From Soho with Love

Rummaging through some old files that I hadn’t seen for almost two decades, I found to my great surprise a review of my book Fulfilment and Betrayal, by Alexander Waugh and published in the Literary Review for the May 2007 issue. Reading it now I believe it covers a period which encapsulates an era which has long expired but is still vivid in my memory.

Since the book is still available, I thought it might attract a new readership keen to recall a period of great literary achievements that have now seemingly dwindled with the advent of the mass market invasion which is often to the detriment of quality publishing.

Here’s the review in full:

Alexander Waugh

From Soho with Love

Fulfilment and Betrayal

By Naim Attallah

(Quartet Books 796pp £25)

At first glance Fulfilment and Betrayal might easily be mistaken for a James Bond thriller, with its jacket photo of a shadowy, handsome man (obviously a spy) glowering above a row of five voluptuous pouting belles. On the back cover there are more photos of luscious lovelies, one of a roaring tiger, and another of a dancer stretching her lissom arms high into the air to reveal, in profile, a pert, bare, well-benippled breast. Dum, da, da, da … How do you stop that famous James Bond theme entering your head as you pull this hefty tome down from its shelf?

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Actually the book has nothing to do with 007 and everything to do with the magazine you are presently reading, for the figure on the front cover is the author, producer, entrepreneur, photographer, philanthropist and publisher, Naim Attallah, who bought Literary Review for £1 in 1980 and sold it twenty-one years later, for an undisclosed sum, to ‘a most unpleasant character’ called Christopher Ondaatje. These are his memoirs of the years 1975-1995. For want of illustrations inside the book, the girls on the jacket are, we may assume, a representative smattering of his glamorous friends and ex-employees (this is how Private Eye readers came to know of Attallah as ‘Naim Attallah-Disgusting – the Hideous oily Monster with his Harem of lethal Nigellas’). The growling tiger is the author’s lucky mascot, a stuffed head with the name of ‘Kaiser’; as for the bare breast, that, I think, is intended to convey the author’s lifelong passion for the female form – a theme, incidentally, that weaves itself in and out of this long and absorbing autobiography as lustily and at times grotesquely as the idée fixe of the Beloved in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

The enjoyment of an autobiography generally depends on how interesting the author is able to make himself. In this instance Attallah’s self-confessed naivety, disgustingness, warmth, sensuality, exceptional energy, bossiness and diversity of enthusiasm certainly make him as colourful as anyone in Dickens or Powell, but the long-term value of Fulfilment and Betrayal will, I suspect, reside not in Attallah’s self-portrait but in the riveting picture he gives of a vibrant literary world that has, in his view, all but vanished – a world invented in his fantasy and brought to life with the bounty of his purse – a crazy, hyped-up, uncommon little world that was centred on Soho, jewels, books, eccentric personalities, gossip columns, ‘It’ girls, parties, rifts and deep friendships. At its hub – and this is perhaps the oddest thing about it – lay Attallah’s small, unassuming flagship title, Literary Review.

Anyone who has been reading this magazine since its inception twenty-seven years ago will be interested to learn of its many vicissitudes. It was founded and first edited by a Scottish academic, Dr Anne Smith, who from the start succeeded in persuading famous writers to contribute ‘for the love of it’ to what was then a fortnightly magazine produced entirely by herself from her own small flat in Edinburgh. After six months the burden of the enterprise became intolerable to her. She had sunk her life savings and could no longer sustain the cost or the vast effort that the work entailed. Attallah came to the rescue, absorbing the title into his Namara Group of publications, which incorporated at various times Quartet Books, The Women’s Press, and magazine titles like The Wire and The Oldie. Dr Smith continued as editor. In time Literary Review merged with the short-lived Quarto, but despite a growing and fanatically loyal readership, the magazine continued to lose money. Dr Smith, according to Attallah’s account, became aloof, restive and depressed, eventually tendering her resignation, which he promptly (and much to her surprise) accepted. There then ensued a very public and very bitter battle between the two that came to a head with Attallah threatening legal action against Harpers & Queen for publishing scurrilous extracts of Dr Smith’s diary.

For the next three years Literary Review was edited by Gillian Greenwood, now a novelist and producer of the South Bank Show, under whose stewardship was printed an inflammatory review by Roald Dahl of a book called God Cried. Viciously attacked by Zionists, the review remains notorious even today and Dahl continued to believe up until his death in 1990 that the reason he was never knighted was because of accusations of anti-Semitism that arose from it. When Greenwood left the magazine to pursue a career in television, Emma Soames took over and it was under her editorship that the magazine was threatened with annihilation by the ‘petty, sensitive, unvulgar, ungreedy’ Countess of Dudley, supposing herself libelled in an Ali Forbes review of Anne Somerset’s Ladies in Waiting.

The case trailed on, but it was only under the editorship of Auberon Waugh, which began in 1986, that it finally came to the High Court. Literary Review lost and was ordered to pay costs and damages, which almost put it out of business. Despite the unfavourable result, Attallah’s vivid account of these events is highly entertaining. My father enjoyed nothing more than the prospect of a court battle (I think he would have liked to be a judge), but in this instance both he and Attallah found the affair only ‘dismal’ and ‘ludicrous’. In the end Attallah settled with the Countess and Literary Review was able to continue, but as his own fortunes diminished the magazine’s future remained precarious.

Attallah has had in his life a great many female friends, some of whom have contributed fond memories to this book. His male friends have been few – a partnership with the jeweller John Asprey ended only in acrimony and betrayal, but he counted Auberon Waugh as his closest male companion. They shared a sense of humour, a sense of honour, a sociability, a belief in loyalty, a love of risk, and, above all, an abiding belief in the quality and purpose of Literary Review, which, now freed from the Ondaatje grip, is in safe hands once again. But it will never be the same for Attallah, whose relinquishing of the title shortly after Auberon Waugh’s death in 2001 marked for him the sorrowful end of an era. Despite 763 pages of extraordinary upbeat hurly-burly, the book ends in a tone of lament, which (for various reasons) struck me as warm, sincere and moving:

The world suffered a tragic and irreparable loss with the death of Auberon Waugh five years ago. His memory is for me as sharp today as it ever was. His uniqueness as a person … whose eloquence drew on the music of words, stood supreme and unassailable. The years we worked together were the happiest I can remember. Soho is, as a result of his death, no longer a place I hanker to be. The void his departure created is too painful to bear … ‘Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse,’ as the French say.

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