BookBlast® reviews Writers, Lovers, Soldiers, Spies: A History of the Authors’ Club of London 1891-2016.
“The history of the Authors’ Club is studded with famous names: Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Rider Haggard, Ford Madox Ford, Graham Greene. Yet in the course of writing this history, I have learned that life, the culture, and often the very survival of the club have depended on others who are not so well remembered today. A healthy literary culture is not sustained by a handful of greats alone; it requires a significant number of dedicated, skilful practitioners who may not achieve critical accolade or vast commercial success yet persist in writing worthwhile, interesting books.” C J Schüler
Founded in July 1891, the aim being to “advance the cause of Letters”, the Authors’ Club was originally the social arm of the Society of Authors; admitting journalists, editors, men of science, dramatists and academics, and not only the writers of books. “While many clubs, including the Athenaeum and the Savile, had a number of literary figures among their numbers, none was specifically aimed at them. For an example of what he was trying to achieve, Walter Besant had to look across the Atlantic to New York, where an Authors’ Club had been founded in 1882, and included Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie among its members.” The Copyright act had just been passed, allowing British authors to receive royalties on American sales of their work. At the club’s inaugural dinner, Oscar Wilde raged at the Lord Chamberlain’s inspector censoring his new play, Salomé, with Sarah Bernhardt in the lead role.
The Quartet Years was first published in Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995 by Naim Attallah (Quartet Books).
Gael Elton Mayo & The Magnum Photographic Group
My mother, Gael Elton Mayo, the novelist, painter and ‘Girl Friday’ for Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Seymour at Magnum Photographers in its early years, was introduced to Naim Attallah by Patrick Seale. Quartet Books published her autobiography, The Mad Mosaic, which sold unexpectedly well and was reprinted, leading to the later publication of her account of surviving cancer for twenty years, Living With Beelzebub.
Quartet was avant-garde, innovative and independent, rather like Canongate today. I was going nowhere fast after leaving university, so was sent by my mother to see Naim Attallah in his plush Poland Street offices. He hired me to work with Quartet’s production director, Gary Grant.
1990s avant garde indie publishing
So one Autumn day in 1987, I turned up at 27 Goodge Street, a Dickensian building in London’s West End. I was greeted at the head of the stairs by an intriguing and enigmatic individual, who disappeared into a small office piled high with books and manuscripts, making a remark as he did so about the bars on his office window and the Birdman of Alcatraz. This was Quartet’s editorial director, Stephen Pickles. His office on the first floor was at the back of the building, next to Gary’s and mine at the front, overlooking Goodge Street. Quartet had a good reputation for publishing lavish, high-quality art and photography books and Gary was an expert at overseeing such projects, when not in the pub across the road. Production was not really my thing, so I began to do occasional odd jobs for Pickles, which rather annoyed Gary. Initially I made telephone calls to Charlotte Rampling, Lothar Schirmer and Joanna Richardson.
Tell us a little bit about yourself Well, I’m the kind of person who finds these kinds of questions a tad difficult; perhaps that tells you enough about me!
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Pretty much the usual: pilot, football superstar … but also, for about six months, a hotel concierge.
What books have had a lasting impact on you? Le Petit Prince has always held resonance, primarily for the way that it deals with distinction between a child’s and an adult’s ability to imagine things. From the canon, Joyce, Yeats, Catcher in the Rye,Huckleberry Finn and Catch-22 have all won my affection at some time. Also, there’s definitely something that has always grabbed at me, out of Steven M. Newman’s biographical Worldwalk – a copy of which I received as a young teenager, after my mother fished it out randomly from the bargain box of a low-end bookseller in Sydney.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. I love life . . . the good, the bad and the messiness of it. I love the fact that we are all here bumbling our way through, and that each of our messes are the lessons that help to straighten out the jumbled lines. I live my life as such – I think that perfection is over-rated, so I do the things that make me happy, albeit imperfectly. I was never formally trained in landscaping or interior design, yet these are the occupations I’ve chosen because of my sheer love of plants, nature, sun, dirt, and families. The best part is, at the end of the day, I get to write about perfect imperfection.
Dew Angels is one of the best young adult novels I have read in a long time. It’s not just Melanie Schwapp’s strong, lucid writing; believable, engaging characters; compelling plotlines; and snappy pace, but also how the reader sees the world through fourteen-year-old Nola’s eyes. My ‘inner teenager’ certainly identified with underlying aspects of the story: the need to be loved and to belong; the agonies of first love and heartbreak; the power of anger; to feel comfortable in my skin and at one with the roots of my identity; and, most of all, the need for self acceptance. These are concerns that never completely go away even when one is a so-called ‘adult’ who has – supposedly! – learned how to handle things.
