Monthly Archives: November 2009

George Zakhem

Men Who Dream Can Do is the title of an autobiographical volume published by Quartet Books last month. It is by George Zakhem, and it traces his career as a Lebanese international contractor and engineer and the dramatic times this has led him through.

Much praise was heaped on the book by his wide assortment of friends, but the British press has run true to form in not even noticing its existence. The attention of the media is gripped mainly by the memoirs of so-called celebrities and secondly by writers whose names are already established. There is little, if any, room in the book pages of our national newspapers for works that do not ring an instant, superficial bell, and matters of a more enduring value have become a rare concept.

At the very least this might be classed as a failure of the imagination. The monopolising trend and narrowing of options in the press is something we have seen gain momentum. If it continues as at present, then the British public can only become the poorer from having its horizons restricted to material for short-term populist home consumption.

Quartet has been well aware of the difficulties of securing press coverage outside these categories. It has no intention, however, of abandoning the publishing of books that fail to match these stereotypes. Titles that are well written, stimulating and show original viewpoints will always find a place in our list. We would go so far as to say that publishers have a moral obligation to disregard the new addiction to media-engendered demand, irrespective of the pitfalls that follow from a perceived lack of commerciality.

George Zakhem rose from humble beginnings, born in a small village in the mountains of Lebanon, to become as well known as a philanthropist as for his business acumen. The heights he has scaled have made him an international figure, highly regarded within and outside his own country. I first met him briefly in the 1980s, but only got to know him properly very recently. As our relationship has grown into friendship, I have realised that we have many things in common. This applies in our political thinking and is also related to the people we have known and our philosophy and aspirations in life.

George Zakhem’s background and my own are not dissimilar. We have both had to fight our way to reach levels of success that will enable us to spread our wings in areas where we can make a significant contribution to the world. Our lives have run in parallel from the point where we began our ascendancies, and we each retain happy memories of those people who, to a large degree, influenced our future development.

I vividly remember the first Englishman I met who became a lifetime friend. This was the journalist George Hutchinson, a biographer of Harold Macmillan, who had accompanied Macmillan on his important trip to the Soviet Union to meet Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 and open a dialogue with Russia over arms control. George, when I first knew him, was working for Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper tycoon whom Churchill had coopted into his War Cabinet during the Second World War. He was also a great friend of the legendary Emile Bustani, a presidential hopeful in Lebanon. As with George Hutchinson, Emile’s life was cut short relatively early, though in his case in a plane that crashed into the sea after take-off in Beirut. On several occasions George Hutchinson took me with him when he visited Emile Bustani in the permanent suite, furnished by himself, that he had taken in the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge.

As I now realise, Emile was George Zakhem’s mentor and role model. I got to know Emile as well as one could from a few visits, and was struck by his charisma, which I found totally engrossing. George Zakhem’s description of Emile in fact verges on hero worship . It only goes to show the high esteem in which he held this great figure, but it is also typical of the author himself. Beneath his veneer of the hard practicality of a practising entrepreneur, whose survival made him the man he has become, he is notable for his outgoing urge to generosity in both spirit and worldly goods.

My own mentor was Yusif Bedas, who built up Intra Bank from its base in Beirut to a worldwide empire in the late 1950s. He taught me a great deal about finance, but was yet another one who died at the zenith of his achievements. Yusif and Emile were close friends, and George Zakhem also knew him well. Life has a strange way of linking its patterns of destiny.

A few months before George Hutchinson died, I was the publisher of his final book, The Last Edwardian at No. 10, his study of Harold Macmillan. Then I published the memoirs of Emile’s widow, Laura Bustani, A Marriage out of Time: My Life with and without Emile Bustani. Finally, to complete the trilogy, I have published George Zakhem’s autobiography, Men Who Dream Can Do.

Indeed, giants in their time have all been men who dreamed and whose dreams have become reality. The lesson to be learnt is that dreams bring hope, dedication and a passion to use our abilities to do what seems like the impossible and be remembered for never having given up. In George Zakhem’s life, many financial and political storms have raged about him, yet he has stood firm and defied the periods of crisis. More than that, he has diverted proportions of his acquired assets of wealth into supporting worthwhile causes and forward-thinking projects for the future of the region of his birth.

In the Middle East, cultural generosity is in its infancy, and George Zakhem will always be remembered among its pioneers. This November he reached even further with his ethical ideals to give $1 million to establish the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace in the Department of Anthropology in the University of Maryland. Gibran, the early twentieth-century Lebanese-American poet and thinker, was one of those rare and important advocates for peace, cultural pluralism and human rights who has had a profound influence on many minds. Certainly those were also the business ideals that Emile Bustani followed in his enterprises in the Middle East and elsewhere. In 1988 Quartet published a biography of Gibran by his life-long friend, the Lebanese writer Mikhail Naimy. I even attempted to put Gibran’s life on stage, but copyright complications at the time proved too difficult to overcome.

George Zakhem’s life story makes an intriguing narrative. He interweaves this with many telling anecdotes and insights on the personalities and events encountered along the way. Above all, his book enlightens, combining the optimism of hope with his Christian faith and ethical aims.

