Monthly Archives: October 2019

A MEMORY OF BLONDIE

Debbie Harry’s just published book reminds me of when I attended the first night of her appearance in the New York production of a play I had produced in London with Howard Panter, now the great impresario.

The theatre has always fascinated 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, 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.

QUENTIN CREWE

In September 1991 I attended a party at the Queen Anne Orangery in Kensington Gardens to celebrate the publication of the memoirs of a very dear friend, Quentin Crewe. The title he gave them was Well, I Forget the Rest. This remarkable sixty-four-year-old writer had been for more than half his life confined to a wheelchair, from which he greeted the friends and former wives who turned up to salute him. The Evening Standard covered the event as follows:

Naim Attallah, something of an authority on these matters, confessed his unbridled admiration for Crewe’s romantic endeavours. ‘He is the greatest seducer,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how he does it. There’s no way I could have achieved any of the things he has if I had those disabilities.’

Lord Snowdon, who invented Crewe’s first electric wheelchair, disclaimed any part in such goings on. ‘I don’t think it has anything to do with my chair,’ he told me. ‘And if it has, it’s a peripheral thing. It’s his sheer strength and will of personality.

Quentin was a truly extraordinary man. As well as being a successful journalist and writer he was also a determined adventurer who had defied his disabilities by travelling through some of the most difficult terrain on earth. His exploits were legendary, but his powers of conquest where women were concerned remained the aspect of him I most admired. I saw it happen at first hand when his daughter Candida brought him to have lunch at Namara House. While waiting for me to come down from my office on the fourth floor he went to kill a few minutes browsing in the bookshop on the ground floor. It so happened, at the time, that a twenty-six-year-old model with stunning looks was working in the shop between modelling assignments. Before I could get down to greet him, Quentin had engaged her in conversation. Two months later she was his lover, accompanying him on a long journey through India. When I saw them together on their return, the girl was so besotted that she could not keep her hands off him. She hugged and caressed Quentin with a tenderness that belied the difference in their ages or any impuissance arising from his handicap.

Despite his disability, Quentin had three wives, five children and lovers aplenty, but his was no straightforward tale of triumph over adversity. When he was a boy his mother’s nightly admonition was, ‘Keep your hands above the sheets!’ It was advice he never heeded. He continued to delve beneath the covers even after a Swiss governess had shown him a cautionary Victorian illustration of the madness and degeneration that lay in store for those who failed to take note. Using all the authority of her position, she pointed to the perpetrator of such shameful acts, explaining that the consequences of his wickedness had come about because il joue toujours avec sa quéquette, comme toi. Later, in view of what happened to Quentin, it was as if the governess had been a genuine Cassandra figure, a real prophet of doom, for he was struck down at an early age by muscular dystrophy, a cruel disease that had him confined to his wheelchair for the rest of his life.

When I interviewed him for Singular Encounters, I mentioned to him how his reputation for attracting beautiful young women was fabled. Did the secret lie in his combining being such a great raconteur with an irresistible charm, or was there some inherent sexual chemistry that attracted feminine beauty and youth? His response was typically diffident:

It gets less easy, but I think they’re intrigued by something different – that is to say, somebody in a wheelchair. The only explanation I can think of is that those who seduced me wanted to discover what it was like to go to bed with somebody disabled. Or there is always the other possibility, that one is less frightening to them, that one isn’t a great beast who’s going to leap on top of them and beat them. Whatever it is, I’ve been very lucky.

His explanation seems quite plausible, especially in the light of a more recent instance where the publisher of the Spectator reportedly said she had slept with former home secretary David Blunkett to find out what it was like to sleep with a blind man.

Quentin was one of my heroes, and his death, like that of Auberon Waugh, has left a gap in our society that can never be filled. One hopes that these two men, who loved women with a true passion, are receiving their rewards in heaven from celestial creatures even more beautiful than those who dazzled and beguiled them in their terrestrial lives.

A GRAND OLD MAN

In April, 1993, I interviewed the Duke of Devonshire at his London home in Chesterfield Street, Mayfair, for the Oldie. I found him to be congenial, a true English gentleman with a disarming honesty. I did not want the interview to end, for I enjoyed being in his presence and was struck by his down-to-earth view of the world. He had none of the patrician arrogance of his class. On the contrary, he showed the kind of humility normally associated with great sages as they delve into the incomprehensible. The following vignette appeared in the Daily Telegraph under the heading ‘Peerless’:

It seems there are occasional bleak moments at Chatsworth, seat of the Duke of Devonshire. Interviewed by Naim Attallah in the Oldie magazine, he announces he could rub along quite well without a handle.

Devonshire, asked about the future of the House of Lords, says he would be sorry to see it go, ‘although I wouldn’t in the least mind losing my title and being called Andrew Cavendish. I’d mind very much if my possessions were taken away, but my title, no.’ Attallah proceeded to ask Devonshire if he gets on well with his son. ‘I get on very well with my son . . . He also gets on well with his mother and stands up to her too, more than I do.’ Is the Duchess ‘a strong character’? Devonshire replied: That would be an understatement.’

The Duke seems to have been on good form. At one point he told Attallah that ‘when I was young I used to like casinos, fast women and God knows what. Now my idea of heaven . . . is to sit in the hall at Brooks’s having China tea.’

