Through a glass darkly – 41

Rayner Unwin’s report [as a school-boy] on The Hobbit

George Allen & Unwin

After not quite five years at Pergamon Press [see TaGD – 37], in January 1972 I was invited to join George Allen and Unwin as one of their Sponsoring Editors. There was no merit in my appointment. I was approached by Allen and Unwin with a view to taking over from Victor, one of my predecessors at Pergamon, who was leaving them to work for Charles Levinson, Secretary General of the IMF in Geneva. So it was an inside job. I drove over to Hemel Hempstead for a formal meeting with Rayner Unwin and Charles Knight. Rayner Unwin was the son of [Sir] Stanley Unwin, the energetic founder of the family firm. He was the Chairman of A&U, the senior figure at the London office in Museum Street. Charles Knight had apparently been Stanley’s one-time office boy. He was Managing Director in charge of the Hemel Hempstead office, which included production, sales and marketing, accounts, and warehousing. The A&U warehouse was a talking point in the book trade; all orders were dispatched on the day they arrived. This was the wondrous achievement of a former management consultant who had now moved on to CUP.

I think I may have thought that I had ‘arrived’ in publishing.  A&U certainly promised to be in a different class from Pergamon. The eponymous George Allen was a Victorian craftsman and engraver, who became a friend of and assistant to John Ruskin; and when he took to publishing Ruskin’s works were a major part of his business. Stanley Unwin [1884-1968], was an energetic, entrepreneurial publisher, who began work with his publishing uncle T.Fisher Unwin, but then bought George Allen & Co. in 1914. George Allen and Unwin had been one of the most successful London publishers during the middle years of the century; the firm’s authors included Bertrand Russell, R.H. Tawney, and Sidney Webb. They also published books of eastern philosophy including works by Mahatma Gandhi. The early years of the publishing house were solid rather than spectacular.  Then, according to office legend, when the unknown J.R.R. Tolkien [1892-1973] submitted the manuscript of The Hobbit in 1936, Unwin paid his son Rayner one shilling to read and comment on it. Rayner’s enthusiastic response encouraged Stanley to publish the book. In due course Lord of the Rings followed, and was published in three volumes in 1954-55. Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic, and its sales accounted for a significant chunk of the staff’s profit-sharing bonus. 


Personally I find Tolkien unreadable. I gave away my signed copy of the Lord of the Rings. [I think my daughter has it in High Wycombe.] There is a lovely story told by Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings. A group of academic friends that included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams used to meet on Saturday mornings in the back bar of The Eagle and Child, known to Oxford alumni as The Bird and Baby. And read their work in progress. It was all tweed jackets and draught beer and pipe smoke. Tolkien produced a bulky manuscript from his bag, an early draft of The Silmarillion, and started to read from it. When he paused for breath a voice, probably Charles Williams, was heard to say: “Oh no, not more ‘effin elves !”.  

The other big post-war best-seller had been Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition. Kon-Tiki was an enormous success, selling almost half a million copies in hard covers. Both Tolkien, now retired, and living in Bournemouth, and nearing the end of his life, and Heyerdahl were regular visitors to the Museum Street offices.

Thor Heyerdahl: The Kon-Tiki Expedition

It all started well enough. My office was a glass-walled cubicle in the A&U offices, just across the road from The Museum Tavern and just down the road from the British Museum. I inherited responsibility for a list that embraced management, trade union studies, social studies, media studies, and a few assorted bits and pieces. Compared with Pergamon I at least understood the contents of some of the books that I was working on. And in marked contrast to Pergamon, Allen and Unwin was very much on the visiting list for American publishers passing through town. Not that any of them seemed very interested in my bit of the list. It was standard policy for Sponsors to be given a company car, usually a Ford Cortina. [It was said that Charles Knight’s brother had the Ford dealership in Hemel Hempstead. Which may or may not be true.] I asked for, and  was given, a Fiat 124 in Monza red. The colour was the best thing about it. The clutch fell apart within a year. And since I was living in London SW19, it was generally faster and cheaper to take the underground via Earl’s Court  to Tottenham Court Road rather than fight my way through Clapham and Vauxhall in the rush hour.

It seems to be standard for publishers to tell stories about their predecessors. I certainly read Stanley Unwin’s classic The [Half] Truth abut Publishing. With mounting horror. He was clearly a man of great energy with a beady eye for figures and a concern for the bottom line. It was said that Lord of the Rings had been published at his insistence on a profit-sharing contact; meaning that the author was paid nothing until the initial production costs had been covered. And thereafter he shared the profits equally with the publisher. Which would have made Tolkien a rich man, and would have lost Allen and Unwin a lot of money. In latter years Sir Stanley travelled round the world more than once, taking great trouble to visit remote bookshops who might owe the firm some money. It is difficult to know where frugality becomes meanness. In his book The Publishing Unwins, Philip Unwin recalls that Stanley always insisted on buying [cheaper] season tickets on the trams at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And on saving any that were left over for the following year. Is it Philip Unwin or someone else who tells the story of Sir Stanley berating his office boy for buying him an iced bun “full of expensive air” instead of something more plain and wholesome ?

