Death of a bookman: the rise and fall of a publisher
In the drab early 1950s, Philip Dosse launched the first of a series of arts magazines which swiftly became a byword for critical excellence
“Books and Bookmen” covers from January and February 1980, when Sally Emerson was editor. “I am very pleased with Jan 80 b and b cover design. Congrats!” wrote Philip Dosse
On Tuesday August 24, 1980 I arrived a few minutes late at the office in Victoria where I edited Books and Bookmen. As I entered I glimpsed our proprietor Philip Dosse hurrying away down a corridor, his cherubic face quite white. I settled down to the task of working out the costs of the last issue of the literary magazine. My assistant came in: “Don’t you know? It’s closed. All of Hansom Book publishing. All seven arts magazines. All folded.”
I looked up in astonishment. Philip came in.
“Oh — didn’t you know?” he said as he collapsed in the chair. “It’s all over. It’s all in such a mess. None of you will be paid. There’s no money.” His head hung down. “I wish I were dead.”
I put my arm around him and kissed him.
“Oh thank you dear.”
For the previous few months, whenever a firm went bust or a death occurred, Philip used to come and sit in the room with Gillian Greenwood, the assistant editor, and me. He had given me my first job back in 1971 at £12 a week, including writing gossip and interviewing some of the great writers, before I went up to university, and in doing so had shaped my life. Back in 1971 Hansom Books had been a wild and brilliant place, something of a gay ghetto though I had been too innocent to realise that when men referred to their lovers as “she” that’s not what they were.
During these visits in the months leading up to the debacle of late August and early September 1980 the mercurial Philip would never say anything of consequence, merely making comments like, “The weather’s not getting any cooler.” Sometimes he’d just put his head round the corner of our door, and make a pronouncement about the dust from the building opposite us in Old Pye Street which was being knocked down, such as “The dust cloud’s getting nearer.”
And now the dust cloud had well and truly arrived.
But there had been other portents. In the previous months he had grown more shabby. His flies had been too often undone, his suit jacket torn. Yet he must have been trying to hold himself together because he had slimmed down ruthlessly on grapefruit and eggs and not much else.
This was the man who for nearly 30 years, from the early 1950s, had created and reigned over a prestigious and professional stable of arts magazines — Dance and Dancers, Films and Filming, Plays and Players, Music and Musicians, Records and Recording, Art and Artists and what became the flagship, Books and Bookmen — without Arts Council or any other grants. Foyles used to send out copies of Books and Bookmen to their best customers in a green cover and call it “Foylibra”. The magazines were influential, successful and highly respected in the UK and abroad.
Philip was now 56 years old. Proud, eccentric, gay, secretive, volatile, he had set up the first magazine Dance and Dancers in 1950 when still only in his twenties with £100 of his savings. It started on an amateurish, shoestring basis but quickly acquired editorial polish and a circulation of 30,000.
Before that Philip had worked as the postal manager on the Greyhound Standard in Fleet Street. The ballet critic Richard Buckle would sweep through our subterranean offices in Artillery Mansions (now luxury flats, of course) in a white suit. “Dicky Buckle is coming!” someone in the editorial offices would say and we would all put our heads down as he breezed through accompanied by the puckish figure of Philip. Were they lovers? We never knew. Was his married business manager Tony a lover or just a business friend and supporter? Tony’s wife Olive also worked for Hansom Books. Certainly in these wilder days there were stories of a fireman from the local fire station having to hide in the wardrobe of Philip’s office when a taxman made an impromptu visit. The local firemen in Greycoat Place were a source of great excitement at Hansom Books. I never heard of Philip going to the ballet, however. For someone who ran seven arts magazines, he had remarkably little interest in the arts.
He was an ordinary-looking man with grey hair and slightly bulging eyes, who hated any kind of publicity for himself; in his later years he pretended to be the postroom manager when visitors called. In the conventional 1950s and afterwards he built up a modern company where people worked the hours they needed to, from where they needed to, at the times they wanted to, more like the work patterns of now than then. Tom Sutcliffe, editor of Films and Filming, which started in 1955 (and was for a while the financial powerhouse of the company because of the stills of half-clothed, well-built young men), used to work at night, while the editor of Dance and Dancers, Peter Williams, usually worked from his home in Eaton Square. One editor arrived late in the morning then spent at least an hour on the phone recounting his adventures on Hampstead Heath the night before (“Yes, he was wearing antlers again”). Most of us came and left when we needed to.
Before the reform of the law on homosexuality in 1967, the ability to work in such an open place made it something of a sanctuary, though there were heterosexuals there too. When after university I worked briefly at the Illustrated London News I was shocked by the mind-rotting dullness of normal office life. I soon returned to Hansom Books as assistant editor of Plays and Players, started in 1953, in spite of a large pay drop. And I began to write my first novel, Second Sight, which was to be published to great acclaim that tragic week in September 1980. It was the best of times and the worst.
