Posted: 5 August 2011
One of the unexpected things one must deal with after the death of someone who has been in your life for decades is the unspeakable regret at the sudden loss of shared history - both the good and the bad.
It happened earlier this year when my older brother died in Los Angeles. Clive Allison - who was a sort of literary sibling - succumbed to heart failure last week, prompting this urge to retrieve a few memories about the origins of Allison & Busby.
Clive and I met on Friday 14 May 1965. It was at a party held in the magical leafy garden of 100 Bayswater Road, the house where J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan, and which was home to the cousins of my good friend Rachel Anderson. She was celebrating both the publication by Cape of her first novel, Pineapple, as well as her imminent marriage the following month to David Bradby, who was studying at Trinity College, Oxford. Clive was a guest from David's side, a fellow undergraduate, President of the Oxford Poetry Society and an enthusiastic fledgling pamphleteer. I was reading English at London University, editing my college literary magazine, while also "eating dinners" at Gray's Inn with a view to becoming a lawyer (I had yet to break it to my parents that my ambitions lay elsewhere). Clive and I were introduced and soon discovered our shared passion for books and, in particular, for poetry. As the party ended, we continued talking and walking late into the night, and by the time we parted company had already decided on a course of action that would shape the rest of our lives: we would start a publishing house to produce poetry, not in the expensive elitist hardback volumes in which it traditionally appeared, but as cheap paperbacks that even people like us could afford.
It might have remained a pipe dream but, remarkably, it came to pass. Neither of us had yet reached the age of majority, but what we lacked in experience we compensated for in ideals.
We both graduated and found paid employ in the industry while we plotted. Clive worked initially with Macmillan, in the publicity department, I was an editorial assistant with the Cresset Press. Cresset had offices at 11 Fitzroy Square, and from the top floor of that building Martin Eve's Merlin Press operated. Martin agreed to sub-let his office to us in the evenings after he went home, when we would put in the late shift at the end of our day's work; we paid the exorbitant rent of £10 a week for the privilege. This became the impressive address on the copyright page of our first publications. The electric typewriter of Oxford-based TRUEXpress, known to Clive from his student ventures, went to work on our chosen texts: Selected Poems by James Reeves - a poet with an established reputation whom Clive had befriended and who dedicated this book to him; Libby Houston's A Stained-Glass Raree Show, a collection by a new young "pop" poet, illustrated by her husband Mal Dean; and The Saipan Elegy and Other Poems, by James Grady, a talented American romantic. The company was slow to settle on an official identity because each time we tried to register a name we liked - for instance Gemini, homage to Clive's zodiac sign - we were told it was already taken. It was out of necessity rather than vanity that, with our first print deadline approaching fast, we decided that we could not be prevented from using our own surnames; at least A&B tripped readily off the tongue.
In spring 1967, Allison & Busby Ltd launched with a splash, garnering headlines and column inches with its first three five-bob poetry titles, each with an optimistic print run of 5,000 copies. Not only did we get respectable notices ("A brave new imprint" said the TES; "Three excellent titles...they hold their own in any company" said Books & Bookmen; "This is the kind of imaginative lead the publishing world has been lacking... It is extremely pleasant to welcome the birth if a new and lively publishing house... I applaud the idealism, initiate and hard-headed business sense of A&B", decided Tribune under the by-line of [poet and would-be publisher] Jeremy Robson, who eventually himself became an A&B author.
The trouble was that we had no distribution and were reduced to stopping people in the street or knocking on doors, asking: "Would you like to buy a poetry book?"
At our first Frankfurt Book Fair, we were able to remedy our distribution deficiencies when André Deutsch, in fairy godfather style, said he would grant us one favour. At our request, the Deutsch reps began to carry our list.
Clive and I were quite unalike but, at the best of times, our abilities were complementary. I could never have been the publicist that he was, and he did not have the aptitude for the editorial work that I loved. But in fact we both had to turn our hand to whatever was necessary (I sometimes doubled as a jacket designer and illustrator). We continued to provide novelty value for the press and must have looked a very odd couple. At one time Clive had a penchant for tweedy waistcoats, while I had a large Afro. From some of the headlines it is clear that people found us freakishly fascinating: "London's Swinging Publishers"; "The girl from Ghana goes into publishing"; "Youngest in the field"; "Offbeat venture"; "London's Most Remarkable Publishing Firm." Clive thrived on it.
We were even courted - or perhaps checked out - by celebrities. I didn't accompany Clive when he was summoned to meet the film star Gloria Swanson at her hotel as she passed through London, presumably canvassing outlets for her memoirs. However, we both lunched with Spike Milligan in Kettners in Romilly Street (on the phone beforehand, he said we would recognise him by his green reincarnation). I later learned that in Spike's eyes Clive scuppered our chances of publishing Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, by arriving with a briefcase and wearing a three-piece suit.