Along with Victor’s list I also inherited his advisor. Malcolm was  an OB [Organisational Behaviour] specialist who taught at the London Business School, but his eye ranged far and wide over the academic world. He wrote to me at least once a week with a list of of mainly junior academics whom I should contact, expressing interest in their research and making encouraging noises about the possibility of publishing their work. Some were no doubt flattered. And some even replied. We would meet for lunch every two or three weeks, next to the phone boxes on Gerrard Street being a regular meeting point. And I also drove with Malcolm and his French wife to Geneva for a meeting with Victor and with Charles Levinson, now an A&U author. On the way out to Geneva we stayed at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc in Langres, the birthplace of Diderot, the encylopaedist and philosopher. Of the meetings in Geneva I remember nothing. On the Sunday I had my first glimpse of the lovely lakeside town of Annecy. We came back via Paris, staying in a small hotel on the Left Bank, and trying to pin down a couple of potential authors at UNESCO.

For the next eighteen months I chased up a lot of manuscripts and had lunch with a lot of authors. In London I ate most frequently at the Spaghetti House in Sicilian Avenue, who did an excellent antipasto misto and equally good profiteroles. I once went there with a visiting author from Sheffield who mistakenly ordered lasagne after the generous plate of antipasto, but couldn’t finish it. More exotically I had lunch a couple of times at Blooms, almost certainly salt-beef, with Bill Fishman of whom more anon.

Bill Fishman

Most authors were pleased to come to London. But I also went to visit people, usually academics, involving trips to Oxford, to the University of Kent at Canterbury, to the University of Essex, and to Cardiff and to Edinburgh. In January 1973 I went somewhat improbably to the Theatre Royal at Stratford-on-Avon to see the pantomime along with the School of Management from the Cranfield Institute of Technology.  Was the Professor of Marketing wearing an IS [International Socialists] badge ? And, if so, why did I not ask him about it ?

It all ended in tears. As things in publishing often do. Where did it go wrong ? Partly I suppose I never really put my own stamp on my list. The management stuff frankly bored me. A journalist came to see me from The Times, and I airily told him, “Of course no-one actually reads this kind of stuff. But ambitious managers like to have these books on their shelves.” It may well have been true. But it didn’t look good when I was quoted verbatim in his subsequent piece the newspaper. 

I remember going to Cardiff to talk to the author of a very dull book on The National Giro. [What other kind of book could there have been ?] But I was more interested in meeting up with an old man, who had had his balls shot off in the Spanish Civil War, and who was now writing his story in an exercise book in pencil. When I arrived he made me tea in a jam-jar,  keeping it warm next to the coal fire. Sadly his memories were unpublishable. I might have been able to turn it into a book, but it required more work and time than I could give it. All I could do was buy him a pie and a couple of pints in the pub, after which he went to visit his aged wife in the psychiatric hospital.

In a similar vein I went north to Edinburgh, travelling on the sleeper and staying a night or two at the NB, the Scottish Baronial hotel over the station. I think two people at the university were offering us something on AI [Artificial Intelligence]. And a lecturer at Heriot-Watt was writing something for our management list. I didn’t know Edinburgh at all, and he kindly gave me a guided tour which included driving me round Arthur’s Seat, which I can now see from my window. But I was much more interested in meeting up with Mrs Nan Milton, who was offering me a life of her father, John Maclean, schoolteacher, revolutionary socialist, and legendary Red Clydesider; who was named by Lenin as the People’s Commissar for Glasgow. We had tea at the NB, but it was a very thin manuscript and no book ever materialised. 

So, I didn’t really fit at Allen and Unwin. And the firm was in a state of flux too. The small group of men who had built A&U in the middle years of the century were growing old and retiring together. The market for their kind of general books was changing, if not declining. There was a growth in academic and educational publishing. But A&U’s marketing and sales departments were not really geared for that form of publishing; they were still thinking in terms of trade reps visiting shops to gather pre-publication orders. Rayner Unwin was urbane and friendly, but a somewhat remote figure. And there was a growing dis-connect between the activities of the sponsoring editors in Museum Street and what was happening up at Hemel Hempstead. In an attempt to regain control of things, a new layer of senior editors were brought into the firm. I found myself now reporting to Morgan,  a grey-faced, academic economist with a mournful Welsh accent. I resigned and was happy to walk away with six months, tax-free salary. Within a decade Allen and Unwin was taken over by Bell & Hyman. Who in turn  sold them to Harper Collins, who in turn sold the academic list to Routledge. Allen & Unwin lives on only as a [successful] publishing house in Australia.

East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914

I have few memories and no contacts from those years. For a bit I was in touch with Bill Fishman, whom I got to know through the Acton Society. Bill was a historian, the son of East End Jewish immigrants, one-tine schoolmaster fellow at Balliol, where he was a great admirer of Richard Cobb, the anarchic historian of the French Revolution. Bill was a revolutionary socialist, an expert on the history of immigrant communities of London’s East End, who led guided tours of the local streets featuring the stamping grounds of Jack the Ripper.  [And not just stamping.] Bill was writing for us, albeit rather slowly, a book called East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914. When I left A&U he took the book elsewhere and it was published eventually by Duckworths. I still have a copy on the shelves here. If lockdown persists, I’ll get it down and have a look at it.

February 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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