There was no question he refused to answer. His honesty came to the fore when I suggested that his image had been rather tarnished a few years earlier when he revealed, in the Old Bailey witness box, a side of his private life that at the time many people would have considered rather disreputable. He replied that being in the witness box and speaking on oath was a salutary experience, ‘and it was very painful for my family. The only consolation was that I didn’t attempt to lie. My private life isn’t all it might be, but it would only make it worse to lie about it.’ At this point I asked him if he ever repented. Again he was forthright: ‘I find repentance very difficult, particularly if you are aware that you may do the same thing again . . . one has to be very careful of repentance.’

Years later his wife, the formidable Debo, told me that the interview I conducted with the Duke was the best he ever gave. I was flattered and surprised, for I thought she might have minded my intrusive questions about his private life. In fact she seemed relaxed about it. She rose even higher in my estimation and we occasionally corresponded. With her sister Diana and her other Mitford siblings, she belonged to an aristocratic family that has become something of a legend.

SELF PORTRAITS, NICHOLAS COLERIDGE AND I

Nicholas Coleridge’s recent best-selling memoir reminded me of many things, and here’s just one. In the autumn of 1993, the painter and portraitist Emma Sergeant was interviewed by Celia Lyttleton, the art critic, for an article Jane Procter, the editor of Tatler, had commissioned. The subject was society’s promising young painters. The feature had to be accompanied by a good example of the work of each artist by means of a coloured transparency of their choice. Emma’s preference – a large portrait of me which she had painted in 1991 – was sent to Celia, who in turn presented it to Jane Procter. The latter saw red and refused point blank to entertain its inclusion. Emma telephoned me to enquire whether I knew what lay behind her opposition. Naturally I was taken aback and at the same time perplexed. Although the reason for this bizarre turn of events was never given, informed sources attributed Jane’s intemperate behaviour to my having made her husband, Tom Goldstaub, redundant following Asprey’s acquisition of Mappin & Webb, where he had been the head of marketing.

As it happened, my relationship with Jane’s husband could not have been better. Now, as managing director of Fintex, the fine-cloth merchants in Golden Square, he was always perfectly accommodating and I subsequently became one of his most regular customers. I therefore felt at a loss to understand his wife’s action, given the importance of the Asprey group in the luxury-goods market and its close association with Condé Nast, principally as advertisers. Jane’s throwing down the gauntlet, I could only conclude, was a deliberate attempt to humiliate me and one to which I had to respond. My reaction was swift. I suspended all advertising contracts for the Asprey group with Condé Nast until such time as the incident had been properly investigated by Jane’s employers and a satisfactory explanation produced.

A few weeks later, when tempers had cooled, a conciliatory top-level meeting took place at Condé Nast, chaired by their managing director, Nicholas Coleridge. Present at the meeting was myself accompanied by Tania Foster-Brown, who had once worked at Vogue House but was there this time acting as a peace broker. A weepy Jane Procter was summoned to the meeting and tried to bluff her way through with some cock-and-bull story that made little sense. A suggestion that Emma Sergeant was stirring the pot went down badly with me and almost brought the meeting to an abrupt halt. At this point Procter changed her tactics, becoming apologetic and managing to placate her employer as well as myself with the claim that she was possibly the victim of circumstance. A few months later the whole truth had come out and Procter and Tatler had parted company.

After meeting for the first time in 1982, Emma Sergeant and I got on so well that our encounter led to a friendship that remained close over the years that followed. Her first portrait of me was done in charcoal the year of our meeting and hangs today in our house in the Dordogne. It is a moody picture, strongly expressive of character and conveying a lean and hungry look. Emma must have captured me at a phase in my life when those characteristics were dominant. It was also the time when Rupert Birley and I, having met at Emma’s, took to meeting up regularly at her place for coffee in the early mornings. These were gatherings that I sorely missed after Rupert’s tragic disappearance on a beach off West Africa. He was undoubtedly the embodiment of that cliché ‘the heart-throb of his generation’, whose good looks, poise, charm and outstanding intellect combined to set him apart from his peers. All those who knew him well and grew to love him – among whom I count myself – were shattered by his loss, which happened when he was at the zenith of his youth with a life full of promise ahead of him.

In January 1994, I wrote a foreword to mark an exhibition of Emma’s work at Agnew’s. It took the form of a tribute which best encapsulates our friendship and gives an insight into her background and her work as an artist. For that reason, I reproduce it in full.

‘Orpheus and the Underworld

‘Emma Sergeant, 1994

‘I first met Emma Sergeant twelve years ago at a Quartet Books party. Emma was then in her early twenties and exuded an energy and zest for life which sent out shock waves to those around her. Her youthful beauty was untarnished by the levy of life and when she moved about the room, eyes followed her.

‘In those days it was often alleged that I employed only beautiful and desirable young women who graced the London social scene and attended my publishing parties: if Emma had possessed mere beauty alone, she might easily have merged into the general glamour of the occasion. But she had other qualities: a sublime smile, a musical resonance in her laughter, an impish elegance and a light in her eyes which one sensed was linked to her vision of the world. All this, and much more, made her stand head and shoulders above the rest.

‘As I came to know Emma Sergeant I discovered that her artistic talent was outstanding. From the outset she had been determined to succeed and had worked very hard to ensure a steady progression in her oeuvre, at an early age demonstrating the boldness required to push back the boundaries of modern art. As a result the evolution of her work is truly remarkable. There is nothing preordained about it; it does not follow a set pattern; it possesses enormous power and the ability to surprise, even to shock.

‘She studied for two years at Camberwell and then at the Slade, graduating in 1983. In 1981 she won the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award for her painting of Lord David Cecil. This resulted in commissions to paint Lord Olivier among others.

