Wolf among sheep


Tom Maschler <em>Picador, 294pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0330484206

Thirty years ago, when publishers were still regarded as newsworthy, the most glamorous of them all was Tom Maschler, the whizz-kid who turned Jonathan Cape into London's trendiest literary publisher. Tall, dark and endowed with lupine good looks, an advocate of open-necked shirts and corduroy jackets rather than the usual publisher's uniform of chalk-stripe or tweed, he brought to the imprint authors as diverse as Len Deighton, John Lennon, Bruce Chatwin, Roald Dahl and Doris Lessing. Envied, admired and resented in equal measure, he possessed an extraordinary charisma, so much so, that - as one journalist noted - the room would stiffen instantly when he arrived at a publishing party, as though a wolf had been let loose in a flock of sheep.

The only child of a German-Jewish publisher, Maschler was born in 1933, and arrived in Britain five years later. Like most of the best publishers, he started at the bottom, relying on "hunch" or intuition rather than on academic qualifications. After turning down a place at Oxford, he dabbled in films and the travel business before taking a job with the shrewd but penny-pinching Andre Deutsch. Moving on to MacGibbon & Kee, he made his mark by editing Declarations, a collection of essays by such Angry Young Men as Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson and Colin Wilson. He then spent two years enlivening the comatose Penguin fiction list before moving to Cape in 1960 - much to the irritation of Penguin's director, Allen Lane, who saw him as his heir apparent.

Founded nearly 40 years earlier, Cape had established itself as the most elegant and distinguished of literary publishers, but had run out of energy and ideas by the 1950s. While on his first trip to New York - where he bought the British rights to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 - Maschler learned that Allen Lane was planning to buy Cape on the understanding that his former protege be removed. Much to Maschler's gratitude, George Wren Howard, one of the firm's two founders, stood by him: Lane was seen off, and Maschler was free to revive Cape's fortunes. Such bestsellers as Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape and the egregious Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (not mentioned in these memoirs) funded a poetry list and the early novels of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. John Fowles and Kurt Vonnegut coexisted with a line in lavishly illustrated children's books.

One of the many photographs in Maschler's book shows him wearing a T-shirt that describes him as "the world's greatest publisher". Yet, for all his brilliance, this is (or was, given that he has been a part-time practitioner for the past decade at least) an over-inflated claim. In this country alone, Allen Lane, Paul Hamlyn and Walter Neurath of Thames & Hudson were more innovative figures, who changed the ways books were published and sold. As a talent-spotter, Maschler was no match for magazine editors and part-time publishers such as Alan Ross and John Lehmann. An impresario and publicist quite out of the ordinary, his gifts were more flamboyant and more ephemeral: he combined stylishness and flair with a unique ability to persuade booksellers, literary agents, literary editors and the world at large that most of his geese were swans, and that the Cape colophon was synonymous with excitement and distinction.

Alas, Publisher is a fearful warning about the inadvisability of publishers attempting their memoirs. The early years are oddly touching; Maschler's account of how Cape was eventually sold to Random House will interest those in the trade; and he vividly evokes the full horrors of dealing with Lauren Bacall. But his descriptions of his authors are of little critical or anecdotal interest, and reveal him as a curiously unsophisticated figure, easily bruised and displaying many of the qualities of the star-struck groupie. Like all successful publishers, he was adept at picking other people's brains, yet his colleagues at Cape get short shrift; he tells us little about the workings of the trade, or how it has changed in his lifetime. Few publishers are remembered after their working lives are over: Maschler should be celebrated for the books he published rather than for what he has to say about them.

Jeremy Lewis's Penguin Special: the life and times of Allen Lane will be published by Viking in May

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, To save Africa we must listen to it