At the bus stop
Last week I was sitting at the bus-stop talking to Winston Churchill. I was telling him what an awful paper The Times is now, especially the Saturday magazine. He didn’t seem to know much about the magazine, but otherwise was happy to agree with me. Then this 1950s-style London bus came along, and he got on the bus with a small crowd of people; and I woke up.
What does it all mean ? I think that for Winston Churchill read blustering Boris; and I read somewhere recently that even if you think the Prime Minister is a self-obsessed, serially untruthful, narcissist, which I do, people say that he can in private conversations be quite good company. And I think too that this continuing lock-down does funny things to my dream life and my sense of time.
Fifty years ago
Fifty years ago I was working for Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press at Headington Hill Hall. My history finals were a disaster, which put pay to a notional research degree on the Paris recruitment office for the International Brigades. And I then exhausted all the usual job applications for non-numerate arts graduates: the Diplomatic Service, the Civil Service, the British Council, and Southern Television. So I spent the summer of 1967 working on the local golf course until the weather deteriorated. And then I accepted the offer of a job in the College Sales department at Pergamon. It wasn’t quite like glamorous London publishing. My introduction to the list was the Autumn Sales Conference, at which I gathered the top two coming titles were Pre-Clinical Carcinoma of the Cervix Uteri and The Placenta in Twin Pregnancy. I should add that these are not titles that I read myself. Not then. Not now.
So I spent the first couple of years after graduating driving around southern England [in a Morris 1000] visiting universities and technical colleges. The strategy was to try to persuade lecturers to recommend Pergamon titles for their courses. It wasn’t hugely successful. Partly because most universities didn’t prescribe a single course book that was a required purchase. Partly because Pergamon’s rather uneven list was geared more towards scientific and technical monographs, some of them translated from the Russian. The hotels were a bit uneven too. These were the days before en-suite bathrooms and individual televisions. I think the low point was a hotel in Chelmsford where you needed to put shillings in the gas-fire, and where there was a stack of well-thumbed copies of Playboy on top of the wardrobe. And I recall an evening in Swindon where a group of excited sales reps organised a sweepstake on the Miss World Competition in the television lounge. And dinner in a hotel in Exeter where I fearlessly ordered half a bottle of burgundy with my meal, and it came with a label saying Serve well chilled. And it was.
As a change from southern England I spent six weeks visiting universities in Belgium and Holland. It was a delight to discover places like Ghent and Delft and Leyden. But conversations with Flemish speaking academics were a bit limited. And with hindsight 1968 was not the time to go in search of the Université Catholique de Louvain. At school I had understood that Belgium was a French-speaking country ! In Groningen the choice at the cinema was between a Bergman film or Half a Sixpence, both of them dubbed into Dutch. I went for the latter. But maybe it was a mistake. When I got back to the UK, laden with boxes of small cigars and Delft cufflinks, it transpired that my then girl-friend had taken up with an old school-friend.
Life at Headington Hill Hall
So after two years of uncommercial travelling I was pleased to move in house as the Editor of the Commonwealth and International Library, a Maxwellian concept of a library of a thousand textbooks in a variety of mainly scientific subjects. Headington Hill Hall, originally built for Morrells, the brewing family, was leased by Maxwell from the Oxford City Council. Which enabled Maxwell, who was MP for Buckingham, and not yet the Cap’n Bob of Private Eye, to tell his constituents: “Like you, I too live in a council house”. The Maxwell family lived in the big house; the offices were in a modern, two-storey block in the grounds and in the former stable block. Telephone wires were strung between the buildings, with frequent tannoy messages calling someone to the nearest telephone. Communication with the outside world was a bit hit-and-miss. The switchboard were periodically instructed to disconnect all outside calls after five minutes. Which was intended as an economy measure. But sometimes caused more problems than it solved.
The entrance at the top of Headington Hill was guarded by a red-and-white barrier pole, known to local residents as Checkpoint Charlie. The pole came down promptly at 9.00am, so that late-comers had to write their names in a book. It came down heavily one day on the head of a prominent Oxford physicist, an FRS, who was riding his bicycle. After that the pole disappeared.
Pergamon staff fell into two camps: the old hands, and those who were just passing through. I hoped to be in the latter category. Harry, my first boss, moved on to a technical publishing house in Paris. Pat, at one time the general sales manager, drifted away to pursue a calling as a painter on Gozo. His successor, George, was a dapper man, not very tall. Years later, when he had moved on to Oxford University Press, there was a poster in the OUP canteen advertising a talk on The Problems of the Small Publisher. On which some wit had scrawled Visual Aid: George Depotex. Aubrey was a cricket-loving, Old Malvernian from Singapore; his job was to manage [or perhaps massage] the authors’ royalty payments. Uppy was the union rep: I never discovered his real job, but he had been driving when the oldest Maxwell child was severely injured in a road accident. The boy was in a coma in the Radcliffe Infirmary. And Uppy’s future prospects weren’t very good either.