‘In 1986, an exhibition of her paintings and drawings of Afghanistan was held at Agnew’s to raise money for UNICEF to help Afghan refugees. In 1988 she exhibited “Faces from Four Continents”, again at Agnew’s. She has had many commissions to paint portraits, which include Imran Khan, Lord Carrington, the Earl of Verulam and Roani, Chief of the Kayapo Indians.’

REMEMBERING WILFRED

In August 1981, I received a phone call from Wilfred Burchett, with whom I had become friends after our first meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York in the late 1970s. He was in America advising the Nixon administration in its conduct of clandestine talks with the Vietcong with a view to ending the Vietnam conflict. At that time the Americans were sustaining heavy losses and their toll of dead and injured was steadily rising to levels that were politically indefensible. Their problem was to find a way of extricating themselves from the conflict without loss of face. Wilfred was a bête noir for the administrations in both America and his native Australia for having covered the Vietnam War from the ‘other side’, sending out his dispatches from behind the lines in the jungle. His knowledge of and contacts with the Vietcong, however, took on a value that Nixon and his advisers were unable to ignore in the changing political climate of the United States and the rising radical tide of its peace movement.

Wilfred was now retired and living behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia with his Bulgarian wife. His proposal was that I should visit him with my wife Maria and our son Ramsay, if he could manage to secure an invitation for us from the Bulgarian authorities. I was delighted to hear from him in the first place and in the second overwhelmed by this unexpected gesture. My response was immediate and positive: we would love to come. Wilfred was a giant among the journalists of his generation, and a warm-hearted, larger-than-life character. He may have held many controversial political views, but at heart he was a courageous humanitarian, a champion of the poor and the oppressed, and had my unconditional admiration.

Wilfred’s initial clash with American interests had come head-on in 1945 when, as a young war correspondent entering Japan with the US invasion forces, he defied the exclusion zone declared by General MacArthur to cover the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after their destruction by atomic bombs. He was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the attack and sat on a surviving lump of concrete with his Hermes typewriter in the radioactive wilderness, having seen the evidence of obliterated humanity and the plight of those who were dying from their injuries and a mysterious sickness previously unknown to medicine. The technical terms to describe their illness were not yet in place, but Wilfred was in no doubt about the enormity of the implications. He began his report, published as a world exclusive in Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express in London, with the words: ‘I write this as a warning to the world.’

The scenes he went on to describe in graphic detail seemed almost beyond the scope of the human imagination. The official American line on atomic warfare, then and for long afterwards, was that death and destruction were caused by the bomb blast, radiation being a harmless side-effect. From the American point of view, Burchett’s talk of ‘bomb sickness’ needed to be refuted and dismissed as Japanese propaganda. The official press report on Nagasaki, which denied the effects of radiation, was prepared by William Laurence, a science writer on the New York Times, who also happened to be in the pay of the US War Department. Laurence and the New York Times were awarded a Pulitzer prize for journalism in recognition of their efforts (now seen as dishonourable), but Burchett’s forebodings never went away. At a press conference he openly challenged General MacArthur when he made attempts to pour scorn on Burchett’s Hiroshima account.

With the polarization of positions and loyalties that inevitably came with the Cold War, Wilfred’s sympathies were certainly not in America’s favour. His highly controversial dispatches from the Korean War after it began in 1951 were obtained under Chinese press accreditation. He enraged the Americans by revealing that a captured general, William F. Dean, was fit and alive in the north as a prisoner of war when they were trying to use his supposed slaughter to bring pressure to bear on negotiations. The Americans branded Burchett pro-Communist and there were attempts in Australia to have him declared a traitor. Though no formal charges were ever laid against him, the Australian government declined to renew his passport at the start of hostilities in Vietnam, forcing him to remain in exile from his homeland for many years.

At one point his reports from Vietnam from among the Vietcong forces provoked the Nixon administration to such an extent that they put a bounty on his head; but in 1980, one of the most distinguished of American war correspondents, Harrison E. Salisbury, the 1955 Pulitzer prize-winner for international reporting, described him in these terms:

Wilfred Burchett is a man who defies classification. There is hardly a war or revolution in the past forty years at which he as a journalist has not been present. There is hardly a left-wing movement with which he as a radical (or ‘progressive’, as he likes to call himself) has not sympathized. In his ceaseless travel he has met most of the diplomats and national leaders of his time and most of his fellow correspondents. There is probably no other man living who was on intimate terms with both Ho Chi Minh and Henry Kissinger.

He was reviled by the right in his native Australia, but became a hero for his country’s growing peace and anti-nuclear movements. Australian war journalist Pat Burgess wrote: ‘No correspondent was better loved by his colleagues or more bitterly detested.’ This in itself testified to the power of what he had to say. Burchett himself made clear his standpoint: ‘My duties as a citizen of the world go beyond my responsibilities only to my own country. In other words, I reject the “my country – right or wrong”.’ During a press conference he stated, ‘I’ve certainly not been a traitor to the Allies. I’ve opposed policies in Vietnam. I oppose Australians being killed on Vietnamese soil. If I were a Vietnamese invading Australian soil, I’d be supporting Australia.’

In Britain another distinguished war correspondent, James Cameron, gave his recollections of him in 1977:

I have had the good luck to know Wilfred Burchett off and on ever since we toiled together in the Fleet Street vineyard of the Château Beaverbrook. We abandoned this patronage at almost exactly the same time, though for marginally different reasons. To his [Beaverbrook’s] dying day, which took a long time to come, the lord believed that our defections had been politically coordinated; he was, as so often, quite wrong. In fact at the time I had never even met Wilfred. Indeed I did not know his name was Wilfred. As an Australian he worked for the Express during the war in the Pacific; I was in Asia and Europe. He signed his file simply: Burchett. They had to find an acceptable byline for this gifted but remote correspondent, so someone or other arbitrarily called him ‘Peter’. Fleet Street was always pretty cavalier about identities. Nevertheless, for some time after I established a kinship with this wayward old mate, I had a job unscrambling the Peter from the real man. And it is a real man.

