Memories: The Charms and Follies of a Lifetime’s Publishing

Naim Attallah

Quartet Books, £15

It is perhaps fair to say that beyond the incestuous world of books Naim Attallah is not a household name.

To the publishing trade, however, with its long tradition of eccentrics, dreamers, delusionists, idealists, egomaniacs and impresarios, he is sui generis. The cover of his latest volume of autobiography – there are two previous ones – is typical of this human peacock. Here he is draped in a kaftan that could have been made from charity shop remnants by Kirstie Allsopp for the pilot of her crafting programme. Apparently, the person responsible for this fright is one Tomasz Starzewski, who ought to have insisted on anonymity.

In the dying decades of the last millennium Attallah featured frequently in gossip columns and was routinely lampooned by Private Eye which described him as “the swarthy Lebanese sex-fiend Naim Attullah-Disgusting”. The excuse for this inaccurate swatch of reporting – he was born in Palestine, not Lebanon – was the launch of a book, published by Quartet, one of Attallah’s several imprints, titled Chameleon: or How To Be The Ideal Woman. Its author, Melissa Sadoff, wife of a press baron, advised women that if they wanted to keep their husbands sweet they must learn to suck their toes, which seems to me extreme.

Memories is so replete with such happenings that at times I began to think it might be a spoof. Not only did Attallah found Quartet, he also bankrolled The Literary Review and The Oldie for many years. Situated in Soho, the headquarters of these concerns were notable for the number of young women employed there, many of whom were engaged without even a cursory glance at their CV. What Attallah was looking for – and he makes no bones about it – were thoroughbred fillies with shapely legs, gleaming teeth, lustrous manes and firm rumps. An ability to read and write was not de rigueur but could come in handy.

Numerous former employees are called upon to testify to Attallah’s eye for talent. Among those he took under his wing were Nigella Lawson, Emma Soames, Kathy O’Shaughnessy and Rebecca Fraser. All of them, it seems, were willing members of “Naim’s Harem”, though there is no suggestion of what the Eye called “Ugandan discussions”. In light of this it comes as little surprise to learn that there was a Mrs Attallah, owner of an emporium called Aphrodisia.

This, then, is the London demi-monde at its most louche. Flitting through these pages are the likes of Auberon Waugh, Billy Connolly, the Bee Gees, Paula Yates, Lord Lambton, Leni Riefenstahl and Dame Margot Fonteyn for whom “sex had been her driving force”. One way of getting to know such luminaries better was to publish books by or about them. Seeing “divine” Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, Attallah commissioned a coffee table tome in her honour. “I, for one, had never recovered from the sight of her straddling Dirk Bogarde, and the image remained in my mind like an old sepia photograph.” Virtually the only woman who did not have this effect on him was Angela Carter, whose reputation among “the metropolitan elite” he finds inexplicable. “To her credit,” he concedes, “she never tried to seduce me. Perhaps she found me lacking in that department.”

Amidst the heavy breathing and Bacchanalia, Attallah’s “Namara empire” produced much good work, including Julian Barnes’ debut novel, Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor and Shah of Shahs and, from The Women’s Press – another of his imprints – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Sub-editing, however, was not a Quartet forte, and it still isn’t, as mentions of Salmon [sic] Rushdie and the Cray Brothers [double sic] demonstrate. All in all, rather fishy.