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TWO LIVES TO LEAD : THE EARLY YEARS : A MEMOIR 1933-1976

By Martin Bax

Ambit Books. 103 pages. £12.99 (including postage). ISBN 978-0-900055-12-6

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

Martin Bax edited the literary magazine, Ambit, for over fifty years from its inception in 1959 until he handed it over to another editor in 2013. He also wrote short stories and novels, with The Hospital Ship, published in 1974 by Cape (and in the USA in 1976 by New Directions) being, perhaps, his best-known book.

Well, best-known in literary circles. Bax had another string to his bow, and as a Consultant Paediatrician, and editor of Development Medicine and Child Neurology, and with an impressive string of publications in well-established journals, not to mention a co-written (with J.Bernal) book, Your Childís First Five Years, he was clearly well-known in medical circles.

It is, of course, for his activities in the literary world that most readers of this review will be aware of him. Ambit had, under his editorship, an impressive reputation for openness to new writing by both known and unknown poets and prose writers. I could compile a long list of poets who appeared in its pages, but suffice to mention just a few, like Peter Porter, George MacBeth, Gavin Ewart, Edwin Brock, Fred Voss, Vernon Scannell, George Szirtes, Carol Ann Duffy, Adrian Henri, Fleur Adcock, and Stevie Smith. This is an extremely short list, and could have been extended by several pages. As for the prose writers, J.G. Ballard. John Harvey, William Burroughs, and Geoff Nicholson, spring to mind, though there many others. By mentioning relatively familiar poets and prose writers, Iím not really doing justice to Martin Baxís magazine, because it was always open to considering work by promising and often previously-unpublished authors.

A similar spirit of openness was characteristic of the review section, which was admittedly mostly devoted to poetry. But, unlike some other publications, Ambit did not only review established poets. There was always a widespread coverage of young poets with books and pamphlets from small presses. Or of older poets who may have slipped from sight, or who were just not the kind of writers who produced a substantial body of work. I would hazard a guess that what the Ambit reviews did over Baxís long editorship was present a broader survey of contemporary British (and some American) poetry than was available elsewhere. Future researchers could profitably refer to these reviews for a guide to what was happening in the UK in the years concerned.

It would be remiss of me to end this review without mentioning the graphics in the magazine. Michael Foreman and Ron Sandford were two artists who had a long link to Ambit, and among others who appeared in its pages were David Hockney and Eduardo Paolozzi. How Ambit looked was clearly of importance to its editors in general, and to Martin Bax in particular.

Two Lives to Lead is a short, but engaging memoir in which Bax outlines his early years (there is an intriguing reference to his grandfather, Ernest Belfort Bax, a socialist and friend of William Morris, as well as a translator of Marx). and his later activities in both medicine and literature. Itís illustrated by some reproductions of covers and drawings from the magazine, and a selection of poems and prose from its pages.

Copies can be obtained at £12.99 post free from Ambit Books, Staithe House, Main Road, Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk, PE31 8BP.