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A PROFESSION FOR GENTLEMEN
Continuing with anniversaries, this Spring sees forty-five years since I entered book publishing. The term "a profession for gentlemen" was used about publishing when I started my first job with a book publisher in the Spring of 1956. I joined Herbert Jenkins, a small general publishing house with offices in Duke of York Street, just off Jermyn Street in London's St James's.
They published fiction for which the main market was libraries, and some general non fiction, but the firm (and possibly reflecting the whole of British business at that time) was really run as a 1930s business might have been. Indeed all the directors had been with Jenkins since that time. Derek Grimsdick was the managing director, and he and his family owned the company. He had been away during World War II, and served in the Royal Navy on the Arctic convoys to Murmansk. The editorial director was Tom Eagle. He had joined in the 1930s from Hatchards, the days when shop staff still wore frock coats. Tom was disabled and hence could not serve in the war and was able to maintain the company publishing during World War II. The production director was Gerry Rees. He had been on holiday in Germany in 1938, and returned to the office forecasting war and a shortage of paper, and hence bought an enormous amount for future printing. This prescience was unfortunately not to the benefit of the company, because the Government pegged profitability of businesses during the war to the 1939 level. The mid-1950s was still in the recovery period from World War II, before air travel became common, before communications quickened by means of telex (which was many years before fax, and now e-mail), when public library business was substantial, books were printed by letterpress and all sales were firm.
If the directors who ran Herbert Jenkins, and who were so kind to, and tolerant of, me, were to return they would not recognise the modern book trade. I joined as an Editorial Assistant and on my first day was given a book of crosswords to sort out. The problem was that the copper blocks for the crossword grids had been made for all the puzzles without a puzzle reference number. On the other hand all the questions and answers had been typeset, also without puzzle reference numbers. Somebody had to join them together, and that was me. It was an effective way of giving a new member of staff a job that would keep him quiet for a period. The backlist of Herbert Jenkins included many books from before World War II, including a range on Scouting. The sales had in fact slowed, and decisions had to be made as to what to keep in print. In those innocent days there was one book called Things to do in the Woods with Brownies, and that was one title they decided to drop.
Authors I worked with included Victor Silvester and Andre L. Simon, and others well known in hobby circles in the 1960s (but only nowadays to specialist book collectors). One of the things I was appointed to do after I had been there for a few years was to expand the non-fiction list, which lead Jenkins to publishing books about firearms, and the fine Victorian Collectors Series. I also took their fiction list into science fiction, and published the Michael Moorcock book Stormbringer (1964). I arranged the publication of some novels that tied in with TV series, such as Bonanza, but there was no market for such; who would want to read what was played out on television? A mainstay of Jenkins, at least where reputation was concerned, was P. G. Wodehouse who they had published since shortly after the First World War. At that time, however, sales of new Wodehouse books were modest, for the reaction to his wartime broadcasts from Germany had been extremely negative. Jenkins even arranged for these innocuous, subtly anti-Nazi broadcasts to be published in the Penguin edition of one of his volumes of autobiography (Performing Flea, 1961) but this did little to assuage the damage, which only time could heal and this took another decade or two. I did not personally liaise with Plum (as PGW was called) for he had a long standing relationship with two of the Directors. Hence when I made my first visit to the United States for Herbert Jenkins in 1961 I turned down the offer to go to Plum's Long Island home to meet him, for as I had something of a blind spot for his books I was afraid of upsetting the relationship. I did however meet David A. Jasen, the American who was to write P. G. Wodehouse: The Portrait of a Master (1975), A Bibliography and Reader's Guide to the First Editions of P. G. Wodehouse (1970; 2nd edition: Greenhill 1986), etc., and was able to share with him all sorts of information from our files, and obtain for him on the second-hand market first editions of old books.
