An Initial Encounter That Went Wrong

I was much anguished to read last weekend about the serious illness of Hugo Williams in an interview he gave to Sameer Rahim to coincide with the publication of his book of poetry, I knew the Bride (Faber).

I feel particularly sad because of an encounter with the young poet that ultimately misfired when he came to interview me for Time Out in March 1982.

The article caused me no end of embarrassment at the time, although I am now convinced that it was not deliberate but rather lacking the necessary research and relying mostly on idle gossip that had no factual basis.

The article appeared with a grim-looking but forceful picture of myself, seated with a cane in my hand, beneath which, in bold lettering, was the title: The Smile on the Face of the Tiger.

It was eye-catching, to say the least, and given the rather forbidding aspect of the picture, quite dramatic.

The article itself started off well enough and had the poetic turn of phrase to be expected from its author. As a prelude it had the following paragraph in italics:

‘After a long and difficult journey, the tigress arrives in Tiger Heaven. From the build-up of her relationship with Eelie the dog and Harriet the leopardess, through her early attempts at eating a porcupine and her surprise encounter with a bear to her first kill of a Sambar fawn, the reader will be spellbound…’ So goes the blurb of Tara, A Tigress, one of the tiger books published by the Palestinian entrepreneur, Naim Attallah. It sounds like Attallah’s own story, with Eelie the dog played by David Frost, Harriet the leopardess played by Mayfair jeweller John Asprey, the porcupine by Times Newspapers and the bear by Lord Grade. The Sambar fawn is clearly Anne Smith, the unfortunate editor of the Literary Review, whose sacking last year won Attallah a marzipan pig from Women in Publishing for “outstanding services to sexism”.

From that point on the article lost its way, relying on fantasy and recycled gossip rather than properly researched facts. I might have contemplated buying The Times newspaper and supplements when they were for sale, as the article speculated, but would never have suggested removing John Gross, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, to replace him with Anne Smith. The notion was preposterous beyond the realms of fantasy. I happened to be a great admirer of John.

Far more than by this sort of nonsense, however, I was exercised by a repetition of the old canard that I had swamped the Literary Review with pro-Arab propaganda. The article had its interesting side, but this outrageously untrue and easily disproved assertion demeaned it as a whole.

There were other inaccuracies relating to the dispute with Anne Smith and the supposed ‘sacking’ of my close friend Stephanie Dowrick from the Women’s Press. These finally robbed the piece of any charm and authenticity it might have possessed and provoked me into contemplating legal proceedings against Time Out.

It was still a dilemma for me, since I liked Hugo Williams for his wit and nerve, but I could not let these grave accusations go by. Fortunately common sense prevailed and eventually Time Out printed an apology detailing the main inaccuracies. Stephanie was also naturally incensed and the editor of Time Out reproduced in full the letter she wrote from Australia:

There was much to object to in your article about Naim Attallah (TO604). However, I will narrow my complaints to what directly concerns myself. Not only was I not dismissed as managing director of the Women’s Press by Naim Attallah but I have found him to be, in the five years of our business partnership, an intensely loyal man, capable of putting friendship ahead of all other considerations. When I discussed with him my current sabbatical his support was immediate and has been utterly consistent. Perhaps this kind of loyalty is difficult for your reporter to understand? For the record: Naim Attallah and I continue to own the Women’s Press jointly. I continue as a director of the company. Ros de Lanerolle is in a permanent position as managing director of the Women’s Press. I will return to the Women’s Press in the summer in a chiefly advisory capacity while I continue to write.

Over the years Hugo Williams and I have bumped into each other from time to time. He still remembers the unfortunate Time Out incident, but we have both mellowed and our meetings are friendly and warm. What on earth he had in his mind about me in the conclusion he gave his article is still a mystery:

Attallah once nearly produced an £8 million biopic of King Abdulazzid al Saud [sic], Lawrence of Arabia’s old adversary. ‘It’s the most marvellous story,’ he told me. ‘Can you imagine anyone else in this century founding a nation with the sword?’ A tiger smiled at me over his shoulder. ‘Why yes, Naim. You.’

Looking back on the incident I can only deeply regret my overreaction to the article and wish I had not made such a fuss as to its inaccuracies.

However, the past is past; my only comfort today is to pray for his total recovery and hope that we can meet again in happier circumstances – and embrace à nouveau in total reconciliation and comradeship.

Comments are closed.