Monthly Archives: September 2019

BLOND ON BLOND

There was an important development at Quartet in August 1987 when the publisher Anthony Blond and I joined forces to form a partnership that according to the London Standard, under the headline ‘Terrible Twins!’, had ‘all the incendiary potential of a latter-day gunpowder plot’. Blond’s own company, Muller, Blond & White, had gone down earlier in the year, having reached the point where, as he said in his autobiography Jew Made in England, ‘We couldn’t even pay the grappa bill from the friendly neighbourhood Italian restaurant.’ Although he had managed to clear all his debts, he no longer wanted the hassle of refinancing and starting up again from the beginning. He was considered to have brilliant flare as a publisher but less acumen as a businessman. Now he was seeking a home within an established publishing house, from where he could operate and supply ideas for projects, in return for which his name would appear in any books which might materialize. It was his wife Laura who suggested he give me a ring and I invited him to Namara House.

I climbed the four flights of stairs to Naim’s offices. There I encountered a macho lair, strewn with tiger skins and occupied by young ladies who supplied his occasional needs, like a glass of water or a pullover when the air-conditioning became too intense. I explained I only needed ‘walking money’ – an expression employed by the late Dominic Elwes.

‘How much?’ asked Naim.
‘Ten thousand.’
‘Too much, that would upset the others.’
‘OK, then five thousand.’
‘No,’ said Naim, ‘six thousand.’
And so it was.

My relationship with Anthony Blond had always been warm, a warmth strengthened by recognition of the support he gave me in my early days as a publisher when I was being sneered at and referred to as a ‘cowboy’ in the trade. He defended me when others stood aside and took no part in the furore that followed the publication of God Cried and Roald Dahl’s subsequent notice of it in the Literary Review. While he personally condemned the book, he refrained from using any intemperate language and was deeply unhappy about the torrents of vitriol that flowed from many of the commentators. Throughout the crisis he remained staunch in my defence, rejecting the accusations of anti-Semitism being levelled against me in certain quarters and arguing that free speech should never be sacrificed to suit any particular ideology or viewpoint. He never questioned my entitlement to publish material sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and considered my rights in this to be equal with George Weidenfeld’s when he published similar material in favour of the Israelis. Each of us was conducting a crusade of our own and affirming the democratic right of free expression in our society.

I did not always agree with Blond, but our disparities and our different ethnic backgrounds proved a strength rather than a weakness and we forged a good working relationship. I am a Palestinian Arab, while he is an English Jew from a distinguished assimilated background. Even our sexuality was of quite a different kind in its orientation, he being drawn to both sexes whereas I was passionately heterosexual. He became a practising Jew at the time when my Catholic faith was wavering. He drank and smoked heavily while I hardly ever touched alcohol and had given up the latter many moons before. In an interview with Publishing News, Blond said he and I in fact had a lot in common, he even went so far as to describe us as kindred spirits. We both liked pretty, well-heeled girls with double-barrelled names from aristocratic families (his wife Laura was a daughter of Colonel Roger Hesketh, whose father-in-law was an earl). Of his Quartet tie-up he said,

It’s a wonderful arrangement. I’m not much of a dab hand at admin or finance, but I am good at acquiring. So I’ll just get on publishing around a dozen books a year. Naim and I both believe in eccentric rather than category publishing. It will be anything from the official biography of J. R. Jaywardine, president of Sri Lanka, to a book version of Muran Buchstansangur. I also have in mind books from two new English novelists. It’s such a relief to feel all these jewels are no longer unwanted.

I trust Naim fully to take care of all the financial arrangements. He is very pro-Arab of course, and I’m a Jew, but Naim isn’t anti-Jewish, he’s anti-Zionist. I used to be a Zionist, but now I’m one of the Jews for Peace. I’m for a multi-racial Israel.

In addition he argued that these factors could be seen as bringing an extra piquancy to our working relationship. ‘But it’s an irrelevance,’ he added firmly. ‘The kind of irrelevance I enjoy . . . ’ Private Eye put its usual more jaundiced spin on events:

Veteran publisher Anthony Blond is certainly down on his luck. Not so long ago he had to wind up his publishing company Blond & Briggs [sic] and last year he even resorted to the catering trade, accompanying his wife, the former Laura Hesketh, as she distributed cold sandwiches to office workers in the City. Now, however, he has had to accept the most ignominious fate in the world of publishing – a job with the crazed proArab publisher Naim Attallah. A press release announces that Blond has been offered his own private imprint and list within the Quartet empire. He will liaise with Attallah’s main editor, the leery Stephen Pickles, author of Queens . . .