Where Burchett’s invitation to me and my family was concerned, he was as good as his word. Hardly a week had passed after his phone call before all our travel arrangements were concluded. The official invitation arrived, accompanied by three air tickets on Bulgarian Airlines. We flew to Sofia, where we stayed for one night before taking an onward flight next day to the Black Sea resort of Varna. There we found ourselves occupying a suite in what was then the resort’s most luxurious hotel. It had a stunning outlook on to the Black Sea and, as it happened, a grandstand view of the Russian fleet on exercise. We watched their manoeuvres with guarded curiosity and restrained ourselves from taking any pictures in case we found ourselves in breach of some security regulations and landed ourselves in trouble.

Despite the obvious severity of the regime and the signs of Russian influence that were everywhere evident, Wilfred managed to make us feel totally at home with his display of friendly hospitality. The shortage of consumer goods was obvious, and although food was reasonably available, it lacked variety – though not, of course, if you were a government official of some standing. In that case, miraculously, the unobtainable would suddenly appear.

We experienced this phenomenon one lunchtime when we were telephoned by a high-ranking notable from the Ministry of Tourism, who announced that he was waiting for us in the hotel lobby and would like to entertain us to lunch. Normally at that hour we would have been going to take our lunch in the very same restaurant, sampling its minimalistic menu and having any request for something extra acknowledged with a smile and a nod but never fulfilled. Suddenly, as the official snapped his fingers, there was a dramatic transformation of the scene. Trays of food showed up as if from nowhere, their contents equalling anything you would find in the West, with no hint of any shortages in the sizes of the portions being offered. There was also the unusual spectacle of the waiters, who seemed positively panic stricken, running back and forth to satisfy every little whim and gesture of our host. The normally languid service became fast and furious to a point of manic precision. It was an abuse of authority that may have been morally deplorable, but at least it provided us with an excellent meal which was more than welcome in the circumstances.

In Varna leading party and trade-union officials taking their annual vacations by the Black Sea were allocated what were, by their standards, luxurious apartments for their stay. By and large they were the élite, enjoying the perks due to them as a reward for their loyalty to the regime. They were carefully selected individuals and there was no mistaking who they were in our hotel. In the afternoons they took tea and cakes and listened to ‘palm court’ classical music being performed live by a little ensemble of young musicians. We also spent part of the afternoon having tea and cake since it seemed the thing to do. There was an oddness, however, about the way a generously large pot of tea would arrive but then turn out to contain precisely enough tea to fill three cups. The measurement was so accurate that there was no allowance for any margin of error. The cake portions were cut to a similar exactitude, avoiding any risk of excess and ensuring the size was in compliance with a strict dietary regime. The average American tourist, accustomed to large intakes of food to keep up energy levels when on their travels, would have been disappointed with the culinary rewards of Varna in the Soviet era.

Even so, our stay there was made highly enjoyable by the fact that we spent most evenings with Wilfred and his wife, who entertained us faultlessly. To have the opportunity to get to know the man at close quarters, and hear his own accounts of his exploits together with his insights and conclusions, was a very special privilege. He combined a rare modesty with a zest for living despite the many tragedies he had encountered. The optimism he retained clearly illustrated his belief that in the end the dignity of man would always triumph. His own body had been riddled with bullets and he had had many brushes with death, surviving against the odds. The scars he carried were a testimony to his relentless efforts in the battlefields of South-East Asia to bring the truth to the outside world. He may have been misguided on many issues. His political perspective meant he was slower than others on the left to recognize the real nature of Stalinist control and oppression within the Soviet bloc and the postwar purges and show trials. He wrote in support of the Pol Pot revolution in Kampuchea during its early years, but later altered his opinion after its savagery became all too apparent. His errors of judgement provided his enemies with ammunition to use against him, but while he was fallible in some respects, he was startlingly clear-sighted in others. In Hiroshima he felt that not only was he seeing ‘the end of World War II’ but also ‘the fate of cities all over the world in the first hours of a World War III’. All Wilfred’s actions and opinions were informed by humanitarian instincts: the Australian spirit of fair play writ large. This is why I loved the man most dearly. He had never been member of a communist or any other party, he would say if asked, but thought of himself as an international socialist.

The night before our departure from Varna was one we would remember for a long time to come. It was as if all the pent-up forces of history burst in a violent storm around the Black Sea, with a ferocity that seemed to make the hotel rock. The rolling of the thunder, the lightning forking over the sea, the clouds lit up as if by fire – it was awe-inspiring: nature’s devastating forces on display in front of our very eyes. It was a dramatic farewell to Varna.

Once back in the capital, Sofia, we were provided with a black Mercedes and a chauffeur to go with it. There was so little traffic we were able to explore the city thoroughly, always in the company of Wilfred and his wife. We dined at the few functioning restaurants and drank dark Bulgarian wine, some of which was really rather nice. The evenings we spent in sorting out the problems of the world.

The qualities in Wilfred that impressed me most were compassion for his fellow human beings and extreme loyalty to his friends. John Pilger, an illustrious war correspondent for the later television age, recalled in one of the pieces in his book Heroes (Vintage) how in the spring of 1980, shortly before he was due to leave for an assignment in Kampuchea, he received a phone call from Paris. It was Wilfred on the line.