I did however manage to create a particularly rare variant first edition of a Wodehouse book. In those days of letterpress, when making up the prelims of the next book in a series, it was easy enough to take the prelims of the last book, adjust the first half title, add a book title to the list of previous books by, adjust the title, copyright page, and list of contents. But I missed the fact that the previous book A Few Quick Ones (1959) had had an extra, second half title inserted in order to spread the prelims. Unfortunately I overlooked this when making up the prelims of Jeeves in the Offing (1960). Hence copies of Jeeves in the Offing had a second half title saying A Few Quick Ones. This was of course spotted early on, and the selling of the book was stopped and that page removed, and so there are just a small number of copies of the Leventhal variant out there.
The Herbert Jenkins building in Duke of York Street is still there, a narrow, 19th-century building with five floors. One evening I was working late writing copy for a promotion of books on the occult - wonderful, strong, atmospheric books on vampires and witchcraft by Montague Summers. Everybody had gone home when I heard a sound caused me to look out of the window alongside my desk on the fourth floor. There was a white face looking in at me! In controlled haste, and certainly I would deny that there was any sense of panic, I rapidly descended the four floors and left the building. Which was when I realised that it had become dark whilst I was working, and the window had become mirror-like and the face was a reflection of me.
I enjoyed publishing so much that, being without commitments, I took a flat in town so as to be able to be in early and leave late without commuting to my family home in Edgware. In order to find a place within walking distance I placed a small ad in the London Times, saying that an impecunious young publisher needed a weekday pied ˆ terre. I had several responses, and the one that I took up provided me with a penthouse in South Street, Mayfair. The owner was a Continental businessman who travelled a lot but had a young family. Although he had staff he wanted to know that there was someone else in the house at night-time. No duties went with this implied obligation. When we came to the amount for me to pay for the L-shaped penthouse, with views over the roofs of Mayfair, he asked me how much I could afford. I said £8, and we made a deal. Using this apartment enabled me to walk to and from work, through Shepherds Market where I had breakfast with the taxi drivers, and along Piccadilly. Amongst the benefits of living in town was the ability to sometimes go to the all-night trad jazz sessions at the 100 Club. I could leave at 5am or thereabouts, walk along Oxford Street, seeing milk being delivered, freshen up and be in the office early. That's one thing I couldn't do today.
Publishing was so absorbing and so much fun (it was wonderful to get paid for such enjoyment) that on one occasion it was not until someone mentioned to me, with obvious relief, that the freighter had turned back that I even knew about the Cuban missile crisis. Amongst the benefits of working in St. James was being introduced to the London Library, just around the corner from the office. This wonderful establishment is one that no bookman could live without. Another was Fortnum & Mason, and buying their fruit or flowers for young ladies. I was able to create a number of special launches for books, the directors at Herbert Jenkins pretty well giving me a free hand to do anything which sounded positive and didn't cost a great deal. When we published the show business memoirs of Ruby Miller entitled Champagne from My Slipper we held an autographing party at Hatchards but arranged for a coach and horses to bring this old lady, who had until the 1920's been a major musical comedy star, along Piccadilly to the shop. It was a quiet news day and hence we achieved excellent television coverage (11 times over 4 days), which caused the book to sell out. It was only after the book was on sale, and selling well, that a sharp-eyed reader telephoned to point out that this lady had already published the identical volume in the 1920s. Fortunately nobody else did.
Another special event was when we took over the swimming pool at the Shell building on London's South Bank to present a new American safety technique called 'drownproofing'. We brought in some scouts from Wales who had tested the technique, and filled the area to capacity with about three hundred of those involved with the sporting and sports education world. We also had quite a number of television teams, much to the consternation of the management of the Shell building they had let us use their facilities without charge, for their own publicity purposes, and now the television trucks filled the car-parks and wires were run everywhere. But then half an hour before the drownproofing presentation began I saw a television team start to pack up. And then another. I hastened over and was told that Nehru had died, and that they were being despatched immediately to the Indian High Commission. All the television teams had pulled out by the time of the presentation, and we got no coverage at all in the general media, but the sporting education world was certainly most interested. I've never checked since then however as to whether drownproofing, as a method for survival at sea, became widely taught.