Of Blond’s proposed list, Private Eye commented that the official biography of the president of Sri Lanka – ‘more hagiography than biography’ – should ‘sit easily alongside the tedious memoirs of obscure Middle Eastern politicians that Attallah is fond of publishing’.

Anthony described his new workplace thus:

Quartet Books occupied two adjacent rickety houses in Goodge Street, between which, it was always being mooted, a door would one day be breached. To the young ladies who clattered and chattered up and down the two flights of stairs, I was presented by Pickles as ‘seasoned timber’ and by David Elliott, the sales director, known as ‘dump-bin Dave’, as ‘a living legend’. The young ladies, however, were understandably more interested in stealing each other’s boyfriends on unmonitored telephones than talking to me. The circus mistress of the salle de manège was Jubby, daughter of Richard Ingrams, who cracked a condescending whip and outlasted them all. She was to look after me. Jubby was the Saint-Simon at the court of King Naim, registering his movements, moods and reactions.

On one occasion Anthony tried to set up a television interview with Simon Raven at the Reform Club in their library, which he felt to be ‘the most splendid room in London’. He received a curt no to the idea of any television cameras entering the portals of the Reform, the reason to emerge being that Jubby once hired the Reform for a photo shoot and subsequently the secretary was horrified to be sent a copy of Playboy, to which surely neither he nor the club subscribed. I am sure the magazine featured a naked girl standing on one of Sir Charles Barry’s horsehair sofas, next to the bust of the young Queen Victoria, in the marbled atrium.

‘I was never allowed to attend editorial meetings,’ Anthony recorded, ‘though my modest suggestions were nearly always agreed to.’ The partnership produced a handful of titles, including biographies of Hugh Montefiore, the former bishop of Birmingham, who had been bar mitzvahed at Blond’s own synagogue, as he reminded him, and Justin de Blank. It was odd, he reflected, ‘that these titles, from a Jewish editor, should emerge from a publisher who is Arab’. He almost had one coup in introducing to Quartet Jennifer Patterson, of future ‘Fat Lady’ best-selling-cookery-books fame, but unfortunately his letter of recommendation, advising that we might get her ‘cheap’, was sent to Jennifer by mistake and she went to John Murray instead. Jennifer, a fellow Catholic, was to become one of my dearest friends. Without fail on the morning of every first of May she would ring me to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ over the phone.

In the end Anthony Blond decided to go and live in France, though I continued to pay his honorarium for a while. We also published his book Blond’s Roman Emperors but, ‘Eventually he [Naim] wrote me a most elegant letter of farewell.’ Blond was widely known for discovering many novelists, his most outstanding protégé being Simon Raven, whom I interviewed some ten years later. Raven was perhaps the most outrageous writer of his generation, frowned on by the whole establishment, defying convention and writing explicitly about his own bi-sexuality. Blond has an enduring reputation as a publisher and retains an admiring and faithful following. As a preface to Jew Made in England he printed his own obituary, full of honest self-appraisal. Muller, Blond & White had gone bankrupt after publishing ‘a lavish volume on the Sistine Chapel, on every copy of which the company contrived to lose money’. Of his coming to Quartet he wrote:

Although an energetic spotter of talent, Blond lacked the discipline and temperance to make a good businessman, and was, according to his friends, trusting and gullible. He was now bereft, having regarded an imprint as a form of self-expression. Blond attempted to secure work through his extensive network in what he liked to call the ‘publishing game’. No one wanted to know: and Blond was quoted as saying, ‘None of my best friends are Jews.’ Nevertheless, he was taken up, out of charity, by the Palestinian Arab Naim Attallah, as a consultant to his firm, Quartet.

