imomus (imomus) wrote,

Two old publishing men

A British bookshop can feel pretty much like a confectioner's shop, stuffed with TV tie-ins and lightweight toothrot. Here are the titles currently displayed in W.H.Smith's web window, for instance:

To restore my faith in publishing and humanity, confronted with ugly-sleeved, formulaic, calculated-bestseller fluff like this, I turn my attention to the two stubborn old men of serious, transgressive British publishing, Peter Owen and John Calder, both 82 years old.

Interviewed by The Daily Telegraph two years ago, Owen described how he started Peter Owen Publishers from his bedroom in 1951, then moved to a small office in Old Brompton Road. Muriel Spark was his editor. It was the time of her speed-induced mental troubles:

"She'd had a nervous breakdown and converted to Catholicism and was in the last stages of recovery when she came to work for us. Muriel was a brilliant shorthand typist and very efficient. One of the authors she wanted to bring in was Samuel Beckett and that was one of my mistakes... Beckett was getting on for 50, had never made it. We had a choice between Beckett and the Japanese Dazai. Muriel said, can't we do both? I said we can't afford both, and chose Dazai." Beckett went on to have a career-transforming hit play with Waiting For Godot, which was published by Faber. The rest of his writing went to John Calder.

There's an interesting mp3 of Calder telling a film crew about the Last Exit To Brooklyn obscenity trial here. Calder, like Owen, struggled with censorship throughout his publishing career. (I recently described how Thomi Wroblewski, who did covers for both Calder and Owen in the 80s when he was doing my record sleeves, would give me copies of Apollinaire novels that Peter had published, which had had whole sections paraphrased in bold type to avoid the British censor's pencil.)

At the end of the Calder mp3 there's a funny anecdote. Calder heard that Christian conservative pundit Malcolm Muggeridge might be testifying against him in the Last Exit To Brooklyn obscenity trial. Muggerige was the rector of Edinburgh University and flew often between Edinburgh and London. Calder was on the same flight as him one day and sat next to him. Calder reminded him of a day in June 1962 when he and Muggeridge were walking across George IV Bridge, near the Edinburgh University campus, and saw a group of pretty students. "If I were a student today I would fuck myself to death," Muggerige remarked. Calder told his old friend that this would come up in cross-examination at the trial, and Muggeridge promised not to give evidence against him.

That pretty much sums up prudish-prurient 1960s Britain in a nutshell; there's a sense (as in Jean Genet's play The Balcony) that the radicals and the conservatives are basically on the same page. They'd all fuck themselves to death given a chance, but the papers pay some to be sententious blowhards, while others stay stubbornly independent, cool, obscene.

Calder comes out very much against trendiness, though. "Publishing is about more than getting a return on an investment or being fashionable," he told Textualities. "Publishers have a chance to contribute to making a better world. I recently published Jeff Nuttall’s Art and the Degradation of Awareness, in which [Nuttall] says ‘Art gives out of courage; fashion takes out of fear.’ Most of the ‘art’ we hear about today is fashion driven by commerce. Money is just a means of exchange, a means of keeping a roof over your head and all that, but to pursue wealth for its own sake is decadent. I agree with Samuel Beckett that one has to teach oneself not to want things. One wants many things for no better reason than that advertisers train us to want them... The point of everything I do remains the same: to make ideas available to people, to expand their minds."

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