I had an uncanny premonition that 1983 would be a difficult year. So far my new career as a publisher had been bumpy but without too much discomfort. The controversies of the past twelve months had left my fighting spirit intact. My wife Maria maintained that I always courted trouble because basically I enjoyed adversarial combat. It was my way, she said, of reassuring myself that I was capable of defending what I felt to be right, whether ideological or political. There was an element of truth in that, I had to admit. I function at my best under pressure and relish the art of tactical manoeuvring. I never seek conflict for its own sake, and I would rather win a contest through debate or highly charged negotiation. To pit one’s intellect against that of an opponent and win is far more satisfying and morale boosting than entering into some vulgar spat that is undignified for both winner and loser. While I am prone to flare up at the least provocation, I try to leave matters to simmer down before I react.
The start of 1983 was benign enough. The attentions of the press seemed to become focused on Sabrina Guinness, who was causing a great deal of speculation following her appointment to head a book club affiliated with the Literary Review. The announcement of the launch party led to various cheap asides in the press questioning her suitability to run such an enterprise. The gossip writers had a field-day delving into her background and claiming she possessed the less serious attributes of a social butterfly. Some reported that she was presently engrossed in books to bring her up to the mark in her new job; others held more cynical views. Sabrina herself showed great reserve, refusing to let her feathers be ruffled by this onslaught of adverse publicity. She proved to have an impressive measure of resilience in coping with the situation and rose above it all with dignity.
Sabrina organized the launch party, which was notable for the rich mixture of people it assembled. The literati were there in force, alongside the gossip mongers who could not resist the chance of picking up more material for their columns. The usual crowd of book-event attenders chattered with delight as they circulated among the beautiful young women there to show their solidarity with Sabrina, whom they considered one of the gang. Roald Dahl, who reputedly never attended a publishing function unless it was to do with one of his own books, had responded to a personal invitation from Sabrina. He was there with his daughter Tessa, who had had a small part in The Slipper and the Rose, the film I had produced with David Frost.
Roald Dahl and I began our conversation with his asking me in which part of Palestine I was raised. He knew the country well, he added, having been stationed there as a fighter pilot with the RAF during the Second World War. Their target at the time had been the Vichy administration in Lebanon. When I told him my home town was Haifa, his face lit up. The mention of it brought back poignant memories, he said. He described how the Arab peasants would wave to signify good luck as the fighter planes flew over Mount Carmel on their outward sortie, and waved to welcome them back when the pilots made a safe return to base. As he was speaking a sudden thought shot into my mind. Quartet was about to publish a book, hard-hitting in its views, on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Perhaps we could ask Dahl to write a piece about it for the Literary Review.
The title was God Cried and the author was Tony Clifton, a well-known and respected journalist who worked for Newsweek; his collaborator was Catherine LeRoy, a veteran French war photographer. The book described, in harrowing detail, by way of its words and pictures, the violence and destruction inflicted by the Israeli armed forces on West Beirut through shelling and bombing and the harsh realities of their occupation. Its title derived from a piece of Palestinian black humour circulating in the Middle East at the time, it being said that God had agreed to answer one question each from Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev and Yasser Arafat. The American president asked his question first, wanting to know when an American would become leader of the whole world. ‘In fifty years,’ said God. And Reagan cried. When God asked him why he cried, he said, ‘Because it won’t happen in my lifetime.’ Next it was the turn of Brezhnev, who wished to know from God when the whole world would be communist. ‘In a hundred years,’ said God. And Brezhnev cried for the same reason as Reagan. And when it came to Arafat, he asked God, ‘When will my people have a homeland of their own?’ And God cried.
Before I could broach my idea for a review from Dahl, I needed to observe the protocol between proprietor and editor and consult with Gillian Greenwood on whether she would agree. Hers was the last word editorially on what went into the magazine and the choice of contributors. I tracked her down in another corner of the launch party and put the question. She gave me the green light at once. Returning to Roald Dahl, I asked him whether he might be interested in writing such a review. His reaction was abrupt to the point of hostility. He received many requests from publishers to review their books, he told me, and never agreed to do one, irrespective of the book’s merits. He would certainly make no exception to the rule on this or any other occasion. Dahl could display a rather intimidating side if he was roused and I stood there dumbstruck. The earlier warmth of our conversation evaporated instantly. I mumbled a few meaningless phrases and retreated politely, under the pretext of not wishing to monopolize his company.