GOOSE

In the year 2000, Quartet Books published a book entitled Hug O’War. It was conceived and compiled by Janna Spark, a leading child psychologist and educator internationally recognised as an authority on children with learning and behavioural problems. The book comprised a unique collection of well-known children’s poems, hand-written by forty-eight celebrities, each of whom had also contributed a short autobiographical memoir. Janna then submitted the written results to a graphological analysis, which highlighted the personality traits to account for the way the participants had succeeded in their chosen careers. The book was dedicated to the children of Kosovo, for whose benefit it was being published.

I was glad to be the publisher, and flattered to be included as one of the participants in an enterprise that was also a good cause. It touched the hearts of many who had been following the tragic news from that phase of the Balkan conflict with distress and despair, feeling powerless to help. Television regularly bore witness to sufferings of so many innocent children, ravaged by war and close to starvation.

Hug O’War was a prelude to a warm relationship between the author and her publisher that grew and deepened with the years, and ultimately survived a set-back along the way as Quartet underwent a difficult period when it could not entirely fulfil its commitments. This was a dark time for me personally as I struggled against the odds to keep the imprint alive. In the nature of the crisis, it was necessary to put its full extent under wraps, and Janna was not to know the whole scale of our problems. There followed a period of hibernation when many a valued relationship, including the one with Janna, had to be put on hold, so to speak, pending the passing of the storm and a return to calmer seas. Inevitably and unavoidably there were feelings of betrayal.

Thankfully this hiatus in our understanding was ended in 2008 when a phone call from Janna informed me she had written a novel and would like me to read it. The return to normality of our former warm relationship was something I welcomed. It is said that the positive side of a tiff hinges on its resolution. In the case of Janna the reconciliation has served to strengthen our ties.

As it was a first attempt at a novel, I was ready to give it a critical eye, but as I began to read it, I felt pleasantly surprised.  Her story line created a Bernard Madoff type of character before anybody knew that such chicanery existed at the heart of financial institutions, or that it was soon to wreak havoc in many thousands of lives. It was called GOOSE and its themes were money and ethics, with need turning to greed and the results of compromised principles. In the dramatic twists of the plot, predator and victim intertwined and became interchangeable. It was a cautionary morality tale about what might happen where the temptation exists to search out really easy ways of making a lot of money.

The nightmare imagined by Janna came true in the events that have since beset our society, and I am left wondering what inspired her to predict them with such uncanny foresight. Did a premonition exist, or did it spring from a deep insight into the financial machinations and where their consequences would head for? Whatever it was, it struck a target. The lead female character is so plausibly and cleverly conceived that I am sure any bankable Hollywood actress, like Sienna Miller, would love to have the chance to create her on screen.

GOOSE deserves more recognition than it has so far received. First-time novelists are today finding it more difficult than ever to break into a mould that will enable them to test out their work on the public. The media today is celebrity geared, and as a result it is extremely hard for a newcomer to penetrate the ranks and find a place to stand where they can get even a glimmer of publicity. Talent is being sacrificed to accommodate a celebrity cult that dominates the popular imagination and is to some degree threatening to undermine the more permanent features of our cultural way of life.

Be that as it may, Janna has nevertheless shown that she has a bright future as a novelist and needs to be in touch with the readership she deserves. She has a great ability with words, and a clear understanding of human nature alongside a capacity for perseverance. Ultimately this will lead her on to scale greater heights.

So, to all those out there who love reading real books, read GOOSE and be in the forefront of those who take pleasure in discovering a fledgeling talent that holds every promise of taking off in new, exciting directions and winning a crescendo of accolades from an ever-growing circle of admirers.

Political Correctness and The World According to Women

I am not alone in thinking that, with the issue of ‘political correctness’, the pendulum has swung much too far from free speech and towards repression. The potential is now seriously there to see it operating as an insidious erosion of our civil liberties, through legal precedents created by court decisions and loaded new legislation.   

Not the least part of this is likely to be the stifling of the great British sense of humour that has been a part of our cultural heritage for centuries and is the envy of the civilised world. Satire, both in the street and in the media, has always been a line of defence against absurdity and coercive overreaching in government. That is why tyrants can’t stand to be made into figures of fun.

Racial discrimination is not the issue here, though its application is. A case in point has arisen within the last few days, with the ITV news reader, Liza Aziz, bringing a lawsuit for £5 million against her employers, alleging race, sex and age discrimination. To support her case for asserting the existence of institutional racism, she has cited how an erstwhile colleague ‘regularly mimicked’ the voice of the respected newscaster, Sir Trevor McDonald. I have had lunch with Sir Trevor and found him a sensible, congenial fellow. I cannot think he would regard such an impersonation as anything but flattery. It points up the silliness that ensues when political correctness goes mad, especially when several million pounds hinges on it.