STING & THE DEVIL

I’ve always been attracted to the unusual, especially when it upsets the status quo. The BBC created another cause for me to espouse in 1978 when it made Dennis Potter’s television play Brimstone and Treacle and then promptly got cold feet over its theme and put a ban on it, locking the tapes away unshown in the archives. It was a gruelling piece about a brain-damaged paralysed girl being raped by a con man who charms his way into her family’s home and turns out to be the devil. Subsequently it had a brief West End run as a stage play, and in October 1981 I joined forces with Dennis to explore making a feature film based on his television script. The director was to be Richard Loncraine and the producer Kenith Trodd. Peter Hannan was signed as director of photography, with Milly Burns as production designer and Robin Douet as production manager.

Dennis was put in charge of his own script. Our budget was in the region of five hundred thousand pounds, with my investment, as executive producer, representing half that amount. The shooting schedule was timed to begin on 19 October, based at Shepperton Studios. Among the cast were Denholm Elliott, reprising the part of the girl’s father, which he had already acted in the withdrawn television version, and Joan Plowright as the girl’s mother. The part of the girl herself went to a gifted newcomer, Suzanna Hamilton. While our American backers had been attracted by the possibility of David Bowie taking the starring role of the visiting infernal stranger, in the end he was not available.

Instead the part went to Sting, the lead singer from the rock band the Police. Sting had some previous experience of working in the movies, having appeared in Quadrophenia, a 1979 film about the battles between the Mods and Rockers in Brighton. He now wanted the chance to do some straight acting, but the Americans insisted on a new Police album as part of the deal. Dennis was prepared to adapt the script to allow Sting a singing role, but this was an idea Loncraine promptly vetoed. He thought it would make it all seem too like a follow-up to Pennies from Heaven. In the end it was agreed Sting would sing a nostalgic standard to back the end credits. The number chosen was ‘Spread a Little Happiness’.

When this was eventually released as a single, to Dennis’s chagrin it attracted more public response than the film itself. He was quoted as saying on a Terry Wogan chat show some time afterwards, ‘I think I was sent into this world to spread a little misery.’ I first got to know Dennis Potter when Quartet published the novel version of Pennies from Heaven. He and I hit it off straight away, though he was a famously complex and cantankerous character. This was largely the result of the terrible chronic illness he suffered from most of his adult life. Known as psoriatic arthropothy, it affected his skin and his joints. He had to endure constant physical pain and was incapacitated in many ways, which gave him a focus for his anger. Despite these handicaps, he was a man of the most remarkable achievements whose delving into the seedy depths of human motivation riveted his audience. He had a feeling for the drama and its need to defy convention which gave his work a rare quality seldom equalled by any of his contemporaries. He had an obsessive nature that in some ways was not dissimilar to my own. Artistically he was driven and inflexible.

He loved a quarrel and his relationships with close associates were always tempestuous. This was especially so with Kenith Trodd, who had worked with Potter over many years on his television projects. Theirs was a relationship that oscillated between love and hate and caused consternation within their circle. Dennis’s perception of women was strange as well as intriguing. He was attracted to the dissolute type of woman whose sexual vibes stir man’s most basic instincts. He certainly preferred the image of woman as sinful to the idea of her as pure. The seething underbelly of nightlife with all its sexual connotations was a theme he was drawn to explore time and time again. The association between disgust and guilt was very real for him.

Somehow he felt at home in an environment where prostitutes lurked or had a dominant presence. But his was a unique talent and his output was prodigious, given the health constraints under which he worked. Of my own involvement I said in an interview with Screen International in early 1982 that ‘investing in films is a logical progression to my publishing activities’; that ‘I’ve always been interested in the media and I’ve always wanted to take risks. I do not see the point in investing in things that you know are going to work. For me the gamble of doing something you believe in is vitally important.’

Dennis told the Daily Mirror that in his ambition for the play to be turned into a film he was prepared to work for nothing to see the project through. The subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle was guaranteed to attract controversy. In the mixed reception given the movie by the critics after its London première in September 1982, discussion undoubtedly centred more on its theme than its artistic merit. There was a general consensus that Sting’s performance was a triumph, and most commentators agreed he was not its only revelation and Brimstone and Treacle was definitely a film to watch out for. It was remarked that it represented ‘a most impressive move into film production for the publishing impresario Naim Attallah’.

