Fashionable ambiguity

August 15, 2011

For a few years in the 1950s, independent publishing company André Deutsch rented the top two-thirds of a doctor’s house in London. Diana Athill, then an editor at the company, describes them as “happy years, but still a touch amateurish: did proper publishers have to put a board over a bath to make a packing-bench?” (Stet: An Editor’s Life*).

During its time in that location, however, the company did well enough to buy Derek Verschoyle’s firm and to move into its premises in Soho. Athill recalls one consequence of the deal:

One of the more burdensome books we inherited from him was a pointless compilation called Memorable Balls, a title so much tittered over that we thought of leaving it out when we were arranging our stand at The Sunday Times’s first book fair. Finally one copy was shoved into an inconspicuous corner – where the Queen Mother, who had opened the fair, instantly noticed it. Picking it up, she exclaimed with delight: ‘Oh, what a tempting title!’ André insisted that it was his confusion over this that made him drop her a deep curtsey instead of a bow.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, Memorable Balls has nothing to do with sport or anatomy but concerns formal dances. It was edited by James Laver, an author and fashion historian who came up with a system he called Laver’s Law (Taste and Fashion, 1937) to describe popular attitudes to fashion:

Was the author’s tongue partly in cheek when he composed this table? I don’t have a copy of Taste and Fashion, or any of Laver’s other books, so I can’t infer his tone from context.

It is in any case a revealing list of adjectives, some of which I often see applied to language usages. “Language is like dress,” wrote Simeon Potter in Our Language. “We vary our dress to suit the occasion.”

In honour of Laver’s Memorable Balls, I propose Balls’ Law: Bawdy double entendres never fall fully out of fashion.

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* For another anecdote from Athill’s marvellous memoir, see this earlier post.

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A known unknown in the past future of publishing

February 7, 2011

In the 1970s the independent book publisher André Deutsch sold 40% of his eponymous company to Time-Life. Diana Athill, who edited for André Deutsch, wrote a wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life in which she described the experience as odd and comic: “They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove André mad.”

Athill recalls an early meeting that purported to establish the mutual benefits of the deal. Puzzled by the corporation’s apparent altruism, she asked what was in it for them.

After a fractional pause, a gentle blast of pure waffle submerged the question, and I was left believing what in fact I continued to believe: that they didn’t know. Shrewd predatory calculations might be underlying all this, but it seemed unlikely. ‘Can it be,’ I asked André after the meeting, ‘that they are just silly?’ To which he answered crisply: ‘Yes.’ I think he had already started to wonder what on earth he was doing, but couldn’t see how to back out of it.

Despite their lack of interference, Time-Life naturally expected progress reports, every so often asking André Deutsch for details about, say, their publishing plans for the next five years. But given the unpredictable, even chaotic nature of independent book publishing – and maybe especially given the nature of the firm being asked, and of its owner – this request was also seen as a bit daft.

At a party in New York, Athill met the person who functioned as the link between the two companies, and she inferred that Time-Life just wanted some figures to satisfy their accounts people: the figures didn’t even have to make sense. Relaying this insight to André made him “even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information.” How then to respond? Athill quotes from accountant Philip Tammer’s letter to Time-Life:

What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.

I don’t know what Philip Tammer looks like – Athill describes him as “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had” – but I can imagine his expression of consummate deadpan as he composed this reply. Ask a silly question…

Deutsch was, to his relief and delight, able to buy the shares back a couple of years after selling them. He talked about the experience, and a good deal more, in an interview with Naim Attallah.