The recent fuss over the long term effects of tattoos and the burgeoning business in cosmetic surgery of removing unwanted, embarrassing images from often intimate places reminds me of a saga from my past – about our publication of a celebration on the art of the tattoo and the aftermath of its publication.
A German photographer, Stefan Richter, had travelled extensively to gather material for a pictorial celebration of the art of the tattoo. Initially his enterprise aroused suspicion from the artists and their models, but Richter had been able to forge friendships with many of them and gain their confidence. They came from a wide cross-section of society, and were ‘normal’ in every respect except for their admiration for an ancient art form from the Far East that the West had chosen to relegate to a symbol of decadence. Richter’s aim was to restore the tattoo to its rightful status as a visual embellishment of high quality and by so doing reassert the credibility of those who wore them and rescue them from the stigma of freak-show connotations. Many fascinating details emerged about the art and the painstaking perfectionism which always surrounded its creation. Tattoo attested to the imaginative brilliance of a select group of artist designers who made the human body their canvas. Yet, as well as beauty and intricacy, some of the designs could also reflect deeply disturbing undercurrents, especially when they touched on the bizarre, the occult and the primitive. Then the beauty could be perverted into something so weird that it shocked the senses. There were those who chose to have their entire bodies tattooed from top to toe so that no area of natural flesh remained and even their genitals became hardly distinguishable. For some of them this was a devastatingly flagrant gesture of sheer exhibitionism but the motives of others were perhaps more disturbing.
The book was costly to produce and a great gamble. Some might have found it offensive, representing a desecration of the human body. Others, while appreciating its art, might have found it most unsettling or simply too peculiar. The potential audience for it was an unknown quality and those to whom it could be expected to appeal directly were not likely to be among the ordinary reading public. It was hard to see, either, where it would fit in with traditional press expectations. As it happened, the book’s cultish status was to save the day. While it did not become a bestseller, neither was it a failure. The experiment was worth the effort and helped to reinforce the view that Quartet’s vision was infinitely enterprising. There were, however, to be consequences I could never have foreseen and which I did not link at first with Tattoo.
Every year, when attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, I stayed at the celebrated Nassauer Hof Hotel at Wiesbaden, where I was exceptionally well treated and had a magnificent suite allocated to me. On one of these trips, several years after the publication of Tattoo, in 1986, I ran into problems at Heathrow, before I had even left England, when I found my flight reservations had been cancelled for no apparent reason. I then had a most difficult time securing an alternative flight, but managed it in the end. On arrival at the Nassauer Hof I found an embarrassed staff at reception who were perplexed to see me. Only two days before, they said, my secretary had phoned to cancel my reservation. I assured them that this was not the case. Alas, the hotel was now full to capacity. The reception manager spent a long time on the telephone to try to find me acceptable accommodation, and in the end he secured a suite for me at a nearby hotel that was on a par with my usual accommodation.
I checked in at the new hotel with a great sense of relief and a growing suspicion as to who the perpetrator might be. Despite the good sales we had achieved for Tattoo, a dispute had arisen with Stefan Richter over the royalty applicable to five hundred copies which he had himself sold at a fifty-per-cent discount. Quartet maintained that, according to the terms of the contract, the royalties should be calculated on the price received, whereas Richter insisted they should be levied on the full cover price. I held my ground and refused to budge. Richter then became abusive over the telephone, but I would have none of it.
He took to haranguing David Elliott, Quartet’s sales director, on a regular basis, threatening to use less conventional methods, including force if necessary, to get what he saw as his due. I would not be intimidated and told David to take no notice of these ravings. In his last conversation with David, Richter hinted that strong-arm tactics would now be put in motion and I would live to regret my obstinacy. Richter was a manic personality who, because of his particular interest, frequented a milieu in which psychedelia was the prevailing style and exponents subverted the art of the tattoo by representing visions of the Gothic or the visually provocative, including explicit sexual postures. The sinister shadow of this world fell on the book fair and the question became to what lengths would the disgruntled author be prepared to go?
We were soon to find out when David Elliott and I arrived at our stand in the International Hall to be greeted by a pungent smell so nauseating that we had to flee before it overcame us. We alerted security, who quickly confirmed that a powerful chemical compound had been left exposed at the back of the stand, and some of it had been sprayed on the carpet to make sure of its overwhelming effect. The odour was so vile that we could not venture into the vicinity for several hours while the work of removing the residue and thoroughly washing the carpet went ahead. Simultaneously it emerged that pornographic leaflets, showing myself at the centre of an orgy with various naked females – one of them giving me a blow-job while the others ravaged different parts of my body – had been left on every British publisher’s stand alongside an obscene poem.
Whenever the Frankfurt Book Fair was on, Richter used to come to it almost every day with his heavily made-up English wife, both of them dressed outlandishly. Her customary gear was a tight black-leather outfit, sometimes with body-hugging trousers to create a highly erotic effect, and a pair of exceptionally elevated high-heeled shoes. She looked like the living subject of an Allen Jones painting. His outfit was in a similar vein, though without the high-heeled shoes, and as an equivalent to her make-up, he usually wore some weird punkish ornaments to signal his bohemian proclivities. We felt sure a visitation from him must be imminent and reported the matter to the police. They showed very little interest in the affair, even though we emphasized he was capable of extreme recklessness and perhaps bold enough to inflict some physical harm. Reluctantly they agreed to question him if he should show up and went away with our full description. Sure enough, as we had anticipated, he was unable to resist the temptation of coming to the fair to survey the havoc his actions had caused. As always he arrived with his wife in tow.
She was instantly recognized from her bizarre get-up and apprehended on the spot. Richter was not far away and was similarly stopped. With a disarming smile, he denied all knowledge of anything that had happened and accused us of waging a war of attrition against him for having demanded his proper rights. The police took the matter no further and he was set loose to roam the fair in a defiant mood. I never stayed the full course at Frankfurt but always returned to London after four nights to get on with other tasks.
News of my mishaps had preceded me and Andrew Moncur of the Guardian was already at work preparing a diary piece declaring how the Frankfurt Book Fair had ‘turned out to be a real stinker – perfectly foul – for Naim Attallah’ and trying to account for ‘the sheer, ripsnorting campaign of sabotage’. The only thing to be auctioned at Frankfurt, according to one publisher, had been copies of the defamatory leaflet, while the tale of the ‘foul stench’ had grown in the telling to where it included ‘buckets of ordure being dumped around’. ‘Who could possibly do these things?’ asked Mr Moncur. ‘If Quartet has suspicions, it isn’t saying.’ All he could think of was a dispute with The Women’s Press in 1991 that had led to staff changes and angered some of their published authors, though it was inconceivable ‘that the faintest trace of suspicion should fall there’.
Meanwhile David had been left holding the fort at Frankfurt prior to its close. As soon as I was out of the way, Richter approached him for a chat in a less bellicose frame of mind. He was still reeling, he said, from our refusal to pay him the full amount of royalties according to his interpretation of the agreement and would be instituting legal proceedings against us in London. None the less Richter managed to sweet-talk David, who was now leaning more towards finding a way to resolve the dispute amicably. The line David took was that Tattoo, having been the moderate success it was, could never justify a legal battle that would be to no one’s benefit. Leaving principles aside, a sensible approach might save both parties from a mutually damaging confrontation.
He told me that, underneath it all, Richter had a soft spot for us both and would love to close the matter on a happy note. I decided to heed David’s advice and paid Richter the additional royalties he was claiming. The following year at Frankfurt he visited the Quartet stand regularly and inscribed a copy of his latest book to me (not published by us) with some warm words that helped to make up for the bad things he had been saying about me twelve months earlier.