Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Nonsensical Strategy of the Book Trade

The book trade is in a shambles.

We have just had returns in excess of £6,500. It does not make sense. Waterstone’s return books. They reorder the next day. What a state of affairs.

No wonder the market is depressed.

Art of Being

My wife and I were invited to a fashion show on Tuesday last week, given at Il Bottaccio in London by Elizabeth Emanuel.

As a legendary designer Elizabeth has never been idle, working for the Royal Ballet and in television advertising and the theatre; but this, after ten years’ absence from the catwalk, was her first public collection under the name of her new brand, Art of Being, which she launched in 2005.

‘I love creating textures using fabric and embroidery in the same way as an artist uses paint,’ she explains, adding that it was designing costumes for the Royal Ballet that allowed her to develop her particular technique. ‘In a sense a woman’s body becomes the canvas of my art, ­ hence the name of my label.’

Her spring/summer collection 2011 is dedicated to the little black dress. The inspiration comes from Audrey Hepburn in the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, according to the press release, conceiving a young and vibrant Holly Golightly, living life to the full in 2011. The collection also takes a glance back to the renowned black dress that Elizabeth co-designed, transforming Lady Diana into a princess.

‘I’ve chosen the little black dress as a running theme,’ says Elizabeth, ‘because it is such an iconic fashion item. The little black dress embodies glamour, allure, sophistication and can still  look funky, sexy and slinky.’

How very true. This showcase collection is a classic, but with a defining variation in a new and subtle form, without the visual gimmicks so often used by designers to gain sensational publicity at the expense of practical wearability. Such dresses may well be stunningly visual, but are not in fact designed for wearing.

Elizabeth succeeds where others have failed. Her collection has its roots in a recurring harmony of fine lines, simplistic to the eye yet fashionably enticing, with an emphasis on bias cut and interesting silhouettes.

As her models strode down and back along the catwalk with their impeccable maquillage, each one seemed comfortably at home with whatever design they were displaying. The aplomb they showed in their demeanour spoke volumes for the sonority of the occasion. Duchess satin and Chantilly lace featured in the special edition, with a strong emphasis on texture and layering. The fabrics used in the ready-to-wear range appeared in various shades of black. They included silk moss crêpe, chosen for its beautiful stretch and drape, and a black-loop theme that encapsulated both the dresses and accessories. The collection as a whole related indeed to the art of being.

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, Elizabeth Emanuel was designing exclusive dresses for renowned personalities around the globe, including members of the British Royal Family. And now, in September 2010, the catwalk had come alive again with her talent as she unveiled  her exclusive collection of exquisite variations on the little black dress. Her low-key approach to her art, and her commitment to make women look both comfortable and sexy in an age where style has lost its basic tenets and purpose, bodes well for the future.

Her return to the industry is a much-needed tonic. I wish her well. Art of Being represents a real boost for confidence amid our times of pessimism and uncertainty.

The House of Worth

Recently I received an invitation to attend the relaunch of the House of Worth at the Ritz Hotel in London.

The event marked the bringing back together of the two sides of this famous institution, clothing and fragrance, for the first time since the 1920s. The invitation came to me by way of Rosalind Milani Gallieni, who was in charge of organising the occasion’s marketing and public relations.

It is always a delight to be remembered and find in the post an invitation from someone with whom you have worked closely in years gone by and who is still at the peak of their profession. The delectable Ros was with me as an assistant and colleague during my time as chief executive of the Asprey group, and I have written about her and many others of her ilk in my book of memoirs, Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975-1995.

She was then working for Garrard on special projects. Besides the fact that she was delightful company, she was also highly skilled as a driver, an asset extremely useful to me on trips to Europe. She even accompanied me in my search for the unsettling crime novelist, Patricia Highsmith, in her remote hideaway in the Swiss Alps, to conduct an interview. The successful outcome of that trip can be found in my collection of interviews, More of a Certain Age.

With Ros I also often made journeys to Milan and Paris, her grasp of languages being an added bonus, especially in Italy. She oversaw the setting up in Garrard’s London showrooms of a René Boivin boutique, coordinating the necessary arrangements with the parent shop in Paris.

The founding of the House of Worth is a remarkable story, which has its unlikely origins in England in Lincolnshire, where the founder, Charles Frederick Worth, was born in 1825. At the age of twenty he went to Paris as an apprentice bookkeeper and in due course set up a ladies’ bespoke clothing business. In 1858 Worth’s atalier was the first to sew personal labels into the garments it created, and to prepare a portfolio of dress designs to be shown on live models. Clients could attend these shows, select designs, colours and fabrics, and end with a dress tailor-made in Worth’s workshops.

It was the very beginning of today’s ready-to-wear clothing industry, and so Mr Worth became the father of the phenomenon known as haute couture by the modern fashion business and a powerful influence over what women were wearing ultimately around the world.

With the relaunch of the House of Worth, as celebrated by the reception at the Ritz, Parisian haute couture is now being given a fresh face and a new dimension to carry it forward into the future. Worth’s lingerie and other accessories, such as couture jewellery and bespoke gloves, will become key entries in their portfolio. Their Prêt-à-Porter collection , using all the valuable experience from the company history, will be a true hybrid between ready to wear and couture, suitable for a busy, everyday lifestyle but fit to stand beside the couture designs. Their exclusive heritage edition of the classic 1932 Worth perfume ‘Je Reviens’, presented in its original blue architectural design of flask, is already being marketed as an icon to herald the company’s revival.