The party following the première was a lavish affair at a mansion in Regent’s Park. Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson were there, deep in conversation with Captain Sensible (wearing a skirt), while Lyndsey De Paul giggled with her new man, designer Carl Dawson. Sting arrived alone but was soon surrounded by a cluster of beautiful women, including Selina Scott and the singer Marsha Hunt. Everyone at the gathering heaped praise on Sting for his acting ability. ‘He was so good, he made me sick,’ joked Bob Geldof. Sting was in his element as he gasped, ‘It’s all so amazing.’ His sudden transition from rock star to film star left him quite bemused.

Even the great photographer Helmut Newton, who took the publicity photos for the film and had seen plenty of sights in his time, was dazzled by the event. Only one dissenting voice was raised: that of Virginia Gallico, the mother of Ludmilla Nova, my friend who had been lead dancer in Arabian Fantasy at the Royal Albert Hall. Virginia, who was also lady-in-waiting to Princess Grace of Monaco, was outraged and appalled by Dennis’s fable. She let me know her views in no uncertain terms but I chose not to engage in any heated exchange with her in case it damaged my relationship with her daughter. Years later, when I bumped into Virginia and Ludmilla by chance in Budapest, the incident was apparently forgotten and all was well.

When Quartet gave Dennis Potter a commission to write a novel treatment for Brimstone and Treacle, he passed the task over to his daughter Sarah, whom he was encouraging to do some writing. His utter devotion to Sarah suggested she was the closest to him of all the women in his life.

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

On 28 February 1984 Quartet celebrated the publication of Derek Jarman’s autobiography Dancing Ledge by throwing an outrageous party at the Diorama in Regent’s Park. All a guest needed to do to gain entry was buy a copy of the paperback edition of the book for a cut price of five pounds. A large proportion of London’s gay community converged on the venue in a state of high anticipation and were admitted so long as they were clutching a copy. The numbers who gained access rose dramatically till they reached a figure later estimated at twelve hundred. The crush became so intense that there were fears for public safety and damage to the very fabric of the building. It was far from being an exclusively gay affair. The crowd was made up of a heterogeneous mix of literati, aristocrats, Sloane Rangers, showbiz personalities and punks. Collectively they represented the most colourful of London’s hedonistic high-camp society, as well as its most illustrious. All the beautiful people stood side by side with the ugly, the profane and the bizarre, and were letting their hair down without the least regard for propriety or convention.

The all-night event turned into an orgy of excess resembling a saturnalia. Into the midst of this phantasmagoric confusion and merriment there erupted a surprise cabaret organized by Derek Jarman, the star of which was Elisabeth Welch, the sultry-voiced singer who, at seventy-six years old, was a veteran of numerous musicals and for many a living icon. Escorting Miss Welch was a troupe of fire-eaters who set off total panic among the crowd. The observer who best summed it all up was Auberon Waugh in a piece in Private Eye, written in his uncannily insightful style and accompanied by a cartoon by Willie Rushton (the original of which still hangs in my office today):

Latest entertainment idea to hit the London scene is a group of hideous naked women and one man called the New Naturalists. I saw them at a party given by Naim Attallah the Lebanese [sic] philanthropist, but now they are everywhere. They come on stage completely naked except for combat boots, their bodies painted in green and blue. Also painted blue is what could be described as the man’s generative organ, but might more accurately be called his willie. They start peeing all over the stage and everybody shrieks with laughter. Those who stayed on at the Quartet party – for a sensitive autobiography called Dancing Ledge by 1960s raver Derek Jarman – had the enjoyable experience of seeing it all cleared up by Miss Bridget Heathcoat-Amory, one of the most enduringly beautiful of Naim’s string of delicious debs. I wonder if the Church of England should consider a Thanksgiving Celebration Service of Relief along these lines.

The party was widely covered by the press, with pictures of the Marquess of Worcester with Lady Cosima Fry, Aileen Plunkett with her granddaughter Marcia Leveson-Gower, and Viscount Althorp, now Lord Spencer, brandishing cash in hand to acquire his passport to entry.