Maxwell himself was periodically seen. My first Christmas he summoned the staff to a meeting in the then warehouse, appeared as if by magic in a bright blue suit, and announced that there would be no Christmas bonus that year. The workforce all applauded him ! I once drove into the grounds on a Saturday with my parents [what were they doing there ?] to show them where I worked. We met Maxwell, with a rifle over his shoulder, apparently taking pot-shots at the squirrels. He was all smiles and very welcoming to them.
I had a desk made of some wood substitute in the corner of an enormous open-plan office. My desk was next to Peggy, my immediate boss, colleague, and friend. If I stood on the chair I could see a window. On the desk were two telephones; external [for calls of limited duration] and internal. I dictated lots of letters down the internal phone to the typing pool. Their skills were a bit basic. Most letters came back a couple of days later with multiple carbons and multiple errors. The desk and surrounding floor space were piled high with manuscripts; on their way to peer readers, going back to the authors for revision, waiting to be marked up before going to the printers. I lost a manuscript one day, a book on an obscure branch of metallurgy. The author, a middle-ranking academic, swore it was the only copy and demanded silly sums in compensation. I think he settled for £250. 00.
Lunch was generally in the canteen; good value food at formica tables with white walls. A small group of us polished off The Times crossword most days. It was a group effort. I’ve never been very good at crosswords. But the Revd Gordon Hawes, the Managing Editor of the Religious Education Press [another improbable Maxwell acquisition] was a bit of a star. For entertaining authors Pergamon had an account at The Royal Oxford, the rather dull hotel close to the station. If you ordered beef stroganoff, which I often did, the waiter would come and set fire to it at the table in a copper pan. And I think they did the same thing with crèpes suzettes. This was 1970.
There are a lot of books about Robert Maxwell now and I’ve read some of them. Many of them concentrate on the later period; the IPC, the Daily Mirror, buying Oxford United, the rampant megalomania, raids on the pension fund. All this stuff came a bit later. During the late 1960s Pergamon was the great [white] hope of British scientific and technical publishing; competing with such American publishers as McGraw Hill, John Wiley, Elsevier, Prentice-Hall etc. Scientific and technical journals were a growth market. Universities were booming, and university libraries couldn’t afford not to subscribe. British academics wanted to get their work into print, and didn’t expect or require to be paid for having their work published. The journals made money. And the book publishing programme coasted along on the back of it.
It was fun while it lasted. Which Pergamon manager fired a cartographer and allowed him to work his notice ? As a result one of Pergamon’s school atlases appeared with a map of Asian and Chinese mountains and rivers which included the Pu-Ding Basin. I once got an irate letter from an academic complaining that a set of steam tables in one of our textbooks was upside-down. When I looked at the book’s production file, I discovered an undated instruction Change Fig. x the other way up. And every time the book reprinted [it was one our better sellers] the printers did exactly that. Maxwell himself commissioned highly unsuitable stuff from people he sat next to on planes. Peggy had to edit a manuscript by a not quite bilingual Swedish academic and table-tennis enthusiast; he wrote about crossing the Atlantic by liner and enjoying ‘screwing his colleagues every night on the ping-pong table’. Maxwell commissioned an autobiography from the awful Sir Gerald Nabarro, predictably entitled NAB !. George handled the book, and wrote him a letter saying: “I hope the quallity of this letter will demonstate to you the importance that we atach to this book”. Sic.
In late 1969 came the dramatic bust-up between Pergamon and Saul Steinberg’s LEASCO. I was issued with a Pergamon share in order to go and attend the AGM at which Maxwell and his fellow directors were voted off the board of the company. We stopped for drinks on the way and to buy a cigar each. It was a bit like a pre-war Cup Final outing.
I don’t dream about Maxwell. Although in my dream life I am often back, not always happily in the publishing world. I spent three years with the Commonwealth Library. It included launching a major new series of books on Urban and Regional Planning. In fact, I even thought about going back to college and training as a town planner. But I didn’t. In 1972 I was invited to became Sponsoring Editor at a London publishing house in Bloomsbury. Very close to the British Museum. It sounded like ‘a very good thing’. It wasn’t. But that is another story.