More memories, extracted from my volume of autobiography, Fulfilment & Betrayal, describing a time long ago – the early 1980s.
Another recruit at this period was Caroline Mockett. Her mother, Ann Foxell, who was then head of the press office at Harpers & Queen, introduced her to the Namara Group. Eventually Caroline became a notable addition to the Quartet girls. In the following contribution, penned by herself in her own distinctive style, she reveals some aspects of the goings-on at Quartet that sadly had escaped my notice. I can well imagine the wicked glint in her eye as she set out to recall the somewhat nonconformist atmosphere in the Goodge Street offices at the time.
Learning the Ropes
by Caroline Mockett
‘Dalleeng. You’re pretty. You’ll do.’ With these words – welcome and verbal contract in five words – I began my tenuous career in publishing.
My introduction to Naim Attallah had been arranged by my mother, exasperated by her daughter’s consistent ‘failure to launch’. By the age of twenty, I had managed to fail a secretarial course, get chucked off a cooking course and then get sacked from my first five jobs.
I returned home one evening to find mother chatting up a Middle Eastern man. This might not have been anything unusual, except that I noticed that the topic of conversation kept returning to me: my mother’s laughter and energetic chat suddenly turning to sighs and sad tales of, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with her.’ It took about ten gin and tonics for the charismatic visitor, Anwar Bati, finally to crumble before the twin onslaught of flirtation and sorrow. He agreed to find me a job. ‘I know someone,’ he said mysteriously, before swaying slightly out of the house.
Wheels turned and I was summoned to Namara House for my brief interview with Naim. Having received the seal of approval, I was whisked away to another address – Wellington Court – where I was shown into a small but pleasant office and told to sit behind a desk. Across the room was an accountant – the accountant – a breed I had never before encountered in my years of deb parties and balls. He was nonplussed by me and I was mystified and unimpressed with him. And so it was for the next three months. I had nothing to do (the accountant seemed to have guessed that I was mostly useless) except occasionally answer the phone – and then pass the call over to the accountant, make coffee (the accountant only drank a cup a day) and read the paper. As Beckett might have said in my position (hard to imagine): ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!’
My dwindling will to live was given a boost by a change of duties. I was summoned to help with the launch of Bella Pollen’s new collection (I thought I had joined a publishing company). I spent a few giddy days helping to hang her fashionable floral skirts and jumpers (it was the 1980s).
For these first three months of working for Naim, I caught only occasional glimpses of him. He seemed to be locked away in his ivory tower at Namara House, only to appear at parties with a retinue of pretty young women about him, all vying for his attention and favour. Seemingly shut away far from his attention, I began to give up hope of ever escaping the accountant’s office and getting involved in the heart of the matter – the great endeavour of publishing. Then, just as I was beginning to work out the best way to get sacked without too many repercussions, I received a summons to Namara House.
‘Dalleeng! I need a secretary. Come, sit there.’ With that, I took up position at a desk in Naim’s office. From the frozen wastes of Wellington Court, I was suddenly bathing in the continual sunshine of Namara House and the launching of the Literary Review. My initial panic about actually having to do something and so being discovered to be entirely incapable of doing anything was soon allayed: there was even less to do than there had been at Wellington Court. I sat, looked pretty, chatted to Naim and tidied my desk. A lot. Which seemed to be exactly what my job description required.
After this period of close examination, Naim arranged for me to be given a proper job in Quartet. Not for me the giddy heights of editorial; I was bundled off to sales and marketing. And here my real education began. Naim had found me a slot as post girl and general supplier for David Elliott (who called me either ‘the postie’ or ‘the failed deb’) and Penny Grant. Within the friendly chaos of the sales and marketing office, I quickly learnt the essential skills needed for success in publishing. First and foremost was the golden rule: get your work done in the morning because you never know how long lunch is going to last.
I managed to make myself useful by taking David’s shaggy dog Tramp for walks and buying toasted bacon and tomato sandwiches for David and myself, a cure for a thumping hangover. And I actually did the post. The post scales I was in command of came in handy when I added to my list of job titles that of ‘supplier of soft drugs to the publishing industry’. Marijuana was carefully weighed out and priced alongside letters and stamps, before being delivered – with the mail – around the office.
Occasionally I was sent out on to the front line of publishing to flog books to retailers. This operation involved the donning of an indecently short skirt, plenty of make-up and an innocent smile before targeting Harrods, Smiths and – my favourite – Mole Jazz. I would pile books into the back of my Morris Minor and splutter off to spread the word of Quartet. I soon discovered I was good at the business of flirtation – reps were putty in my hands and I rarely returned with an unsold copy.
Of course it helped that I was selling one of the most controversial lists in British publishing at the time. A mini-skirt and a car-boot load of The Joy of Sex was enough to get even the most jaded rep excited. Back at the office, Quartet ran an impressive after-sales service – I would take calls from keen and interested readers who wanted to discuss details of the positions pictured in More Joy of Sex. I happily chatted away, describing various obscene acts to male strangers. Anything to sell a book, I thought, not realizing that I had started probably the first and only free sex-chat line in the world. In the lunch break I sold books to transvestites and other colourful Soho characters. Flexibilty and an open mind was an essential part of the sales technique.
The success of The Joy of Sex didn’t go down well with The Women’s Press, whose presence within Naim’s harem of publishing was probably due to a mutual misunderstanding of each other’s intentions. Naim must have thought, ‘How nice, more women.’ The Women’s Press probably thought, ‘He publishes Dennis Potter – how bad can it be?’ The Women’s Press had a fearsome reputation; enough to put the fear of woman into David Elliott– his dog Tramp and I would be called upon as escorts when David had to venture into their territory to obtain sales figures. Little was I aware that The Women’s Press was making publishing history by releasing classics such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, as well as pioneering texts such as the Lesbian Mother’s Handbook.
Looking back, I can now appreciate the innovative and risk-taking books Quartet published: Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, Jonathan Dimbleby and Don McCullin’s The Palestinians, Julian Barnes’s Metroland, as well as publications by Bob Carlos Clarke and Derek Jarman. My time at Quartet was an education in many ways, a formative experience that taught me the value of originality and of thinking in brave new directions. It all helped in my later career working with artists and other creative types. For all of this, and in particular to Naim, I am thankful.