I picked up a 1962 Penguin paperback version of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring in the rather wonderful Cofion bookshop in Tenby in Wales last month. The novel was first published in 1939 by Cassell, and is narrated by a typically languid and ironic Powell character who works for the publishing firm Judkins and Judkins. It’s an amusing tale about a mischievous English character who reinvents himself as a travel writer called TT Waring, who becomes the lead writer for Judkins and Judkins.
What I really enjoyed were the passages in which the narrator, still in his twenties and working on a monograph on Stendhal, describes his working day at the publishing house: reading the piles of manuscripts which arrive every day, discussing them with one of the two Judkins brothers who run the firm, going upstairs to the sales ledger office to find out how the orders are going on the latest TT Waring. It’s a million miles away from the glass boxes which house today’s publishing professionals, although from experience I know that many of the latter still came into the profession from exactly the same love of words and books as Powell’s narrator. And it reminded me of my first publishing job, as a reader at Robert Hale Publishers on Clerkenwell Green in 1982.
Every day around 1030am, Rupert, the ebullient post manager, would stagger into my tiny office with the day’s manuscript arrivals. He would sit them on the floor by my desk, and the pile most days reached up to higher than my desk. My job was to go through the slush pile, as it is still sadly known in the industry, and make comments on each manuscript in time for Mr Hale, the boss, to read my notes and comment on them before he got up from his desk at ten to one and went down in the lift to the garage to get into his Jaguar to drive himself off to Holborn for lunch. My note on each manuscript would briefly outline subject matter, plot and my own comments as to suitability. Mr Hale would add his own notes and the pile would be returned to me by Rupert after the boss had gone off to lunch. I had three categories of conclusions for each note: “Reject”, “Send to Reader”, “Look further this afternoon”. The first obviously meant that the manuscript would immediately be sent back to its author, using the stamped addressed envelope which we asked aspiring authors to provide. The second meant that the manuscript was good enough to be sent out for a full reading by one of our several external readers. The third was a halfway house, meaning that I would spend a bit more time on it myself during the afternoon to establish whether we thought it might be worth sending out for a full read. Mr Hale would either agree or disagree with my conclusions in his own covering notes which he jotted down before it got to ten to one.
So after my own lunch, I would give Rupert the rejects to return and the interesting ones to package up to send out to the chosen reader, and then I’d settle down in my chair and read the betwixt-and-betweens. That was my favourite part of the day; the morning race to get through all the manuscripts before Mr Hale went to lunch was always slightly tense, whereas in the afternoon I had more leisure to read through the scripts which remained. These were the afternoons when I would read memoirs of retired gentlemen’s World War Two experiences; avant garde fiction which had somehow found its way into our very traditional publishing house; esoteric accounts of religious transformations. I’d then write much longer notes on these, and would get my notes up to Mr Hale before half past five, giving him a few minutes to annotate my comments with “Agreed” or “Why not see what Mrs Jacobson makes of it?”
It was a beautifully choreographed and repetitive workday, the best job which I’ve ever had. I was only 22, and I think I thought that all work would be like this – after I left Hale in 1985, I soon discovered this was not the case. I am more nostalgic about that job than anything I’ve done since. The whole firm, taking its lead and inspiration from the shy, civilised and kind Mr John Hale, was made up of truly delightful and gentle people who were obsessed with books. We had a raffish marketing director in Martin Kendall, who once took me downstairs to the basement archive where one copy of every Hale book was stored, and picked out a volume of photographic nudes which had been put out in the ’60s. We published the cowboy writer JT Edson, who lived in America, and whom I had to telephone one day to ask him to resupply a missing blurb. “Make it up, kid,” he said. “They’re all the same.” I remember being rather proud of my copywriting, something about peace not reigning in Death Valley until six gun shots rang in the air.
We published the historical romance writer, Jean Plaidy, and I was once sent over to her apartment overlooking Hyde Park because her plumbing was faulty, and Mr Hale suspected that I might be able to fix it. We published the cookery writer Elizabeth David’s last book, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and I was sent on my bicycle to her house in Chelsea to hand over the proofs. She sat me down at her kitchen table and gave me dessert wine while she pottered about muttering about the inadequacies of her publisher. And I used to have occasionally awkward meetings with aspiring authors in the ground floor reception, those for whom our traditional pro forma rejection letter was not sufficiently explanatory and who chose to pick up their unwanted manuscript in order to take the opportunity to berate me for my blindness and philistinism.
No doubt my advancing years are clouding my memories with nostalgia, but they do seem in retrospect to have been very special experiences. I hope young graduates joining the industry feel like I do now about my first job when they are my age. The world needs lots more Judkins and Judkins and Robert Hales.