For me, none of this is unfamiliar territory. In the 1980s I launched a young Arabella Pollen (today a successful novelist) to become a couturier. I saw she was highly talented, and her success was remarkable, with a rise to prominence that appeared to happen in no time at all. She had no training, and once told an interviewer, ‘I thought college or design school would be a waste of time for me. No one can teach you designing. You just have to do it.’ Nevertheless, she soon had among her clients Princess Diana, a leader in fashion in her day, and a large number of the Sloane Ranger set. The press adored her and she became the talk of the town in London and New York.

It was an immensely rewarding experience for me to be part of the world of fashion, about which it taught me a great deal, but it was also a costly episode. I was not altogether dismayed when a family grouping engineered what was in essence a management buyout from my Namara company. Arabella and I parted with no ill will.

Not to be content with this unexpected diversion, I then embarked on an even more perilous adventure by developing two new lines of perfume under the umbrella of my own company, Parfums Namara. They were called respectively ‘Avant l’Amour’ and ‘Après l’Amour’, names that caused outrage, especially since the bottles containing them were erotically suggestive.

Needless to say, Private Eye enjoyed a field day over the venture, but I had a real stroke of luck when Elizabeth Arkus, the doyenne of French beauty journalism, whose speciality was writing about the perfume industry, highlighted them in an article for the magazine, Les Nouvelles Esthètiques. In it she wondered, since the perfumes were created ‘to gratify the senses’, whether ‘[Mr Attallah] will continue to astonish, amuse or trouble us? Will he produce the perfume of the twenty-first century?’

It seemed I was therefore ahead of my time, but alas, Elizabeth Arkus’s prediction was not to be fulfilled.

For many years I struggled to maintain the original impetus that led to the success of Parfums Namara. Eventually it was lack of capital that made me abandon my career as a parfumier. Both fashion and perfume demand huge outlays of capital as the advertising budgets alone can run into millions of pounds.

The revitalisation of the House of Worth as a leader of fashion justifies the risk. Its provenance augurs well for its future success. My motto has always been, ‘Those who dare, win’; I felt it held good on this occasion.

It was also noteworthy that the promotion at the Ritz was not just for the ivory tower of fashion, but was giving support to The Passage, an organisation respecting the beliefs and cultures of all who use it to provide resources to encourage, inspire and challenge homeless people to transform their lives.

Young Hitler

Many books have been written about Adolf Hitler since the end of the Second World War and there seems to be no abatement in the fascination he holds for those who try to understand him as a figure in history.

Despite all these books, every now and then new revelations are unearthed to shed further light on the man and the complexity of his character.

Historically, he was a monster of unparalleled cruelty, whose intended mission was to subjugate Europe as a whole, as well as the lands to the east, to spread his evil cult of Nazism by means of brutal conquest and cleanse it of those he saw as inferior branches of humanity; first the Jews, then the Slavs (though the latter part of his programme was never fully engaged).

As an artist in his early years, his gifts were no more then mediocre, but he was no ordinary man and the idea that he was in any way intellectually lacking is certainly not true.

He is not to be easily encapsulated in any fixed theories of personality.

Young Hitler by Claus Hant, published by Quartet, is an important book that reveals aspects of the man and the way he became what he did, without any of the usual marginalisation of his achievements.

The fact that the press has chosen to ignore the book’s publication in the United Kingdom speaks volumes about  the irrationality of prevailing attitudes that have no bearing on merit.

Read the book and judge for yourself. An open mind is often the antidote to unfounded prejudice.

Christopher Hitchens

There is a long history of those who, in their youth, marched and proclaimed with the radical left, but then, as the years went by, underwent a transition to become allied with the political right.

Among the Romantic poets, both Wordsworth and Coleridge saw the French Revolution of 1798 as a new dawn, heralding fresh ways of constructing society. Their hopes ended in reactionary disillusion.

In the twentieth century, Oswald Mosley was notable for having thrown in his lot as an MP within the Labour party of Ramsay MacDonald. Then, out of impatience with what he saw as indecision and incompetence, he set up his own short-lived New party to try to attract like-minded active radicals before eventually founding the British Union of Fascists to take the political arguments on to the streets.

Reasons have been various for such drifts to the right with deeply committed personalities. Among writers, George Orwell was accused of deserting the collective cause of the left when he took, in his later writings, to defending the individual against the power of the centralised state, a move prompted by what he had seen during the Spanish Civil War when the Moscow-backed communists turned on the other left factions and tried to destroy them.

Paul Johnson is a more recent example of a columnist who established his reputation for radical comment in the pages of the New Statesman, but who, from the time of Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy in the 1970s, became increasingly conservative and ultra traditionalist.

David Aaronovitch followed a similar path when he moved from the Guardian to the Times and hitched his wagon to Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Under the influence of the Blair doctrine, figures like Peter Hain, whose Radical Regeneration and Mistaken Identity Quartet published back in the 1970s, seem, once they were part of the New Labour establishment, to have become far more conservative and conventional with their political solutions than one could ever have believed possible. There have been times when Tony Benn appeared to be almost the only surviving Labour politician to hold firm to the integrity of his roots and the original beliefs that he began with.

