Quartet Books, owned and directed by Naim Attallah since 1976, has long been something unusual and valuable in the publishing world, ready to take chances on authors and books other firms might avoid. It has become even more precious in today’s era, when independent publishers are rare and political correctness is the norm. Attallah’s entertaining new book, drawn from fifteen previous books of autobiography and interviews and embellished with recollections from colleagues, provides a chronicle of a colourful life.
Born in 1931 to a Catholic family in Haifa, then part of British-ruled Mandatory Palestine, Attallah came to the UK in 1949 to study. When he found that access to money at home had been blocked, Attallah took jobs as a steeplejack, a bouncer in an all-night jazz club on Charing Cross Road, a worker in an electrical factory in Stafford and a banker. He writes of the ‘loneliness and privation’ of those difficult times and the ‘desperation’ he felt, but amid reverses, he discovered an unexpected resilience. In time, he rose to become CEO of Asprey, a position in which he proved himself daring and innovative. He added fashion to Asprey’s staples of jewellery and applied art with Tomasz Starzewski’s line. Starzewski contributes an appreciative brief memoir of working with Attallah, whom he found fun as well as creative, even though the designer, aware of Attallah’s fondness for supporting and encouraging women, at first joked he might belong to the wrong sex.
At the heart of the book is Attallah’s adventures as a publisher. In addition to Quartet, he has owned two other imprints, the Women’s Press and Robin Clark, as well as Literary Review, The Oldie in its early years and The Wire. He made launch parties as glamorous as opening nights, bringing in dazzling guests. His employees, many of them attractive, well-born women, were always in attendance too. Gillian Greenwood, Literary Review’s editor in the early 1980s, points out that Attallah’s taste for upper-class female assistants stemmed from ‘a canny understanding of how publicity and the establishment can be worked when cash is short’. Mention of the Establishment needs to be qualified, since Attallah has always been on the side of the underdog.
One member of the Establishment, the universal fixer Lord Goodman, was at first reluctant to let Attallah interview him for Singular Encounters (1990), especially after discovering that the former editor of Private Eye Richard Ingrams was also to appear in the book. Goodman eventually relented but was cagey. In contrast, Harold Acton, already a friend, was ‘charm itself’. Asked by Attallah if he had ever slept with a woman, Acton recalled, in a playful way reminiscent of his Memoirs of an Aesthete, an encounter with a Chinese girl with silky skin in Peking during the 1930s. Attallah remembers fondly Acton’s Tuscan neighbour Lord Lambton, whose books he published. Lambton had something of the ‘dissolute monarch of a bygone age’ about him, Attallah informs us, but his scathing wit redeemed him. Attallah’s happiest times were those he spent working on Literary Review with Auberon Waugh, the subject of Attallah’s 2019 A Scribbler in Soho. Memories is a charming diversion in trying times. Attallah begins the book quoting Bette Davis’s remark that ‘old age is not for sissies’ and ends with a show of defiance: ‘As the song goes … I’m still here!’ Long may he remain so.