This week I have stepped aside from my usual blogging day to hand over this page to fellow writer John Lawton. He worked with the late George Weidenfeld, who died this week, both as an agent and as an author, and knew him over the course of many years.
It isn’t often one gets to write ‘it’s the end of an era’ and have it rise above cliché. George Weidenfeld’s death is just that – he was the last of those innovative influential Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who stayed on in peacetime to found publishing houses and reshape literary London. Off the top of my head … André Deutsch – from Hungary – Paul Hamlyn – from Germany – Walter Neurath – from Austria. Houses like André Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Thames and Hudson became pre-eminent in a very short time.
George was Austrian, like Walter Neurath he was Viennese, but from a younger generation. He was born in 1919. He was known as Arthur, and nicknamed Turli. I have always assumed that he decided to use his second name after his arrival in England in 1938 as it sounded very English.
I have a vivid memory of first meeting him. It was 1985. I was a young literary agent in London — publishers and agents were forever in and out of each other’s offices. A visit to or from a publisher was no great shakes. It was the routine. Until the day the boss announced that George Weidenfeld would be visiting. The significance of this was lost on me, and it slowly dawned on me that we were being put on full alert, to expect something like the trooping of the colour.
George was already a peer of the realm, and even before that he’d been Sir George — he told me somewhat later that he owed his advancement to Harold Wilson, whom he published, and that loyalty to Wilson kept him on the Labour benches until Wilson’s resignation a few weeks after George’s ennoblement, when he moved to a happier spot on the cross-benches.
The visit was almost regal. I lost track of the number of staff members who accompanied him, they seemed to take up half the boardroom, and I remember thinking that his suit probably cost more than I earned in three months. I don’t think I was supposed to say anything, and that overworked word ‘awesome’ might just have stopped me. I’d been hearing about this man for years — without too much exaggeration, in the mid-sixties anyone who was anyone was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson — reading about him too as he was the frequent butt of Private Eye’s jokes as ‘Popeye Weidenfeld’ — years later he explained this to me ... he had indeed had an eyeball detach itself from its socket, an injury that looks far more gruesome than it really is — but what amazed me was that he never pulled the W&N adverts in the front pages of the Eye … the reading of my adolescence was to some extent shaped by looking in the library for the books George advertised in the Eye … and in this I could see a man not driven by any resentment. He was a generous soul.
Was I supposed not to speak? I don’t really know. But the point of the meeting was to enable George to do what George did best — to put his ideas for books together with the right writers. He was not a hands-on nuts’n’bolts editor, he was above all an ideas man. One of these ideas was (imagine if you will the Viennese accent he never lost and a faint lisp) : “I realise there has never been a good reworking of the Iliad for adults. Good translations yes, good reworkings too, but always aimed at younger readers.”
Like a schoolboy I put my hand up and caught his eye, stopped his flow for a moment, and told him I represented the poet Elizabeth Cook — the younger sister of the owner of Private Eye, but I thought better of telling him that. It was tad short of ‘Please sir, she can do this.’
Over the next few weeks we exchanged letters on this, I visited him in his office, over the far-from-regal Job Centre and the dole queues in Clapham High Street, and George agreed to pay Elizabeth for a specimen chapter. In the end he did not commission the book, but a good idea does not die so readily, Elizabeth finally published Achilles in 2001, to great acclaim.
I don’t think I saw anything of Lord Weidenfeld for another five years. By this time I was at Channel 4, and a note came down from Michael Grade, saying that George had an idea for a ‘talk’, and as I produced a talks programme …
I called George. He invited me to lunch at the Lords. My one suit dusted off and my tennis shoes freshly scrubbed. I left the Lords with an invitation to be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and an embryonic programme. The talk was about international co-operation between universities and the setting up of a committee for this and that. This was what George did, he hobnobbed, hobnobbed positively, in the interest of international co-operation — a list of the great and the good and the not-so-good with whom George had rubbed shoulders would be little short of infinite. It might be that he was a snob, but I’d defend him on that score by saying that if so it was an all-inclusive snobbery and that if he appeared to drop the name of the Israeli Prime Minister or the German Chancellor, then he managed also to impart the feeling, the pleasing illusion, that in some other conversation he was probably dropping your name too.
Getting the script right meant several visits to his apartment in Cheyne Walk, pretty well opposite the Battersea Buddha — ‘flat’ will not suffice, this was a horizontal mansion. I was fascinated by doors that blended into the wall seamlessly, like the one in the Oval Office, delighted to find he had the most luxuriously deep armchairs imaginable in which to sit and read. (On Desert Island Discs, his luxury was to be able to take an armchair like that with him. I’m still looking for one.) And in the course of a dozen conversations, I learnt of his childhood in Vienna and made mental notes as fast as mind would permit. Much of what he told me eventually went into novels George published — I ripped off his account of the Nazis entering Vienna … a scene in which Jews scrub pavements is based closely on something that had happened to George in 1938, and I ‘gave’ the Chelsea apartment to my character Viktor Rosen. George was also very informative about the plight of Jewish refugees in England — he was lucky to escape internment himself, and spent part of the war at the BBC, making propaganda programmes alongside William Empson and George Orwell, and I now wish I’d asked him if he’d ever had Guy Burgess as his producer. I’d put money on it.
Some time later George was a guest of honour at the Cheltenham festival, and asked me to be his interviewer. I took the line that he was the first ‘Cold War’ publisher, with which he agreed, dealt, inevitably, with his publishing Nabokov’s Lolita at a time when it was drenched in controversy … but otherwise, I cocked it up. I wanted to bring home to the audience the singular quality of Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s list, how brightly it had shone, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, and I failed to do it. I hope that anyone in the audience learnt more from the reminiscences of the interviewee than they did from the ineptitude of the interviewer.
I last saw George at Ion Trewin’s retirement do, not far from his home, in Chelsea Physik Garden. That must have been eight or nine years ago. George was coming up to ninety and looking frail. At Ion’s memorial service late last year I enquired after George and was told he was, predictably, frailer still and in that oft-used phrase, ‘didn’t get out much anymore.’ But when he did … what a difference the man had made, the life of George Weidenfeld is part of the history of the Twentieth Century. London, and London publishing, has lost a giant.
And I’m still looking for one of his desert island armchairs.