The feeling with which the experiment of the New Labour adventure has left me is predominantly one of betrayal. Its main architect, Tony Blair, has engaged in a misuse of power to pursue an illegal war and used his political opportunities to become a multi-millionaire, secure from ever being indicted for the consequences of Iraq. It would be hard to think of a scenario further from the ideals of the fathers of the Welfare State. In fact, in Blair’s case, who can say crime does not pay?

These thoughts and others went through my mind one evening when I happened to be watching a television interview with Christopher Hitchens, conducted  by Sir Peter Stothard and carried out before a live audience. It was rivetting to see. Sir Peter was on excellent form, being both sympathetic and probing. Christopher was his usual self, witty, provocative and a master of repartee and intellectual banter.

I have known Christopher since the early 1980s, when Quartet had an office in New York. Commuting between London and the Big Apple on a monthly basis, I would stay, ten days at a time, in our own sumptuous apartment in a prestigious block where the other residents included such celebrities as Placido Domingo.

In those days I saw Christopher quite often. He had by then stopped being a columnist for the New Statesman and was writing instead for the Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Nation. Once, he somehow became marooned for hours in our apartment after a sudden snow storm hit New York and brought the city to a standstill. Among the other guests, equally trapped, was Bridget Heathcoat-Amory, as she was then known. Christopher, sustained with alcohol, enlivened this involuntary group of castaways until the city was on the move again. He was a very heavy drinker who could consume half a bottle of whiskey without ever appearing the worse for it, or having his powers of reasoning impaired. I admired his stamina and his ability to write lucidly despite being under the influence of the demon drink. Perhaps it was the secret potion that fuelled him up to do all he achieved.

Our encounters led on to Quartet publishing the first edition of his book, Cyprus, in 1984, ten years after the violent events that resulted in the partition of the island between Turks and Greeks following the invasion of the Turkish army. In this he nailed the intervention of foreign powers, and in particular the Machiavellian dealings of Henry Kissinger for having turned what was in essence a local dispute into a major disaster. Christopher was, at the time, an ardent supporter of the Greek faction on the island. Indeed, he had taken matters further by marrying Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot, his first wife, in 1981.

During his early journalistic career, when he was politically left wing and had Trotskyite affiliations, he made a habit of cultivating women of the upper classes, to some of whom he became very close. In the eyes of many this looked like a contradiction and a puzzle, and he was often criticised for keeping such company. His explanation was typical Hitchens when, it is said, he coined the phrase: ‘You think left and sleep right.’

But his left-wing views took a major shift during the years that followed his link with the Greek Cypriot cause, prompted particularly in 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, and what he saw as the ‘tepid reaction’ of the European left. One of the consequences was that he abandoned his various crusades on behalf of the underprivileged, including the Palestinians, and took his gift for lively polemic into a new territory. This prepared the way during the George W. Bush administration for his rise to prominence and a new populist following in the United States. Christopher’s acid pen and revised political opinions were then placed at the service of US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sadly, to this day he remains entrenched in his belief that the war in Iraq was a necessity and morally correct. Needless to say, his is a minority view that has infuriated those who for years admired his early writing and considered him a crusading journalist.

Watching him being interviewed on television the other evening, I was reminded of his seductive eloquence. Despite his right-wing stance, which can often be irritating, he has lost none of his humour, nor his command of the English language or his mesmerising use of words to make the maximum impact with his audience. As far as I am concerned, his undying hatred of Kissinger’s policies is his saving grace, and for that I applaud him.

His heavy drinking combined with his love of cigarettes was bound to have an impact on his health sooner or later. The way he has now taken it in his stride to face up to his limited prospects of long-term survival from oesophageal cancer have made his serious illness a world topic. I wish him well. His death would be an incalculable loss to the world of journalism.

Though he describes himself as an anti-theist and an exponent of the ‘new atheism’, still seeing himself as a child of the Enlightenment and the philosophies of Rousseau and Voltaire, I will, as a Catholic, offer him my prayers. Maybe the Almighty will spare him a few years longer or find a special place for him in the eternal scheme. I can be sure this will cause him no offence.

As the New York Times reported, hundreds of letters have been sent from well-wishers (and even a few foes) in America to assure him of their prayers and urge him to reconsider his position on religion. His response when asked whether he found this insulting was, ‘No, no. I take it kindly, under the assumption that they are praying for my recovery.’

Eyes in Gaza

This month sees the UK publication of Eyes in Gaza, a groundbreaking account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, written by the only two Western eyewitnesses to Israel’s twenty-two-day military offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2009.

From the book:

During the course of Israel’s twenty-two-day military offensive in 2009 on the Gaza Strip 1,300, mostly civilian, Palestinians were killed, with many thousands more injured. Once again, the Palestinian Community lay in ruins.

Despite the Israeli authorities’ attempt to shut out aid workers and the media from the conflict zone, NORWAC (the Norwegian Aid Committee) succeeded in getting some of its envoys into the heart of Gaza City, including two doctors: Erik Fosse and Mads Gilbert.

For some time, the two were the only Western eyewitnesses in Gaza. This book is an account of their experience during sixteen harrowing days from 27 December 2008 to 12 January 2009.

Each chapter covers just one day, as the reader follows the doctors’ journey through the ravaged city, treating local Palestinians and hearing their stories.

