Memories: The Charms and Follies of a Lifetime’s Publishing
278 pp, £15
Describing Naim Attallah remarkable is an understatement. Born in Haifa then under the British Mandate in 1931, he came to England as a student. His formal studies ending, prematurely, when he could no longer get money from home, he worked various jobs as a steeplejack, a bouncer in a Soho jazz club (recounted here in an entertaining chapter) and a banker. In time he became Asprey’s CEO. A lifelong constant reader who dreamt in childhood of being a writer, he rescued in 1976 Quartet Books, founded four years earlier, and turned into a vital presence in the publishing world. This new book is a self-portrait with added fond memories from people who have worked with Attallah over the years in his many endeavours that also touched the theatre, cinema and fashion worlds.
At Quartet, Attallah has taken risks on authors other publishers have shied away, some obscure, others household names including Brian Sewell and Lord Lambton, neither of whom averse to controversy. Quartet’s ‘Encounters’ imprint directed by Stephen Pickles was a pioneer in the English-speaking field in publishing translations from modern European authors. Quartet soon added two other imprints, Robin Clark, specialising in such interesting reprints including Auberon Waugh’s entertaining novels, and The Women’s Press to its stable and the book includes a memoir by Rebecca Fraser who directed Robin Clark.
In the midst of all this activity. Attallah made his dream of being a writer come true. He is the most accomplished interviewer of our time and many of interviews are now available in two volumes featuring persons No Longer With Us. Attallah’s interviews are always penetrating, often delving into his subjects’ thoughts about sex and religion, without becoming impertinent. An Attallah interview is indispensable to anyone interested in its subject. Not all of the eminences he approached were inclined to cooperate. Lord Goodman, the establishment’s beetle-browed “universal fixer” didn’t wish to be in the same book as Private Eue.s Richard Ingrams but relented, the supremely self-assured J.K. Galbraith, a leading mandarin of America;s ‘”liberal” left was trying . I wonder if William F. Buckley, who took the opposite view of Galbraith in almost everything though the two remained the best of friends, was difficult as Galbraith.. One hopes for more revelations behind the scenes of his interviews in a future volume. I have a personal interest in Harold Acton, who features in a book I am writing, and Attallah “found him easy-going and charm itself.” Harold responded to Attallah’s questions as to whether he had ever slept with a woman in a characteristically playful way, speaking “with relish” of an encounter with a young Chinese girl with exquisite skin in his 1930s sojourn in Peking. Interviewing the late Duke of Devonshire, Attallah found “the kind of humility normally associated with great sages,”
Anecdotes galore, many of them glamourous, sparkle throughout the book. A satisfied reader can only pray for more Memories.