Through the Looking Glass

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By the end of the 1980s, in my mid-twenties, I’d been through university, a stint of unemployment, a couple of tread-water jobs, and come to a halt, a despondent Is this it? Not knowing what I wanted or expected, I sent off a flare of speculative letters, and by a strange percolation of nerve and chance I got an interview, and then a job, at Faber, the one publisher, with its eminent backlist and recent seedy glamour of The Buddha of Suburbia, I could put my finger on.

Faber’s offices at 3 Queen Square were modern, purpose-built. Arriving for the first time through the foyer doors was like walking through the Looking Glass – past the sleek, diagonal displays of books, the boxy black sofas for visitors. It was the greener grass, a fever-pitch of now that left no room for imagining. Betty was at reception, long-suffering and irredeemably middle-aged, or so it seemed to the gaggle of secretarial and admin assistants among whose juvenile ranks I was enrolled.

Heading straight for the lift, you were transported to the floors above: Faber Music, Publicity and Sales and, on the fourth floor, Editorial, where you’d emerge into a dark corridor of industrial brown carpet and 1970s hessian walls. The offices were ranged along either side. At the rear they looked out on to the metal funnels of restaurants, the fire-escapes of dingy hotels, and at the front the view stretched over the square’s airy gardens to the multiple windows of a hospital, a strip-cartoon of illness and mortality, as far removed as it could possibly be from our own lives.

‘Have you got a boyfriend?’ I was asked as I entered the room – a question that set the tone for the next few years. Emma was assistant to the Editor-in-Chief Robert McCrum, and she ruled the roost. She was unassailable, exuding a boarding-school confidence – ‘Never apologize, never explain.’ She was the first one granted a computer (the rest of us worked on heavy electric typewriters), and the only one tough enough to stand up to Robert’s moods, which were by turn jolly and thunderous. She gave new currency to the concept of ‘personal calls’, conducting prolonged exchanges with a vast array of friends, but her leonine efficiency, as the rest of us struggled to keep up, ensured she was beyond reproach.

Each morning our editors delivered trays of correspondence topped by a miniature cassette that we plugged into the tape machines worked by foot-pedals under our desks. Offers of publication, requests for contracts, New Book Information sheets – forms of tortuous concoction, of drummed-up ‘selling points’, page extents, blurbs. We’d set off in competitive gunfire, the impatient stamping of our treadles as we re-wound to listen again through the crackle of tape: ‘Fax to . . . Letter to . . .’, the ‘soul-destroying serfdom at the typewriter’, as I confided to my diary. Stultifying in the summer heat, in winter the office smelt of rabbit hutch from the baked potatoes we’d bring back to our desks. On special days there were lunches at Il Fornello or the Old Amalfi, where the elderly Italian waiters would dance stiff attendance.

After six months I was fully on board. We worked in furious bursts, staying late, as long as it took. Long days fused seamlessly into evenings when as waitresses we’d infiltrate the parties held high up on the penthouse floor – weaving between the boardroom and its balcony, a bottle of wine under each arm, slugs between rounds, until we were indistinguishable from the jostling mêlée. The summer parties were packed so tight that passions flared – hands would paddle, fists occasionally fly. There was a predilection for the Irish, and in the best gatherings the booziness was distinguished by the craic of writers like Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, John McGahern, Paul Muldoon.

Faber, in spite of a spate of redundancies, was surviving the recession better than most, still afloat, if not fat, on the unimaginable success of Cats, and living on the hangover of ’80s abandon and excess. It was Matthew Evans who’d persuaded Valerie Eliot to let Andrew Lloyd Webber get his hands on Eliot’s poems, and whose maverick energy drove and at times bedevilled the place. He’d joined Faber in the 1960s, rising to inherit the mantle of Chairman from Charles Monteith, editor of Philip Larkin and William Golding. He brought a different, distinct kind of intelligence, anti-intellectual, antic, more Jack than Norman Nicholson. He was image-obsessed, a man-about-town, delighted when asked to feature, in a white suit and sports car, in an advertisement for Martini. The godfather.

Sometimes he’d take a small group of the favoured out to long, drink-sodden lunches at places like the Ivy, and we’d be returned to the office – Betty, tight-lipped – manhandling ourselves along the walls of the corridors. He was only interested if there was a game going on, cooking up scenarios to keep himself entertained: a public dinner that pitted someone’s unwitting wife against her husband’s mistress; or a pseudo-political sting involving cash in brown envelopes at airports. To be on the wrong side of him was death.