Hailed by the influential Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen as ‘the best book of 2009,’ Mads Gilbert’s and Erik Fosse’s shocking yet sober account sheds much-needed light on this recent chapter of one of the most prolonged and complex conflicts of our time.

Eyes In Gaza is translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey and Frank Stewart, and published now by Quartet Books.

Buy a copy here.

Roald Dahl and God Cried

In his recent biography of Roald Dahl, Donald Sturrock refers to an incident that occurred when Quartet published God Cried by Tony Clifton and Catherine LeRoy, a book about the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in 1982.

The circumstances behind Dahl’s subsequent incendiary critique for the Literary Review is recounted inaccurately. The author could have asked me but, in the manner of many modern day popular biographies, the research is slap-dash.

Here is my version of what took place – also reproduced in part earlier this year – since I was far more involved in the mayhem that ensued than Mr Sturrock’s description of me as ‘editor’ suggests.

I had an uncanny premonition that 1983 would be a difficult year. So far my new career as a publisher had been bumpy but without too much discomfort. The controversies of the past twelve months had left my fighting spirit intact. My wife Maria maintained that I always courted trouble because basically I enjoyed adversarial combat. It was my way, she said, of reassuring myself that I was capable of defending what I felt to be right, whether ideological or political. There was an element of truth in that, I had to admit. I function at my best under pressure and relish the art of tactical manoeuvring. I never seek conflict for its own sake, and I would rather win a contest through debate or highly charged negotiation. To pit one’s intellect against that of an opponent and win is far more satisfying and morale boosting than entering into some vulgar spat that is undignified for both winner and loser. While I am prone to flare up at the least provocation, I try to leave matters to simmer down before I react.

The start of 1983 was benign enough. The attentions of the press seemed to become focused on Sabrina Guinness, who was causing a great deal of speculation following her appointment to head a book club affiliated with the Literary Review. The announcement of the launch party led to various cheap asides in the press questioning her suitability to run such an enterprise. The gossip writers had a field-day delving into her background and claiming she possessed the less serious attributes of a social butterfly. Some reported that she was presently engrossed in books to bring her up to the mark in her new job; others held more cynical views. Sabrina herself showed great reserve, refusing to let her feathers be ruffled by this onslaught of adverse publicity. She proved to have an impressive measure of resilience in coping with the situation and rose above it all with dignity.

Sabrina organized the launch party, which was notable for the rich mixture of people it assembled. The literati were there in force, alongside the gossip mongers who could not resist the chance of picking up more material for their columns. The usual crowd of book-event attenders chattered with delight as they circulated among the beautiful young women there to show their solidarity with Sabrina, whom they considered one of the gang. Roald Dahl, who reputedly never attended a publishing function unless it was to do with one of his own books, had responded to a personal invitation from Sabrina. He was there with his daughter Tessa, who had had a small part in The Slipper and the Rose, the film I had produced with David Frost.

Roald Dahl and I began our conversation with his asking me in which part of Palestine I was raised. He knew the country well, he added, having been stationed there as a fighter pilot with the RAF during the Second World War. Their target at the time had been the Vichy administration in Lebanon. When I told him my home town was Haifa, his face lit up. The mention of it brought back poignant memories, he said. He described how the Arab peasants would wave to signify good luck as the fighter planes flew over Mount Carmel on their outward sortie, and waved to welcome them back when the pilots made a safe return to base. As he was speaking a sudden thought shot into my mind. Quartet was about to publish a book, hard-hitting in its views, on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Perhaps we could ask Dahl to write a piece about it for the Literary Review.

The title was God Cried and the author was Tony Clifton, a well-known and respected journalist who worked for Newsweek; his collaborator was Catherine LeRoy, a veteran French war photographer who died recently. The book described, in harrowing detail, by way of its words and pictures, the violence and destruction inflicted by the Israeli armed forces on West Beirut through shelling and bombing and the harsh realities of their occupation. Its title derived from a piece of Palestinian black humour circulating in the Middle East at the time, it being said that God had agreed to answer one question each from Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev and Yasser Arafat. The American president asked his question first, wanting to know when an American would become leader of the whole world. ‘In fifty years,’ said God. And Reagan cried. When God asked him why he cried, he said, ‘Because it won’t happen in my lifetime.’ Next it was the turn of Brezhnev, who wished to know from God when the whole world would be communist. ‘In a hundred years,’ said God. And Brezhnev cried for the same reason as Reagan. And when it came to Arafat, he asked God, ‘When will my people have a homeland of their own?’ And God cried.

Before I could broach my idea for a review from Dahl, I needed to observe the protocol between proprietor and editor and consult with Gillian Green­wood on whether she would agree. Hers was the last word editorially on what went into the magazine and the choice of contributors. I tracked her down in another corner of the launch party and put the question. She gave me the green light at once. Returning to Roald Dahl, I asked him whether he might be interested in writing such a review. His reaction was abrupt to the point of hostility. He received many requests from publishers to review their books, he told me, and never agreed to do one, irrespective of the book’s merits. He would certainly make no exception to the rule on this or any other occasion. Dahl could display a rather intimidating side if he was roused and I stood there dumbstruck. The earlier warmth of our conversation evaporated instantly. I mumbled a few meaningless phrases and retreated politely, under the pretext of not wishing to monopolize his company.