A “Plays and Players” cover from 1977, when Sally Emerson was its assistant editor, and a “Books and Bookmen” cover from 1980, when she was editor
Philip’s ambition was to create superb arts magazines, which he did. They were printed on good-quality glossy paper and designed for a large international audience. They were created with confidence, and to last. This was a time when the art of criticism was important, and the finest critics wrote for them. Newspapers had fewer pages for the arts than they do now. Philip noted gaps in the market and filled them with magazine after magazine. The last to be founded was Art and Artists, in 1966.
He liked the excitement of magazine publishing and ruled by terror and secrecy. When I first worked there he was monstrous, a Nero of a boss. Everyone feared the call to the office and the sacking or admonishing. There were no unions, and nobody ever talked about what they were paid. It was a high- wire act. But eventually a union was formed and salaries stabilised, though Philip still spent nothing on himself. He even put a saucepan of water on his gas pilot light at night so in the morning it would be slightly heated for his cup of tea. As he became more detached after the death of his beloved mother in the late 1970s and began to leave the office to help in a local newsagent’s, his glorious reign of terror began to end. He was clearly hiding from rising debts.
I loved Philip for his modesty, and his sadness, and his kindness to me, in particular the evening soon after I arrived to work for him and Books and Bookmen. I had done a secretarial course to make sure I could earn money while pursing my career as a writer (I dreamt of publishing a novel). He was delighted by this, thinking he had a bargain employing this agreeable young woman, about to go up to Oxford, who could help with his letters as well as with sub-editing and writing. One evening early on he asked me to write an important letter. I sat alone in the cheerless office after the others had left and banged away at the old typewriter. But when I got to the end of the page a weariness came over me and I did not want to get out another piece of paper with carbon paper underneath. Surely it would be OK just to write the last short paragraph up the side of the sheet, rather than waste more paper? I did so and took it into Philip. He didn’t yell at me like he yelled at other people. A look of great sadness came over him, he signed it, pushed it across his desk, and never asked me to type a boring letter again. From then on I could interview Borges when he was in town, interview William Gerhardie, go and see Olivia Manning. I was only just out of school and the world was all mine. He gave it to me.
When I eventually became editor, every morning when I turned up at my cramped office, with its dusty grey windows, there would be a pile of white notes pinned on a spike in front of me, notes he had scribbled that morning or the night before. “From the page proofs I have read so far the June b and b looks like being our best ever!” “I am very pleased with Jan 80 b and b cover design. Congrats!” “Very many congratulations on the Oct b and b — the best I think we have ever published; though to judge by what’s to come you will do us even better. On from the Daimler to the Rolls, one might say, and from me very many thanks.”
On June 12 in the year the empire crashed, Foyles held a luncheon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Books and Bookmen. The Bishop of London said: “It is the most interesting and brilliant of all publications of which I have any knowledge.” So that was nice. The bishop drew attention to its skills in employing writers who were “masters of the art of vituperation”. I talked a little about its history, beginning in 1955 when it only cost one shilling and sixpence. I recalled that in its first issue Doris Lessing wrote about a fresh-faced Kingsley Amis, who had just won the Somerset Maugham prize for his first novel Lucky Jim. Philip had been very proud of this occasion and all the illustrious guests, but had wanted me up there taking the glory, and no mention of himself.
His apparent shyness didn’t stop him courting literary and political celebrities. He kept up correspondences with Graham Greene, Harold Acton and many other luminaries of the period. His father had been a chef on the royal train, he told me, and he was illegitimate. He even had a correspondence with Prince Charles.
When I was in Florence I visited Harold Acton but had my new baby with me, and asked if I could bring her. “But what would I do with a baby?” he asked. We had lunch at his home, Villa La Pietra, without her, the butler and waiter emerging from behind a screen in the dining-room. I think he was a little disappointed I was a young woman in a white flowing dress and not the grande dame he had expected.
Philip took me with him to lunches and dinners like a daughter. At a lunch on Wednesday September 27, 1978, in London with Oswald Mosley, Diana Mosley and the Duchess of Devonshire, Mosley insisted he had never been anti-Semitic. No one wanted an argument. He had a purple face and a strange bald dome of a head. As we spoke builders banged on the roof above and I remember thinking that this was an end of an era I had never known. Diana and Debo recounted that they had been visiting a friend who’d bought a “charming” modern house in Chelsea. The woman had said as she showed them proudly around, “What I can’t understand, though, is why there’s no bell from the dining-room to the kitchen.”
“The game’s up!” Diana laughed.
Back in our office that afternoon the large, august figure of the philosopher Anthony Quinton, then President of Trinity College, Oxford, paid a visit. He was visibly startled by the cramped room overlooking Old Pye Street and the youth of
myself and Gilly, the assistant editor. He put his foot in our metal waste-paper basket by mistake and began to topple over.
