Saturday, 28 November 2009

Reading for week seven

The Liberated Women whose autobiographies have been prescribed for this week's tutorial are Diana Athill, author of Stet, and Lorna Sage, author of Bad Blood. Much will be said about them today [i.e. Tuesday: this was started on the train to Marylebone, and only completed on Saturday] and the discussion will carry on from last week about what they were liberating themselves from and how far they succeeded in doing so. I want in this post to look at the entrepreneur in each of the books and to consider whether I shared any of his characteristics during my career.

Diana Athill worked in publishing all her life. Her particular talent lay in editing, which at its highest level involves helping an author to produce coherent, grammatical and readable text. Although she was for a long time a director of the firm she worked for, she never calls herself a publisher. That role was firmly exercised by her megalomaniac boss, the émigré Hungarian Andre Deutsch.

He started the first of his companies just after the war on a shoestring, a fifth of the amount normally reckoned the minimum to set up in publishing. Because of this, he controlled costs ferociously, from insisting that the light was switched off if there was no one in the office to cramming as many desks as he could into it and delaying moving into bigger premises until it was absolutely necessary. Employees, especially the women, were paid even less than elsewhere in the poorly-paid industry. When, after years of being a director, Diana asked for a company car, Andre tried to fob her off with a Deux Chevaux, seeking to sell it on the basis of its bohemian chic.

When he started he already had considerable sales experience and he soon perforce gained expertise in all the nitty-gritty in making books and turning them into cash. He knew best: he didn't think he knew best: he knew he knew best. One of the tasks which Diana had to undertake, one which she considered was a bore and a chore, was advertising their wares, but if an ad was placed in a paper too far away from the main text, it was Andre who would ring up and complain and ask for a better position next time.

His first make-or-break venture was publishing the UK edition of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. It was savaged in a preliminary review in the Sunday Times which called for a ban on publication because of its perceived obscenity: such a ban would have bankrupted the company. Andre woke Diana up, much to her annoyance, at eight thirty on Sunday morning and insisted that they write a letter to the most influential critic in the country, begging him to write a review saying that the book was not obscene, and drive round to put it through his letter box at once. "In retrospect," Diana writes, "the chief value of our outing was that it was something to do in this nerve-racking situation."

The principal male character in the first part of Lorna's story of her childhood and adolescence is her appalling grandfather, vicar of a village on the Welsh border. His daughter married Eric Stockton, son of the local coal merchant early in the war. He comes as a stranger into Lorna's life after the war, returning after rising through the ranks to become an infantry officer in Normandy and Germany. His talk, both at home and in the business he had taken over from his father, was all of discipline and efficiency: as she writes, "to Knock the Business into Shape he had to work all hours and do nearly everything himself. … This was the price he paid for a job in which he could Be His Own Boss."

These two men I understand perfectly, even though I never had to go through such gruelling times myself. A loan from my American foster-brother-in-law enabled me to start a capital-intensive phototypesetting company in 1977 after seven years of slow but steady growth of my increasingly unchallenging washroom hygiene company. The loan was repaid before over-trading resulted in the Inland Revenue bailiffs entering my composing room in 1981: but this story, and how I shared Andre's drive to action in a crisis and Eric's drive to impose order, must wait for another post.

Likewise I am reluctant at this stage to write about my besetting fault: like Andre, I think I know best. This has created problems both early in my career while I was still employed and employable and after I finally retired and moved to Buckingham. I hesitate to write more.

No comments:

Post a Comment