In a long life spent in the midst of Grub Street, I have known many wicked, stupid and dishonest book reviewers. And now, with the Internet, reading-group blogs, even Amazon reviews, perhaps the well written quality review is now a memory, apart from a few in the ‘specialist’ press such as the Literary Review and the TLS. Thinking of this change, I remembered my very favourite review, of my second book of interviews Singular Encounters. It still reads well, thirty years later.
It was a skit, in lieu of a review, penned by the late Humphrey Carpenter for the Sunday Times. It was beyond doubt a send-up, but its wit and hilarity were its saving grace. He constructed it so as to beguile the reader with its originality. I loved it for what it was: a little gem encapsulating the English sense of humour at its best. I wrote to Humphrey, whom I had never met, to tell him how brilliant I thought his piece was and invited him to lunch. It thrilled him that I had taken no offence at his ribbing. I have continued to admire the piece to this day, but to enjoy it means it must be reproduced in its entirety. I hope the reader will appreciate it as much as I have done. It is a joyful piece of writing, skilfully crafted and irresistibly amusing.
Hallowed Be Thy Naim
1. And the Lord created Naim Attallah and sent him from Palestine to London to be chairman of Quartet Books. And the Lord God said to his servant Naim, Increase and multiply.
2. And Naim Attallah published The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex, and showed his balance sheet to the Lord, and said, Lord, I have increased and multiplied, and done thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.
3. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If thou art going to be a prominent London publisher, then thou wilt have to get thyself a lot of women, so that people will talk about thee. And Naim said unto the Lord, Lord, I will do thy bidding.
4. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways of Sloane Square, and hired a lot of young women with double-barrelled names to work for him, and said Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.
5. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If people are are going to talk about thee, and if thou art going to make the gossip columns, thou wilt have to become intimate with a lot of successful members of the opposite sex. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I understand, and will do Thy bidding.
6. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways and found 318 remarkable women whose common denominator was achievement. And Naim Attallah published the interviews in a book called Women, and said unto the Lord, Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God sighed and said, That was not quite what I had in mind.
7. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I am bored and dejected now that the excitement of publishing my book Women is over, so I will go and publish a book on men. And the Lord God said, Naim, my servant, why on earth do you suppose anyone wants to read a book about men?
8. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, said Lord, I will call it Singular Encounters, because then some people will suppose it to be a sequel to More Joy of Sex, but actually, Lord, it will be a book of interviews with twenty-nine remarkable men whose common denominator is achievement.
9. And the Lord said, Naim, didst thou say twenty-nine? Why hast thou not interviewed 318 like last time? And Naim said, Lord, I am not as young as I was, and anyway, I do not like men as much as women, because I was not at an English public school.
10. And anyway, went on Naim, it was very difficult to persuade even twenty-nine men to take part. Most of those I approached, Lord (as I say in my introduction), were over-cautious. But then Richard Ingrams said yes, and encouraged some others, and soon Auberon Waugh agreed too.
11. And the Lord God said, Who is this Richard Ingrams and this Auberon Waugh? And Naim said, Lord, Ingrams is a man whose daughter works for one of my companies, and Waugh is the editor of the Literary Review, of which I am the proprietor. And the Lord God hid a smile and said, I see, I see.
12. And the Lord God said unto Naim his servant, Naim, who are the other twenty-seven that thou hast persuaded to take part? And Naim said, Lord, there is Willie Rushton, Nigel Dempster and A. N. Wilson. And the Lord God said, Who are these people? And Naim said, They have all written for Private Eye, as have Ingrams and Waugh. And the Lord God said, Naim, thou dost not appear to have a very big circle of friends.
13. And Naim said, Lord, there is also Sir Harold Acton and Monsignor Alfred Gilbey. And the Lord God said, Who are they? And Naim said, Acton was a friend of Waugh’s father and Gilbey is well known unto Wilson. And the Lord God said, That leaves twenty-two to go. Thou hast not covered much ground yet.
14. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, said, Lord there is also Michael Aspel, J. K. Galbraith, Yehudi Menuhin and Lord Rees-Mogg. And the Lord God said, And what made you choose these men? And Naim the servant of the Lord said, Lord, they all great and famous men. And the Lord God said, I see. I was beginning to think they were just chaps you just happen to have met at dinner-parties.
15. And the Lord God said, Naim, what questions hast thou asked? And Naim said, I have asked two of my interviewees whether it is true they have long-running feuds with Gore Vidal. And I have asked Willie Rushton whether he has opened a lot of fêtes. And I have asked the Warden of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, what is the secret of his charm. And I have asked . . .
16. And the Lord God interrupted Naim and said, Naim, how on earth did you think of such daft questions? And Naim not listening went on, And I have asked André Deutsch about his disagreement with Tom Rosenthal and I have asked Lord Lambton why young journalists find Margaret Thatcher sexually attractive. And the Lord God said, I do not believe this.
17. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, smiled and said, Maybe, Lord, but I have featured in magazines and have made the front page of the Style section of the Sunday Times, and I have never had such coverage before in my life. So maybe, Lord, I know what I am doing after all.
18. And the Lord God nodded, and said, Naim, my servant, maybe you do.