Monthly Archives: September 2017

THE PRINCE AND I

With all the furore in the media around the anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic end, I’ve been reminded of two occasions when I dipped my toes into that strange world of monarchical merchandising – both with disastrous consequences.

Settling Down by James Whitaker, then the royal correspondent of the Sun, was a glossy, heavily illustrated in colour, account of Prince Charles’s amorous exploits before his eventual marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. It was, as you might expect from its provenance, a ‘warts and all’ account. Everyone at Quartet anticipated amazing sales and we printed many thousands of copies.

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The mystery of its demise, reported Tatler, had caused its publisher ‘to work overtime on his worry beads’. It was true enough. To have the title fail so dramatically after Quartet’s publicity machine had been relentless in its promotion was for me a serious blow. While some royal observers considered it the best book of its kind that year, the public at large turned its back on it for no apparent reason. It simply would not move out of the warehouse. We kept asking ourselves what went wrong, but were unable to find a satisfactory answer. Whitaker himself blamed Quartet for the failure, but without producing any evidence to support his contention.

The impression he made on me was that he considered himself God’s gift to the royal family – an attitude that did not endear him to the public, to whom it came across as pure arrogance. Matters were not helped either when he appeared on Nationwide (the prequel to The One Show) dressed in his wildfowling kit, complete with night-view binoculars. It must have been one of the most unappealing television moments ever. At least Whitaker had the grace to concede that his style was maybe a bit racy for the shires.

One of the things I love about publishing is its unpredictability. You can seldom gauge the mood of the nation when it comes to books. Either you are too late with a trend, or you are ahead of your time; or you happen to choose a subject that turns out to appeal to very few people, of whom you may be one. This very aspect of publishing brings with it exhilarating rewards, so in the end who cares? Long hours of stress may be banished by a single stroke of good fortune, and we all live in anticipation of that happening to us now and then.

My second attempt at royal exploitation was early in 1987, when I was involved in a theatrical venture that turned sour. The Old Man of Lochnagar, Prince Charles’s much praised children’s yarn, was transformed into an expensive flop when adapted for the stage. It was based on the Goon-like humour that the prince is known to favour and told the story of a Highland character with a lavatory contraption that played ‘Scotland the Brave’. As one of the show’s main backers I sustained a sizeable loss. Its three-week run in the West End at the Albery Theatre left a deficit of forty thousand pounds with not a single house achieving a sell-out. All in all, the exercise was a big disappointment. Prince Charles had been expected to turn up to see the show with Princes William and Harry but he never came. It deserved a better fate at the box office than the one it received. Prince Charles’s staying away did nothing to help the situation. When the deflated cast members questioned his absence, after they had done so much to capture the spirit of his book, they were told bluntly by a palace aide, ‘He chose not to go.’ Had he been too busy, they wondered. The response was a crisply repeated: ‘He just chose not to go.’

In retrospect, and in fairness to the Prince who, during the years since, I have had the privilege of meeting on a few occasions, he must have been ill-advised by his staff not to attend, given the commercial failure of the venture.

Last night we marked the publication of Sir Desmond de Silva’s book of memoir “ Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes” to an enthusiastic audience at The Churchill Room, The Carlton Club in St James’s Street.

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Here what I said in my brief address to those who came to celebrate the occassion:

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

We are here today to mark the publication of Desmond de Silva’s episodic memoir, with the attractive title Madam Where Are Your Mangoes? You can guess already that the reader is in for a memoir which is different from any other we are accustomed to. For Desmond is a remarkable man, who has lived his life to the full whilst becoming one of the most high profile and brilliant jury advocates of his generation.

Born in Ceylon in 1939 – eight years younger than his publisher and, as you can see, more handsome  and certainly admirably  more eloquent – full of verve and raring to go whenever a challenge presents itself; he splits his time between Belgravia and Sri Lanka.

It is most appropriate to mention that in the course of a long and distinguished career he was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1984, became the first British chief prosecutor of an international criminal court in 2005, was knighted for services to international law in 2007 and made a member of the Privy Council in 2011. He is also a Knight of Justice of the Order of St John for his charity work. What Desmond has achieved is certainly the envy of many of us and is likely to dwarf anything we aspire to, which shows the magnitude of his varied talents and the strength of his personality.

This passionate and insightful memoir provides an authoritative account of many of his most remarkable cases, covering over half a century of practice in the courts of England, the Commonwealth and as chief prosecutor of an international criminal court. It is also a revealing portrait of Britain’s post-war social, political and cultural landscape and a testament to the unparalleled importance of the rule of law in societies all over the world today.