After recovering from the shock of this sudden embarrassment – not because of his refusal to write a review but because of the manner in which he had expressed it – I went to seek Tessa Dahl to protest at how I was mortified by her father. She was not in the least surprised to hear my tale, being quite accustomed to his brusque moods. Would she be able to persuade him to change his mind, I wondered, given his interest in Palestine? If we sent her a copy as soon as the book became available, she suggested, she would try her very best to cajole him into a change of heart. I held out very little hope of her succeeding, but sent her God Cried even so, just for its promotional value.
Hardly a week had passed before a letter from Dahl arrived enclosing a comprehensive review and informing me that he did not wish to receive any payment for it. I was thrilled until I started to read it, and then my spirits fell in semi-horror. It was couched in language unhoned by diplomacy and without the least regard for the art of gentle censure. Dahl was bold and unrelentingly scathing in his condemnation of Israel for its brutal opportunistic incursion, which had taken its army all the way to Beirut. I knew at once that publication of the piece would send the influential pro-Zionist lobby into a frenzy of rage. It was addressed to the editor of the Literary Review, and since the decision on whether to print it would have to be Gillian Greenwood’s, I passed it on quickly.
Gillian shared my concerns and we agreed we must first check it out with our lawyer, Michael Rubinstein, whose advice and suggestions would be pertinent since he was himself Jewish. To our utter surprise, Michael liked and approved of Dahl’s review. Apart from editing out a few of the more intemperate expressions, he urged us to publish it. The reason he gave was that criticism of Israel should not, when it was deserved, be silenced by those who chose to see only one side of the equation. Michael was a liberal and an ardent champion of the oppressed and dispossessed. His last words to Gillian and myself were: ‘Publish and be damned.’ We did publish; and we were damned.
The reaction to the review was far more extreme that we had anticipated. Apart from the overreaction of the Jewish lobby, the friends of Israel in the media became virulent in their onslaught on Dahl, myself and the Literary Review. The attacks came in from every side, even reaching a pitch where many journalists and politicians of high standing called for a boycott of the magazine and anyone connected with it. Every day something more vicious than the day before appeared somewhere, with accusations of anti-Semitism becoming more strident and preposterous as the campaign to discredit Quartet and the book gained momentum. Dahl did nothing to help matters by growing even more combative and being provoked into making outrageous, inflammatory responses. He was not in the least chastened by all that was being said about him. On the contrary, he expounded on his views and riled the press by being abrasive and dismissing their questions out of hand. There was no way of putting a gag on him and no point in asking him to cool things down. He had the bit between his teeth and nothing would stop him giving our adversaries all the fuel they could have wished for to keep their engines firing.
Time after time I was asked by the press to comment on one or other of his utterances and found myself at a loss for an appropriate response. He was still my contributor and I could not let it seem I was being unsupportive of his right to hold his own views. It was a difficult situation that had gone beyond control. Although we were fighting from the same corner, our temperaments and perceptions of how to get a grip on things were vastly different. In a way, he had dug himself into a hole from which he could not extricate himself without sustaining some damage. When the whole uproar began I had, in fact, been away for a break in Italy, visiting Lord Lambton, who had invited us for the first time to stay at his villa outside Siena. The holiday was constantly interrupted by the latest reports from London as the drama began to unfold. On the way back to England we travelled via Florence to meet Harold Acton. He had asked us to tea at his famous palazzo overlooking the city, and afterwards took us to walk in the extensive historic gardens, insisting on having his photograph taken with my wife. From that rarefied and civilized experience I plunged into the explosive turmoil back in London, generated, first, by the publication of God Cried, and secondly by the furore that was continuing over Dahl’s review. Rather than showing signs of blowing over with time, the row seemed to be gaining strength. The entire British press gave the impression of having ganged up to condemn us unjustly– given that in every dispute there are two sides to the issue.