A familiar, husky voice came quickly to the point. ‘Can you postpone,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard about a Khmer Rouge list and you’re on it. I am worried about you.’ That Wilfred was worried about the welfare of another human being was not surprising; the quintessence of the man lay in what he did not say. He neglected to mention not only that he was on the same ‘list’, but that a few weeks earlier, at the age of seventy and seriously ill, he had survived a bloody ambush laid for him by Khmer Rouge assassins, who wounded a travelling companion. (Wilfred’s intelligence was as reliable as ever; I narrowly escaped a similar ambush at the same place he was attacked.) I have known other reporters; I have not known another who, through half a century of risk-taking, demonstrated as much concern for others and such valour on their behalf. He took risks to smuggle Jews out of Germany, to drag American wounded to safety during the Pacific war, and to seek out prisoners of war in Japan, in 1945, to tell them help was coming; the list is long. He sustained a variety of bombardments, from Burma to Korea to Indo-China, yet he retained a compassion coupled with an innocence bordering at times on naïvety which, it would seem, led him into other troubles. Such qualities were shared by none of the vociferous few who were his enemies.

As a publisher I had the privilege of publishing three of Wilfred Burchett’s books under the Quartet imprint. They were: Catapult to Freedom in 1978; Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist in 1980; and Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939–1983, edited by Ben Kiernan, with a preface by John Pilger in 1986.

Two years after our visit to Bulgaria, Wilfred Burchett died in Sofia in September 1983 from a cancer that he himself was convinced could be attributed to his visit to Hiroshima in 1945. His epitaph should reflect his own words when, in Paris in 1974, he said: ‘Truth always turns out to be much richer than you thought.’

LA DIFFERENCE

Craig Brown was never a great admirer of mine. He lambasted me in the Mail on Sunday on the publication of Women by penning the most scathing review of the lot. Subsequently he and Bron had lunch with me in Beak Street. It was meant to be a kind of rapprochement, though that was not quite how it worked out by my reading of the situation. Craig was in the same mould as Bron. Both of them felt passionately about things, and particularly about people. Once they had taken against someone, it would be extremely hard to divert them from their target.

Craig’s coolness towards me was something I found strange in so far as I could not decipher it. I was a supporter of literature and the arts, spending most of my money bolstering endeavours closely related to them, so even if Craig did feel some kind of antipathy towards me, I could not see why that should stop him being more appreciative. Perhaps I misread where he was coming from and misjudged him unfairly.

His review of Women was chosen for special mention in the trade journal, the Bookseller, in its regular column, ‘Critics Crowner’ which sought to round-up the important books and their reviews, compiled by a mysterious personage ‘Quentin Oates’. Its tone was so biased a retort was written by a Quartet staff member pointing out how this had: ‘…sought to destroy all credibility for Naim Attallah’s Women. It was clear he was prepared to use his influence in any way he could to damage the book trade’s opinion of Mr Attallah and his book. I cannot recall any article in the Bookseller (and I have been reading the magazine for over twenty years) ever calling a book ‘worthless’. Women was sold to The Times for a serialization over five days, second serial rights were sold to the Sunday Mirror for two weekly extracts and magazine rights were sold to Women’s World; Australian, Swedish, Dutch, German, Spanish, French and South African serialization rights are sold . . . Interviews have already appeared in six major provincial newspapers and two Sunday colour supplements. The author is presently engaged on a tour of Scotland and other parts of England and Wales appearing on regional TV programmes, local radio stations and being interviewed by provincial newspapers.

‘Any book which generates this torrent of attention and activity usually wins glittering prizes from the trade journals – not so with Mr Oates. With a sniff he dismisses it all as ‘hype’. What does he want? Every time any book generates controversy and attention it is good for all the trade. He has ignored the good reviews altogether . . .

‘These reviews were as pleasing and praising as Craig Brown’s (quoted at great length by Mr Oates) was nasty and damning. Oates’s précis of Anita Brookner’s review left out her obvious fascination with aspects of the book and when Deborah Moggach’s review for the Sunday Times actually praises Women, Oates declares he couldn’t be bothered with reading it. Precisely, Mr Oates! When Deborah Moggach writes: ‘. . . the tone of this book is bracing, honest, highly intelligent and often funny’, it does not suit your brief.

‘Finally the marketplace decides if a book is to sell or not. And this is my real annoyance with Mr Oates and the Bookseller. He chooses to deride, in a vindictive manner, a book launched with incredible coverage and attention whilst that launch is still in progress – Women was published only two days before Oates’s article appeared. Since his name is pseudonymous, I can only imagine his motives, but if the Bookseller is to take sides on controversial books, can it do so in a more balanced fashion?’

How different it all was in France!

Following the publication of Women in October 1987, I was approached by Carrere, the French media group and publishers, with a view to producing a French edition. Their only stipulation was that I should interview an additional thirty Frenchwomen almost immediately. They were in a great hurry to bring out the French-language version in March 1988, a mere six months after the appearance of the English edition. It looked an almost impossible task. They hired a team of translators to work round the clock on the English text while I frantically set about conducting the necessary interviews. The choice of women and arrangements to interview them were all done in conjunction with my own office in Paris. It was just left to me to brush up on my French and plunge into another voyage of discovery with renewed vigour and optimism. Strangely I had remained unaffected by the adverse critical reception I had received in the UK and felt undaunted by the idea that the whole thing might involve a repetition of the experience in France. My new list included writers, bankers, artists and stars of stage and screen, such as Arletty and Emmanuelle Béart, who had recently starred in Manon des Sources, the continuation of Claude Berri’s hit film based on Marcel Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette, with Daniel Auteuil. Also there, among the politicians, was Edith Cresson, who was to become the first woman prime minister of France not many years later.

