The Quartet Years Georgia de Chamberet BB Archive

bookblast pickles the quartet years cover bookblast

The Quartet Years was first published in Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995 by Naim Attallah (2007).

Gael Elton Mayo & The Magnum Photographic Group

gael mayo robert capa magnum bookblast

My mother, Gael Elton Mayo, the novelist, painter and ‘Girl Friday’ for Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Seymour at Magnum Photographers in its early years, was introduced decades later to Naim Attallah by Patrick Seale. Quartet Books published her autobiography, The Mad Mosaic, which sold unexpectedly well and was reprinted, leading to the later publication of her account of surviving cancer for twenty years, Living With Beelzebub.

Quartet was avant-garde, innovative and independent, rather like Canongate today. I was going nowhere fast after leaving university, so was sent by my mother to see Naim Attallah in his plush Poland Street offices. He hired me to work with Quartet’s production director, Gary Grant.

Avant-garde independent publishing in the 1990s

So one Autumn day in 1987, I turned up at 27 Goodge Street, a Dickensian building in London’s West End. I was greeted at the head of the stairs by an intriguing and enigmatic individual, who disappeared into a small office piled high with books and manuscripts, making a remark as he did so about the bars on his office window and the Birdman of Alcatraz. This was Quartet’s editorial director, Stephen Pickles. His office on the first floor was at the back of the building, next to Gary’s and mine at the front, overlooking Goodge Street.

Charlotte Rampling, With Compliments, Quartet Books 1987
Charlotte Rampling, With Compliments, Quartet Books 1987

Quartet had a good reputation for publishing lavish, high-quality art and photography books and Gary was an expert at overseeing such projects, when not in the pub across the road. Production was not really my thing, so I began to do occasional odd jobs for Pickles, which rather annoyed Gary. Initially I made telephone calls to Charlotte Rampling, Lothar Schirmer and Joanna Richardson.

Editors in the building at the time were Linda Brandon, Zelfa Hourani (responsible for the Middle East and Africa list) and Alethea Savile on the top floor ; with Chris Parker (whose passion was Jazz) and Julian Bourne (the son of the notoriously eccentric Eton classics Professor, who had retired), alongside copy-editor Rosemary Graham on the second floor. Zina Sabbagh and Eliza Pakenham were to join Quartet’s editorial department later.

Pickles: genius of the blue pencil

When I changed jobs, Pickles became my boss. He was a tough but inspirational teacher, and a perfectionist when it came to editing. I will never forget the brilliant blue-pencil job he did in just a few hours one afternoon on the manuscript of George Hayim’s memoir, Thou Shalt Not Uncover Thy Mother’s Nakedness. He had a phenomenal, internationalist vision of where he wanted to take the Quartet list. Over the years we worked to develop the Quartet Encounters paperback series of twentieth century European classics — publishing Aharon Appelfeld, Giorgio Bassani, Hermann Broch, E. M. Cioran, Stig Dagerman, Heimito von Doderer, Julien Green, Pierre Klossowski, Ismaïl Kadaré, Miroslav Krleža, Arnŏst Lustig, Osip Mandelstam, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fernando Pessoa, Fyodor Sologub, Abram Tertz, Boris Vian — which brought great intellectual kudos to the company. Pickles also championed the publication of translations of works by important authors largely unknown to the English-reading public — notably Thomas Bernhard, Per Olov Enquist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Annie Ernaux, Ernst Jünger, Eduardo Galeano, Hervé Guibert, Juan Goytisolo, Witold Gombrowicz, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Yves Navarre, Juan Carlos Onetti, Giorgio and Nicola Pressburger, Pascal Quignard — which attracted the attention and the praise of leading British and American critics of the day. A connoisseur of opera and classical music, Pickles also published biographies of grandiose figures such as Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler. I was particularly involved with translations from French as I am bilingual. In 1992, James Kirkup’s translation of Jean Baptiste-Niel’s Painted Shadows won the Scott Moncrieff Prize and that year also we won the Independent Award for Foreign Fiction with The Death Of Napoleon by Simon Leys (later made into a film starring Ian Holm).

