Monthly Archives: October 2017

THE REAL GINGER MAN

J P Donleavy’s death, last month, aged 91, reminded me of his special place in my creative life. The actor Patrick Ryecart had acquired stage rights from J. P. Donleavy for his novel The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, and was looking for a backer. Patrick’s links with my family went back some two decades to the time when he lived in Haifa as a young boy, his father having been the Anglican vicar who looked after the British community. Whenever his parents had to travel to visit their flock in the Holy Land, his mother would leave him at my parents’ house, where my little sister had the task of minding him. Being already in England by then, I only heard about him at that stage, but we did finally meet and become friends a year before his marriage to the Duke of Norfolk’s daughter Marsha. Given the childhood connection, I felt a certain obligation to back Patrick’s project as a sign of solidarity; though I also had high hopes that this time round we could be on to a winner. The plot told the story of Balthazar, ‘the world’s last shy, elegant young man’, who as a zoology student at Trinity College, Dublin, meets up with an old schoolfriend, Beefy, who is studying for holy orders but not averse to amorous adventures. When their student careers come to an unholy end, the pair decamp to London, Balthazar to search for true love and Beefy to find a rich wife.

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I sought the advice of another friend, Howard Panter, and we agreed to collaborate on the play’s production. Patrick was to play the part of Balthazar opposite the Shakespearian actor Simon Callow as Beefy, so we began with the advantage of a strong cast. I also found myself hitting it off well with the author J. P. Donleavy, despite his reputation for being a tough negotiator who could adopt an inflexible attitude once he got a bee in his bonnet. He was good company and we became friends as a result.

The promotional campaign began a few weeks before the play opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre, spearheaded by Theo Cowan as a newly joined member of the Namara Group. I took overall control of the publicity machine and pulled out all the stops. Laura Sandys, the sultry youngest daughter of Lord Sandys, who was barely seventeen when she came to work for me, joined forces with a gamine young lady, not much older, called Serena Franklin. Together they went around the West End in a yellow jeep, wearing T-shirts that bore the logo, ‘I Love Balthazar B’. They were an instant hit with the media and were chased everywhere by every member of the paparazzi brigade in town. As far as exposure was concerned, we won hands down, and the play opened with excellent reviews. Unfortunately it was a dark period for West End theatres in general. We hoped to keep it going by word of mouth, for there was no doubting the play was a crowd-pleaser once we managed to get them inside the theatre. For the next six months I did not miss a single night’s performance, counting the audience in like sheep. I stood in the lobby watching people as they arrived, always hoping for a last-minute surge before the curtain went up. I became a fixture, almost part of the furniture. As the performance began, both Patrick Ryecart and Simon Callow would instinctively look at the box where I sat to assure themselves I was there. Sometimes I was rewarded with a wink from the stage – their gesture of appreciation.

With steely determination we gradually managed to improve ticket sales, but Simon Callow had a previous commitment that he could not postpone. His run in the play had to end and a replacement needed to be found very quickly. It was no easy task. We racked our brains for inspiration, when suddenly a mad idea came into my mind. I was very friendly with Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson, who were regulars at my parties. What about Billy Connolly taking over Simon’s role as Beefy? He had a tremendous following and his popularity would surely ensure a box-office bonanza. But he was not then known as the actor he showed himself to be later, and his act as a comedian was based on his brilliant ad-libbing. Taking on a stage role was a different proposition altogether, requiring discipline in memorizing and sticking to the script. Could he do it, would he do it? And if he would, what were the chances of his being able to prepare himself in such a brief period of time?