The rights of women have fallen into the same category. The enforcement of such rights, as these have come to be formulated today, tend to place a question mark over the very principle of the rule of law as a force to protect society from irrational tendencies among legislators. When it comes to emphasising equality between the sexes, a patronising tone that seems quite unnecessary often comes into the debate. Ignorance is no longer a scourge that afflicts us. We live in an age of enlightenment, where modern technology plays a vital role in our continuing evolution. The youth of today is more in tune with their surroundings on every level, and far more informed, than their elders ever were. The problems we face today have mostly to do with corruption in high places and the manipulation of the masses by those in power.

We may add to this the sly orchestration to encourage women as a dominant power, to rally them for political advantage, with the original aspirations of the Women’s Liberation movement having been denigrated and marginalised. Women really do not need the kind of twaddle that emanates from Harriet Harman in the House of Commons. I can only assume that she has an eye on expanding her power base within New Labour, whether in government or opposition.

Women are not to be herded like a flock of sheep to satisfy the ambitions of our political masters. During the last twenty years I have interviewed more than five hundred successful women from all walks of life. To my great amazement I have found them as individualistic as men, perhaps even more so. Each has her own philosophy and vision that can never be classed as ‘typical of women’. Whatever the issue being considered, it is impossible to define something that could be called ‘a woman’s perspective’. They guard their individual viewpoints with a fierce passion and courage that is uniquely refreshing and are rarely to be diverted from their principled beliefs in ultimate objectives.

Recently Quartet Books published A World According to Women: An End to Thinking by Jane McLoughlin, a former Women’s Editor on the Guardian, who has written several other books, including seven novels. In this she postulates her belief that women have indeed become the most dominant force in our society, the way being paved by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The marginalisation of men has followed on in particular from Blair’s blatant manipulation of government and popular culture, creating a political dialogue where the trivial, emotional and irrational seem to have taken centre stage, bringing about crucial changes that threaten the democratic system itself.

Against this background, we have had the latest political farce: the appointment of Baroness Ashton to be the EU Foreign Minister. Who had ever heard of her before this promotion was made? Certainly Gordon Brown will have done. Is she a Labour crony, or is this a ploy to win the women’s vote by stretching political correctness to the limits? The Europeans will be happy. They have been able to approve this inconsequential appointment  to make Britain look silly and diminish our influence where it really matters. Nothing in politics is surprising any more. The standard has dropped so low as to make it the pariah of professions.

‘A World According to Women,’ said Fay Weldon, is ‘the most extraordinarily interesting and stimulating book, written with the passion of conviction…this book will change the way you think.’ The implications are chilling for our next generation of professional administrators and the quality of political debate. Could it be that an ’emotionally literate political class’ will become a greater threat than the bankers? 

The road to this state of affairs is clearly delineated by the author:

‘The old traditional “masculine” systems and hierarchies have been almost entirely subsumed in a new “feminine” political agenda which already prevails throughout society and is enshrined in law. Women’s new agenda has imposed new feminine-oriented criteria about what is important in society as a whole, and it is to the popular culture which empowered them that they refer in calling the tune.’   

‘The new popular culture,’ she adds, ‘gave ordinary women the means to communicate with each other without putting each other down… In the end the feminists failed as a mass movement because they did not engage with ordinary women…   But where the feminists failed, popular culture only too comprehensively triumphed.’

In the United States this very trend is becoming alarmingly manifest today. In the wake of the Sarah Palin phenomenon and the broken-backed finish of the George Bush administration, a section of the Republican Party is seeing the bright hope of revival in a new generation of female politicians prepared to embrace the extreme political and religious right wing and tap into its voting power by promulgating the most outrageous distortions on the emotive issues of the day, from creationism to healthcare reform.

Here in Britain, where political correctness has infiltrated not only politics but also established laws, judges have begun to award ridiculous sums of money in divorce cases, thus indirectly encouraging the dissolution of marriage. These judgements have often seemed flawed. Time and time again we have instances where someone has apparently used a temporary bonding to make themselves eligible for easy rewards, reducing marriage to the status of another branch of the lottery. There we have the legacy of political correctness as all those in authority go overboard to prove an exaggerated sense of fairness, which ultimately has the opposite effect. Even people from abroad are coming to Britain to use our courts to seek for divorce and libel settlements. We seem to have become a paradise for seekers of easy money, out to exploit the loopholes in our legal system and its application.

In the old days, the majority of scandals that occurred in Parliament were of a sexual nature. There was Tom Driberg, newspaper columnist and Labour Member of Parliament, whose homosexual antics were notoriously gossiped about, and Lord Boothby, who not only made Harold Macmillan’s wife his mistress but also had a liaison with one of the Kray twins. Tony Lambton and Lord Jellicoe were all victims of newspaper headlines concerning their indiscretions, and the Profumo case, with its links with call girl Christine Keeler and a Russian military attaché, put John Major’s later canoodlings with Edwina Curry in the shade.