Dancing Ledge was Derek Jarman’s first major work of autobiography. He was already established as Britain’s most controversial independent filmmaker and the book gave a kaleidoscopic account of his life and art up till then, from sexual awakening in post-war rural England to the libidinous excesses of the 1960s and subsequently. He told his story with openness and flair, describing the workings of the imagination that lay behind the making of the films Sebastiane, Jubilee and The Tempest and the frustrations he was suffering over his as yet unrealized project, Caravaggio. This was to be made in 1986 with Nigel Terry, Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton, the same year in which he discovered he was HIV positive. Dancing Ledge was republished by Quartet in 1991 in response to public demand. Working in the shadow of his diagnosis, Derek Jarman managed to fulfil himself as a unique creative spirit, with an extraordinarily productive output in various fields, in the few years he had left. He was a prophet of punk who linked homoerotic imagery and thought with increasingly profound themes of time and death. More films were produced and he painted and wrote poetry. He died from the effects of AIDS on 19 February 1994 at his Prospect Cottage on the shingle banks at Dungeness in Kent, where he created an extraordinary garden in his closing years. It mixed indigenous maritime plants with stones from the beach and sculptural objets trouvés washed in by the sea, and it makes a strangely haunting and touching memorial.

REMEMBERING CHRISTINA FOYLE

In January 1991 Publishing News reported that Christina Foyle, a favourite of mine, 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.

She 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.

THEATRICAL SWINGS & ROUNDABOUTS

The theatre has always exercised a hold over me. One evening, in 1982, I went to the Half-Moon pub theatre in Islington to see a play that I heard was enjoying an enthusiastic audience response: Claire Luckham’s wrestling-ring marital allegory, Trafford Tanzi. I loved it instantly for its originality. It had a rough edge that made it simultaneously dramatic and entertaining. Howard Panter, the impresario, with whom I had earlier collaborated on Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, agreed we should join forces to bring the play to the Mermaid Theatre and ensure it an extended run.

Staging it at that venue meant a radical remodelling of the auditorium, but the Mermaid had been dark for months, leaving us a free hand to revamp it. We subjected it to much ripping out and rebuilding to form four ringsides and increase its seating capacity by a hundred to seven hundred and ten. A bar was also installed at the back of the auditorium to add to the wrestling-hall atmosphere. With licensing regulations overcome, the audience, clutching their glasses of bitter in authentic fashion, would be able to watch Noreen Kershaw as Tanzi hurling her stage family about in the ring. When the show opened in October, they also found themselves caught up in a degree of audience participation as the actors were liable, at unscripted and unscheduled moments, to come hurtling through the ropes, as happens during real-life wrestling matches. It was this sort of realism in the action, coupled with its feminist orientation, that brought the audience to its feet. The Evening Standard reported how their man, sitting in the front row, had enjoyed an even more direct experience of participation when one of the actresses, Victoria Hardcastle, appeared from nowhere in fishnet tights and clambered aboard his lap. Miss Hardcastle, whom he considered to be a most comely creature, predisposed him to a new appreciation of feminism. He concluded by describing how I was dressed for the occasion as a ‘wrestling promoter’.

Trafford Tanzi was playing to capacity houses in December when two members of the cast took exception to the promotion and sale in the foyer of three Quartet titles, namely Jean-Paul Goude’s Jungle Fever, featuring on its jacket the naked Grace Jones in a cage, Helmut Newton’s Sleepless Nights, a recent collection of photographs strong in erotic suggestion, and Janet Reger’s Chastity in Focus, a celebration of the exquisite lingerie she designed to make women more desirable. The objectors were Victoria Hardcastle and Eve Brand, who spent most of their time in the play in the ring, wrestling men into submission. Victoria rang me up and requested a meeting. In really quite a sweet-natured way, she suggested that the books on sale were unacceptable from her feminist perspective and she would rather I withdrew them from the theatre. It was her gentle persuasion that ultimately won the day, quite apart from the fact that I did not relish the prospect of having to settle the issue in the wrestling ring. When the press came on the line to ask for confirmation of the story, I simply said, ‘Since it was the women in Trafford Tanzi who objected, how could I be expected to fight?’

The production got a new lease of life in March 1983 when Toyah Wilcox took over the lead. She had to spend several weeks beforehand in training with a bruiser by the name of Howard Lester to cope with being pummelled, arm-locked, sat upon and thrown around in the ring. The following month it was scheduled to open on Broadway, with Debbie Harry, the lead singer from the pop group Blondie, reprising Toyah’s role. Debbie was being trained by Brian Maxine, who had been responsible for instructing the London cast in the ungentle art. With a deluge of unanimously favourable critical comment behind it, there was every reason to anticipate an equal triumph for Tanzi in America.