After recovering from the shock of this sudden embarrassment – not because of his refusal to write a review but because of the manner in which he had expressed it – I went to seek Tessa Dahl to protest at how I was mortified by her father. She was not in the least surprised to hear my tale, being quite accustomed to his brusque moods. Would she be able to persuade him to change his mind, I wondered, given his interest in Palestine? If we sent her a copy as soon as the book became available, she suggested, she would try her very best to cajole him into a change of heart. I held out very little hope of her succeeding, but sent her God Cried even so, just for its promotional value.

Hardly a week had passed before a letter from Dahl arrived enclosing a comprehensive review and informing me that he did not wish to receive any payment for it. I was thrilled until I started to read it, and then my spirits fell in semi-horror. It was couched in language unhoned by diplomacy and without the least regard for the art of gentle censure. Dahl was bold and unrelentingly scathing in his condemnation of Israel for its brutal opportunistic incursion, which had taken its army all the way to Beirut. I knew at once that publication of the piece would send the influential pro-Zionist lobby into a frenzy of rage. It was addressed to the editor of the Literary Review, and since the decision on whether to print it would have to be Gillian Greenwood’s, I passed it on quickly.

Gillian shared my concerns and we agreed we must first check it out with our lawyer, Michael Rubinstein, whose advice and suggestions would be pertinent since he was himself Jewish. To our utter surprise, Michael liked and approved of Dahl’s review. Apart from editing out a few of the more intemperate expressions, he urged us to publish it. The reason he gave was that criticism of Israel should not, when it was deserved, be silenced by those who chose to see only one side of the equation. Michael was a liberal and an ardent champion of the oppressed and dispossessed. His last words to Gillian and myself were: ‘Publish and be damned.’ We did publish; and we were damned.

The reaction to the review was far more extreme that we had anticipated. Apart from the overreaction of the Jewish lobby, the friends of Israel in the media became virulent in their onslaught on Dahl, myself and the Literary Review. The attacks came in from every side, even reaching a pitch where many journalists and politicians of high standing called for a boycott of the magazine and anyone connected with it. Every day something more vicious than the day before appeared somewhere, with accusations of anti-Semitism becoming more strident and preposterous as the campaign to discredit Quartet and the book gained momentum. Dahl did nothing to help matters by growing even more combative and being provoked into making out­rageous, inflammatory responses. He was not in the least chastened by all that was being said about him. On the contrary, he expounded on his views and riled the press by being abrasive and dismissing their questions out of hand. There was no way of putting a gag on him and no point in asking him to cool things down. He had the bit between his teeth and nothing would stop him giving our adversaries all the fuel they could have wished for to keep their engines firing.

Time after time I was asked by the press to comment on one or other of his utterances and found myself at a loss for an appropriate response. He was still my contributor and I could not let it seem I was being unsupportive of his right to hold his own views. It was a difficult situation that had gone beyond control. Although we were fighting from the same corner, our temperaments and perceptions of how to get a grip on things were vastly different. In a way, he had dug himself into a hole from which he could not extricate himself without sustaining some damage.

When the whole uproar began I had, in fact, been away for a break in Italy, visiting Lord Lambton, who had invited us for the first time to stay at his villa outside Siena. The holiday was constantly interrupted by the latest reports from London as the drama began to unfold. On the way back to England we travelled via Florence to meet Harold Acton. He had asked us to tea at his famous palazzo overlooking the city, and afterwards took us to walk in the extensive historic gardens, insisting on having his photograph taken with my wife. From that rarefied and civilized experience I plunged into the explosive turmoil back in London, generated, first, by the publication of God Cried, and secondly by the furore that was continuing over Dahl’s review. Rather than showing signs of blowing over with time, the row seemed to be gaining strength. The entire British press gave the impression of having ganged up to condemn us unjustly – given that in every dispute there are two sides to the issue.

To make matters even worse, Jeffrey Bernard, in his ‘Low Life’ column in the Spectator, went way beyond the bounds of decency by proposing that, as a retaliation for the sentencing of ‘a parched man’ to six hundred strokes by those ‘awful Arabs’ (referring to an event in Saudi Arabia), six hundred strokes should be inflicted on an Arab in London. He nominated me for this punish­ment as the boss of Quartet Books and possibly ‘the ugliest man he had ever met’. It was beyond comprehension that the Spectator should have published such offensive material, but the Mail on Sunday ferreted out a reason to explain ‘why the genial Jeffrey is lashing out at Naim in the Spectator’. David Skan, the writer of the short piece, speculated that it was ‘probably not unconnected with an encounter between Attallah’s Quartet book firm and Bernard, who was commissioned to write a book about racing. Deadlines were missed and the book never appeared. Attallah made Bernard repay the advance.’

Then out of the woodwork there came Paul Johnson, known for his Zionist sympathies, with a very trenchant article, again in the Spectator, that poured scorn on the Literary Review. Dahl’s article, said Johnson, was in his view ‘the most disgraceful item to have appeared in a respectable British publication for a very long time’. He could not actually recall anything like it. Moreover, he claimed, the Review was ‘controlled by a wealthy Palestinian who also runs Quartet Books’, adding that ‘the Literary Review has published anti-Israeli material before’. In the face of this I could not remain silent and sent a letter to the editor of the Spectator to challenge Johnson to substantiate his charges since he accused Dahl of a ‘reckless disregard for facts’.

