised not to publish some drawings by Hockney in one of our early numbers. They were marvellous drawings of men in a club in Amsterdam. Now, one can't imagine why anybody would complain about them. A lady complained about a cover of ours, and a policeman came to see us during the Chicago riots, because it was a photo of the Statue of Liberty being raped by a policeman -- elegantly drawn by Mike Foreman. And we had trouble when we ran a competition for material written under the influence of drugs. I suppose, particularly early on in the Sixties, handling fairly explicit sexual material gave us that anti-establishment reputation. And we've never gone in for writing to establishment writers or asking people to contribute.
"We were in trouble again, when Ambit launched a competition for the best fiction or poetry written under the influence of drugs. Lord Goodman, an intimate of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, raised the threat of prosecution. In fact, we were equally interested in the effects of legal drugs -- tranquillisers, antihistamines, even baby aspirin. The competition, and the 40 Pound prize which I offered, was won by the novelist Ann Quin -- her drug was the oral contraceptive…"
(J.G. Ballard from The Atrocity Exhibition, New Revised Edition, RE/Search)
3AM: You've featured work by an extraordinary range of artists and writers over the years. Who do you particularly rate yourself?
MB: I don't know that I have any favourites. Obviously, I've admired the work of all those people who've been associated editorially with the magazine such as Mike Foreman, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ron Sandford -- artists who've drawn a lot for us -- as well as prose writers such as J. G. Ballard and Geoff Nicholson. And of the poets, I have much admired Edwin Brock, Peter Porter and Henry Graham. Carol Ann Duffy, of course, is now a poetry editor too.
3AM: Is there anyone in particular you regret not getting the chance to publish?
MB: Obviously, there are many writers one would like to have published, but it's up to them to submit. I think established prose writers can earn money so readily from their material that they're less likely to submit to Ambit. There are very good prose writers like, say, Salman Rushdie, who I'd like to have published if he had sent me stuff. There's always been a difficulty getting good, interesting prose. But I don't have any particular favourites.
3AM: Where does Ambit see itself today compared to other literary reviews?
MB: Ambit is much more interesting, varied, and visually attractive, in my view, than The London Magazine although we don't know how it's going to be now [following the death of its editor, Alan Ross - 3A.M.] and Granta, which alas has become a rather staid magazine in my view. Some remarks by writers in our promotional leaflets pick up something of what I hope is the feel of Ambit.
"Favoured meeting-place of the experimental and the proven . . . a place where the traditional and the avant garde can meet up."
(Peter Porter on Ambit)
3AM: Do you reflect the current British literary scene, or not even attempt to?
MB: No, I don't think Ambit does reflect the current British literary scene. First of all, incidentally and importantly -- we are constantly publishing European writers in translation, and also a lot of material from America, so I think there's a much more international flavour to Ambit than there is to other magazines. I think the English literary scene is rather uninteresting at the moment. The creative writing schools, in my view, have not done the scene any good. There's a sort of East Anglian prose writer (I mention no names), and some of the so-called leading poets are not people who I particularly admire…
3AM: You mentioned that you've never really gone in for established authors…
MB: Well, I have always rejected work by well-known writers, I won't mention names, if I haven't thought their work was interesting. I could mention, I suppose, B. S. Johnson, who became well-known before he died, and was very astonished that I thought I could still choose what bits of prose of his I should publish. He felt he was beyond criticism, but of course nobody is. And, indeed, a great writer like Stevie Smith would ring me up and say, 'What do you think of that last line, Martin?' Of course, with Stevie, you always told her that the way she had it was the right one!
3AM: What do you think of the younger crop of writers and poets recently published in Ambit, then?
MB: You have to judge that by looking at each number of Ambit. If I didn't feel that there was enough quality new material, both from some of the writers who I have been publishing for many years like Peter Porter, say, who has a consistently high standard of work -- and from other newer names -- it wouldn't be worth keeping the magazine going.
"Ambit is as reliable as a quartz clock without ever being boring, wonderfully witty pictures, affecting poetry and linguistically agile and imaginative stories."
3AM: Are you optimistic about the future of literary magazines?
MB: Of course, the whole picture of magazines has changed over 40+ years. The ease with which someone can put out something now with quite a small print run is amazing. And then there's the whole electronic issue. I believe that hard copy is always going to be a prime way of putting a magazine together, because it's the mixture, and not what you see as you scroll down your screen, that makes Ambit interesting. So, I guess there'll be a future, but who knows...
3AM: After 168 issues to date, what keeps you going?
MB: I like to feel, when each number appears, excitement and pleasure about the standard of work in that number. And while that excitement still exists, I'll go on publishing the magazine. Happily, at the moment, there is a mass of work coming in of all sorts. That's what keeps me going.
To order Ambit online go to Firstwriter.
ABOUT MARTIN BAX
Dr. Martin Bax, when not being editor of Ambit, is a Developmental Pediatrician, one of the world authorities on children and young adolescents with disabilities, and the Editor of respected medical journal, Developmental and Child Neurology. He is also a writer and author of cult novel The Hospital Ship (New Directions, 1974). All submissions to Ambit are sent through the post, unsolicited, and judged purely on merit. Contact: Ambit, 17 Priory Gardens, London N6 5QY.