Now, however, it is money, or its misuse, that grabs the headlines, thanks to Mrs Thatcher’s revolution. In her ten years in office, she changed the very fabric of our society by channelling all our energies into the pursuit of money and wealth. Her tentacles spread across the political divide and gained momentum as our politicos became used to the high life and tried to emulate the very rich, as in the case of Tony Blair. So we have New Labour masquerading as the party inheriting the banner of Old Labour, whose primary ideals were directed towards the eradication of poverty and being the guardian of the lame and elderly. But New Labour is also a child of the Thatcherite revolution, and under its rule the focus on money, and the urge to gain it by whatever means, has continued apace. The ‘trickle-down’ effect that Mrs Thatcher assured the country would be the result of the creation of wealth has never happened in practice to any degree that would be noticed by those who live at the lower levels of society.

The getting of wealth has, by contrast, grown almost like a plague that is ravaging our most noble institutions and reducing us to a nation motivated by greed and self-preservation. A case in point comes forward within the arena of popular entertainment (and hence culture) in the phenomenal success of the ‘Belle de Jour’ blogger, a call girl who placed her diary on the internet, where it drew such attention that it became a couple of books and a television series. Belle de Jour’s identity remained undisclosed till this November, when the author, fearing personal treachery, revealed herself to be a research scientist who had worked as a call girl for two years to support herself while writing her doctoral thesis. The disclosure has caused a sensation, not, I am sorry to say, on the grounds of disapproval of the principle of selling one’s body, but as what is almost a promotional campaign to extoll the virtues of money-making whatever the means.

Jane McLoughlin takes apart the Thatcher legacy with stimulating sharp-eyed comment.

She ‘rolled back the frontiers of state intervention in people’s personal lives’, but ‘left behind a floundering social system based on an obsolete framework of distorted male-oriented institutions and practices…’

‘John Major’s premiership as Margaret Thatcher’s successor only underlined how ineffectual the male establishment had become. What Thatcher left behind was dysfunctional government. It was, though, a feminised government…. Feminised government is short-termist government.’

‘Margaret Thatcher may have given women the chance to dominate our political and social life for years to come, but she gave this to ordinary women, the women empowered by popular culture…’

‘In effect, she allowed popular culture to manipulate political power in the land.’

The Inshallah Paper

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I was a regular visitor to the Gulf States in the wake of the crash of Intra Bank in 1966. Intra was the Lebanon’s largest home-grown bank. In its growth it had expanded overseas and set up offices in Geneva, London, Paris, New York and many parts of Africa and South America. The bank’s founder, Yusif Bedas, was of Palestinian origin, a charismatic figure and a remarkable foreign-exchange wizard. It was he who taught me a great deal about the international currency market, though I had previously discovered I had skills in that field through working for a French bank in the City of London. Bedas, with his masterly intuition and his prophetic reading of the political events that always sway the daily fluctuations of the world’s currencies, could not have been a better mentor in refining my knowledge.

The crash of Intra was the result of a heinous conspiracy by the Central Bank of Lebanon, aided and abetted by a gang of Lebanese politicians who saw Bedas as a threat to their power base and political futures. The main repercussion of their actions robbed Lebanon of its financial status as the most important banking centre in the Middle East. The whole country was plunged into an international crisis of confidence and the former dominant status was never regained.

Bedas became an exile, hounded by the conspirators, and died a broken man in 1968. He was buried at Lucerne in Switzerland, with very few of his friends present to mourn his passing. The whole tragic tale of the demise of Intra is told in my book, In Touch with His Roots.

After the death of Bedas, and the manner of his downfall, I felt I had become a forlorn creature, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time, with a young wife and child to support. The destiny I thought I had mapped out ahead of me was suddenly redundant. I found myself having to fend alone in the jungle of finance, where no honour is sacrosanct, where morality stems from expediency and personal greed is the predominant motto. I needed to readjust and see the world as it really was, not as one might like it to be. For a while the Gulf became my hunting ground. In looking for opportunities, I visited Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In the latter I established a trading company manned largely by English expatriates, most of them recruited from the British armed services. And, believe it or not, I came to regard myself not as a mere civilian but as the commander-in-chief of my small band of employees. In the early days of the Gulf, Bahrain was probably the most liberal country in the region. It had a large British community who enjoyed their time there with relish. Life was comfortable. From the outside it looked more appealing than the highly competitive style of living then prevailing in the UK.

I got to know Bahrain well, along with its local leading families of great merchants. They tended to be rather more sophisticated than their counterparts in the other Gulf States. Wherever I went I was always made welcome and fêted. My memories of Bahrain therefore remain highly gratifying and my links with the region were further strengthened after I  became a publisher. A Yorkshire Television series on The Arab Experience recruited me as a consultant and a book with the same title by the producer, Michael Deakin, was published by Namara Publishing in conjunction with Quartet. While working on a documentary about Bahrain, I then had the idea that it needed a local authenticity in its soundtrack. An approach to David Fanshawe, the composer of African Sanctus, led to another ambitious project based on his Arabian Fantasy, for which EMI issued the record in conjunction with Namara Music while BBC 2 screened a documentary of the same title.