I invited him to lunch at Namara House, where my excellent cook, Charlotte Millward, an adept in the art of gastronomy, was the envy of the town. For Charlotte food was the spur to creativity, and her inspired invention and improvisation knew no bounds. She could offer avant-garde cuisine to equal that of any famous chef in the metropolis. Disconcertingly, Pamela Stephenson had by then performed a miracle on Billy and he was a reformed character. Not only had she stopped his drinking, she had also turned him into a vegetarian. Charlotte, undaunted, arranged a sumptuous meal made exclusively of vegetables, and was greatly flattered when Billy sought her out in her kitchen, asking for some recipes. The lunch went well, and although Billy was astounded by my proposition, he did not turn it down flat. Having seen the play and liked it, he was very keen but doubted his ability to rise to such a serious challenge. He promised I would have his answer within a few days. Instead of just waiting for it, however, I telephoned Pamela, asking her to urge him to say yes. Her reaction gave me a heartening boost, for she felt sure that this could be for Billy a good career move. He went into rehearsal almost immediately, though there was one remaining hitch. Because of a previous commitment he could do it for only a few weeks. This being better than nothing, we readily agreed.

The casting of Billy as Beefy turned out to be inspired. He took the part in his stride and if ever he forgot his lines fell back on his variety-act technique of improvisation. There was one seduction scene where he had to rip a girl’s knickers clean off, a manoeuvre which dear Simon Callow could only approach with fastidious distaste. Billy, by contrast, tackled the task in a state of heightened heterosexual excitement and performed it with such relish that sometimes he used his teeth as well as his hands. The crowd howled with approval and loved every minute of his antics, not all of which were strictly in the script. They caught the bawdy spirit of the piece, however, and with his manic exuberance Billy never failed to bring comic genius to each performance. The play took on a new lease of life and the queues outside the theatre went round the block, with people hoping either to get tickets or catch a glimpse of their hero. If only Billy had been able to stay on for a few more weeks, then the new capacity audiences would have turned the play into a smash hit in every sense.

CAUTION SHOULD NOT IMPEDE PROGRESSION

The key ingredient for a ‘fountain of youth’ drug may be found in blood from human umbilical cords, a study suggests. Researchers identified a protein, commonly found in the cord, which becomes decreasingly present in our blood as we age. They believe the discovery of the protein, called TIMP2, could lead to new treatments for age associated decline in mental abilities such as Alzheimer’s disease. The US researchers found that injections of human cord blood helped to rejuvenate the cognitive functions of elderly mice, boosting their performance in a series of memory and learning tests.

Previously the team from Stanford University School of Medicine had found that an injection of blood plasma from young mice into old mice had passed on various mental benefits. The researchers believe TIMP2 affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is critical for converting experiences into long-term memories.

Senior author, Dr Tony Wysschray, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences, said: ‘For largely unknown reasons, the hippocampus is especially vulnerable to normal ageing. With advancing age, the hippocampus degenerates, loses nerve cells and shrinks. Hippocampal deterioration is an early manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease.’

Umbilical cord stem cells have previously been found to replenish the body’s blood and immune systems and treat a number of illnesses, including a range of cancers and genetic diseases. In the study, elderly mice were injected with either blood plasma collected from the umbilical cord of new born babies, plasma from young adults, plasma from the elderly or a placebo.

Among the mice who were given cord blood plasma every fourth day for three weeks, many measures of hippocampal function improved, notably with their performance in mazes and other tests being stellar compared to the placebo group.

Cells in their hippocampus were also found to express genes that caused neurones to form more connections in the brain. Plasma from older people on the other hand did not help at all, while young adult plasma induced an intermediate effect. The team believe the key ingredient that makes cord blood so rejuvenating is TIMP2. When they injected TIMP2 into elderly mice, it largely duplicated the beneficial effects of cord plasma according to the findings published in the journal Nature.

Co-author Dr Joseph Castellano said: ‘TIMP2’s effects in the brain have been studied little but not much and not in ageing. In our study it mimicked the memory and learning effects we were getting with cord plasma. And it appeared to do that by improving hippocampal function. Scientists now hope future trials involving the protein would show a similar effect in reversing the consequences of ageing in humans.’

Recently, Professor Robert Howard of UCL’s Old Age Psychiatry and Psychopathology Department, said: ‘This work will stimulate a clear pathway to human clinical trials of what should be a safe and well tolerated agent.’