Where horrendous loss of life and human misery is at stake, complaints of tendentiousness should be discounted. Johnson has no more need to apologize for the expression of his strong feelings that I have for accepting my editor’s decision to publish the expression of Dahl’s strong feelings in the Literary Review. Nor am I ashamed of my own strong feelings about the current appalling misfortunes of both the Lebanese and the Palestinians; for every comparably suffering Jew I feel no less strongly.

Johnson concludes his diatribe: ‘The most effective action the civilized community can take is for reputable writers to refuse to be associated with a journal that publishes such filth.’ Contributors to the Literary Review are encouraged to write freely within the law. It is not to be assumed that the editor or publisher necessarily agrees with all the opinions of the con­tributors. Or necessarily disagrees with any of them.

My letter was published by the Spectator on 10 September. Meanwhile Private Eye had muscled in to comment in their ‘World of Books’ of 26 August that I had struck again by publishing God Cried, and by running a review of the book in the Literary Review. They claimed the staff were unhappy with the piece Dahl had produced, but were forced to run it by me, the ‘Arab propagandist’. What had appalled them, they said, was the evidence of blatant anti-Semitism in the copy and how Time Out had published a slightly sanitized version of the review instead of doing their own. My response to Private Eye’s allegations appeared in their 9 September issue.

As Bookworm writes, I own through companies both Quartet Books and the Literary Review. Nevertheless, in no sense did I ‘force’ the Literary Review to publish the copy, nor was the staff ‘appalled [at] the evidence of blatant anti-Semitism in the copy’.

The suggestion that I am anti-Semitic is as absurd as it is mistaken. If being sympathetic to the Palestinians in their plight justifies condemnation of me as a ‘Palestinian propagandist’ then I will live with that. But it is a mischievous distortion of the meaning of propagandist – one who dis­seminates ‘information, allegations, etc., to assist or damage the cause of a government, movement, etc.’ (Collins). I am prepared to risk such abuse as Bookworm’s when I believe that the publication of a book may serve the cause of humanity. I trust the editor of the Literary Review to exercise her discretion in the same cause.

Running parallel to all this, a minor scuffle was set off when The Times ‘Diary’, under the heading ‘Chutzpah’, announced that I had entered God Cried for the three-thousand-pound H. H. Wingate Prize, which is awarded to an author who stimulates interest in Jewish affairs, when I knew very well there was scant prospect of the book winning. My reasoning in doing so was that it would at least give the judges the opportunity to look at the book and perhaps recognize the other point of view. The Jewish Chronicle came in to say that, for once, it agreed with The Times: it was chutzpah indeed, given the nature of the book and the intemperate language used by Dahl in his review of it.

Time Out was also dragged into the firing line for having published its abbreviated version of Dahl’s piece. The magazine was flooded with letters of protest and suffered a concerted attack from the media for having dared to publish the article. Philip Kleinman, writing in the Jewish Chronicle on 26 August, summed up the situation by threatening that ‘if Time Out can bash Israel, it may well be that some Jews might want to bash Time Out. It has a circulation of 65,000 and is heavily dependent on advertising, most of which could be placed elsewhere (What’s On, City Limits, the Standard).’ A few days later, in the Jewish Chronicle of 2 September, Kleinman picked up on a state­ment made by Mike Coren (himself Jewish) in the New Statesman to the effect that I had, as owner of the Literary Review, been put in a difficult position by Dahl’s article, since ‘not even the crudest Zionist could accuse [me] of anti-Semitism’. Yet in Kleinman’s view, my remarks to Coren made it clear that it had been the proprietor not the editor of the Literary Review who had got Dahl to write the piece in the first place. According to Private Eye, he reported, the Review’s staff had been appalled by its anti-Semitism but were forced to use it.

On 9 September the Jewish Chronicle carried a letter from me responding to Kleinman’s article of the 2nd:

Sir – In Philip Kleinman’s article he referred to a report that the Literary Review staff were appalled by the anti-Semitism in Roald Dahl’s review of God Cried, but were forced by me to publish the article. I have already written to Private Eye pointing out that there is no grain of truth in this statement. Because of the controversial nature of the article, we have published a number of hostile letters in the current issue of the Literary Review (September 1983). We believe a free discourse on such an important subject can only help to bring about a better understanding of the issue. May I conclude by saying that the killing of innocent people of any race, or creed, is a heinous act, and should be condemned by humanity as a whole.

The previous day, the 8th, The Times ‘Diary’ reported that Peter Hillmore of the Observer and their own Frank Johnson were on the point of heeding the call from Paul Johnson to boycott the Literary Review. Both had contributed to the current issue but neither of them was sure they wished to do so in future. Hillmore said he considered the article to be ‘plain, abusive anti-Semitism which should never have been printed’, while Johnson said that ‘even by the standards of anti-Israel bias, this piece was above and beyond the call of duty. Gillian Greenwood, when asked for her reaction, said that other contributors to the magazine told her that nobody takes any notice of what Paul Johnson says in the Spectator.’

