Christina Odone’s interview with George Weidenfeld in the Daily Telegraph of Saturday 27th July brought back memories of many a clash I had with George, who used to refer to me at his dinner parties as ‘that man from the PLO’.
That was, of course, before we made our peace fifteen years later when I interviewed him for one of my books.
But my memory this time refers to the late 1970s when George Hutchinson, one of my oldest friends, introduced me to Charlie Douglas-Home who subsequently became editor of The Times.
Charlie was a down-to-earth gentlemanly character, warmly disposed towards his fellow men and bereft of any pretensions for a man in his position. His upper-class background in no way affected his relationships with those who came from other sections of society. Because of these qualities, I found myself drawn to him and felt quite at ease in his company.
In the years before I met him he had been battling a drink problem, not uncommon in members of the journalistic profession. Only by resorting to total abstinence did he manage eventually to overcome it. Whenever we met for lunch, usually at his office, he would unselfishly offer me a drink, which I then ceremoniously turned down as a gesture of solidarity.
Charlie was always easy-going and prepared to be a listener, liking nothing better than to engage in light humorous gossip about people we both knew. One thing that fascinated him about me was the way I had become integrated into British society. He regarded it as quite an achievement given that I had arrived in the UK as a student of limited means and had had to make my own way in an environment that was harshly alien.
During one of our lunches he had en passant mentioned his cousin Tony Lambton, now living in Italy following his resignation from his post as a junior defence minister after being secretly photographed smoking cannabis in bed with two prostitutes. It was a public scandal that contributed to the collapse of Edward Heath’s Conservative government nine months later.
Tony Lambton only came into the conversation because Charlie wanted to find out if, as a publisher, I would be interested in reading the manuscript of a satirical attack his cousin had written in the form of a novel. The subject was George Weidenfeld, loathed by Tony with an intense passion to the point of an addiction.
Weidenfeld was certainly no friend of mine in that epoch; in fact he was my most consistent adversary. His uncompromising Zionist ideology at the time and his blind support for Israel, whatever the circumstances, placed us in diametric opposition. It therefore intrigued me greatly to have the chance to read the Lambton manuscript though I was doubtful whether it could ever be made publishable. The word in publishing circles was that it had been doing the rounds for a while and had been rejected by various imprints as too antagonistic, savage and probably legally actionable.
Once I had read the manuscript I too realised why. Not only could it be interpreted as libellous but the fact was that it was mainly fired by Tony’s splenetic loathing of his subject, which came over more strongly than the storyline. The flaws in the novel rendered it unworthy of its author’s talents, which were clearly discernible. My conclusion was that Tony would have better prospects in establishing himself as a fiction writer in a context free from such shortcomings.
These views I communicated to Charlie, stressing that my rejection should not be seen as closing the door to other possibilities and that I would be interested in becoming Lambton’s publisher – though it would have to be with the right manuscript.
Before very long the right manuscript arrived – a collection of short stories called Snow – and heralded a remarkably original debut by a gifted story teller with a calm, laconic eye for the odd and the ordinary alike: as Christmas approaches, a London housewife begins a leisurely diary of her daily life – leisurely, that is, until the snow arrives and its proverbial whiteness turns into a vision of the Apocalypse; in 1918, a Russian aristocratic landowner of utopian persuasion is slowly and unwittingly delivered up to the very different utopias of the Bolshevik revolution; an English woman in Italy has premonitions of disaster and prays at the ancient shrine of Minerva, pagan goddess of handicrafts – and of violent conflicts.
These were the themes explored in the author’s first collection of short stories. Harold Acton wrote of it: ‘This illuminating medley…brings to mind an eclectic art collection in which oil paintings, pastels, watercolours and etchings are discriminately displayed on the walls of a spacious gallery… One rubs one’s eyes before the revelation of a fresh literary talent.’
The launch party for Snow and Other Stories was a grand occasion attended by over three hundred guests who flocked to the Arts Club in Dover Street to celebrate the event. I was anxious to mark the author’s return to the London scene in his new role as a writer rather than as the budding politician he had once been; Lambton was spoken of as having had the makings of a future prime minister, had it not been for the scandal that wrecked his chances. He was still considered a tantalising and charismatic figure and nearly tout Londres was there to greet him, attended by the usual turnout of gossip journalists anxious to find some mischievous story to fill out their columns.
The large number of his friends who were milling about included: Angus Ogilvy; Lucian Freud; Lord and Lady Harlech; Woodrow Wyatt; Lady Melchott – as ever in the company of Sir Hugh Fraser; Lady Falkender; Guy Neville; Auberon Waugh; Taki; Nigel Dempster; Valentine Guinness; Nicholas Coleridge; Charlie Douglas-Home; Lady Lisa Campbell and Domenica Fraser.
All of Lambton’s five daughters were present as was his son and heir who arrived with his new bride at the time, Christabel (née McEwen). Tony’s estranged wife, Bindy, with her arm in a sling, was looking rather baffled and out of place while his long-time mistress, Clare Ward, was clearly enjoying the party.
Lambton himself was in his element, as if to say (to adapt the words of General MacArthur): ‘I have returned!’
In his triumph, the shadow of George Weidenfeld had, by then, left him for good.