Is he a monster, saint, genius or lunatic? In this massive book Naim Attallah attempts to lay to rest the gossip, slander and misconceptions that have dogged him for much of his life, while also coming clean about his own mistakes and failures.
I have to declare an interest. I was, in the 1980s, one of ‘Naim’s girls’; I am very fond of him indeed, and for several years my father, Auberon Waugh, edited the magazine he once owned, the Literary Review. ‘Naim’s girls’ were a part of London’s social scene and provided Private Eye with one of many reasons to mock ‘Naim Attallah-Disgusting’. We were young, pretty, had ‘names’ and we loved parties. We were not paid very much but we certainly enjoyed ourselves. Other girls included Rebecca Fraser, Nigella Lawson, Virginia Bonham-Carter and Bella Pollen (whom Naim backed in a fashion business). He claims that he employed us to counteract Quartet’s left-wing reputation, which may have been true, but it was no secret that he also wanted to surround himself with beauty. Not only was he a publisher, party-giver and financial director of Aspreys, he was also a film producer (the deeply romantic The Slipper and the Rose) and a theatrical angel (Clive James’s shockingly bad Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Way to the Throne).
The book opens with a dizzying list of people he knew. Princess Margaret, Kenneth More and President Bhutto appear within a few pages. Then he begins to address the serious side. We see the small boy who started out with a hand-stencilled broadsheet in Palestine and who grew up to be one of the most controversial publishers in London.
Quartet’s titles varied from Chastity in Focus (a ‘celebration of Janet Reger’) to Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Palestinians. Naim later moved from soft focus to hard-edged erotic photography with the publication of Jungle Fever, featuring Grace Jones caged, with teeth bared, ready to attack. Along with the Arab list and of course The Joy of Sex, there was also a jazz list. While the sisterhood spat with rage over the photographic books, Attallah launched the Women’s Press. Was it possible that this enemy of womanhood was also a champion of the feminist movement?
And what of this book’s title? One of Attallah’s great qualities is his capacity for enthusiasm, a word used repeatedly by himself and his ‘contributors’. At my first interview he won me with his energy and warmth. He even persuaded me that I would find ‘the new Gray-ham Greene’ in the slush pile. But his enthusiasm has sometimes worked against him. Another ex-‘Naim girl’ said to me recently, ‘He is just such an innocent, and in the end people take advantage of him.’ And betrayal is indeed a key theme of this book. Every time someone turns against him, one feels his hurt, sensing that he doesn’t just want one to believe or understand him, but to love him.
The rows are explained in microscopic detail. The first was with Dr Anne Smith, a former editor of the Literary Review. The chief impression we are left with is that the literary establishment is as petty and tiresome as any other. But this is small fry compared to the betrayals that follow.
The greatest literary betrayal was Jennifer Erdal’s. In my day she was Jenny Bradshaw, in charge of the Russian list, a quiet woman who occasionally appeared from Scotland with a faintly disapproving face. She became a close collaborator with Naim in his own literary output — and just how close became the matter of argument. After 20 years she wrote Ghosting, a thinly disguised portrait of Naim, claiming to have written every word of his books. ‘The word “regret” has never had a place in my vocabulary, yet it is the only word to use on this single sad occasion,’ he writes.
I would never dispute the fact that the finished books were realised through her writing … Her version … can only suggest a large measure of ill-will towards me, in spite of the many years of our friendship and close working relationship … A vow had been broken, and this in my view completes my intellectual liberation from what regrettably turned out to be an ungodly alliance.
Perhaps an even greater betrayal was when Aspreys — which he had rescued — edged him out after 21 years of work and close friendship with the family. This was a cowardly act, going against every tenet of loyalty that Naim holds so dear.
For he is loyal, and that quality should engender loyalty in return. My father loved him for his continued support of the Literary Review and the Academy Club. Theirs was perhaps a surprising friendship, but it was genuine. And Naim’s ‘girls’ (middle-aged women now, looking wistfully back to a life of self-indulgence) are also loyal to him.
The book is perhaps too long, but, as ever with Naim, his energy bowls one breathlessly along.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 23, 2007