“So sorry there’s no room to put your feet,” I apologised as I caught him. He never again delivered his copy by hand.
Hansom Books Ltd was incorporated as a private company on October 29, 1948. On March 31, 1969 it was registered as an unlimited company. The gross liabilities known to the Official Receiver when it folded amounted to £197,805, made up of 134 trade and expense creditors and advance subscriptions. But there had been reasonable years, with turnover in 1979, for instance, of nearly half a million pounds. This was not bad for a group of small arts magazines but the situation was financially precarious. I administered our budget for the magazine on the basis of need. The more well-known figures, who were therefore usually wealthier, received little or nothing. For the August 1978 issue, Harold Acton was not paid at all, J.K. Galbraith £30, and the historian Philip Mansel £35 because he was younger. Everyone from Elizabeth Longford to the young Richard Holmes wanted to write for the magazine, and usually negotiated ruthlessly on length (wanting as much space as possible) rather than fees. The magazine gave writers good billing. In November 1973, for instance, there were more than 50 names listed on the front cover with the subject of their reviews. From March 1973, the magazine included a fiery long piece by Auberon Waugh, alone worth the cover price.
Philip liked to keep the circulation and revenue figures secret, but shortly before he died he admitted that all seven magazines together were now only selling 45,000 copies. He had just 16,000 subscribers, which gave him an annual cash float of £95,000, but with the rise of the cost of paper, printing and distribution, the magazines were ceasing to be economic. As well as being a secretive man, he was a proud one, and did not ask for help. Our 25th anniversary issue was halted at the printers on August 27.
As far as I know, Philip didn’t talk to anyone about the financial problems which were building up — the dust cloud getting closer — about selling the papers, or getting the subscriptions and distribution sorted out. He only spoke about his plans for sacking people, like the good old days. His longstanding plan to sack the editor of Art and Artists gave him great glee. He used to ponder these machinations late into the night after he had a few Special Brews. It was as though changing the personnel was the answer.
That first night, after he had revealed he was bankrupt, he called me up full of hope and very grateful, though that turned out to be misplaced. Immediately after he had sunk into the chair and revealed that “It’s all over”, I had started to phone round. I called Gary Bogard, who published the Tatler, edited by my friend Tina Brown, Alexander Chancellor, who edited the Spectator, and Alan Coren, the editor of Punch, who was immediately enthusiastic and said he’d phone Philip back in an hour. It soon looked as if United Newspapers might well be interested. I spoke to the Standard and the Guardian, which both ran stories the next day. Alan Coren was quoted as saying, “We are interested in buying, if it is possible to do so at an economic rate and if we can help the magazines, which we admire very much, with our own distribution network.” The Sunday Telegraph wrote about Books and Bookmen’s “dazzlingly diverse” list of contributors, from Enoch Powell to Tariq Ali.
Left: Sally Emerson in 1980. Right, Philip Dosse: Eccentric, brilliant, he hated publicity for himself
But after I put down the phone to Philip that night I wondered if he actually knew what he was doing. He appeared to be so efficient and to know what was going on, but I began to worry more.
Oh, the desperation of those next two long weeks — the frantic stare in his eyes, the pale, still slightly cherubic face, the way his conversation was disappearing, the way towards the end he couldn’t say anything without seeking confirmation from someone else — the eyes in a panic until someone else met them.
I remember the last time I saw him he was sitting and talking with Tony and Olive on Friday September 7 and I asked what was going on and showed him a nice letter from Collins, the publishers.
“Negotiations are going on. But we’re just . . . waiting.” And the three of them sat round the room like characters in a play, and the ridges were deep down the sides of his face and his skin was tinged with yellow. The moving pageant of Hansom Books had ended up like that. That day a piece was published in the New Statesman by Christopher Hitchens mocking Philip, calling him Dosser. Alex Hamilton had also written a piece about him in the Guardian on September 6, and referred to the debt. For a private man like Philip, this would have been hard to bear.
On Saturday, September 8, about two weeks after he first told us the bad news, I was telephoned by Olive. In a quavery voice she said. “I’ve got some bad news.”
“Oh no,” I said, immediately knowing. “Oh dear. Oh dear. I can’t bear it.”
“He’s committed suicide?” I asked.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” I heard myself say again.
She tried to clear her throat and get the words out.
“When he left last night I asked if I could help, and he just said, ‘I have to learn to be on my own’.”
Christina Foyle was one of the few who came to the funeral in Golders Green, among the red brick and leaves turning russet, and I always remember how the tears ran down her face. When I got home that night I played Jim Morrison’s “Summer’s almost gone”, with its rawness, anger and danger, and grieved for the loss of Philip Dosse, one of the most eccentric and brilliant of magazine publishers.