The success of this went completely to my head. I was already on a high from a business association with David Frost that involved me in the production of the successful 1976 film version of the Cinderella story, The Slipper and the Rose, and its glamorous première as the Royal Command Performance film that year. For Arabian Fantasy I had a vision of hiring the Royal Albert Hall to present an extravagant pageant of Arabian life, complete with live camels and dancing harem girls. I lost no time in booking the hall for a date in April and engaging Ludmilla Nova as lead dancer. Ludmilla was stepdaughter of the novelist Paul Gallico, with whom I was very friendly. But having hired my professionals to see to the logistics, I then made the mistake of leaving them to get on without proper supervision on my part. So far as gathering an audience together to make a full house went, I succeeded admirably, but alas, as the show unrolled it became more and more of an embarrassing shambles. I didn’t dare leave my box in the interval, all too aware of the audience melting away by the minute. The Guardian critic gleefully overheard my associates at Asprey (of which I was then a director) moaning that they didn’t dare leave before the end. It was a fiasco from which I learnt many lessons. A full account may be found in my memoirs, Fulfilment and Betrayal, 1975-1995

A few years later, in 1983, David Elliott, a scion of Quartet Books, persuaded me to attend the Bahraini book fair and have a go at marketing some of our books to do with Middle Eastern topics. If nothing else, it was to be a promotion of Quartet in that part of the world. I readily embraced the idea, and David travelled to Bahrain ahead of me with the delectable Lady Cosima Fry, one of the assistants in my private office at Namara House. I followed forty-eight hours later, to be greeted at the airport by the two of them showing every sign of relief to see me there. It seemed that Cosima, attracting a phenomenal amount of attention, had barricaded herself in her hotel room pending my arrival.

At the opening ceremony for the book fair, when we were lined up in the crowd to watch the arrival of dignitaries, the minister of information recognized me and broke away from his official entourage to make his way across to greet us. His gleaming eyes spotted Cosima, and that proved to be the entrée we needed to enhance our welcome at the highest levels. The very next day the Ruler himself invited Cosima to tea and took her to see his stables of thoroughbred horses. We were invited to many a sumptuous feast, where the food was plentiful and our hosts over-generous in their hospitality. The amount of food we consumed was far above anything we were used to, but rare indulgence of this kind only made our trip more memorable. On the last night of our stay, we were treated at the Ex-Pats Club to a cabaret by Georgie Fame, who happened to be in Bahrain at the time. Bizarrely, he was the stepfather of Cosima.

Given all these past associations with Arabia in general and Bahrain in particular, I felt very pleased when Andrew Trimbee, a much travelled former national newspaper journalist who has worked on the Daily Mail, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, where he was chief sub-editor, submitted a manuscript about his time in Bahrain. Quartet have just published it under the title of The Inshallah Paper.

This modern version of One Thousand and One Nights is a colourful no-holds-barred account of life in a largely traditional Arabia as the author fights to produce the Gulf’s first English-language newspaper, ignoring cautions that his ambitions could be a lost cause.

‘Through the haze of cigarette smoke a figure wove his way towards me, threading his way past gossiping groups of Arabs, Europeans and Indians. “I should warn you. The infant mortality rate of newspapers in Bahrain is high.” If this was a greeting, it was also a less than encouraging putdown by the former Fleet Street cartoonist as he thrust a drink into my hand.’

Thereafter sex-mad expatriates, a ghost and a mermaid crowd the pages on an odyssey that includes a flying visit to the Middle East’s most famous casino in the Lebanon, where the author shows an oil company president how to win. There’s a veteran foreign correspondent who felled a heavyweight boxing champion and an assortment of characters; the good, the bad and the crooked.

From drunken diplomats to drunken journalists, Andrew Trimbee lifts the lid on life in a country where the Ruler shows a steel fist inside a velvet glove as he intervenes to save the newspaper after a dramatic showdown with directors. There are lotharios and lesbians, a high-seas murder, a two-fisted British prison warder, and the Bahrainis themselves, gentle and generous, who provide the backdrop for this revealing insight into a way of life largely gone, from the coffee ritual at the palace to crafts of yesteryear.

Set in a time when the pace of life was slower, in a sheikhdom that today has its own Formula One racetrack, The Inshallah Paper is a non-stop roller-coaster ride through drama, pathos, humour and suspense in a desert-island setting straight out of the Arabian Nights.

This is an important book for those who go to seek their fortune in the Gulf States. It highlights those countries’ culture, tribal in nature and very different from ours in the West, being more attuned to a religious, traditional mode of life. Family ties and loyalties are still firm and strong among them, with respect for their elders being an integral part of their upbringing. Their trading skills come from the hardships of the desert and generations of maritime enterprises. Bahrain has never been in the big league of oil-producing countries, and its traditional occupations of dhow building, mat making and pearl fishing have inevitably declined. Its position on a group of islands in the Persian Gulf, however, have made the country prominent as a trading nation and the establishment of an aluminium-smelting plant has been an important plank in its economy. The Bahrainis are sharp and streetwise and know how to enjoy their wealth.

The expatriates who work among them come and go, leaving many a strange and entertaining anecdote to tell of their time spent amid luxury on the rim of the eternal desert. From the fisherman’s cottage on the north Yorkshire coast, where he lives today, Andrew Trimbee has gathered up many of these to weave into the narrative of his own story.