Dr Jennifer Wild, a senior research fellow in clinical psychology at Oxford University, said: ‘The results are exciting but I would urge caution when extending the findings to humans. The study shows that the human protein can reverse cognitive ageing mice. This does not mean that the protein can cure dementia or cognitive ageing in humans.’ She added that similar studies in mice ‘with dementia-like symptoms’ had not yet translated into cures for humans.

As is common, early researchers tend to give the brighter side of the equation but that does not also mean that progression should be halted if caution is taken into account.

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

I’m so pleased to read the excellent reviews of Rebecca Fraser’s latest book, The Mayflower Generation: The Winslow Family and the Fight for the New World, and delighted to see its serialisation in the Times Literary Supplement.

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It reminded me of the time she worked at Quartet Books, over thirty-five years ago now, and of the fond memories she described for inclusion in my memoir, Fulfilment & Betrayal.

I’ve edited some of its highlights in homage to ‘the days that we have seen.’
‘… in the autumn of 1982, I arrived at the publishers called Quartet Books, to work in the art department. I was very interested in book production and illustration as I had just illustrated two books myself … But Quartet was a publisher with a difference or ‘a tweeest!’ as my new employer liked to say, drawing the word out as he always did into a sort of shriek of highly contagious excitement. Like everything to do with Quartet, starting with my immediate hiring over a delicious lunch, the whole experience would be faintly surreal, but wonderful. Mr Naim Attallah, the boss, was absolute emperor and lived in a magnificent and flamboyant fashion. Every day his uniformed chauffeur was to be seen whizzing about London in a large Rolls-Royce, mainly taking Naim to power breakfasts, or occasionally rushing proofs to a libel lawyer far away in the Temple if Naim or an editor had got the wind up about a book. I found that by and large Naim aimed to be in the newspapers a great deal, whether on his own account or with his publishing, which was daring and challenged the status quo – as all good publishers do. Naim had the mind of a Bletchley Park computer, strangely allied to the exuberant temperament and creative passion of a conductor or a great opera star. Having been a banker, he insisted that he personally rechecked all the costings which are the integral part of the publishing process. He never stood still. As in Alice in Wonderland, what I thought was a publishing house was always becoming something else as well: a chocolate shop, parfumerie, jewellers and so on. For like a true empire it expanded all the time with the sort of relentless energy of my new employer. And oh the extravaganzas that flowed from Naim’s fertile and enthusiastic mind – the plays, like The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and Trafford Tanzi starring Toyah Wilcox, then at the height of her fame, the magazines, many of which have become literary institutions – the Literary Review, the Oldie, the Wire – and the Academy Bookclub. The whole operation was [run from] the empire’s engine room, Namara House in Poland Street. At the top of this narrow house sat the imposing, enormously tall figure of the charming Naim behind his vast custom-made desk, while in and out rushed captains of industry, famous figures like Fleur Cowles, editors, reporters and photographers. They were all desperate to be published by Naim and wined and dined and promoted by him. For Naim loved people and they usually returned his affection. Naim was kind-hearted, generous and trusting in the extreme. I soon realized that my real passion was editing, and after a period learning the black arts of publicity, I moved to edit Robin Clark books. This was a very nice little paperback imprint that had begun as a humorous classics list but which I was keen to make a showcase for exquisite first novels and literary nonfiction. We discovered some terrific writers even off what was known as the ‘slush pile’ – novels sent in without an agent, something unimaginable today with uberagents presiding as chick lit goes for six-figure sums. The great thing about Naim was that he was prepared to take the risk on first novels which other, bigger houses would not. We began to specialize in literary trade paperbacks like the Bloomsbury Frances Partridge’s Memories, Allan Massie, Peter Vansittart and Auberon Waugh’s five novels. We published Peter Handke, Julian Barnes’s first novel and Heathcote Williams’s classic The Speakers. Christine Sutherland’s marvellous Princess of Siberia, which continues to sell twenty years later, was a huge hit, as were Marie Walewska and Monica: Heroine of the Danish Resistance.

