Faber & Faber, the publishing company founded by my grandfather Geoffrey, is ninety this year. I’ve been lecturing on its history, mainly to Arts Society groups around the UK, for a few years now. Excellent design has always been central to Faber’s publishing philosophy, so book covers have provided the necessary artistic hook, while also giving me the opportunity to share insights from my four years as managing director and tell some of the anecdotes I first heard as a child: Walter de la Mare suggesting the name Faber & Faber, despite there being only one Faber, because ‘you can’t have too much of a good thing’; T S Eliot setting off firecrackers under the boardroom table; Lord of the Flies being rescued from the slush pile; P D James being signed up following a chance meeting at an All Souls dinner.
After stepping down from Faber in the 2000s, I wrote two books, one on the violins of Antonio Stradivari and the other on the Fabergé imperial Easter eggs, riding the wave of narrative nonfiction that was fashionable at the time. This was what first led me to the Arts Society. Lectures were a good way both of keeping the books alive and of earning additional income while I was working on new projects. Most authors these days will be familiar with the need to do that.
The reception given to my lectures eventually persuaded me to overcome my misgivings and write a history of Faber & Faber. My initial hesitation was, I think, justified. Corporate histories can be amazingly dry vanity projects. No publisher or writer wants to waste their efforts on a book that no one wants to read. Nevertheless, I thought I could see a way of making it fun: by telling the story of the firm through carefully chosen extracts from diaries, letters and memoranda.
There would be a clear arc to my narrative: the early struggle and the arguments with shareholders that accompanied the foundation of the firm; the mixture of luck and foresight that led Geoffrey Faber to recruit T S Eliot as an editor; the need to adapt to the postwar world; the near-bankruptcy of the publishing house in 1970; the turnaround, fuelled by money from Cats, in the 1980s; and finally the restructuring of the firm in 1990 that guaranteed its independence when all its competitors were being swallowed up by conglomerates.
So I began the process of research. I sat at the octagonal oak table in the Faber archive, the same one at which my grandfather would chair the Book Committee every Wednesday, and the archivist brought me boxes. Geoffrey died in 1961, four years before I was born, but I grew to know him. I built up a picture of how the firm survived and eventually prospered, fleshing out those half-remembered stories from my childhood. That gave me a structure into which I could work the correspondence, much of it involving authors with whom the name Faber is now almost synonymous: Siegfried Sassoon being told that a £100 advance for the initially anonymous Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was thought to be a little steep; Eliot encouraging both Auden and Spender to send in fresh submissions after rejecting their earlier attempts; Tom Stoppard’s initial publication as a short story writer; Wendy Cope suggesting that her collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis be promoted as ‘another winner from Faber, the firm that puts the TRY in POETRY’.
There were, of course, failures along the way. Timidity meant Faber lost the chance to publish Ulysses; Joyce dubbed the firm ‘Feebler and Fumbler’ but still looked to it to publish Finnegans Wake. Eliot rejected Animal Farm for its rudeness about Britain’s wartime Soviet allies. A Faber reader could not see the point of Paddington Bear – ‘Moreover, the Brown family are perfect fools’ – and all Philip Larkin’s enthusiasm was unable to persuade the firm to publish Barbara Pym.
One of the other projects I’ve had going on in the background for the last decade is a novel. I first had the idea for the book that is now called Close to the Edge around 1990. Its central premise is that the hero witnesses someone fall to their death from a Tube platform. Originally, the hero was going to be, like me in those days, a young man commuting into the City from Clapham. By the time I started writing the book in 2009, I was living on the other side of the river. The action has accordingly moved to north London. My protagonist remains about twenty-five, but is now a woman called Laurie. I am now closer in age to her father, which is probably why the relationship between them has ended up being such an important part of the book.
A decade is far too long to spend on one novel, especially when the London in which it is mainly set continues to mutate. Close to the Edge was finally published by Muswell Press in April. Meanwhile, my history of Faber comes out this month. There is an odd connection between them. I was some months into my research on the Faber book when I read my grandfather’s description of his first recruit – a man who would become general manager – being killed in an accident at Belsize Park Underground station in 1945. So now I have two books coming out within a month of each other. One is fiction, the other is fact, but both involve death on the London Underground.