At birth, Nola Chambers is ostracized by her family for having skin “black as a moonless night”, while her siblings have skin “as golden as the retreating sun”. She is obliged by the headmistress of her school to do homework with Dahlia whose mother runs Merlene’s Bar and Grill, known locally for being a den of evil. “There was music coming from the bar. The deep reggae bass seemed to spur on her racing heart as she walked past the red door. A woman in a tight orange mini skirt and tubed top leaned against the jamb, blowing streams of smoke from her nose as she drew on a cigarette.” The gambit works and Nola discovers the meaning of committment, friendship and fun. She also learns that gossip is malicious and fuels prejudice founded on ignorance, fear and envy. Continue reading Review | Dew Angels, Melanie Schwapp | Hope Road Publishing
“A new literary genre: paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued,” Ricardo Piglia (published by Deep Vellum & Duke University Press).
Beef, gauchos and the tango. Eva Perón, military dictatorship and The Disappeared. Maradona, the 1986 World Cup and Thatcher’s last stand for Empire. Such are the answers of friends when asked what images Argentina conjures up in their mind’s eye. To which I would add, bookishly, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sabato.
Crime novelist Claudia Piñeiro is a welcome discovery. All Yours, A Crack in the Wall, Thursday Night Widows published by Bitter Lemon Press, and now Betty Boo, give an alternative, very contemporary view of Argentina. The abuse of public power for private benefit is increasingly a global problem, manifested in myriad nuanced ways at a local level. Corruption is invariably intrinsic to the way power is exercised. Just recently, the name of Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, appeared in the Panama Papers leaked files.Continue reading Review | Betty Boo, Claudia Piñeiro | Book of the Week
“Life has always loomed large over us dwarves. Some take to it like a fish to water despite their diminished state and are even happy, while others tramp along the shores of existence like dogs driven wild by urban detritus, licking the sores of their own resentment, tempered by the terrible lash of indifference, as they tumble and stumble toward their tombs.” Goyito, in A Bad End
Historically, midgets often served as jesters, or entertainers in the courts of kings and aristocratic households. Isabella d’Este designed part of her palace for them and remembered two in her will. The paintings of Velázquez record the appearance of dwarves at the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the 18th and 19th centuries Russian tsars and nobles kept innumerable dwarfs; in 1710 a dwarf couple spent their wedding night in the tsar’s bedchamber. American showman P.T. Barnum publicized Charles Stratton (“General Tom Thumb”) in 1842 and he became an international star. Continue reading Review | A Bad End, Fernando Royuela | Book of the Week
The history of evolution is reflected in the human diet. “What people eat is a symbol of what they believe,” writes Colin Spencer.
BSE or ‘mad cow disease’; ‘Frankenstein foods’; GM crops . . . the food on our plates and how it is reared, produced and sold is becoming an increasingly Big Issue and a contributing factor to why more and more people are espousing vegetarianism. There was a time when if you were a vegetarian it was considered kooky or cranky, but no longer. Colin Spencer’s comprehensive book, reissued in paperback for the first time in fifteen years, explores the psychology of abstention from flesh and attempts to discover why omnivorous humans at times voluntarily abstain from an available food. He begins in pre-history and ends in the present day. Continue reading Review | Vegetarianism: A History, Colin Spencer | Book of the Week
Abigail, a pretty, rebellious seventeen year old, gets home from school to find her family gone. Her toddler twin stepsisters’ room is empty, save a blue teddy. The police do not believe her shock and despair at being abandoned by her mother, Kathryn. To them the girl is trouble − as she is to her ruthless, narcissistic grandmother, Eleanor: the lynchpin of the family.
Home is where the heart is: but what if there is no heart? Women who suffer neglect as children often grow up to become mothers who neglect their own, even if they do not want to on a conscious level. Thwarted female energies cause depression. Mental abuse is as serious physical abuse, and its long-term effects can be greater. Keeping up appearances at all costs − resulting in shame, secrets and lies being passed down from one generation to the next − lies at the core of this skilfully crafted, debut novel. Continue reading Review | Beneath the Surface, Heidi Perks | Book of the Week
Born in France, Pierre Loti loved the East. No one could understand his desire to exchange the greyness of France for ‘the far horizons of a sailor’s life’ better than Lesley Blanch, author of such celebrated evocations of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Russia as The WilderShores of Love, The Sabres of Paradise and Journey into the Mind’s Eye. In this haunting biography she shows herself a sympathetic historian, consulting manuscript letters and diaries as well as Loti’s innumerable publications. Her book is a labour of love, an enquiry into a very complex man, as well as one brilliant escapist writing about another. Who, then, was Pierre Loti?
Loti was born in 1850 as Julien Viaud, son of a respectable Protestant family living in the port of Rochefort on the Atlantic Ocean. His father was an official in the Mairie. In 1867 he entered the French navy, in which he would continue to serve until 1910. This extremely unconventional man proved a good officer. Most of his superiors appreciated his ‘agreeable character, very good education’, and later his literary fame, though some fellow officers noticed a cold manner.
The French navy was sufficiently broad-minded to employ an officer who wore rouge, dyed his hair and adopted disguises. More unsettling even than dressing as an acrobat, a Turk or a Bedu, Loti often wore the uniform of a rating rather than an officer. Moreover his friendships with handsome sailors, (Julien, Leo, Samuel, many others}, which such clothes facilitated, were no secret. As his daughter-in-law told Lesley Blanch: ‘Loti loved both men and women passionately and if there had been a third sex he would have loved that too.’