Honest, idiosyncratic, entertaining and never dull, de Silva writes without censor about a remarkable life spent in the corridors of power.

Without further ado, and to keep my address as short as possible, you are invited to show your appreciation for a man who has done so much to gain your admiration by buying a few copies of his book to celebrate this memorable occasion and in the process endeavour to spread the good word around.

As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – you can demonstrate your generosity by showing us the colour of your money preferably of the red denomination to cheer up the author and his hard-up publisher. Let us see what you can conjure up to make the evening an unforgettable experience.

Thank you for your indulgence.

NOT EVERYONE’S A JOY…

I’ve forgotten just how many people I’ve interviewed and regular readers of my blog will know how engrossing and pertinent most of the interviews still are. Looking back, I enjoyed nearly all the people I had the privilege to ask questions of, but there were some who I would prefer to forget. Two in particular:

John Kenneth Galbraith, the world-renowned economist, was a difficult proposition: he was imperious and patronizing. From the outset he tried to dwarf me by orchestrating every aspect of our conversation, refusing to give me a straight answer when he felt a question might compromise him. Instead he would skirt around it and avoid tackling its essence; or refrain from being specific when challenged.

Whenever I tried to insist on a proper response to a question, he brushed it aside with a curt dismissal: ‘Move on to the next question.’ The tone in his voice made it clear he meant what he said and I knew that, if I stood my ground, I would soon be shown the door. Since he was a name to be reckoned with, I swallowed my pride and moved on under his overbearing direction. Eating humble pie was better than having no portion of pie at all.

He was a man totally secure in his self-confidence and impressively grand in his immense knowledge. The experience of meeting him was worth it for the painful lesson it gave me in self-control.

The recently ennobled Gordon White was another example of someone who made me feel uneasy. This was not because of any display of high intellect, but it had everything to do with the fact that he was a right-wing bigot, bereft of any compassion for the underprivileged and under no compulsion to conceal it.

He was without doubt a brilliant market operator, who had found his niche in the United States and been a perfect counterbalance for his partner, Lord Hanson, who was altogether more mellow, and less strident.

Lord White was also working hard to re-enact his youth at the time I met him. He had a young girlfriend, with whom he was desperately trying to keep up physically by exerting himself in the gym. His motivation was so transparent as to make it open to ridicule. The adage, ‘There is no fool like an old fool,’ was particularly apposite in his case.

I somehow found myself unable to relate to him at any level. A tone of self-congratulation ran through the interview and even impinged on what he would like to have been if not a businessman – a major figure in the sporting world or an actor. ‘I was once offered a screen test,’ he said, ‘but didn’t have the courage to do it. I was afraid of failure. You see, I looked right. I was a very good-looking guy when I was younger.’

Unsurprisingly, he was an ardent admirer of Mrs Thatcher, to whom he owed his elevation to the Lords.

The Prince of Soho

Soho pays tribute tomorrow at 1pm to Bernie Katz, otherwise known as the Prince of Soho.

One of Quartet’s famous authors, he will be missed dearly by so many people who knew him well. Our condolences to his family and all his friends.

Naim Attallah

Chairman of Quartet Books.

Interlude

I am on sabbatical until 26th September; the blog will resume then.

THE REAL GERMAN MIRACLE

Angela Merkel is without doubt the most effective leader in Europe. A woman who came from East Germany, emanating so to speak from nowhere in particular, rose to prominence in a low key fashion to become the chancellor of a united Germany and to turn the country into the most prosperous in Europe. Her record in office is truly remarkable, as she now seeks a fourth term as chancellor in next month’s elections.

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Germany achieved a near record budget surplus of Euro18.3 billion in the first half of 2017 according to government figures released last Friday. The timing of the figures could not be better for her at this crucial time as they are likely to boost her chances to win again the confidence of the German people, to lead them as usual with what one calls ‘a safe pair of hands’.

What better omen could she have expected? The surplus is the second largest recorded since reunification in 1990. It recorded an even bigger surplus of Euro28.8 billion in the second half of 2000, but that was boosted by a windfall from the sale of mobile phone licences. By contrast, the surplus for the first half of 2017 was fuelled by higher tax revenues than expected, as the German economy continued to perform strongly. Unemployment fell to 3.8% in June, when measured by the same International Labour Organization criteria, used in the UK. High government spending on housing and integration for more than one million asylum seekers arriving in Germany since 2015 is also believed to have driven the strong figures.