To make matters even worse, Jeffrey Bernard, in his ‘Low Life’ column in the Spectator, went way beyond the bounds of decency by proposing that, as a retaliation for the sentencing of ‘a parched man’ to six hundred strokes by those ‘awful Arabs’ (referring to an event in Saudi Arabia), six hundred strokes should be inflicted on an Arab in London. He nominated me for this punishment as the boss of Quartet Books and possibly ‘the ugliest man he had ever met’. It was beyond comprehension that the Spectator should have published such offensive material, but the Mail on Sunday ferreted out a reason to explain ‘why the genial Jeffrey is lashing out at Naim in the Spectator’. David Skan, the writer of the short piece, speculated that it was ‘probably not unconnected with an encounter between Attallah’s Quartet book firm and Bernard, who was commissioned to write a book about racing. Deadlines were missed and the book never appeared. Attallah made Bernard repay the advance.’
Then out of the woodwork there came Paul Johnson, known for his Zionist sympathies, with a very trenchant article, again in the Spectator, that poured scorn on the Literary Review. Dahl’s article, said Johnson, was in his view ‘the most disgraceful item to have appeared in a respectable British publication for a very long time’. He could not actually recall anything like it. Moreover, he claimed, the Review was ‘controlled by a wealthy Palestinian who also runs Quartet Books’, adding that ‘the Literary Review has published anti-Israeli material before’. In the face of this I could not remain silent and sent a letter to the editor of the Spectator to challenge Johnson to substantiate his charges since he accused Dahl of a ‘reckless disregard for facts’.
Where horrendous loss of life and human misery is at stake, complaints of tendentiousness should be discounted. Johnson has no more need to apologize for the expression of his strong feelings that I have for accepting my editor’s decision to publish the expression of Dahl’s strong feelings in the Literary Review. Nor am I ashamed of my own strong feelings about the current appalling misfortunes of both the Lebanese and the Palestinians; for every comparably suffering Jew I feel no less strongly.
Johnson concludes his diatribe: ‘The most effective action the civilized community can take is for reputable writers to refuse to be associated with a journal that publishes such filth.’ Contributors to the Literary Review are encouraged to write freely within the law. It is not to be assumed that the editor or publisher necessarily agrees with all the opinions of the contributors. Or necessarily disagrees with any of them.
My letter was published by the Spectator on 10 September. Meanwhile Private Eye had muscled in to comment in their ‘World of Books’ of 26 August that I had struck again by publishing God Cried, and by running a review of the book in the Literary Review. They claimed the staff were unhappy with the piece Dahl had produced, but were forced to run it by me, the ‘Arab propagandist’. What had appalled them, they said, was the evidence of blatant anti-Semitism in the copy and how Time Out had published a slightly sanitized version of the review instead of doing their own. My response to Private Eye’s allegations appeared in their 9 September issue.
As Bookworm writes, I own through companies both Quartet Books and the Literary Review. Nevertheless, in no sense did I ‘force’ the Literary Review to publish the copy, nor was the staff ‘appalled [at] the evidence of blatant anti-Semitism in the copy’.
The suggestion that I am anti-Semitic is as absurd as it is mistaken. If being sympathetic to the Palestinians in their plight justifies condemnation of me as a ‘Palestinian propagandist’ then I will live with that. But it is a mischievous distortion of the meaning of propagandist – one who disseminates ‘information, allegations, etc., to assist or damage the cause of a government, movement, etc.’ (Collins). I am prepared to risk such abuse as Bookworm’s when I believe that the publication of a book may serve the cause of humanity. I trust the editor of the Literary Review to exercise her discretion in the same cause.
Running parallel to all this, a minor scuffle was set off when The Times ‘Diary’, under the heading ‘Chutzpah’, announced that I had entered God Cried for the three-thousand-pound H. H. Wingate Prize, which is awarded to an author who stimulates interest in Jewish affairs, when I knew very well there was scant prospect of the book winning. My reasoning in doing so was that it would at least give the judges the opportunity to look at the book and perhaps recognize the other point of view. The Jewish Chronicle came in to say that, for once, it agreed with The Times: it was chutzpah indeed, given the nature of the book and the intemperate language used by Dahl in his review of it.