The Old Ladies of Nazareth

In 1987 I published my first book, Women. It became a bestseller as a result of the tremendous publicity it received. The Times of London bought the first serial rights in the book and backed it with a substantial advertising campaign on television. Other papers jostled to get on to the bandwagon, to the dismay of various critics and commentators, who for reasons known only to themselves opted to be unkind to my first endeavour and go on the attack.

Publicity is publicity whatever form it takes, though I was left unable to account for the concerted hostility the book seemed to provoke. The apparently harmless concept behind the book involved me in nothing more than transcribing and assembling the words of women who were very successful in their particular fields. They had their own strong viewpoints on their positions in the world and, in answer to my questions, voiced their concerns about the plight of women in our society and the differences of attitude that exist between the sexes, whether these are from inherent traits or from conditioning by nurture. My role had simply been to extricate responses from them on the acknowledged major issues relevant at that time in the late 1980s.

Those who attacked the book were in effect turning their contemptuous backs on the opinions of women who were the cream of our society. Maybe there was an underlying resentment of the fact that these women were articulate, worldly and enjoying a following in their individual lines of work or vocation. Among the various occupations represented were those of writers, philosophers, artists, politicians, surgeons, bankers and actors.

The scattering of negative reactions from some quarters in the literary establishment in the UK had no effect whatsoever on the publication of the book in France. The French publishers included interviews with an additional thirty notable Frenchwomen, and in contrast with the sometimes grudging media response in Britain, the French press hailed the book as an important contributory factor to a proper understanding of where women and their aspirations stand in modern society. A Japanese translation soon followed to complement the commercial success of both the earlier editions.

In fact, the onset of harsh reviews never left me feeling particularly despondent. The reality was that the counterbalance of the commercial success of the book was the truly rewarding aspect. As they say, I laughed all the way to the bank, and perhaps beyond it, as the experience gave me the foundation to publish in the years to come more than sixteen further titles, many of them books of interviews with other men and women who had insights to offer on themselves and the times we live in. These collections were all in general favourably received by the critics.

Then, in 2004, I published The Old Ladies of Nazareth, a first attempt to chart my own life’s background in detail. It gained much acclaim from many of those who acquired it and I have since received on average three letters a month from readers in every walk of life who seem to have appreciated the characters described and the evocation of a period that, despite being in living memory, verges on the biblical.

To illustrate this point further, I originally sought to map out the origins of my own deep regard and affection for women in the prelude I wrote for Women, which is still available in a paperback edition. There I described my childhood in Haifa, with a father whose frustrations and rage at life made him overbearing and bullying, and a mother who was dominated by her husband.

My father’s anxieties about the dangers of the world meant I could only ever go out in company with my mother or sisters, and I was frail and sickly, so that our house was often like a hospital with the comings and goings of doctors and nurses. In summer I sat out on the balcony for hours, looking down at the street and marvelling at the life that went on in it. One of my few escapes from this enclosure was when one of my sisters began to escort me by the hand to a near-by convent school, and I retained the fondest memories of the kind nuns who taught there. I had also known the kindness of my paternal grandmother and her sister, as they lived with us until I was five. At that point my father could no longer cope with the irritation of having his mother and aunt around and they left to go and live in a house at Nazareth.

This would have deeply significant consequences for me at the age of fifteen, when the tragic conflict between Arabs and Jews began in Palestine. As Nazareth was then an Arab city, it was thought to be a safe location, and I was sent there to be cared for by the two old ladies. It was in Nazareth that I really came to know my grandmother and her sister, and the move opened a two-year period that I regard as having been the most rich and satisfying in my life. I truly learnt about the power of unselfish love as my grandmother cared for me untiringly and nursed me if I was ill. In return, I loved her with the same dedication.

Hardly a day has passed since then without something happening to set off a memory of her and the care she gave me. In recollection, those times with my grandmother took on an idyllic character in what I wrote in the prelude to Women:

She lived in a traditional oriental house she had inherited from her father. It had two vast rooms, an outside kitchen and a lavatory at the bottom of the garden. We slept on the floor of one of the rooms on mattresses. My grandmother grew all the fruits and vegetables we needed and we had a lot of hens. It was like a small farm in the middle of town. There was a deep well in the garden, but its water was only used for watering the plants and for washing. Drinking water was usually fetched from the Fountain of Mary at the other end of town, in a large earthenware jar.

Across the garden, we could see the hills of Galilee and, when the full moon rose from behind the hills, we would sit in the garden and my grandmother and her sister would tell me stories of the Ottoman occupation, of their childhood and of the acts of courage for which my father’s family were renowned.

I felt happy and comfortable in the company of these two old ladies, who were in some measure to shape my future life. They were simple people whose wisdom derived from nature and the land. They understood the important things in life. I recall seeing my grandmother’s sister plant an olive tree, and asking her why, since it would take so long to bear fruit. ‘They planted and we ate,’ she replied; ‘we now plant that they may eat.’

