REMEMBERING THE PARTY

One of the devices I used in Fulfilment & Betrayal was to ask many of the people who had once worked for me to remember their experiences, which I filtered throughout my main text to add colour and another perspective to my narrative. One which I liked very much was written by the now renowned theatre critic for the Observer:

The Nine-Month Party by Kate Kellaway

Working at the Literary Review as deputy literary editor was as near as any salaried job could come to being paid to attend a party. It was a party which lasted, for me, for nine glorious months, ending in April 1987. When I left, I remember reflecting that parties, after all, cannot be expected to last for ever. At the Literary Review’s light, airy offices on the first floor of Beak Street, Soho, there was an endless supply of books and of nice people willing to review them for a tiny wage. Bron Waugh (contrary to everything I had supposed before I worked with him) was the most charming colleague. I was devoted to him. Bron feared boredom. Jokes were not optional adornments. They were necessary. He was seriously frivolous. It was essential to find life amusing. And we did. ‘You are looking a little off colour,’ I remember him saying to me one morning, at eleven o’clock, correctly diagnosing a broken heart and opening a particularly fine bottle of pink champagne.

It was not a problem that I was a Guardian reader or a Labour voter. Nor was it disconcerting to him that I had recently returned from teaching English in a township school in Harare, Zimbabwe. Bron loved difference, dissent and edge, and was heartened by the possibility of an argument (I must have disappointed him by not arguing enough). We agreed about more than I would ever have thought possible. We were in accord about everything from literary style to broad beans, although, as always, he was ready to be more dramatically emphatic than I was. (‘There is no one in the world who doesn’t love broad beans.’) Bron was as loyal as the day was long. But the day wasn’t long at all. Sometimes it had more or less finished by midday, helped on its way by lunch. (Fish was a favourite as Bron used to insist it was ‘good for the brain’.)

Reviewers dropped in throughout the day, often unannounced, to help themselves to a novel or just to gossip. Bron would pick up the phone and charm the grandest people into reviewing the most unlikely books. He was never afraid to ask. He was ruthless with his editor’s red pen, especially after lunch. I picture him sitting in a swanky leather director’s chair (I loved those chairs of ours) and pronouncing: ‘There is nothing in the world that cannot be improved by cutting.’

He was right. Sometimes, I wanted to do more than cut. I wanted to kill. But when I was offended by some bigoted review Bron had commissioned, or when he had asked some pretty girl he’d met on a train whether she’d like to review a novel (as happened more than once) and the result turned out to be unprintably banal, I learnt not to say too much. Bron would brighten if I sounded indignant. The most effective thing was to yawn. Whatever happened, we must not bore our readers or ourselves.

If the Literary Review was a party, then there were were two hosts: Bron and Naim Attallah, the magazine’s owner. Naim was a tall, handsome, improbable presence. He wore beautiful suits and cut such a dash that he looked more as though he were about to sponsor, or even take part in, a Merchant Ivory film than to bother himself with a literary magazine. Not that ‘bother’ was a word that suited Naim in any way. He was mavellously calm. I was grateful and amazed at his charming way of welcoming me from the start, with a twinkle in his eye, before he knew anything much about me – there was gallantry in this. He had tremendous warmth – something I can never resist. He was not a flirt, though. There was no banter, thank goodness. But there was a sympathetic intelligence and, I think, a great wish to please. I remember being presented by Naim with a small, stylish black and gold Asprey watch. I adored it. But I worried faintly that it might be some sort of bribe, then felt ashamed of the thought. It was nice to be spoilt – and an unfamiliar feeling – although, like my time at the Literary Review, the watch didn’t last for long. Its time ran out. But Naim was nothing if not generous.

Naim has a reputation for being a ladies’ man and this was something Bron relished and liked to discuss. I remember the endless jokes in the Literary Review’s offices about the beauty of the girls with whom Naim worked at Quartet. I remember vividly feeling daunted by their languid glamour – some of them definitely, I remember thinking at the time, looked too beautiful to work.

But then glamour was Naim’s thing. He had a flair for decorous, delicious literary lunches too. Looking back on those lunches now, I think invitations should have been extended to struggling writers only, to those starving in garrets. They would have speedily recovered, although it might have taken the edge off their literary hunger. These lunches were as unexpected as Naim was. I remember Germaine Greer coming to one of them – charmed, I like to think, against her better judgement by Bron or Naim; or most likely by both of them. Naim contributed hugely to the sense that our purpose in life was to enjoy ourselves.

People used to assume that Naim must have an editorial stranglehold on the magazine and be breathing down Bron’s neck, instructing him to have reviewers rave about all books published by Quartet. This was not the case at all. I don’t remember any editorial interference whatsoever from Naim – although I guess that if he had been consulted, Naim might have been on Bron’s side in encouraging reviews written by the pretty girls encountered on trains – the Railway Children. But then, if I’d protested or appealed to him, it would have been difficult for Naim to take sides. My impression was that he was a man who would wish to shy away from conflict. He was a benign influence, in every way.

Bron used always to talk as if he wanted to please Naim – he would make it sound like a joke. But he meant it. Bron started many of his sentences with the words: ‘The sad truth is . . . ’ The ends of most sentences that started in this way were funny. The ‘sad truth’ was that Bron was unapologetically nepotistic. It was a matter of loyalty. And loyalty was something Naim and Bron had in common. Naim would not have dreamt of asking Bron to look favourably on his own books. But had he been the sort of person to insist on a good review, Bron would have been absolutely and robustly corruptible. The truth – sad or the reverse – is that Naim must have known he did not need to ask.

Bron liked to shock, even in small ways. He once told me that if you had not read a book, you should always praise it when reviewing it. I couldn’t believe that he was owning up to not reading some of the books he reviewed. I later came to regard the words, ‘She writes like an angel’, when they issued from Bron’s pen, with particular suspicion. The extraordinary thing was that the party atmosphere at the Literary Review did not prevent a magazine from appearing every month. I like to think that instead it made the magazine what it was: entertaining, generous, unpredictable. Much of what Bron did, he did only to annoy because he knew it pleases. Meanwhile Naim allowed the party to go on, and for that everyone involved will continue to thank him.

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