Proof positive why you can’t beat a bookshop

OXFORD TIMES Thursday, December 6, 2018

Proof positive why you
can’t beat a bookshop

CHRIS GRAY braves the football fans for a literary encounter

index.pngChris Gray with publisher Naim Attallah at the launch of his latest book  Picture: Rosemarie Perry

From the heavily policed Baker Street station branch of boozer JD Wetherspoon, rammed
with lager-swilling Spurs supporters en route to a crunch match at Wembley Stadium, we crossed to Marylebone High Street – ah, the cultural shift! – and the elegant Edwardian premises of Daunt Books for a date with London’s literary elite.

Before the night was over, there would be cause for satisfaction both for the football fans and us. They saw their team beat Inter Milan 1-0, helping them towards a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League; we had the privilege of meeting one of the more remarkable figures of our time in the shape of publisher and journalist Naim Attallah.

A bonus came in the acquisition of a splendid book we had been keeping an eye out for. This was Patience Gray’s 1987 publication Honey From a Weed, concerned with cookery and much else besides, which was reissued a few years back by Prospect Books at £20.

My much-missed friend and onetime Osney neighbour, The Independent’s pioneer food writer Jeremy Round, dubbed Gray “the high priestess of cookery”. He also called her a witch – as did others, including Paul Levy. Add the fact that she was resident for a time
where we partly dwell, on the Greek island of Naxos, and her book clearly demanded to be read.

We’d drawn a blank at Blackwell’s, but the well-informed assistant at Daunt Books led me straight to it and, for good measure, found me a copy of Adam Federman’s newly
published biography of Gray (no relation, by the way), Fasting and Feasting (Chelsea Green, £12.99).

This seemed typical of the sort of excellent service famously offered by Daunt Books, which was founded by James Daunt in 1990 and now has a number of other shops in the
swankier parts of London.

By coincidence, Daunt was profiled in The Times last Thursday, the day following my London visit.
Now at the head of Waterstones, he told Robbie Millen of his almost mystical belief in the power and importance of bookshops, as places to mooch and browse.

He said: “A book bought within a bookshop is a better one than the identical one that pops through your letter box [from Amazon}.”
One controversial decision made by Daunt was the removal of the apostrophe from Waterstones’ name. The same thing was tried at Blackwell’s a couple of decades ago, until its boss thought better of it and reinstated the mark.

My trip to Daunt Books was made for the launch of Naim Attallah’s new book, No Longer With Us (Quartet Books, £30), featuring 49 interviews he conducted for The Oldie magazine, at the behest of its editor, Richard Ingrams.

In a witty speech, Naim paid tribute to Ingrams, whose Private Eye magazine had made him one of its targets.

He recalled: “As the editor he lambasted me mercilessly as ‘Naim Attullah-Disgusting’ and as such he gave me a notoriety which in retrospect did me no harm at all. On the contrary, I became a figure which attracted an attention that
catapulted me to celebrity status. For that I’m eternally chuffed.”

Attallah’s involvement with Ingrams could cause trouble with his interviews, though, including the one with solicitor Lord Goodman, Master of University College, Oxford, who Private Eye always called ‘Lord Goodmanzee’ or ‘Two-dinners Arnold’.

As Naim writes in his blog: “I saw him over a lavish breakfast at his London flat, initially to be assessed for my suitability to be an interviewer of this giant among men. I outlined the concept of the book for him and mentioned several people who had agreed to participate.

“Evidently I passed muster because a month later I conducted the interview itself. Then, a few days later, a letter arrived from Lord Goodman withdrawing his permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams would be appearing in the same volume: ‘It was inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to have withheld the fact that Mr Ingrams is to be included in the book.’

“I replied with a soothing letter, reminding him of his avowed opposition to censorship and questioning the wisdom of bowing out in vexation. The strategy worked.”



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