They taught me a good deal, and above all they gave me confidence through love. I found myself irresistibly drawn to them, and their environment became mine.

My life thereafter was much influenced by women.

I hope this extract from the prelude will give any potential new readers a useful background flavour, leading through to the tale I had to tell in The Old Ladies of Nazareth, which is now reissued in paperback. This may help them to understand the reason why I felt compelled to write it down and thus share the story of their lives with others. The act of writing this little book, The Old Ladies of Nazareth, gave me the greatest joy possible. I so much wanted to pay tribute to the two people who, with their unconditional love, offered my life both meaning and objective. Their legacy will remain with me till I join them in the celestial new world they now inhabit.

The Waters of Forgetfulness

This is the speech I delivered at the launch party to celebrate the publication of The Waters of Forgetfulness, by Yorick Blumenfeld, on Wednesday 22nd July 2009. Please forgive my posting a speech from several months ago – there will be plenty more fresh tales to look forward to in the coming days, I hope – but it is I book I love, and believe you will too.

I have seldom made speeches for public occasions, but several times recently I have found myself being persuaded to come out of my shell and deliver a few words at book events such as this one. Yorick Blumenfeld, the author of The Waters of Forgetfulness, was introduced to Quartet by Caroline Michel of PFD, whose charm is beguiling and powers of persuasion hard to resist. She also had an intriguing project to offer – a manuscript written in a first-person voice from the time of ancient Rome in the age of Virgil. In this the narrator tells the story of how he doubles as Charon, the mythical ferryman who conveys souls across the river of death, and returns with tales of hell. These have an uncanny ring of conviction to them, alongside bawdy, philosophical and genuinely spiritual observations, and the unfolding of the history of the greatest scam in classical antiquity.

My first meeting with the author of this original work was itself quite eventful. The reader of his latest book will soon see what I mean when I say he is a great storyteller, and in fact he turned out to be as gifted in real life as he was on the page. One anecdote that Yorick recalled provided a pointer to our encounter many years later. His mother, who died a few years ago, once told him casually that there was a man in London he really ought to try and meet. The man’s name was Naim Attallah.

‘Why would I want to meet him?’ he asked her. ‘Did you ever meet him yourself?’

‘No,’ she confessed, ‘but I’m sure he would be a person it would be good for you to meet.’

She could provide no valid reason for this conviction, except that she thought he would enjoy making the man’s acquaintance.

Yorick could see no point in seeking me out on this slender basis, and there the matter rested till fate took a hand in its funny, mysterious way. It seemed that his mother must have possessed some prophetic insight that he never suspected while she was still alive. Could the underlying link have to do with the fact that we are both of semitic origin, he Jewish and I a Palestinian Arab? Was it this that somehow made us destined to cross the Waters of Forgetfulness and form some kind of bond?

There is no denying that, in today’s world of politics, such a crossing might augur well for a peaceful co-existence to replace hostility and conflict, especially in the Holy Land. However, I should say at once that Yorick’s book is devoid of politics. As I summed it up in a remark quoted on the book’s jacket, it is ‘a haunting story told with an erotic edge deeply embedded in ancient history’. As a work of fiction, it is tantalisingly absorbing, with orgies to boot. People say that sex sells. Well, I don’t want to be perverse, because I do not think that sex by itself can ever be a substitute for other qualities in the work of a writer or artist. I would say that, in my view, eroticism can be devastatingly attractive when portrayed with literary servings and great panache. Yorick succeeds admirably on both these counts. His career has been remarkably varied, while also being steeped in futuristic concerns, including the afterlife.

We at Quartet always try to forge a special relationship with each of our authors. This is what I call ‘old style’ publishing, where author and book matter a great deal to us on a personal level. If this is regarded as a rare situation today, then so much the worse for publishing and the ways in which it has changed under modern pressures. Commercial consideration is but one factor and we should never allow it to overshadow the personal relationships with our authors. I hope that we will serve Yorick well and promote his book to the best of our ability.

But before I conclude, I would like to urge our distinguished gathering to pay tribute to Yorick by purchasing a copy of The Waters of Forgetfulness and asking him to sign it. Those who feel rich enough might purchase more than one copy, to give to a friend or relation. What a nice present to receive – a signed copy of a work of literature that’s both a wise investment and a satisfying intellectual challenge. After all, it is only money that we are talking about, and given that the Bank of England is beside itself with printing off vast quantities of the stuff, perhaps it is better for us to get rid of some of the pile by spending it while the going is good. Heed the words of one who was once a banker in another age and act on them.

To buy the book, click here.

William Miller

The news that William Miller died in Tokyo on 5th November has sent a shock wave of sorrow through Quartet Books and all those who have been associated with them over the years.   

Alongside John Boothe, he was one of the founding fathers of Quartet, the other two being Brian Thompson and the late Ken Banerji. He and his three partners were instrumental in establishing a foundation for the company that was innovative and radical in many respects, and which still has its influence in the list today.