The Sunday Telegraph had called it ‘A rare show’, and the Daily Telegraph described it as the ‘most original, refreshing, surprising, exhilarating and fierce drama to reach London for years’. ‘Claire Luckham,’ wrote the Daily Express, ‘has not only written a musical, but a contest that had us going wild in the aisles for feminism’, while its competitor, the Daily Mail, called it a ‘play which brings new meaning to the term action-packed’. The Guardian reckoned that ‘It’s a message you don’t forget’, and the New York Times labelled it a ‘feminist play to end all feminist plays’. Cosmopolitan magazine thought it the ‘most innovative and entertaining show in London’, while Options went overboard by saying, ‘It is, quite simply, unique in the history of the British theatre. Glorious . . . liberating.’ The Tatler simply said, ‘The best night out in London.’

With the critics unanimously on side with their superlatives and the public flocking to see the show, Quartet rushed into print with an illustrated large format paperback containing the history of the production and an unabridged script. It went on sale in the theatre and to the wider book trade. The success of Tanzi made it one of the highlights of my theatrical career. Through it I learnt a great deal about the theatre and what makes a production click with the public. It was also very timely, with feminism becoming such a burning issue.

Then the curtain went up on the Broadway production and I travelled to New York to attend the first night. There was a vast contrast with the London experience and it failed miserably in seducing either the critics or the public: as the saying goes, it closed as soon as it opened. Everyone had agreed at the time that Debbie Harry would make a most refreshing choice in the casting, but in fact she looked uncomfortable in the role. There seemed to be none of the rapport between performers and audience that was the key to its success in London; no sign of the zing and vitality that characterized the Mermaid production. Fortunately we had sold the American rights outright. Trafford Tanzi’s failure on Broadway did not involve us in any financial responsibility.

THE MAGIC OF HASHISH

In September 1984, Quartet published Hashish, a sumptuous and strikingly beautiful production with stunning photographs by Suomi La Valle and a text by John Julius Norwich. Hashish had long been in use in the Middle East before it was discovered by the European literati of the nineteenth century. It had become part of the alternative culture of the 1980s, being praised and vilified in equal measure, the controversy over the relative benefits and harm done by its pharmacology continuing to the present day. Aside from the arguments, hashish was and is a means of livelihood for many people in Nepal and Lebanon. Suomi La Valle had gained the trust of the peasants who cultivated the plant, Cannabis sativa, and taken a series of astonishing photographs. John Julius Norwich, who had lived for three years in Lebanon, wrote about it with deep scholarly knowledge and level-headed lucidity. As he said:

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My own purpose will be to try to put this extraordinary plant in its historical and literary perspective: to assess the effects – political, cultural and even etymological – that it has had over the two and half thousand years or so that have elapsed since its peculiar properties were first discovered; and finally perhaps to remove at least some of the mystique that – among those who have no direct experience of it – has surrounded it for so long.

The Standard reported how John Julius Norwich had tried hashish when he was with the British Embassy in Beirut in the early 1960s, smoking the stuff through a hubble-bubble at the home of a Lebanese high-court judge. ‘I puffed diligently away,’ he recalled, ‘but the incident made little lasting impression.’ My own experience was similar, though in a different environment. I enjoyed it at a certain stage of my life, but was never dependent. It was a passing phase, like some others one enjoys in the heyday of youth. There are those – mostly politicians – who have problems admitting they ever indulged. Others of us have the courage and honesty to admit it, acknowledging it as a step on the way to becoming more sophisticated and complete human beings.

The party for Hashish was attended by a less predictable mixture of guests than usual. Its risqué aspect attracted a wider circle than the normal crowd of book-launch attenders. Suomi La Valle’s wife, being the owner of an exclusive fashion boutique called Spaghetti in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, invited elements from the fashion industry who were not unfamiliar with ‘the weed’ and its uses. They joined the motley company of beautiful people who were intent on not being excluded from an event tinged with notoriety because of its subject matter. Leonard Bernstein, new to the London party circuit, was there too. So was the more familiar figure of BBC Television’s weatherman, Michael Fish, seen deep in conversation with the model Marie Helvin; which only went to show that modelling and weather forecasting might have more in common than is generally supposed.