Despite the shortage of time, the French edition was published as planned and Carrere arranged for a launch party to be held on 22 March at the famous Parisian night-spot, Le Privilège. It was a most glamorous occasion, extensively covered by the French media and attended by hordes of celebrities. I was seated at dinner between Hélène Rochas, the parfumière, and Joan Juliet Buck, the American writer and then editor of French Vogue. The room teemed with beautiful women. Over the next few days I appeared on French television, discussing the book with some of the stars who featured in its pages. The French critics were unanimous in their plaudits, in sharp contrast with their counterparts in the UK. It was impossible to open a French newspaper without seeing some reference to the book. I felt euphoric at this unexpected show of appreciation and enthusiasm. And to crown it all, the book sold extremely well in France and our efforts were richly rewarded.

Looking through my archives, the retrospective impression is that more was written about the French edition than the already phenomenal amount about the English edition in Britain. The difference in coverage lay in the fact that while the Gallic approach was constructive the trend in the book’s home country was certainly destructive. Even after the furore surrounding the original publication of Women in hardback had died down, the appearance of a paperback edition in Britain a year later precipitated the same spitting of venom as before. It was as if those who had missed their chance at first publication now climbed aboard to make their voices heard from the bandwagon. But this was a new wave of women, some not so well known as their predecessors of a year earlier. They entered the fray as if to proclaim solidarity with their dissenting sisters.

In the meantime, a Japanese edition was in preparation. The divergence of opinion between the public at large, who welcomed the book, and the band of its detractors, who did not, posed many questions. Who matters most? Is it the reading public or the self-proclaimed arbiters whose judgement has proved on many occasions to be out of touch with the prevailing mood? Is our cultural life totally dependent on a select few whose opinions seldom reflect the thinking or aspirations of the ordinary man or woman? These questions have continued to trouble me. We seem to be burdened with an élitist literary establishment intent on keeping the myth of its infallibility going at all costs. In saying this I could hardly be accused of ‘sour grapes’; I laughed all the way to the bank.

GOLDEN DAYS 2

The Literary Review is about to celebrate its fortieth birthday. I thought it appropriate to reproduce another memoir written for Fulfilment & Betrayal. Kathy O’Shaughnessy has become one of our leading cultural critics, but she was very much the delightful igénue when I first met her:

Life at the Literary Review

Kathy O’Shaughnessy

I hadn’t spoken to Naim for years, when out of the blue came a phone call, asking me to write a piece about the Literary Review. Within minutes I was experiencing his personality in full, just like in the old days. He was telling me not only I could write anything I liked, but – ‘If I was a monster, you can say I was a monster!’ (voice rising to an excited, already indignant little scream).

‘Only a very benign monster,’ I replied, but I was laughing away, as Naim’s enthusiasm and unEnglish lack of restraint took me back twenty years. He was far and away the most enthusiastic employer I ever had, with a generosity, theatricality and warmth that was extremely endearing, and a long way from corporate publishing as it is today.
I was twenty-three when I went to work for the Literary Review. I had abandoned my post-graduate degree at Oxford on Byron (‘See you at the end of the term,’ my supervisor had said on day one, somewhat dispiritingly) and begun writing book reviews for Time Out and the Spectator. Shortly after that I heard about an impossibly perfect vacancy – deputy editor at the Literary Review. I applied and was interviewed by Gillian Greenwood, the editor, who seemed at once interesting, funny, lively – the sort of person you’d like as a friend, let alone to work for. Happily she took me on, and the next day I went to meet the already legendary Naim. ‘Welcome to the family!’ he said, as he vigorously shook my hand. My eyes were wandering, however, to the far end of the office, where a stupendously good-looking blonde had materialized as out of nowhere; and this was to be a recurring feature of working for Naim: beauties popping up in doorways and offices and desks like hallucinations, each more splendid than the last.

The Literary Review offices were above a hairdresser’s and a strong-smelling restaurant: you had to climb three flights of rickety stairs to get to the two rooms in question – one for editorial (Gillian and myself), one for business (Bridget Heathcoat-Amory). And that, beguilingly, was it – so small-scale, so DIY, so very hands on! On one trestle table lay the books ready to be reviewed. Gillian sat at the large leather-topped boss’s desk; I sat at a suitably smaller desk facing the traffic of Goodge Street, and so began my career in literary journalism. (So, too, my intense career as a passive smoker, as all of the magazine’s editors smoked with a will, a few feet away from me; yet I have to admit to a nostalgic fondness for that smoky office of the past, with its piled-up books and tottering, over-spilling ashtrays, redolent of a more relaxed and less health-’n’-self-obsessed era.)

It was a dream of a job for a twenty-three-year-old. Each morning began with a pile of post: cardboard-encased books, which, like a cluster of presents, looked all the more promising for being wrapped; and the copy – typewritten, of course. It was a thrill to open the envelope and discover the copy. The typewritten pages had a presence and shadowy sort of character that today’s computer print-out could never aspire to – maybe the n’s didn’t print properly, the page might be clotted with inky crossing-outs; the very letters bore the imprint of effort expended. Then, if the copy was unexpectedly funny, or clever or just felicitous, you had the feeling of treasure-in-the-making. If it was flaccid or lacklustre – well, cutting and editing could accomplish a lot. This was my editing apprenticeship, and I loved it.

