JO CRAVEN

During 1993 a new recruit had begun to grace the offices of the Literary Review. Her name was Jo Craven. She was a delightful young lady with heavenly looks, who enlivened the atmosphere and became one of Bron’s favourites. Her recollections of the time she spent there give a further insight into what Bron was like, both at home and in the office. The piece that follows illustrates yet again the reason why Bron was loved and revered, especially by the young.

Saved from Spiritual Death

Jo Craven

When I first walked through the door of the Literary Review’s Beak Street office, in 1993, straight from university and fresh off the train from Yorkshire, I was amazed to be greeted like a long-lost friend by a beaming Bron Waugh, whose first words were, ‘How long can you stay?’ Never one to miss an opportunity, I dived in with, ‘As long as you like.’ ‘Good,’ he said in a very pleased way, looking around the room at the other two staring members of staff for confirmation. It would be some time before I would witness him wave vaguely at his own daughters and mistake many another stranger for an old friend. But it would never occur to him to go back on his word and I stayed for the next five years.

Within weeks Bron had invited me to stay in his Brook Green flat, taking pity on my penniless state and constant flat-hopping. At that point I was working for free as ‘a slave’. I couldn’t have been luckier and quite enjoyed my friend’s taunts about our ‘special relationship’. My part of the deal was to make sure there was always plenty of loo roll and Bran Flakes, and occasionally arrange a party with food from Lidgates. Bron’s son and girlfriend would also move in, his daughter for a period, and then my boyfriend, and then the deputy editor. It was open-house for the impoverished.

In the overcrowded office I would package up books, type in copy, eventually commission reviewers and generally be in the same room, at the same lunch table as Bron, his other editors and some of the most fascinating figures in British literature. I’ve never been so drunk in all my life. I loved sharing a couple of bottles of wine over lunch – Bron always paid from his own pocket – and often in the afternoon, over a game of bridge, I could never remember the rules, probably because of the port we’d sip, and maybe thanks to lunch. Then there’d be more boozing after 6 p.m., downstairs in the Academy Club, from where I’d stagger back to the flat; and late at night in Brook Green, Bron would often suggest a nightcap of sweet gin, half gin and half red Martini. It was revolting, but I’d do anything to please this kind generous man for saving me from spiritual death in an ordinary office. By the following morning, I honestly thought no one noticed as I sat at my computer, nestling a can of Coke to cure the worst of my hangover.

I always knew I was lucky to be part of this wonderfully ramshackle universe, so removed from the regular working world. I was one of the last in a long tradition of girls who either worked at Quartet Books, waitressed in the Academy Club or slaved on the magazine. Most had already gone off to find fame. Of course one day it would come to an end: the rickety buildings heated by plug-in radiators, doing everything by hand, paying only £25 for reviews – many writers framed the beautifully handwritten cheques rather than cash them – and top writers being paid with wine from Bron’s cellar. It couldn’t last. Every few months reality would come knocking. Naim Attallah, the endlessly benevolent owner, would apologetically announce that he just couldn’t keep supplementing us while we failed to make any money. Bron would go into a spin. He most of all didn’t want anything to change and was always the first to say how much we had to be grateful to Naim for. Naim in turn was hugely fond of Bron and was only doing what any rational person would when the debts kept coming. Selfishly the rest of us found it hard to understand that twenty-first-century accounting had a part in our lives. We were used to being paid terribly and producing a brilliant magazine, and having so much fun that we didn’t want anything to change. For me, the moment of departure came when I finally gave up on the notion that someone would headhunt me as a brilliant literary editor, and decided £7,000 a year could be improved on. Two years later Bron died, but the Literary Review lives on with its present proprietor, Nancy Sladek, who keeps Bron’s flame burning and the spirit of Naim’s commitment.

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