Time Out was also dragged into the firing line for having published its abbreviated version of Dahl’s piece. The magazine was flooded with letters of protest and suffered a concerted attack from the media for having dared to publish the article. Philip Kleinman, writing in the Jewish Chronicle on 26 August, summed up the situation by threatening that ‘if Time Out can bash Israel, it may well be that some Jews might want to bash Time Out. It has a circulation of 65,000 and is heavily dependent on advertising, most of which could be placed elsewhere (What’s On, City Limits, the Standard).’ A few days later, in the Jewish Chronicle of 2 September, Kleinman picked up on a statement made by Mike Coren (himself Jewish) in the New Statesman to the effect that I had, as owner of the Literary Review, been put in a difficult position by Dahl’s article, since ‘not even the crudest Zionist could accuse [me] of antiSemitism’. Yet in Kleinman’s view, my remarks to Coren made it clear that it had been the proprietor not the editor of the Literary Review who had got Dahl to write the piece in the first place. According to Private Eye, he reported, the Review’s staff had been appalled by its anti-Semitism but were forced to use it.
On 9 September the Jewish Chronicle carried a letter from me responding to Kleinman’s article of the 2nd:
Sir – In Philip Kleinman’s article he referred to a report that the Literary Review staff were appalled by the anti-Semitism in Roald Dahl’s review of God Cried, but were forced by me to publish the article. I have already written to Private Eye pointing out that there is no grain of truth in this statement.
Because of the controversial nature of the article, we have published a number of hostile letters in the current issue of the Literary Review (September 1983). We believe a free discourse on such an important subject can only help to bring about a better understanding of the issue. May I conclude by saying that the killing of innocent people of any race, or creed, is a heinous act, and should be condemned by humanity as a whole.
The previous day, the 8th, The Times ‘Diary’ reported that Peter Hillmore of the Observer and their own Frank Johnson were on the point of heeding the call from Paul Johnson to boycott the Literary Review. Both had contributed to the current issue but neither of them was sure they wished to do so in future. Hillmore said he considered the article to be ‘plain, abusive antiSemitism which should never have been printed’, while Johnson said that ‘even by the standards of anti-Israel bias, this piece was above and beyond the call of duty. Gillian Greenwood, when asked for her reaction, said that other contributors to the magazine told her that nobody takes any notice of what Paul Johnson says in the Spectator.’
Back on 2 September, the Evening Standard reported how I had gone to the extraordinary length of removing from the masthead of the Literary Review the name of its poetry editor, Carol Rumens, in the wake of her having written a letter of protest about the Dahl piece in the magazine’s letter pages. She wished to dissociate herself from it, she told the Standard, as she thought the review inaccurate and inflammatory. It was a bad thing, she added, when the proprietor of a magazine identifies too closely with the views expressed in it. Presumably I had removed her name because I was embarrassed that an employee of the magazine (albeit a freelance) should have criticized any of the magazine’s contents. ‘But at least,’ she said, ‘he’s printed my letter.’
Again on 2 September, William Hickey of the Daily Express informed his readers how an almighty row had blown up in the world of literature, featuring spooky writer Roald Dahl and right-wing columnist Paul Johnson, who was calling for a boycott of the Literary Review. When asked to comment on this, ‘Mr Attallah dismissed Johnson’s call for a boycott by saying: “What do you expect from a man who changes his politics as often as I change my shirts! He has no credibility as far as I am concerned.”’ But then the Express claimed in the final paragraph that I had bowed to a swarm of protests by agreeing to publish a number of letters putting the opposite point of view. The paper agreed to publish a letter from me in reply under the heading ‘Unbowed – a free forum for and against Israel’:
Sir – William Hickey highlights the fact that, following the review by Roald Dahl in the Literary Review, published by my company, of the book God Cried, about the 1982 Lebanon crisis, columnist Paul Johnson has called for a boycott of the Review.
