GEMS FROM OUR BACKLIST TWO

In the late 1970s, George Hutchinson had introduced me to his friend 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. 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 lick 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 thought it quite an achievement, given that I had arrived in the United Kingdom as a student of limited means and had had to make my own way in an environment that must have been harshly alien.

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During one of our lunches he had 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. Weidenfeld was certainly no friend of mine in that epoch; in fact he was my most consistent adversary. His uncompromising Zionist ideology 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 going the rounds for a while and had been rejected by various imprints as too antagonistic and probably legally actionable.

Once I had read the manuscript I realized why. Not only could it be interpreted as libellous, but the fact that it was mainly fired by Tony’s splenetic loathing of his subject 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 with a text 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. It was called Snow and Other Stories and heralded a remarkably original début by a storyteller 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 utopia of the Bolshevik revolution; an Englishwoman 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 discriminatingly displayed on the walls ofa spacious gallery . . . One rubs one’s eyes before the revelation of a fresh literary talent.’

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The launch party for Snow and Other Stories was a grand occasion attended by over three hundred guests who flocked to the Arts Club 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 most intriguing and charismatic figure. 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, Lucien Freud, Lord and Lady Harlech, Woodrow Wyatt, Lady Melchett – as ever in the company of Sir Hugh Fraser – Lady Falkender, Guy Nevill, Auberon Waugh, Taki, Nigel Dempster, Tracy Ward, Katya Gilmour, Valentine Guinness, Liz Brewer, Nicholas Coleridge, Charlie Douglas Home, Lady Liza Campbell, Minnie Scott and Domenica Fraser.

All of Lambton’s five daughters were present, as was his son and heir, who arrived with his new bride Christabel (née McEwen). His estranged wife Bindy, with her arm in a sling, was looking rather baffled and out of place, while his long-time mistress, Mrs Claire 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.’ The evening was judged a great success, not only as a public-relations exercise but also for the number of copies of the book sold. Lambton’s first published venture as a storyteller was to prove triumphant, and to lead on to even more accomplished and ambitious work.
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In 1985, we published Tony Lambton’s epic novel, Elizabeth and Alexandra. We considered this to be a potential bestseller, and planned the campaign with the precision of a blitzkrieg on all fronts. The launch party was to be hosted by the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava and myself at the Dufferin London home in Holland Park, where guests could spread out and drift in the neoclassical garden. The invitation card was so heavily embossed that, as some journalists remarked, it must have broken half the thumbnails in London. Catering was arranged by my cook, Charlotte Millward, aided and abetted by Charlotte Faber. Both were talented cooks and artists and the sublime ideas they introduced achieved a new high in buffet presentation. The sumptuous cocktail they devised had pieces of real gold leaf floating on the surface of each drink. The Quartet girls were provided with specially designed, slightly transparent, flowing evening dresses in lilac to wear while circulating among the guests, their exquisitely toned, gold-painted bodies shining through from underneath. The concept and stage management of all this were down to the two Charlottes, whose creative imaginations knew no bounds. Among the Quartet girls was a new recruit, Richard Ingrams’s daughter Jubby, who was already making her mark, both within the ranks at Goodge Street and in the world beyond. Jubby was a free spirit whose sense of fun was to find a place on the London scene, though sometimes to the dismay of those encumbered with a stuffy outlook. Her impishness had a whimsical appeal for the literary set as well as for the young ravers who clustered around her, always on the lookout for mischief.

At the party itself there were four hundred guests from every walk of life. Aristocrats were there in hordes to celebrate Lambton’s first major novel, including his family. Lady Lambton (Bindy), unmissable because of her imposing presence, was seen chatting to Lady Soames. She stood at a distance from his companion of many years, Claire Ward, the mother of the film actress Rachel Ward. The tension between the two women seemed to be allayed by the grandeur of the occasion. Sir Jack Colville and old political colleagues like Lord Jellicoe and Viscountess Lymington mingled with the group round Lady Sylvie Thynne, who was drawn in turn to the haute art set, among them Lucien Freud and Kasmin. Princess Michael of Kent and Nicky Haslam were engaged in good-humoured conversation. Others busy circulating included the satirist John Wells, the novelist A. N. Wilson and the columnist Nigel Dempster; Auberon Waugh and Richard Ingrams; John Saumarez-Smith from the Heywood Hill bookshop; Lord Durham, the Earl of Wilton, Emma Soames, Susan Ryan, Countess Fitzwilliam, Arabella Weir, Roc Sandford, Lady Delves-Broughton, Lynn Arial, Ari Ashley, Dennis Walker MP and Mrs Walker, Nigella Lawson, Laura Faber and Amanda Lyster, to pick names from the guest list at random. The Quartet girls looked stunning and entertained the guests with their usual social aplomb. In his account of the party Auberon Waugh waxed lyrical, describing Lambton as ‘the great swordsman turned novelist, being fêted by the most glittering people in England and the most beautiful young women’.

Tony Lambton was definitely back in the limelight, but this time in triumph rather than for reasons of political disgrace. The scandal that had wrecked his political career was relegated to the past and no longer mattered. His emergence as a first-class novelist was a clear sign of a new dawn for the man who had once been a rising politician. The difference was a change in direction, and in his new role he would excel. Significantly hidden behind dark glasses, he was delighted to see the large number of celebrities who had answered his invitation call. Among the crowd of people who were keen to shake his hand were David Dimbleby and Diana Rigg. His indiscretions had clearly been forgiven by the establishment, while to the bohemian section largely made up of the young set, many of whom referred to him as Uncle Tony, he remained a hero. Possibly they admired his wicked sense of humour, which could be biting indeed, and a disregard for conformity he tempered with a certain aristocratic fastidiousness.

Elizabeth and Alexandra was well received by the critics. The Times wrote that, ‘Antony Lambton shows himself to be a considerable novelist, deftly handling a large cast of characters from Queen Victoria to Joseph Stalin.’ The Listener called the book ‘a good solid read’. The Daily Telegraph concluded that, ‘Antony Lambton’s research has clearly been prodigious, and his description of the stifling atmosphere of the Russian court is memorably convincing.’ In line with that opinion, the Observer considered ‘it accumulates respect . . . by sheer archival industry’. And the Literary Review called it ‘a massive achievement’. The book attained the bestseller status we had anticipated for it. Quartet’s promotional campaign proved highly effective.

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