‘…Of course, we could never compete with the bigger trade paperbacks starting up at the time, but we published many literary books which in today’s climate might remain unpublished. At night as the dusk fell and the office workers started leaving Goodge Street, it was a perfect life for a twenty-four-year-old. One could either work late in the cosy little offices looking out on Fitzrovia and roam through the amazing Quartet backlist, or increasingly one could go to Naim’sparties! By the time I left in 1986, having begun to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë, Naim was one of the most fêted men in London. He had begun a successful literary career of his own with several wonderful books published. His warmth, charm and sheer niceness persuaded many icons of our age to ’fess up all to him. I met some of my greatest friends at Quartet, where the atmosphere was serious, hardworking and enormous fun. We all wanted to get on and Naim had a wonderful ability to give responsibility to the young. The thought of children and marriage left me cold. The word was what mattered. I then went on to work for a Maxwell paper and Tatler magazine as features editor, but the seminal period in my life was working for Naim. Gentle, kind and thoughtful, he was a great creative force and true Maecenas. There should be more like him.’

IS ZINC THE ANSWER?

The common cold is an irritation we can all do without. No cure has been found so far to alleviate its impact, but it seems that zinc tablets can perhaps cut its duration. A study found 70 per cent of people who took the tablets felt better by the fifth day, compared to just 27 per cent who did not. While previous research on zinc’s effectiveness has been mixed, this time the patients were given much higher doses in the form of zinc acetate tablets.

Dr Hari Hemila and colleagues from the University of Helsinki, studied data from three trials involving around 200 people. ‘The three-fold increase in the rate of recovery from the common cold is a clinically important effect,’ Dr Hemila said. ‘Given the evidence of efficacy, common cold patients may be instructed to try zinc acetate lozenges within 24 hours of onset of symptoms. However more work was needed on the most effective formulation and how often it should be taken.’

Most colds are caused by a type of bug called rhinovirus, which thrives and multiplies in the nasal passages and throat. Zinc may work by preventing the rhinovirus from multiplying and stop it lodging in mucous membranes in the respiratory system. The effect was not altered by allergies, smoking or the cold’s severity, researchers found. As the results were similar across age, sex and ethnic groups, the swifter recovery rate was applicable to all.

The dose was between 80 to 92 mg a day – much higher than the recommended 11mg for men and 8mg of women. However, none of the patients showed any side effects and zinc has safely been administered in much higher doses for other conditions. But Dr Hemila warned most lozenges in shops do not come in high enough doses to treat a cold. He said: ‘Given the strong evidence of efficacy and the low risk of adverse effects, common cold patients may already be encouraged to try zinc acetate lozenges not exceeding 100mg of elemental zinc per day for treating their colds.’

The latest findings confirm previous studies by Dr Hemila’s team, as well as those by Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre. The NHS says there is some evidence taking zinc within 24 hours of the symptoms starting may shorten a cold but long-term care is not recommended as it could cause side effects such as nausea and a bad taste in the mouth. NHS experts say more research is needed to find out the best dose.

I believe caution is always recommended when on ongoing-research has not reached the stages when it could confidently advise its patients that the risk undertaken is minimal and the benefits are overwhelmingly encouraging.

A SAGE REVIEW

Apropos the title of Desmond de Silva’s memoirs, the Gibraltar Chronicle on Monday 16 October wrote a report on the launch of his book at the Carlton Club, St James’s on 27 September by Anthony J P Lombard, which was brilliantly expressed as well as thoroughly entertaining.

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He ended up his piece by explaining the origin of the title which he explains as follows: ‘The book’s title of Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes? refers to a misunderstanding by one of his legal colleagues, when the “hotel” they thought they were staying in, during a trial in Sierra Leone, turned out to be a brothel. However, when I asked Sir Desmond to comment on the title of his book, he hilariously replied: “Dear Boy, it is not an anatomical textbook”.

