Those of us who have laboured in the literary trade for a long, long time should sometimes stand back and remember the places and the people who contributed so much to Grub Street’s glory. Christina Foyle must surely deserve our remembrance.
In January 1991 Publishing News reported that Christina Foyle had just finished reading Singular Encounters and found it quite diverting. Christina and I had got on remarkably well when I interviewed her for Women. She told me how she had adored her father and how much she had learned from him.
My father was really rather a gambler. He was always up to something. Once, coming back from America, he kept playing cards with some rather sharp people. First of all, he won quite a lot, about a thousand pounds a day – this was in the 1930s – and then he lost it all and a lot more besides. He told these men – they were real sharpers – that he couldn’t pay, but they accepted a cheque. Then I had to get off the boat very quickly at Southampton to stop the cheque. He used to give me all those sorts of things to do. And then there was a lot of money owing him from the Soviet Union, with all kinds of bad debts, and he sent me over there to collect them. I went to Russia, by myself, when I was twenty-one. I went all over Russia, but most of the people who owed us money had either been executed or gone to Siberia. I didn’t have much luck.
Christina was very entertaining and a good raconteur:
When I first came to Foyle’s, it was a wonderful time. There were very many great writers about: Bernard Shaw and Wells and Kipling, Conan Doyle. They all used to come into the shop, and they were charming to me. That’s why I started my luncheons, because customers used to say you’re so lucky, you meet all these great people, I wish I had your opportunities. So I said to my father, we ought to give a luncheon and let our customers come and meet these writers. So my father said, well, you’ve nothing much to do, why don’t you arrange it? That’s how our luncheons came about. But I found that, although I was so young, they never patronized me or talked down to me at all. I used to go round and call on these people, asking them to come and speak, and they always said yes. And we’ve had them from that day to this. The first lunch we gave was for Lord Darling, the famous Lord Chief Justice and Lord Alfred Douglas came, who had been involved in the Wilde affair years before; and then our most recent lunch was for Jeffrey Archer, who wasn’t born when we started them. So it’s been marvellous, and I can hardly think of a time when I’ve had any unpleasant experiences.
Christina was a woman to whom I could relate. She often invited me to a Foyle’s luncheon, usually held at Grosvenor House Hotel, and invariably seated me next to her. She was worldly and gossipy and it was enchanting to be in her company. On one occasion she told me how Colonel Gadaffi of Libya would send Foyle’s a cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and ask her to choose the books for him. She loved her profession and she loved people.
The two strands were completely interlinked in her life.