The Literary Review provides a forum for the free expression of opinion, and I would not expect reputable writers to refuse to be associated with the journal merely because it has published strongly expressed anti-Israel views by Roald Dahl. William Hickey is, however, wrong to say that I have ‘bowed to the swarm of protest’ over Dahl’s anti-Zionist piece.
Letters putting the opposite point of view to Dahl’s have been published in the September issue of the Literary Review because that is precisely in accordance with its policy.
As the row continued, Sebastian Faulks wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of 18 September about what he called ‘a publisher under bombardment over an anti-Jewish book review’. The overall thrust of his article was, in my opinion, objectionable on many fronts. He called the review by Dahl anti-Jewish when it was no such thing. Admittedly Dahl used very strong terms in his condemnation of Israel for invading Lebanon and maltreating the Palestinians, but it was nothing more, nothing less. I also felt angry about what I felt was a misrepresentation by Faulks of the whole issue, not only where it concerned me personally but also for his evaluation of Quartet as a publishing house. The Sunday Telegraph agreed to publish a letter from me in reply under the heading ‘A publisher’s policy’:
While it is unnecessary to take issue with the sillier aspects of Sebastian Faulks’s article on myself, I would question his dismissal of our publishing programme as celebrity orientated, erotic and propagandist.
Quartet have some 300 titles in print. Less than 20 of these deal with the Middle East, of which 11 are concerned with the literature, folklore and anthropology of an area whose cultural influence on European civilization has been shamefully neglected. At present we have nine photographic books on our list, and for your journalist to dismiss the talents of Helmut Newton, John Swannell, Deborah Turbeville and Angus McBean simply as ‘erotic’ is philistine to say the least.
To describe as ‘not serious’ an imprint that publishes Jessica Mitford, Lillian Hellman, Cesare Pavese, ‘Multatuli’, Fleur Cowles, Shusaku Endo, Robert Kee, Anaïs Nin (to name a few), and whose autumn list includes Celia Bertin’s Marie Bonaparte, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor and Sue Davidson Lowe’s monograph on her great-uncle, Alfred Steiglitz, rather hints that Faulks and his star-witness, Giles Gordon, might have other reasons for the sneers and innuendoes in the article. Moreover, it would seem a curious strategy for a publisher intent on ‘forcing his way into the establishment’ to publish Paul Robeson’s political writings, Jeremy Seabrook’s blistering attack on the inhumanity of unemployment, James Avery Joyce’s plea for arms reduction or Ralph Miliband’s socialist tract. Our list speaks for itself and we remain, whatever Faulks and Gordon may say, an independent radical publishing house. And make no mistake, there are all too few of us left.
The Sunday Telegraph had printed my letter, but in line with Private Eye practice it gave the last word to Sebastian Faulks, who said:
I wrote that Quartet has published a ‘wide variety’ of books but that its ‘hallmarks’ (i.e. those books with which it is most clearly and commonly associated) were ‘pro-Palestinian books on the Middle East, collections of erotic photographs and volumes by English establishment figures’. I can still see no reason to modify that description either in respect of the ‘variety’ or of the ‘hallmarks’.
My reaction at the time was that Faulks’s riposte to my letter was ungracious if not bordering on the bloody-minded. I felt he could have been more conciliatory in the circumstances. More of a reasonable tone was sounded by Alexander Chancellor in the Spectator on 10 September when he suggested that the civilized community should suspend its boycott of the Literary Review on the grounds that we all publish rotten articles from time to time and that he ‘felt a little sympathy for Miss Greenwood’s employer, Naim Attallah, who happens to be of Palestinian origin’.
Despite the fact that during the summer he was the object of vulgar abuse in the pages of this paper by Mr Jeffrey Bernard, he wrote a most gentlemanly letter to the Spectator in reply to Mr Johnson’s attack. The letter was gentlemanly because it failed to point out that Mr Attallah is not the sole proprietor of the Literary Review. A chunk of it is owned by the Spectator’s revered proprietor, Mr Algy Cluff.