‘The Talmud says “Every man should plant a tree, have a child and write a book”. Sir Desmond has undertaken all three. However, what a book. It is a much recommended read. So much so, it is compulsory.’

Well, well. The Gibraltar Chronicle is a national newspaper published in Gibraltar since 1801. It became a daily in 1821 and is regarded highly on an international level, being the second oldest English language newspaper to have been in print continuously.

Its complementary review of Desmond’s book gave me yet again the opportunity to tell my blog readers what a good offering the book will make during the festive season to friends and acquaintances that yearn for memoirs of such varied quality. It’s certainly worth a flutter.

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TREASURES IN THE MUD

The Germans have proved over the years their remarkable ingenuity in producing products in every conceivable sphere, be it commercially or the machinery of war, which stand out as unique, often in a class of its own.

A rare Nazi code-making machine that baffled Allied intelligence experts was dug up recently by two treasure hunters in a wood near Munich. The so-called Hitler Mill was intended to replace the Enigma machine that turned Nazi war commands into complex codes. The SG-41 encryption machine earned its nickname because it had a large handle on one side which gave it the appearance of an oversize coffee grinder. Only 500 were made by the Nazis and they were supplied to German Army units in October 1944.

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The two treasure hunters, armed with metal detectors, came upon one in a forest at Aying, in Bavaria. Max Schops, a carpenter, and Volker Schranner were alerted when their detectors began to beep. They dug fifteen inches beneath the surface and found the rusting machine caked in mud.

‘I took it to be a Wehrmacht typewriter,’ Mr Schranner, 36, said. ‘It didn’t interest me; I was after gold coins and treasure. I told Max he could have it.’ Mr Scops, 23, took the machine home and discovered it was actually the SG-41 developed by Fritz Menzer, who built a number of encryption coding machines during the war.

The Hitler Mill was more secure as an encryption machine than Enigma, whose code was broken by Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park. Carola Dahike, a cryptography expert who works at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, said the discovery was an incredible stroke of luck because most Hitler Mills did not survive the war. The machine is to be restored and will go on display, having been donated to the museum by Mr Scops.

According to Mavis Batey, a former codebreaker, the team at Bletchley Park knew the SG-41 had six cipher wheels that moved very irregularly, sometimes even backwards. They were not able to reconstruct the wheel setting or the pin patterns. She said a post-war US signal security report described the SG-41 as a ‘remarkable machine’. ‘Had it been implemented on a large scale as intended, it would have posed a real problem for the allies code breakers’, the report stated.

It is unbelievable what the Germans invented during the war, which eventually formed the basis of many of what the Americans duly refined since with the help of the German scientists, who were gladly given refuge in order to help the United Sates to develop the deadly weapons they now possess.

THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS

My blog has, from time to time, reminisced with tales from my past of exploits I had undertaken in the world of the arts. Watching a recent televised Prom from the Royal Albert Hall made me remember when I embarked on one of the worst experiences in my life.

In 1975 I had been producing a unique musical documentary on Bahrain, with Herbert Chappell of the BBC as director. This came about through a brief association with Yorkshire Television when I acted as a consultant on their series The Arab Experience by Anthony Thomas, a follow-up to his universally acclaimed trilogy The Japanese Experience. The atmospheric music for the soundtrack to The Arab Experience had been provided by a group of local street musicians in Cairo, and the result had a fascinating sound.

It occurred to me that it might be given a Western flavour to make it more appealing to listeners worldwide. The appreciation of ethnic forms was far more limited then than it is today. The music industry had yet to introduce ‘world music’ as a whole new genre. What I had in mind for the Bahrain film was a score which would give rise to an album capable of capturing a small corner of the record market.

When the publisher Alexander Macmillan, now Viscount Stockton, came to have lunch with me one day in my office at Wellington Court, I mentioned the idea en passant. His immediate reaction was more positive than I expected, and he suggested approaching the composer David Fanshawe, whose album African Sanctus had recently been released and attracted a lot of attention. In this Fanshawe had treated the sounds of Africa in much the mode I was describing.