Back on 2 September, the Evening Standard reported how I had gone to the extraordinary length of removing from the masthead of the Literary Review the name of its poetry editor, Carol Rumens, in the wake of her having written a letter of protest about the Dahl piece in the magazine’s letter pages. She wished to dissociate herself from it, she told the Standard, as she thought the review inaccurate and inflammatory. It was a bad thing, she added, when the proprietor of a magazine identifies too closely with the views expressed in it. Presumably I had removed her name because I was embarrassed that an employee of the magazine (albeit a freelance) should have criticized any of the magazine’s contents. ‘But at least,’ she said, ‘he’s printed my letter.’

Again on 2 September, William Hickey of the Daily Express informed his readers how an almighty row had blown up in the world of literature, featuring spooky writer Roald Dahl and right-wing columnist Paul Johnson, who was calling for a boycott of the Literary Review. When asked to comment on this, ‘Mr Attallah dismissed Johnson’s call for a boycott by saying: “What do you expect from a man who changes his politics as often as I change my shirts! He has no credibility as far as I am concerned.” ’ But then the Express claimed in the final paragraph that I had bowed to a swarm of protests by agreeing to publish a number of letters putting the opposite point of view. The paper agreed to publish a letter from me in reply under the heading ‘Unbowed – a free forum for and against Israel’:

Sir – William Hickey highlights the fact that, following the review by Roald Dahl in the Literary Review, published by my company, of the book God Cried, about the 1982 Lebanon crisis, columnist Paul Johnson has called for a boycott of the Review. The Literary Review provides a forum for the free expression of opinion, and I would not expect reputable writers to refuse to be associated with the journal merely because it has published strongly expressed anti-Israel views by Roald Dahl. William Hickey is, however, wrong to say that I have ‘bowed to the swarm of protest’ over Dahl’s anti-Zionist piece. Letters putting the opposite point of view to Dahl’s have been published in the September issue of the Literary Review because that is precisely in accordance with its policy.

As the row continued, Sebastian Faulks wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of 18 September about what he called ‘a publisher under bombardment over an anti-Jewish book review’. The overall thrust of his article was, in my opinion, objectionable on many fronts. He called the review by Dahl anti-Jewish when it was no such thing. Admittedly Dahl used very strong terms in his con­demnation of Israel for invading Lebanon and maltreating the Palestinians, but it was nothing more, nothing less. I also felt angry about what I felt was a misrepresentation by Faulks of the whole issue, not only where it concerned me personally but also for his evaluation of Quartet as a publishing house. The Sunday Telegraph agreed to publish a letter from me in reply under the heading ‘A publisher’s policy’:

While it is unnecessary to take issue with the sillier aspects of Sebastian Faulks’s article on myself, I would question his dismissal of our publishing programme as celebrity orientated, erotic and propagandist. Quartet have some 300 titles in print. Less than 20 of these deal with the Middle East, of which 11 are concerned with the literature, folklore and anthropology of an area whose cultural influence on European civilization has been shamefully neglected. At present we have nine photographic books on our list, and for your journalist to dismiss the talents of Helmut Newton, John Swannell, Deborah Turbeville and Angus McBean simply as ‘erotic’ is philistine to say the least. To describe as ‘not serious’ an imprint that publishes Jessica Mitford, Lillian Hellman, Cesare Pavese, ‘Multatuli’, Fleur Cowles, Shusaku Endo, Robert Kee, Anaïs Nin (to name a few), and whose autumn list includes Celia Bertin’s Marie Bonaparte, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor and Sue Davidson Lowe’s monograph on her great-uncle, Alfred Steiglitz, rather hints that Faulks and his star-witness, Giles Gordon, might have other reasons for the sneers and innuendoes in the article. Moreover, it would seem a curious strategy for a publisher intent on ‘forcing his way into the establishment’ to publish Paul Robeson’s political writings, Jeremy Sea­brook’s blistering attack on the inhumanity of unemployment, James Avery Joyce’s plea for arms reduction or Ralph Miliband’s socialist tract. Our list speaks for itself and we remain, whatever Faulks and Gordon may say, an independent radical publishing house. And make no mistake, there are all too few of us left.

The Sunday Telegraph had printed my letter, but in line with Private Eye practice it gave the last word to Sebastian Faulks, who said:

I wrote that Quartet has published a ‘wide variety’ of books but that its ‘hallmarks’ (i.e. those books with which it is most clearly and commonly associated) were ‘pro-Palestinian books on the Middle East, collections of erotic photographs and volumes by English establishment figures’. I can still see no reason to modify that description either in respect of the ‘variety’ or of the ‘hallmarks’.

My reaction at the time was that Faulks’s riposte to my letter was ungracious if not bordering on the bloody-minded. I felt he could have been more conciliatory in the circumstances. More of a reasonable tone was sounded by Alexander Chancellor in the Spectator on 10 September when he suggested that the civilized community should suspend its boycott of the Literary Review on the grounds that we all publish rotten articles from time to time and that he ‘felt a little sympathy for Miss Greenwood’s employer, Naim Attallah, who happens to be of Palestinian origin’.

Despite the fact that during the summer he was the object of vulgar abuse in the pages of this paper by Mr Jeffrey Bernard, he wrote a most gentle­manly letter to the Spectator in reply to Mr Johnson’s attack. The letter was gentlemanly because it failed to point out that Mr Attallah is not the sole proprietor of the Literary Review. A chunk of it is owned by the Spectator’s revered proprietor, Mr Algy Cluff.