Our reputation always far outstripped our means, though we acquired an enviable roster of authors and prizes. The biggest compliment someone paid to the A&B of yore was to say: "You never knew what they were going to publish next but you knew it was going to be interesting." A galaxy of writers deigned to grace out list over the years - Michael Moorcock, Roy Heath, JB Priestley, John Edgar Wideman, Mervyn Peake, Geoffrey Grigson (my ex father-in-law), Michele Roberts, Ishmael Reed, Katharine Moore (a first-time novelist at the age of 85), Michael Horovitz, CLR James, Alexis Lykiard, Hilary Spurling, Jill Murphy, Rosa Guy, Chester Himes, B Traven, James Ellroy and scores of other stellar names. We published other publishers and agents (Giles Gordon, the aforementioned Robson). We published the debut novels of those who went on to much better things (Clare Rayner), and we published footballers (Derek Dougan) and politicians (Maurice Nyagumbo). Little that A&B did was conventional. When we took on the unauthorized biography of Fela Kuti, the advance was partly paid for (by my personal cheque) in the purchase of two saxophones.
There were those whom we were the first publishers they had met and who were only much later disabused of the fantasy that all publishers were like us, as Maggie Gee once confessed.
Conveniently and centrally located, our office was also on the itinerary of many fascinating people whom we did not end up publishing, including Fran Landesman, Tambimuttu, Mulk Raj Anand and Ted Joans. We took it in our stride that the august and the impoverished alike wound their way up the narrow stairwell to make use of facilities such the photocopying machine, or to buy a book or two (as did pianist Dollar Brand Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand, a devotee of Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi's A Book of Five Rings, published by A&B in its first English translation (it would have been Clive who came up with our cover line: "Published in 1645 and now an international bestseller").
It can in no small measure be due to close acquaintance with the small-publisher strengths and weakness epitomised in Clive that A&B employees, nurtured on that combination if precarious finance and imaginative output, later graduated to the real world well equipped to deal with any eventuality. It never seemed surprising that our bookkeeper, Chris Jones, was a ballet dancer.
Just in order to survive, those who worked with us needed to be versatile and multi-skilled, if not when they joined A&B certainly by the time they left. Bill Swainson, A&B's superb sales manager, moved on to a distinguished career as an editor, currently with Bloomsbury; of many other talented alumni, Katie Kingshill is a playwright, Lavinia Greenlaw an award-winning poet and novelist. Authors, too, were expected to pitch in, as Sally Penrose from A&B's publicity "department" learned soon after she joined the company: "I remember [novelist] Dermot Healy coming in over the weekend and painting the back office to make it habitable for Astrid and me to share, and him turning up on the Monday still spattered with white paint. There was also Clive's cheeky brilliance in getting Anthony Burgess to produce his own best of British novels book in response to something produced by the Book Marketing Council, which we published in record time. We were way ahead of the times so often - looking back I just think it was really cool. Everything we published had real integrity, passion and fire (or was unspeakably quirky like Congratulations! You Have Won!, a guide to how to maximise your chances of winning competitions).
On occasions we did make unashamedly commercial acquisitions, hoping for a quick killing, in order to subsidise those titles whose impeccable literary or political credentials might not be enough to stop them being loss-makers. We didn't always get the balance right but I believe that our hearts and consciences were in the right place.
Clive maintained that the founders of imprints such as Quartet and Wildwood House and Virago and all the others that set up after we did, with far more money and experience, must have taken one look at us and thought, "Well, if those two young twits can do it, so can we!"
Probably only in retrospect does all of this seem fun, although 6a Noel Street did host some marvellous launch parties.
For many years Clive and I shared a huge Dickensian partner's desk, working on either side of a sea of paper, manuscripts and books ranged in mountains. Eventually we had separate offices, which provided more room for concentration but had hidden dangers. Clive's tendency to procrastinate often got us into hot water and he would cheerfully bury his head in the metaphorical sand rather than deal with what he feared might be difficult or unwelcome news. On one occasion towards the end of the Noel Street days, he was out holding court in the pub, as was his daily wont, while back at the ranch Bill and I, trying to hold things together, searched for some vital correspondence that we were assured had been sent to us more than once. Trying the less obvious places in Clive's office as the last resort we were not best amused to come upon a carrier bag bulging with unopened post, including what turned out to be writs.
Clive was a champion maker of lists as self-reminders. Betraying his sense of humour, one example reads in part:
Buy Hoover - & use
Moths - blast
There may well be another somewhere that notes: "Have a pint..."
The pub was Clive's natural habitat, for the company as much as the beer. Interviews for jobs often culminated in half a pint at the George, round the corner in Wardour Street, and at least one of our successful authors was the result of a chance encounter there. It was a fitting place to hold a mini reunion in 2007, when attendees included Michael Horovitz, Kit Wright, Adrian Mitchell, Michael Wolfers, Astrid Arnold, Sally Penrose, Katie Kingshill, Marie Stone, Clive Sinclair, John Latimer Smith. There was a unique family feeling because that's what the old A&B was: a family - sometimes dysfunctional, but ultimately a source of great affection. Clive had quite recently talked of repeating the exercise, conscious that a couple of those present then were no longer alive.
After his funeral today (Thursday, 4 August, 1pm at St Paul's, the Actors' Church, in Covent Garden), we will all repair to the George to drink a toast to the one and only late and lamentable Clive Allison.
Clive Allison: 15 June 1944 - 25 July 2011
Categories: Poetry News