Hashish sold quite well, though it never achieved the figures we hoped for. We were definitely dealing with a book ahead of its time and lost out as a result. After the original print run of thirty-five thousand copies was either sold or remaindered, the book was never reprinted, and like various other Quartet titles it has become a collector’s item. Whenever copies in good condition surface today, they are sold at a high premium. Hashish has become a cult book throughout the world.

ENCOUNTERS WITH GERMAINE

The end of a rather dreary summer and the approaching autumn has made me remember the marvellous September Song by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill where, in old age, memories are recalled with fond acceptance. I’m fortunate in that my publishing memoir, Fulfilment & Betrayal, is still in print and what my wavering memory has forgotten, my words can be recalled. I thought it might be fun to recall one or two old events, so here’s the first – my meeting with Germaine Greer when my book Women was published in 1987:

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‘Germaine Greer had her main chance ahead of the field when the Observer commissioned her to interview me before the other reviewers got started on pouring scorn on the whole undertaking and lighting the fuse to try to blast me and the book into oblivion. She kicked off with a definition of vanity publishing and how it had become the preserve of writers unable to find a publisher. Then she described the book, although she only had a proof copy, and its lapis lazuli cover. She mentioned the number of women interviewed and how the book was being puffed in glossy magazines with a studio portrait of its author, whose ‘effrontery is balanced only by his charm, which many (men) find oleaginous’.

‘The day I went to interview him, I had a badly blistered mouth, four broken teeth and one leg hugely swollen and leaking from an insect bite. The dog-like gaze of the brown eyes gave no hint that I looked anything but adorable.

‘The interview was hard-hitting, laden with sarcasm and not a little bitchiness, peppered with words like ‘bullshit’ and such observations as, ‘Attallah’s elephantine innocence surrounded him like a scented fog.’ Germaine was provocative at every turn as she tried to make me lose my composure and put up some platitudes that she could then shoot out of the air like clay pigeons. In fact I enjoyed the encounter; I had the sense that she was somehow struggling within herself to cast aside her brashness in favour of a more sympathetic approach. The chemistry between us turned out to be less conducive to hostility than expected and neither of us minded the cut and thrust of the exchange. At the close of the interview she said: ‘It’s nice to think that rich women are working out a new dance in which the woman isn’t always travelling backwards, but that hasn’t altered the fact that most women are not even on the floor. To the women living in misery in this country, your book is a mockery.’

‘But the book itself isn’t against these women,’ I challenged her. ‘No. It is innocent of their very existence. In Australia we used to have a system where you bored a hole through a book and hung it on a string in the lavatory. You’d read a page, rip it off and wipe your behind on it. 1,200 double sheets for £15. Looked at that way, Women’s not such bad value.’‘According to Greer, my reaction to this remark was to laugh disarmingly, ‘widening the brown eyes’. ‘OK, OK. But do you think the book’s a fiasco? Really?’‘Yep. But you’ll probably get away with it.’

‘The idea of Germaine Greer using my book to wipe her behind gave me a measure of comfort. It is not every day that a book embodying the thoughts and aspirations of 289 women is used to cleanse the lower regions of the body of a feminist icon. I felt I was in good company.

‘A month after the contentious but curiously affectionate article appeared in the Observer magazine, I happened to find myself sitting next to Germaine at a luncheon hosted by the editor of ‘Londoner’s Diary’ in the Standard. Whether this placement was accidental or a deliberate tactic to liven up matters I do not know. I decided to take it all in my stride and refused to betray any embarrassment. Germaine, in fact, seemed more on edge than I was, but she adopted the policy of attack as the best form of defence and opened the conversation by saying she had listened to BBC radio’s Any Questions programme, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, when I was on the panel. To her utter surprise she had heard me say that, if I were to be a woman, I would choose to be Mrs Thatcher. Quite aside from her obvious disapproval of my choice, she said that if only I could be less flippant and give the matter more serious consideration, I would surely realize, in my misguided confusion, that being Mrs Thatcher must mean having to sleep with Denis. Perish the thought! I was reduced to speechlessness and had to admit Germaine had got the better of me on this occasion.’