Pickles was divinely charming, handsome and witty — and fiercely protective of his privacy. His wickedly funny book, Queens, published in 1984 by Quartet, featured a photo of him on the cover as a wildly handsome young man. I remember a bleak period when Pickles lost friends to AIDS. Derek Jarman came to visit once or twice; he had incredibly clear, electric blue eyes, and was beautiful and gaunt like an effigy on a tomb. Pickles was a Soho man, and a regular at the Coach and Horses pub, immortalised in the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

Quartet Books Sales Department

Those of us in No. 27 Goodge Street were teased as being ‘serious’ by those in No. 29 next door, where it was Party Central. David Elliott was the Main Man when it came to sales and marketing, and Jubby Ingrams his Queen Bee. Mischievous and sexy, she had a gamine quality, and most of the men at Quartet worshipped her, (especially Cockney musician, Louis Vause, in sales). Invariably the weekend would kick off on Friday afternoons with gossip and hilarity in sales and marketing. Various PR ladies sashayed in and out of No. 29 Goodge Street over the years — tough cookie Anna Groundwater (envied by all for getting hold of the company’s gold credit card), ‘It’ girls Lucy Blackburn, Anna Pasternak and Nina Train, clever Daisy Waugh, sultry Emily Berens, glamorously eccentric Selina Blow, gorgeous Tamara von Schenk, babelicious Susie Craigie-Halkett — I do not remember all of them. Olive, an older and rather formidable, straight-talking Scottish woman in charge of accounts, kept a sharp eye on everyone from her second floor vantage point, accompanied by her terrifying rottweiler called Jake.

Quartet’s book launches have become legendary for their glamour and star quality, attracting media razzmatazz and column inches of gossip. Different worlds collided, affording a unique and glitzy contrast to the usual, predictable crowd that pitched up at regular publishing industry launches, that were drab affairs done on the cheap at which the best on offer was peanuts and a glass of lukewarm, acidic white wine.

Anthony Blond: Jew Made in England

blond's roman emperors bookblastTowards the end of my time at Quartet, I became managing and commissioning editor of an English-language paperback list, Robin Clark. We reprinted Lesley Blanch, Steven Berkoff, Alethea Hayter, Robert Hichens, W. W. Jacobs (a new collection of his stories, selected and introduced by Peter Ford), Emanuel Litvinoff and W. M. Thackeray’s Book of Snobs. I also began to find success with authors like Daniel Pennac, Annie Ernaux and Tahar Ben Jelloun; and a young Black British author S. I. Martin, published on Quartet’s general list; and with Peter Bush’s anthology of Cuban stories The Voice Of The Turtle (later published in the US by Morgan Entrekin’s Grove Press). At this time Anthony Blond, a once great publisher down on his luck, joined the company to establish his own imprint under the Quartet umbrella. I helped out on certain titles and with his own book, Blond’s Roman Emperors. He was shambolic and fun, and boozy lunches in Soho became a feature. Being at Frankfurt Book Fair with Blond was quite an experience. His autobiography Jew Made in England (2004) was described by the Daily Mail as being: “A rake’s progress by one of publishing’s great eccentrics…richly entertaining…delightfully unstuffy…plenty of juicy gossip.”

The Quartet Years: a bittersweet finale

Although Blond and Pickles got on well together on one level, there was an underlying undercurrent of competitive, bitchy tension. This was fuelled by the vicious, almost feudal, nature of Quartet’s office politics, with various head-honchos scurrying and vying for favour with the Big Boss Attallah. Pretty much from the beginning of my time at Quartet, I decided to keep out of the way and out of the firing line, which worked well for me until the knives of change came out in Goodge Street — of which I was naïvely unaware until too late, by which time Blond was long gone, Pickles had been dispatched, and I was next. In-house accusations, and an article in The Bookseller implying that the editorial director’s policy of publishing translations was the cause of all the company’s growing financial problems, rankled.

Naim Attallah gave a great many people that crucial first break. During my time at Quartet both my parents died, and I will always remember his kindness. He showed positivity and encouragement when, in February 1997, I founded my own ‘small is beautiful’ company, BookBlast Ltd.

Originally published in Naim Attallah’s autobiography Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995 (Quartet Books, May 2007). Naim Attallah was awarded a CBE in the 2017 New Year Honours list.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.