And so it came to pass: I commissioned Fanshawe, who readily accepted the challenge. EMI produced the record, Arabian Fantasy, in association with Namara Music, and it hit the shops at the same time as the documentary film, under the same title, was screened by BBC 2. The success of this project put me in a state of euphoria which fuelled a moment of utter folly. I had a sudden grandiose vision of how Arabian Fantasy might be staged in the Royal Albert Hall as an extravaganza featuring Arabian music and dancing, with all the exotic sights and sounds of the Middle East, from harem girls to real camels.

No sooner did the thought occur to me than I went into action. A lead dancer, Ludmilla Nova, was engaged, the hall was hired and a performance date was set for 2 April 1976. Only a few days before the performance, on 24 March, The Slipper and the Rose received its première at the Odeon, Leicester Square, having been selected as the Royal Command Performance film for the year.

As I stood waiting to be presented to the royal patrons, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, the press-camera lights flashing all around, I felt I had entered a new world. What a journey I had travelled since the early days of my marriage, when we lived in a small flat in Holland Park that did not even have its own bathroom. There, in sheer frustration, with my life still going nowhere, I once wrote a fan letter to my hero of the time, Marlon Brando – hoping to find a way into the film industry. Of course, I received no reply. But here I was now in this select line-up, among stars and show-business celebrities. The Sherman brothers, being American, were every bit as elated as I was to be waiting to meet the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The Queen Mother took everything in her stride. One of the brothers had a girlfriend in tow – a stunning blonde, dressed to kill and exhibiting a most impressive cleavage. The Queen Mother didn’t bat an eyelid.

Afterwards, along with David Frost, Bryan Forbes and Stuart Lyons, we partied till well beyond midnight and sent out for the morning papers to read the press notices and comments. Critics hailed The Slipper and the Rose as a shining example of what the British film industry was capable of achieving if given the chance. The Evening Standard emphasized the fact that it was a British musical with British stars and a British director, which had provided four months of much-needed work for Pinewood Studios. All the excitement and acclaim was probably the reason why, in my eagerness to keep the impetus going for the Arabian Fantasy production, I never paused to reflect on the possibility that I was attempting to transform the Royal Albert Hall into a bizarre circus that the music alone could never sustain.

I was convinced that the enterprise was going to make a star of our lead dancer, Ludmilla Nova. Baroness Ludmilla von Faiz-Fein of Lichtenstein was a twenty-four-year old beauty who was quite entrancing and came with impeccable credentials. We had developed a close friendship since I had first got to know her many months before. She was often to be seen cycling to my office at Wellington Court for afternoon tea. Ludmilla introduced me to her mother, and to her stepfather, the novelist Paul Gallico, who worshipped Ludmilla and dedicated several of his books to her. He even inscribed some to me, writing on the title page of one, ‘To Naim, the character I wish I had invented.’

The mistake I made with the Arabian Fantasy extravaganza was that I depended too much on the leading professionals I had hired to oversee the entire production and did not allow enough time for proper rehearsals. The focus of my efforts was to fill the Royal Albert Hall through the show’s promotion, and I very nearly brought it off; but the result was an audience that was probably out of its depth with such a production. There were many there from the City alongside those from the world of show business, and a large number of celebrities whose presence was merely cosmetic.

From the very start the night was destined to be the most embarrassing of my entire career. It was obvious that everything about the show was a shambles. It lacked coherence and was badly choreographed. Both David Fanshawe and Ludmilla gave it their best shot, but they were defeated by the sheer implausibility of the exercise. The whole concept was wrong and its execution amateurish. I felt too ashamed to emerge from my box in the interval as I saw members of the audience leaving by the score.

The critics had a field day panning the show. A scathing piece in the Guardian concluded, ‘Naim Attallah, the entertainment financier who commissioned this expensive joke, is also a director of Asprey. I enjoyed his associates moaning in the bar that they didn’t dare leave before the end.’