I had started visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair in order to sell translation rights to books, and the book Downproofing was one that I had bought for Jenkins when on a visit to publishers in New York. Although I flew across the Atlantic (in a plane with propellers) such an event in the past had been by ship and thus a long time was allowed. I was in New York for three weeks. I knew no-one and at times it was very lonely. One of the things I was able to do was to go to the theatre, because in those days I had no evening engagements (does anyone else remember The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Fiorella?) and cinema (seeing Breakfast at Tiffany, which has a scene set in the New York Public Library at Fifth and 42nd, one of the places I had visited that day), but have never had the time for theatre or cinema since then. I also learned that the 'no standing' sign at bus stops related to cars and not those waiting for the buses, that the 'Fine for Parking' sign was not a kind invitation, and that when doing arithmetic with a pencil in a meeting and trying to make a correction one does not ask for a rubber. Everyday I wrote a letter reporting on my activities 'Dear Mr Grimsdick and Mr Eagle' (this being after I had already worked with them for five years). In those days we did not use the first names of one's seniors and it was only after some years that I was invited to use Tom's. I don't think that I ever did for Derek and Gerry, the other Jenkins' directors, until after I had left the company. They however did appoint me to the board of directors, and at that time, when I was twenty-five, I was the youngest director of any publishing house in Britain.
One book that we did not publish was about Maria Callas. I had found a small American publisher who had the rights to the book by her mother. It was somewhat shallow, and justified Callas's unhappy upbringing and early exploitation. We were not sure about libel, and when the diva was in London thought that the best way to check if she felt kindly towards the book was to ask her for a Foreword. A telephone call came from her, from her suite at the Savoy: 'My mother's story is all rather sad, and we would prefer it not to be published in Britain'. Yes, diva, we concurred.
As my role with Herbert Jenkins evolved and I worked more and more on the promotion and sale of books, I took over as Sales Director. But as the non fiction publishing programme grew successfully, and so too the sales, in 1964 Derek Grimsdick and family, the owners of Herbert Jenkins, sold the business to Barrie & Rockcliffe, and very shortly and painfully thereafter my services were no longer required. I had been told that I would be Sales Director of the two companies brought together, but in the event I was instructed to give notice of dismissal to the Herbert Jenkins sales team. When I suggested that in fact both teams should be assessed and the best of each maintained, this was not advice that was welcomed and so I left at the same time as my team.
Herbert Jenkins had to evacuate the building at quite short notice, and we were instructed to dispose of as much as possible. An enormous amount of material had built up in the 30 or 40 years that Herbert Jenkins had occupied the building, including masses of old manuscripts, artwork, etc. At that time there was no value put on manuscripts and artwork, but I bundled up those of P. G. Wodehouse, and his books, and sent them for safety to David Jasen in the United States. The two companies, Herbert Jenkins and Barrie & Rockcliffe, amalgamated to become Barrie & Jenkins, and was eventually taken over by Hutchinson, who were taken over by Century, who were taken over by Random House (now owned by Bertelsmann). There are still a small number of books in print from my days, most notably Godden's Encyclopedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks, and when I see such I still regard them as 'my' books.
Looking back, I knew nothing about publishing when I joined Herbert Jenkins (except that it paid better than bookselling) but guess that I did things with a certain energy and have to say that I rather think that my approach, only in the interests of getting things done, may have required patience by the directors. After my departure, and unhappy time with Paul Hamlyn, I came to try and publish on my own, and as I knew nothing of business methods and indeed there was no enterprise culture to learn from, I was often facing new and unfamiliar situations. Whenever I came to a bump on the ground, certainly if of a moral nature, I would try and envisage how Derek and Tom would have dealt with it. If I could tell them how I had, in the interests of fairness, then I would know how to do so.