The ancestral hometown of the Millers was Wick in the far north of Scotland, but William was born on 4 May 1934 at Gravesend in Kent. At the start of the Second World War he had the experience of being sent as an evacuee to a house near Long Melford in Suffolk. He was later educated at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, read history at Oxford and went to work on the Financial Times before going into publishing at the paperback imprint, Four Square.  In 1962 he joined John Boothe as joint managing editor of Panther Books, which became part of Granada Publishing in 1965, though John and William retained total editorial freedom. There they acquired such authors as Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, Len Deighton, Fay Weldon, Beryl Bainbridge and John Fowles among many others, besides publishing Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the Kama Sutra and the socialist classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel. Together they built Panther into one of the most distinctive paperback lists in London.

In 1972 they embarked on a fresh venture and raised the funding to found Quartet. William lived by his humane radical convictions, which were by no means narrow. He believed it was as important to entertain and enjoy as it was to instruct. For him a dose of libertarian anarchism could be as good for society as a digression on Marxist ethics. The Quartet list came to contain such titles as E. J. Hobsbawm’s The Revolutionaries, Marx’s Sociology and Social Change, edited by Donald McQuarie, Stuart Holland’s The Socialist Challenge and Philip Corrigan’s Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory. Alongside these were May Hobbs’s recollections of an East End childhood, Born to Struggle, Max Wall’s autobiography, The Fool on the Hill, and My Queen and I  by Willie Hamilton, the republican MP for West Fife, who was a gadfly on the rump of the British royalist establishment.  William was convinced Her Majesty was missing a trick in refusing ever to meet Willie face to face.  

And then there was Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, originated by Mitchell Beazley, who got cold feet about publishing it themselves before Quartet took it over.  There was still a real risk of police prosecution for this book at that time, and indeed on more than one occasion consignments from the printers abroad were seized as containing sexually explicit material.

Thus Quartet set out in the early 1970s, often going where many other established firms still feared to tread, and William was the hero of what was then the Hampstead intelligentsia. Alas, by 1976 Quartet’s original capital was sadly depleted and the company was experiencing serious difficulties in trying to keep its head above water.  

The ambitious publishing programme had to be curtailed, as was clear to me when I took over the company that July. So far as publishing was concerned, I was a complete novice, but I balanced my lack of knowledge with a steely determination to rescue this individual and worthwhile imprint and give it a new lease of life. A more realistic capital structure was put in place and fresh human resources were mustered to achieve an even more vigorous and varied list of titles to expand its readership potential. In achieving this aim, William took on the role of my publishing godfather. The original thrust of Quartet was maintained in establishing it as a champion of the underdog and that section of the community that craves for recognition in its plight of suffering from unemployment and poverty.

The fun was by no means over.   Quartet’s launch parties grew to be glittering, publicity-raising events in the publishing calendar. Mrs Thatcher, who had become leader of the Conservative party and whose sights were set on soon being Prime Minister, was the antithesis of everything the boys at Quartet, and William in particular, stood for. To put a shot across her bows, they dreamed up the concept of Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag, a folder of cardboard cutouts and satirical artefacts, with contributions from John Wells and George Melly, and published it in 1978. It fulfilled one objective in that it came to the Iron Lady’s attention and she was livid with fury. She still, however, became Prime Minister in 1979 and set about making her long-term mark on the political landscape of Britain.

Although William and I were both Tauruses, we were dissimilar in many ways. Our sexual orientation was different, and so were our modes of life. He was more unconventional than I have ever been; he smoked heavily and, where I was abstemious, had a capacity to consume quantities of alcohol in those days when so much publishing business in London seemed to be done in pubs over liquid lunches. 

Yet there developed between us a warm and affective relationship that was to remain after he left our shores in 1984 to reside in Japan. I have already told the story of Quartet Books from its beginnings in my volume of memoirs, Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975­-1995, which remains available.

It was William’s way to raise a glass to celebrate life at every opportunity, but more seriously he had great courage in everything he did. He was remarkable as a friend, always helpful, tolerant of others, a bon viveur, an innovator and, above all else, a person to think of with great affection.

In Japan he began a new career as a literary agent, founding and becoming managing director of the English Agency (Japan) Ltd., which is today a leading international literary agency. Though he had stepped down as managing director, he was still working with authors up until the short illness that led to his death. 

In hospital in Tokyo for treatment for a leg infection, he then contracted blood poisoning. As he lay in intensive care full of tubes, he sang Scottish songs, complained about the lack of entertainment on the unit and negotiated with the doctors for a daily quota of wine.  He was a rare person, knowledgeable about books, writers, music, and one of the best paperback publishers of his time.  

As the English Agency (Japan)’s announcement of his death urges us to do, we must remember ‘his passion for life, his love of books and publishing, his dedication to fun, his fondness of friends, his laughter and his optimism in the fundamental goodness of people and our ability to make the world better’.

There is a sadness in William’s going, but a joyfulness in having known him. I am sure the heavenly spheres will be all the more congenial for his arrival among them. A celebration of his life has already been held in Tokyo. Another will follow in London in the week before the London Book Fair in 2010.

He will be sorely missed.