In the end, as the row continued for weeks, it became tiresome, with the same points being laboured over and over again, irrespective of which side they were fired from. I was then challenged to speak to the Jerusalem Post, an opportunity I willingly welcomed, for I had nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Their feature article, which covered the whole saga, included a short discourse I had with the newspaper, which prefaced our conversation by saying that neither I, nor the editor of the Literary Review, nor Dahl himself had the slightest regrets about the article. It went on to describe how I had been born in Haifa in 1931 but since 1949 had been living in England, where I had become a publisher. My last visit to Israel was six years before when my father died and I had never had any flair for politics.
I did not deny the fact that I was opposed to Zionism and had great sympathy with the Palestinians in their plight for statehood, but was adamant that I never used the magazine to push my own views. The editor decided what to publish, but in cases where an article might cause controversy, then consultation between editor and proprietor was the norm. I also rejected the charge that the article was anti-Semitic, despite its strong language. ‘If I thought it was, I would not have published it. I’m the last one to talk about anti-Semitism. The Arabs and the Jews are both Semitic people.’ In any case, I told my interlocutor, a healthy debate is far better than resorting to violence. It is an essential part of democracy that people should be free to express their own views. Gillian Greenwood was of the same opinion. She said that a contributor to the magazine should be allowed to express his view and confirmed that she had no regrets about publishing the review in question.
The scale and persistence of the Roald Dahl controversy perhaps deflected some attention from the book itself, which had been the reason for the original upsurge of indignation. When God Cried was published in the United States, its fate was rather different. It was virtually ignored at every level by book editors and reviewers as if it did not exist. The well-known Jewish columnist and blues historian, Nat Hentoff, wrote an article around this phenomenon that was published in Voice on 14 February 1984. ‘Have you forgotten that summer in Beirut so soon?’ he asked in his headline, referring to the 1982 massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila camps, carried out by the Christian Phalangist militia with the connivance of the Israeli authorities during their invasion. He juxtaposed two quotes on the Lebanon adventure, the first from the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, when he said, ‘Never in the past was the great Jewish community in the United States so united around Israel, standing together’; the second came from the respected Israeli diplomat and politician, Abba Eban: ‘Beirut for us was like Moscow for Napoleon, a place you’d wished you’d never been.’
‘There is a rage in the book, and shock,’ wrote Mr Hentoff, ‘and much beauty in the faces of the children. I do not know of a more frightening book published last year.’ It had been published by a company owned by a Palestinian Arab. ‘Aha you say. This must be propaganda.’ But then he asked whether, if you took up a strongly pro-Israel book, you looked to see if its publisher was Jewish. ‘Yes, I guess some of you do, just as some of you will dismiss this book without looking at it because who can trust a Palestinian? That kind of dumbness cuts across ideological lines, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I hope some of the rest of you will judge God Cried on its own.’
It was not surprising that Tony Clifton’s prose should have been raw, like some of his memories. It had been ‘one hell of a bloody, brutal siege of Beirut’. There was the story of an editor on the New York Times who cut the adjective ‘indiscriminate’ from the dispatch of a correspondent reporting the bombing – because he found it hard to believe. ‘But . . . the Israeli planes . . . did not give a good goddamn what they hit. The apologists for this most shameful operation in the history of Israel – and many Israelis see it as criminal – can’t have it both ways. If there was only precision bombing, why were clearly marked hospitals hit? Repeatedly.’
Hentoff conceded that Arafat and the PLO hierarchy had interspersed themselves among civilians and that it was possible that some of them took shelter in hospitals for the mentally handicapped, ‘one of which was bombed five times’; but even so, how could it be worth the cost to ‘kill the maimed, the halt, the blind, kids, anything that moved? What would have been worth this terrible price in Israel’s first war that was not one of defence?’ ‘All atrocities should be written about with rage,’ said Hentoff, coming to the fundamental point. ‘But no one writer has space for all, and I choose Beirut because I am Jewish and feel kinship with those in Israel who do not want Jews, anywhere, to forget what happened in Lebanon in the summer of 1982. Lest it happen again under Jewish auspices, including the support of American Jews.’
Nat Hentoff, writing in America, had finally thrown into relief the meretricious judgements made on God Cried by such a large and influential section of the press in Britain.