Germany’s economic resurgence after the Second World War is a lesson for us all. And Mrs Merkel is a shining example to other politicians worldwide how restrained politics can work miracles.

If only Donald Trump were to follow her example, keep his mouth shut, refrain from voicing his vocabulary of platitudes through the internet and behave in a manner worthy of his office then the world would be a better place to confront the kind of political turmoil that has become rampant in most part of our universe.

Is it an impossible dream or am I hallucinating? The omens are frightfully incandescent.

THE INITABLE MARILYN

I’ve just received an invitation to a drinks party at the Mail on Sunday to celebrate the retirement of Marilyn Warnick, the paper’s book editor who has handled all their serial rights for over 18 years. She and I go back a long, long way and once she was the manager of Quartet’s American operation, with an office in New York’s garment district and with my frequent trips over to oversee the Asprey store in the Trump Tower, we spent a lot of time together and had many adventures. One must suffice…

 

Quartet’s New York office was beginning to publish more titles specifically for the US market and Marilyn was more and more on the watch for likely books emanating from local contributors. Her most recent discovery was the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who was attracting attention not only for his outstanding talent but also because of some of the subjects he chose to photograph. He was already revered and loathed in equal measure. Everyone agreed, however, that with his unique but disturbing style he ranked among the best photographers of his generation. He pushed degeneracy to extremes and stretched the boundaries of homoerotic imagery to a level of debauchery that was wilfully shocking and unashamedly revolting.

Marilyn took me to meet Mapplethorpe in his studio cum apartment in the Bowery. With Quartet having become internationally known for publishing plush photographic books, we both had it in mind that he could be a natural addition to the list. We found him oddly dressed in leather gear, with such fetishistic sex-aids as dildos, chains and whips strewn around his living area. The walls were covered with amazing photographs of young men and women in bizarre but powerful poses. The atmosphere was disturbing and I felt slightly uncomfortable until he led us into an adjoining room to show us some of his exquisite photographs of flowers. By these I was totally enchanted, affected by their beauty and the magic they seemed to generate. There was no doubting that they were masterworks and their creator a genius. I began to warm to him and to feel a growing optimism about the chances of landing him as a Quartet author. He said that he had photographed Rebecca Fraser – who he knew worked at Quartet – when she was in New York, and offered me a signed print. It has sat in my office ever since. Thus the meeting ended on a positive note as we agreed to think about the most suitable terms for a future collaboration.

After this first encounter I was feeling quite excited about having his name on the list of famous photographers we published. It would add to our prestige, especially in the United States. On my next trip to New York, a couple of months later, I went to see him in the Bowery again. His place was still as cluttered as before with sexual contraptions of every imaginable kind, some of them with sado-masochistic connotations. Again I felt distinctly uncomfortable and had to struggle to maintain an appearance of relaxed unconcern. Robert was as outrageously dressed as usual, all in black leather, and although he lacked a whip he seemed as threatening as if he had one. We exchanged pleasantries and then went straight to the heart of the matter. He would not mind being published by Quartet, he said, but he would have to insist on a large advance against royalties and total editorial control over what appeared in the book. The size of the advance he specified would have been difficult for Quartet to raise, but not impossible; his second demand was another matter. Total control would have been unacceptable under any conditions. My instincts told me that his choice of photographs was likely to be so reprehensible as to make any collaboration between us impossible.

When he had to leave the room to take an urgent telephone call, I wandered into another room that he used to exhibit some of his latest work. There I was brought to a standstill by a series of photographs of fist-fucking so shocking that I experienced a surge of physical nausea. The graphic images were so horribly inhuman and alienating that surely they could only appeal to psychopathic personalities. I darted back to where I had been sitting when he went to answer the phone and tried to regain my composure. When he came back I said I would consider the terms he suggested and made my exit without further ado.

I never saw Robert Mapplethorpe again, nor did Quartet ever publish any book of his. He died of the ravages of AIDS a few years later and was hailed as the most accomplished photographer of his time. His fist-fucking photographs were exhibited in New York amid a barrage of controversy. Today there are collectors worldwide of his photographs, which sell at auction for great sums of money.

Marilyn told the Bookseller she intends to travel the Silk Road. I wish her ‘Happy Trails’ and less shocking encounters … God bless her.

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