Gillian was my first and main boss at the Literary Review. Like most fine editors, she was herself a gifted writer, and I learnt all about editing and commissioning and putting a magazine together from her. It was a tiny operation, just the two of us, and it felt lucky to be part of this two-man or rather two-woman team – the job so enjoyable it was like being a child in a sweetshop. I soon began writing for the magazine myself, as well as helping with the commissioning. But then we had to do everything: sometimes even driving round London and dropping off batches of the newly printed issue at the not-so-many booksellers that took it at the time; and always spending one exhausting but satisfying day a month putting the magazine to bed at ‘the printers’. The printers were in fact a husband and wife team, Ken and May, operating out of a small house in Chatham, Kent. There we spent many hours in the dank and indeed dark basement correcting the final proofs as the magazine went to film. It was a bonding experience and we became close friends.

Part of the job was of course meeting the writers. Broke! solitary! talented, not so talented – satirical – worthy – brilliant – the whole gamut passed through the doors of the Literary Review; and if they didn’t pass through our office they very likely appeared at Naim’s parties or at his dining table in Poland Street, where you might meet Ryszard Kapuscinski on one day, J. P. Donleavy on another, Hilary Mantel on another, and so on. In the early days our contributors included, to take a random sample from the time: Francis Wheen, David Profumo, A. N. Wilson, Colin MacCabe, A. L. Rowse, John Lahr, Carlo Gebler, Max Egremont, Geoff Dyer, Sheila Macleod, John Orr, Christopher Hawtree, Martin Walker, Antony Beevor, Richard Williams, Christopher Hitchens, Grey Gowrie, Lucretia Stewart, Neil Berry, Kyril Fitzlyon and others. For their pains, they were paid the princely sums of £10 or £20! But the world of books was different then: there was less money around, marketing was less to the forefront, and those mergers between the publishing houses were still an evil mirage on the horizon.

The magazine’s offices were in Goodge Street, busy and lively with its sandwich bars, Italian delis, shoe shops, bikers dashing in and out with their important packages, and Charlotte Street with its restaurants round the corner (the Spaghetti House being our top budget outing). It was a short walk from there to Naim’s office, where we would either have lunch (his cook Charlotte was a maestro of the kitchen as well as a beauty, ça va sans dire); or debate the perennial problems of circulation, advertising and distribution; or receive Naim’s advice, and above all, almost intravenously it was so intense, his enthusiasm. Clapping his hands, exclaiming, he would tell us his idea for a mischievous article that would stir up controversy, and so help the magazine’s ailing circulation; and indeed circulation was part of the aim, but so, it must be said, was Naim’s badly concealed and infectious joy in taking on the British establishment.

At a certain point the Literary Review moved its offices to 51 Beak Street, future site of the Academy Club. But wherever we were, the spirit of Naim was always hovering around. He would ring up on the telephone, and somehow his voice lingered in the office, with its rolled r’s, and his favourite phrases – ‘at the end of the day’ – or, my particular favourite, the exclamation, ‘Bobby’s your uncle!’ In short, the experience of working on the Literary Review could not be disentangled from the experience of working for Naim, because you were always conscious of the increasingly wide-ranging activities of your unpredictable impresario boss, who had this protean fund of energy and will, to the point of metamorphosis. One moment he was publishing books, the next he was launching perfumes with the titles Avant l’Amour and Après l’Amour, unmistakable variations on a certain theme, and doubtless there would be a party held in some splendid arena such as the Reform Club or the Travellers’ Club. As Naim held one party after another, London seemed to open its doors to reveal an endless number of potential party venues.

The Literary Review filled a niche determined in part by its competitors. The London Review of Books clearly occupied the intellectual high ground; The Times Literary Supplement had its firm allegiance to matters academic; and so the Literary Review was there to be perhaps more comfortably on the ground, not highbrow, but not lowbrow either; distinctly lively; drawing on journalists as well as writers. The writers ranged from the famous to the little known, and that was one of the pleasures of working on the magazine – coming into contact with many relatively unsung writers who wanted to bring their particular sensibility and encounter with literature to paper in some form. It always seemed to me that this ‘middle ground’ gave the Literary Review freedom to run, for example, exhaustive interviews with writers that went at a serious ruminative pace, giving place to all kinds of unshowy detail that was nevertheless of literary interest.

Gradually the Literary Review became a home for maverick columnists such as A. N. Wilson or Cosmo Landesman, where humorous or odder and more free-wheeling sentiments could be expressed in pieces that were short but piquant; later on, when Auberon Waugh became editor, this bent, the sense of the magazine’s character as idiosyncratic, was to become more developed, as Auberon Waugh stamped his own exceedingly British and in some ways divinely eccentric personality on it.

There were three editors at the Literary Review during the period I worked there: Gillian, Emma Soames and Auberon Waugh. I shall always be grateful to Gillian or Gilly for taking me on. Gilly had diplomacy, patience, sensitivity and an unerring feeling for whether or not a piece worked. We ran early pieces by David Sexton (two particularly good ones I still remember, one on Tolstoy’s diaries, another on father and son in fiction, focusing on the Waughs), Paul Taylor and Andrew Graham-Dixon, and many others. The magazine was going from strength to strength when she left, to go to the South Bank Show, and a new editor was appointed, Emma Soames.