In the end, as the row continued for weeks, it became tiresome, with the same points being laboured over and over again, irrespective of which side they were fired from. I was then challenged to speak to the Jerusalem Post, an opportunity I willingly welcomed, for I had nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Their feature article, which covered the whole saga, included a short dis­course I had with the newspaper, which prefaced our conversation by saying that neither I, nor the editor of the Literary Review, nor Dahl himself had the slightest regrets about the article. It went on to describe how I had been born in Haifa in 1931 but since 1949 had been living in England, where I had become a publisher. My last visit to Israel was six years before when my father died and I had never had any flair for politics.

I did not deny the fact that I was opposed to Zionism and had great sympathy with the Palestinians in their plight for statehood, but was adamant that I never used the magazine to push my own views. The editor decided what to publish, but in cases where an article might cause controversy, then consultation between editor and proprietor was the norm. I also rejected the charge that the article was anti-Semitic, despite its strong language. ‘If I thought it was, I would not have published it. I’m the last one to talk about anti-Semitism. The Arabs and the Jews are both Semitic people.’ In any case, I told my interlocutor, a healthy debate is far better than resorting to violence. It is an essential part of democracy that people should be free to express their own views. Gillian Greenwood was of the same opinion. She said that a con­tributor to the magazine should be allowed to express his view and confirmed that she had no regrets about publishing the review in question.

The scale and persistence of the Roald Dahl controversy perhaps deflected some attention from the book itself, which had been the reason for the original upsurge of indignation. When God Cried was published in the United States, its fate was rather different. It was virtually ignored at every level by book editors and reviewers as if it did not exist. The well-known Jewish columnist and blues historian, Nat Hentoff, wrote an article around this phenomenon that was published in Voice on 14 February 1984. ‘Have you forgotten that summer in Beirut so soon?’ he asked in his headline, referring to the 1982 massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila camps, carried out by the Christian Phalangist militia with the connivance of the Israeli authorities during their invasion. He juxtaposed two quotes on the Lebanon adventure, the first from the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, when he said, ‘Never in the past was the great Jewish community in the United States so united around Israel, standing together’; the second came from the respected Israeli diplomat and politician, Abba Eban: ‘Beirut for us was like Moscow for Napoleon, a place you’d wished you’d never been.’

‘There is a rage in the book, and shock,’ wrote Mr Hentoff, ‘and much beauty in the faces of the children. I do not know of a more frightening book published last year.’ It had been published by a company owned by a Palestinian Arab. ‘Aha you say. This must be propaganda.’ But then he asked whether, if you took up a strongly pro-Israel book, you looked to see if its publisher was Jewish. ‘Yes, I guess some of you do, just as some of you will dismiss this book without looking at it because who can trust a Palestinian? That kind of dumbness cuts across ideological lines, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I hope some of the rest of you will judge God Cried on its own.’

It was not surprising that Tony Clifton’s prose should have been raw, like some of his memories. It had been ‘one hell of a bloody, brutal siege of Beirut’. There was the story of an editor on the New York Times who cut the adjective ‘indiscriminate’ from the dispatch of a correspondent reporting the bombing – because he found it hard to believe. ‘But . . . the Israeli planes . . . did not give a good goddamn what they hit. The apologists for this most shameful operation in the history of Israel – and many Israelis see it as criminal – can’t have it both ways. If there was only precision bombing, why were clearly marked hospitals hit? Repeatedly.’

Hentoff conceded that Arafat and the PLO hierarchy had interspersed them­selves among civilians and that it was possible that some of them took shelter in hospitals for the mentally handicapped, ‘one of which was bombed five times’; but even so, how could it be worth the cost to ‘kill the maimed, the halt, the blind, kids, anything that moved? What would have been worth this terrible price in Israel’s first war that was not one of defence?’ ‘All atrocities should be written about with rage,’ said Hentoff, coming to the fundamental point. ‘But no one writer has space for all, and I choose Beirut because I am Jewish and feel kinship with those in Israel who do not want Jews, anywhere, to forget what happened in Lebanon in the summer of 1982. Lest it happen again under Jewish auspices, including the support of American Jews.’

Nat Hentoff, writing in America, had finally thrown into relief the meretricious judgements made on God Cried by such a large and influential section of the press in Britain…

There was still one last word to come on the Dahl/Attallah controversy over God Cried, which had rocked the entire publishing world, when Anthony Blond was asked by the Literary Review to give his viewpoint on the whole business. In a lengthy article he condemned both the book and Dahl’s review of it. It was, he said, the most badly written book (an opinion with which I disagreed) to be ‘published by my good friend Naim Attallah, publisher of this journal’. He then added:

[We] have now descended from international to ballpark politics but God Cried has featured so much in the press that there is no need to describe it save to make the point that this is a free country and the author is perfectly entitled to express his indignation and bias (though one would wish he had gone about this task in a more orderly fashion). Equally any editor who spiked Mr Roald Dahl’s review on the grounds of intemperance would need to have his or her head examined. The piece from a famous children’s writer was, if nothing else, a journalistic scoop. I do not, however, believe Paul Johnson was entitled to write in the Spectator that this was ‘the most disgraceful item to appear in a respectable British publication for a very long time’.

Years later, Dahl confided to friends that his review of God Cried cost him his knighthood.