Underneath the testosterone, the bicker and strop, was the sustaining fustian of the 1950s, quietly evident in the self-effacing presence of John Bodley. John had joined Faber just after the war. He stood back from the fray. In his sober dress, his solitary, quiet working-away-at-things, he was like a forgotten nephew of Eliot’s, entrusted with the backlist and the estates: Auden, MacNeice, Eliot, to which, in the 1990s, were added, as they fell, Golding, Durrell and Spender. He exuded the wisdom of the village undertaker, his office a mausoleum, almost totally bricked in by its towers of books, which kept him from the sweariness and capers of the corridors.

Here Valerie Eliot would be shepherded, emerging only to powder her face in the Ladies, where in the mirror above the sinks she’d bestow beneficent smiles, a merry-go-round of blonde hair, an emerald and red dress, flag of her own nation, whose ghostly denizens, if you managed to have a chat, were Wystan in the South of France and, always, Tom.

I worked at first for the art and music books editors. Giles de la Mare, grandson of Walter, was old-school. He had a heavy head like an emperor on a Roman coin, ponderous and punctilious: ‘Letter to,’ he’d dictate, ‘Tate Gallery, that’s T.A.T.E . . .’ Helen Sprott was not much older than we were, but a different breed: a woman who dared to be ambitious. By Faber reckoning she didn’t last long, like those others (generally women) with ideas above their station, who moved on or were shipped off, generally doing extraordinarily well for themselves elsewhere.

In 1991, long before such ruminations had a chance to take hold, there was a wonderful turn of events. Christopher Reid had been appointed poetry editor and, delight of delights, because he knew I liked poetry, I was to become his assistant. If I’d dared set my sights on that job, I’m sure it would never have happened, but somehow, miraculously, I’d fallen into it. Though Robert had invigorated the fiction list, Faber poetry, through the unrivalled wealth of its backlist and the active influence of its presiding genies – Ted Hughes taken on by Eliot, Seamus Heaney by Charles Monteith – lay at its beating heart. And lest it should be seen to rest on its laurels, Christopher put an engine behind proceedings, the whole enterprise responding to his galvanizing push, reinstating a certain fertile collegiality, a sense of identity that drew in a whole new generation of poets.

Like most of them, I’d studied Heaney and Hughes at school and couldn’t quite credit the sheer physical presence of them both. Here was Seamus in 1991, when I first met him, ‘wonderfully large – bear-like – a fringe of wild grey hair – a great face smiling always the thumbs up!’ Where Seamus’s gift included his great capacity to put people at ease, Ted Hughes came with certain baggage. He had a magnetic energy, thinly veiled by wariness or shyness in public, but which, out of the public gaze, was mediated by great enthusiasms and, more surprisingly, by humour.

Hunting through my things recently, I found an occasional poem he’d written for a Sales Conference Dinner in 1994, ‘Ode to the Organism’. I can remember watching Ted get to his feet, listening as he set off in his earth-scraping Yorkshire lilt, none of us knowing quite what he was going to say, and then the joy of hearing among the names, my name, the overwhelming delight at the spotlight of his attention, which only grew as the joke ballooned and – though it was a joke – left me with the gift of a version of myself that was unexpectedly strong and fearless and could, apparently, do anything . . .

Ted captured exactly the physical rough-and-tumble, the democratizing and exhilarating intimacy that made Faber so irresistible, and all the more intense because – for many of us, I think – for a certain time, it was family. I was at Faber for another seven years, through a rash of marriages, births (four of us pregnant together), a divorce. Women weren’t expected to return to work, and when we did we weren’t taken particularly seriously. It didn’t pay to have allegiances elsewhere. Without realizing exactly when, we’d grown out of being handmaidens, tending our flames; the giddiness had dissipated, time that had stood so furiously still was moving on.

Above my desk now I keep an old photograph of Ted and Seamus, easy with one another like two farmers in their best tweed jackets. It is hard to register luck when you’re in it, but theirs is an influence, high above those choppy waters, that persists. I was always talking of moving to Ireland; all talk. But when the moment came for me to leap, though Ted by then was no longer around, it wasn’t wholly coincidental that I found the courage to do so, or that I ended up in Devon, not far from where he lived and farmed, traces of him, bristling as they do in the handwriting of his poem, everywhere.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55, Autumn 2017

NB We cannot reproduce the image of ‘Ode to the Organism’ by Ted Hughes due to copyright constraints, but it appears in print with the original article in SF Issue 55


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