Emma was confident and instinctively clever in her judgements, and gifted with wit in abundance (certain jokes still make me laugh – ‘TAXI!’ to be shrieked when you want to get out of a situation). The magazine began to take off in new directions: we changed its typeface and logo, got in a very funny cartoon from Nick Newman and Ian Hislop, thought up the anonymous column ‘Scrivener’ (usually about the nefarious goings-on behind the scenes in newspapers); I persuaded Richard Curtis to do a television column, which was hilarious, and which he later passed on to Stephen Fry, who, perhaps less funny than Richard, was nevertheless an elegant, fluent and reliable contributor. In a relatively short time Emma had made her decisive mark as editor, and we had become great friends (we really did have a lot of laughs), but change was afoot again. Anna Wintour had come back from New York to edit Vogue and was claiming Emma as her features editor. Once more the editorship was vacant and this time Naim appointed Auberon Waugh.

I had met Bron, as he was universally known, at a Spectator lunch, but nevertheless his columns at the time, which could be so provocative, filled me with apprehension. The Literary Review was an extremely small ship. As deputy you sat about five feet away from the editor, and all day you shared an office, just the two of you in the one room; if one of you was on the telephone, for example, the other heard everything you said. In short, it was essential to get on.

However, when Bron did appear, wearing that memorable hat, I liked him immediately. It was in fact impossible not to. He was courteous, kind, considerate, but none of these words (though true) get what was fun about him, which was his drollery, his immensely discerning eye, his effortless dry intelligence – which he wore, almost as a point of honour, lightly. Nor was he ever affected. I couldn’t imagine him ever adopting a sentiment that wasn’t truly his. He had an original interesting mind, and was without fail interesting to talk to.

I think Bron was grateful for my help because of course it was new to him, running a literary magazine. But it was clear to me that he viewed me sometimes as a sentimental leftie. We always tried to run a short story and we were inundated by short stories, most of which were, to put it bluntly, screamingly terrible. But I remember one on the slush pile depicting a mining community devastated by pit closure. It seemed to me a moving story, that felt authentic, even though the treatment of the subject was in no way surprising; and I showed it to Bron. He read it and was horrified by my suggestion that we run it, seeing it as predictable in the nth degree. I suspect we both had a bit of a case.

As a team, we had our comic moments. I remember that if I arrived and Bron had got there first, perhaps even just fractionally earlier than me, and was sitting ensconced at his desk, I would feel extremely guilty, as if his silent diligence were a reproach. Later, as we became more relaxed colleagues, it turned out that he experienced the identically persecuted sensation if I had preceded his arrival.

With such a small staff there was always a great deal to do. There were proofs to correct and re-correct, proofs to be sent out to authors, authors’ corrections to transfer, ‘shouts’ on the cover to be decided, illustrations from publishers to be chased up, short stories to read, and so on; and it was characteristic of Bron that shortly after arriving he advertised for a ‘slave’ to work gratis in the LR office, on the grounds that this menial apprenticeship would be the gateway to future triumphs. I was sceptical if amused, but sure enough, the next month found Grub Smith, whose very name seemed to beggar belief, like some fantastic projection of a Dickensian imagination, sitting at an exceedingly small and low table, almost child-level, below the intercom phone near the door, our slave for the immediate future. Bron was proved right.

Auberon Waugh did to a degree re-mint the magazine in his own image, with his opening column ‘From the Pulpit’, and that was very good for the magazine’s profile. At the same time the magazine became more hospitable to a strand of literary activity that was in some ways proudly anti-intellectual (I always remember him saying that Proust would have written a good book had he kept it to one volume), yet in other ways deeply committed to the concept of the literary, even if it came to that notion by ranging it against a partly exaggerated foe, the too-intellectual or the narrowly academic. Perhaps this battle too found its secret expression in Bron’s commitment to placing, at all costs, the word ‘sex’ on the cover (no dry magazine this). Thus it became a running and well-known joke: even if this month’s literary offerings refused to yield anything involving sex, there might be a piece by David Sexton, that would then get cover billing, as in – ‘David SEXton on Kingsley Amis’, and so on. And then obviously there followed all sorts of things like the ‘Bad Sex’ competition, all of which earned the Literary Review more publicity. But by this time I had followed Emma to Condé Nast, to edit the arts and books section of Vogue.

During all this time Naim was the kindest and most supportive of bosses. Although he sometimes got a mixed press, being often depicted as a very sexist employer, the truth is that Naim defied simple labelling. In the world of British publishing he always seemed to me to be something of an innocent who, like all essentially good-hearted people, expected the same in return – windfalls of goodwill. One has to remember certain things about Naim: that it was he who also owned and funded The Women’s Press, and published an imprint like Quartet Encounters, run by Stephen Pickles – a less commercial, more riskily high-minded list would be hard to find.

When I came to leave the Literary Review, I helped Bron find a successor (pointing him in the directon of Kate Kellaway, for which he was always grateful). But before then various candidates came along, including the sadly late Linda Brandon. Linda – who was to die tragically young – was extremely intelligent, with an exceptional CV. She had also become a lesbian, and wore short hair and dungarees. Accordingly we had an interview: Naim, Bron, Linda and myself. Bron, who was usually utterly unlike the persona of his more extreme kind of column, behaved briefly like the said invented persona – as soon as Linda had gone, he dismissed her completely. Naim on the other hand was perplexed by the single-mindedness of Bron’s response. All he could see was this incredibly impressive CV, and her pleasantness as a person. Naim and I argued for her, but Bron was resolute.

That was typical of Naim, who had a disinterested open-minded respect for achievement, and at the risk of stating the obvious, an appreciation of women above and beyond their appearance.

Well, to be fair he liked that, too. But then, to recycle that great last line in cinema, nobody’s perfect.