Chapter and verse on a poet’s life in publishing
Muhammad Ali, The Goons, Michael Winner... as Jeremy Robson's walk down memoir lane reveals, he knew them all
23 November, 2018 — By By Dan Carrier
Muhammad Ali with Jeremy and his wife Carole in their Hampstead living room
MUHAMMAD Ali perched on the sofa at his Hampstead home. An Israeli spy revealed how he helped win the Six Day War. Joan Collins whispered secrets. Alan Coren cracked jokes. Maureen Lipman gossiped. Poets shared their thoughts and visions, and Michael Winner made a scene: publisher Jeremy Robson has seen much – and now describes such moments in his new memoirs, which cover the life and times of a man intrinsically involved in London’s literary scene from the 1960s to the present day.
We learn Jeremy was working at the publishers Vallentine Mitchell in the early 1970s when in strolled a man from Israel representing Wolfgang Lotz, a master spy who had worked deep under cover in Egypt during the 1960s.
“His story was extraordinary,” recalls Jeremy. “Jewish, German by birth and an expert horseman, Lotz had adopted the cover of a wealthy German horse breeder, opening a riding school and mixing in the upper echelons of Egyptian society.”
His Egyptian friends believed Lotz was an ex-SS officer hiding from a violent past of war crimes, his cover helped by leading an extravagant life in Germany prior to moving to Egypt – part of the Israeli ploy to build up his credentials. His information helped the Israeli air force pinpoint air bases that they attacked during the Six Day War in 1967, a significant moment in Middle East history. The result of Lotz’s work was a book called The Champagne Spy – another bestseller.
We hear of a north London childhood and how, before publishing, Jeremy had studied law. He found work at chambers in Lincoln’s Inn so boring it made him ill.
He turned to writing poetry, became Tribune’s poetry critic and immersed himself in a literary life, working as a editor at various firms before setting up his own imprint.
Jeremy Robson with Goons Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan and Prince Charles
In 1961, Jeremy hosted a poetry and jazz gig at the Hampstead Town Hall. He enlisted Adrian Mitchell, Dannie Abse, Spike Milligan, Lydia Pasternak Slater – the sister of Boris – and Pete Brown.
He recalls how the response was astonishing: “The Town Hall was completely sold out, there were long queues and people were fighting to get in.”
But Spike nearly didn’t make it – he called to say he wasn’t feeling well. “Looking back, I am convinced he’d just had a fit of nerves, having seen all the publicity and never having read his poems in public before,” adds Jeremy.
The success saw Jeremy take the event to the Royal Festival Hall, adding Laurie Lee to the bill, and he became a poetry and jazz impresario.
Jeremy worked for publishing legend Wolfgang Foges at Aldus Books, and his description of Foges is a masterclass of characterisation.
Foges was the son of a Viennese obstetrician. He had set up his first glossy magazine in the 1920s and finally left in 1937, heading to London. Using continental-style publishing – heavily illustrated with integrated text – he made his mark with innovative topics and styles.
He started Aldus in 1960 and among his authors were Carl Jung, Louis MacNeice, Bertrand Russell, JB Priestley and Compton Mackenzie – an esteemed rota.
“Where Foges was concerned, everything had to be of the highest quality: writing, production, editorial and pictorial content, and no expense spared,” recalls Jeremy.
Such asides are the bread and butter of Jeremy’s enchanting memoir. The book conjures up a world that is disappearing – many of those he worked with and published have died, but they are names that live on. We have Ernst Gombrich and AJP Taylor waiting to meet pianist Alfred Brendel. We hear how he got to know Muhammad Ali – Jeremy published books on boxing, including the biography of Jack “Kid” Berg, the Whitechapel Windmill.
In 1991, he secured Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, written with Ali’s co-operation. Ali would come to the UK and Jeremy ferried him from one signing to another. Ted Hughes and Al Alvarez pop up, as does Seamus Heaney, who asked Jeremy to excuse his “atrocious typing” and added if the poems he had sent in “weren’t up to scratch, he would send more.” They were, of course, very much up to scratch, he adds.
Harry Secombe and Dannie Abse
He talks of hanging out with Harry Secombe – Robson Press published the Goon Show scripts – while Michael Winner earns a chapter to himself. Jeremy published his acerbic Sunday Times food columns.
“I came to know three Michael Winners: one rude, one very rude and one impossible,” he says, before regaling us with a greatest hits of Winner’s horrendous behaviour, and then how sometimes his nastiness would fall.
Winner was offered an OBE, and refused it on the grounds “it was the kind of award given to those who cleaned toilets well at King’s Cross station”.
But he also goes on to add that the uproar over his awful remarks prompted him to invite a Jamaican cleaner and her daughter to lunch at his house and when he discovered the daughter had never been to Jamaica, he paid for them both to have a fortnight’s holiday there.
He bills his book as an “anecdotal memoir”, and from the pages comes alive a life of jazz, poetry and rubbing shoulders with persons of interest. It feels like being invited to a dinner party of the great and the good whose courses were served over decades.
• Under Cover – A Poet’s Life in Publishing. By Jeremy Robson, Biteback, £25