GOLDEN YEARS 1

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some talented, delightful people and when I published my final volume of memoirs, Fulfilment & Betrayal, I asked many of them to contribute their memories of our time together.

Rebecca Fraser, now a distinguished biographer and historian, left Quartet in 1986 having been with Quartet for many years in a variety of roles, culminating in her running of Robin Clark, a literary paperback reprint list which Quartet incorporated. Here, in her own words, she recalls her time spent in the bosom of the Namara Group:

For Naim: A Tribute

Rebecca Fraser

Almost a quarter of a century ago, in the autumn of 1982, I arrived at the publishers called Quartet Books, to work in the art department. I was very interested in book production and illustration as I had just illustrated two books myself, and had also done so as a child for Sidgwick & Jackson.

Having a mother who was a writer brought additional interest to working in publishing. I liked the whole pernickety process of bookmaking which I had seen going on in our house from my earliest youth – the book-jacket proofs, the colour plates, the prelims, the acknowledgements, the footnotes, the index. Just how complex the whole process was had recently been brought home in New York where I had been a researcher for the investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein on two complex books, one about diamonds and the other about Armand Hammer.

But Quartet was a publisher with a difference or ‘a tweeest!’ as my new employer liked to say, drawing the word out as he always did into a sort of shriek of highly contagious excitement. Like everything to do with Quartet, starting with my immediate hiring over a delicious lunch, the whole experience would be faintly surreal, but wonderful. Mr Naim Attallah, the boss, was absolute emperor and lived in a magnificent and flamboyant fashion. Every day his uniformed chauffeur was to be seen whizzing about London in a large Rolls-Royce, mainly taking Naim to power breakfasts, or occasionally rushing proofs to a libel lawyer far away in the Temple if Naim or an editor had got the wind up about a book. I found that by and large Naim aimed to be in the newspapers a great deal, whether on his own account or with his publishing, which was daring and challenged the status quo – as all good publishers do. Naim had the mind of a Bletchley Park computer, strangely allied to the exuberant temperament and creative passion of a conductor or a great opera star. Having been a banker, he insisted that he personally rechecked all the costings which are the integral part of the publishing process. He never stood still.

As in Alice in Wonderland, what I thought was a publishing house was always becoming something else as well: a chocolate shop, parfumerie, jewellers and so on. For like a true empire it expanded all the time with the sort of relentless energy of my new employer. And oh the extravaganzas that flowed from Naim’s fertile and enthusiastic mind – the plays, like The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and Trafford Tanzi starring Toyah Wilcox, then at the height of her fame, the magazines, many of which have become literary institutions – the Literary Review, the Oldie, the Wire – and the Academy Bookclub. The whole operation was backed by the legendary PR company Namara, also housed in the empire’s engine room, Namara House in Poland Street. At the top of this narrow house sat the imposing, enormously tall figure of the charming Naim behind his vast custom-made desk, while in and out rushed captains of industry, famous figures like Fleur Cowles, editors, reporters and photographers. They were all desperate to be published by Naim and wined and dined and promoted by him. For Naim loved people and they usually returned his affection. Naim was kind-hearted, generous and trusting in the extreme.

I soon realized that my real passion was editing, and after a period learning the black arts of publicity, I moved to edit Robin Clark books. This was a very nice little paperback imprint that had begun as a humorous classics list but which I was keen to make a showcase for exquisite first novels and literary nonfiction. We discovered some terrific writers even off what was known as the ‘slush pile’ – novels sent in without an agent, something unimaginable today with uberagents presiding as chick lit goes for six-figure sums. The great thing about Naim was that he was prepared to take the risk on first novels which other, bigger houses would not. We began to specialize in literary trade paperbacks like the Bloomsbury Frances Partridge’s Memories, Allan Massie, Peter Vansittart and Auberon Waugh’s five novels. We published Peter Handke, Julian Barnes’s first novel and Heathcote Williams’s classic The Speakers. Christine Sutherland’s marvellous Princess of Siberia, which continues to sell twenty years later, was a huge hit, as were Marie Walewska and Monica: Heroine of the Danish Resistance.

No. 27 Goodge Street, a tiny little walk-up opposite a stationer’s just off Tottenham Court Road, was the nerve centre of the editorial department. It contained within it many fierce spirits battling for dominion. They were also battling with Naim’s taste, as most of them were women and most of them had an inbuilt resistance to Naim’s default position vis-à-vis publishing. Despite his passionate interest in current affairs, what made Naim really happy was a photography or art book – ‘Very erotic, beloved!’ he would call out happily – and the saucier the better. There was usually a great deal of annoyance and rolling of eyes about the photography books at 27 Goodge Street, to which Naim paid very little attention. He continued to commission them imperturbably and they rolled inexorably off the presses. At the same time Naim was also truly contributing to feminist power by bankrolling the ground-breaking feminist publishers The Women’s Press, which published seminal works by Elaine Showalter and Kate Millett, while Quartet itself published the 1980s classic, Anne Dickson’s A Woman in Your Own Right.

Some of the Namara empire’s contradictions were embodied in the figure of the sales director, David Elliott. David was rather like Naim in character. He was extremely kind and very mischievous. Although he was also the sales manager of The Women’s Press, he took huge pleasure in annoying every member of their staff. He rushed about in his combat jacket and his desert boots, thinking of remarks to enrage ‘the Sisters’, as he called them, his black eyes snapping with pleasure, his bushy hair bristling with aggro for the sake of it. His close ally was the Scots accountant, Olive, who had very black eyebrows and white hair. Every week, as she distributed the pay slips made out in her tiny precise writing, Olive sniffed in a way that suggested that Naim was quite mad to pay anyone except herself. She was guarded by her huge Dobermann pinscher which she had bought as a tiny sweet puppy. But David also enjoyed baiting the bluestocking editors at Quartet. Just when everyone had had enough and would rush round to kill him, he and his terrible dog Tramp, the worse-tempered mongrel I have ever known, would make you scream with laughter.

Despite his naughtiness, David was extremely well-read, had been in books for years and had all kinds of brilliant ideas. He forced me to seek an audience with Dame Nora Smallwood to get her permission to do a V. S. Pritchett omnibus. That was quite terrifying – she was then the doyen of English publishers – as was meeting the great man V. S. Pritchett himself in Gloucester Terrace. The Pritchett Omnibus was a smash hit for Robin Clark, which under Jeremy Beale began to expand. Since then the imprint has published a great many jewels of English writing that should always remain in print: Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, Herbert Read’s The Green Child and W. W. Jacobs’s terrifying ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, with a selection of his humorous stories. Of course, we could never compete with the bigger trade paperbacks starting up at the time, but we published many literary books which in today’s climate might remain unpublished.

At night as the dusk fell and the office workers started leaving Goodge Street, it was a perfect life for a twenty-four-year-old. One could either work late in the cosy little offices looking out on Fitzrovia and roam through the amazing Quartet backlist, or increasingly one could go to Naim’s parties! By the time I left in 1986, having begun to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë, Naim was one of the most fêted men in London. He had begun a successful literary career of his own with several wonderful books published. His warmth, charm and sheer niceness persuaded many icons of our age to ’fess up all to him.

I met some of my greatest friends at Quartet, where the atmosphere was serious, hardworking and enormous fun. We all wanted to get on and Naim had a wonderful ability to give responsibility to the young. The thought of children and marriage left me cold. The word was what mattered. I then went on to work for a Maxwell paper and Tatler magazine as features editor, but the seminal period in my life was working for Naim. Gentle, kind and thoughtful, he was a great creative force and true Maecenas. There should be more like him.

Comments are closed.