Lewd but likeable: the key to Naim Attallah
02 May 2007
A mighty slab of autobiography, self-adoring, self-promoting and self-published, has just appeared in the bookshops. It will sell few copies – nearly 800 name-dropping pages about the life of a moderately successful businessman is not an obvious bestseller – but it will receive pages of publicity in the press. The British media has a peculiarly soft spot for its author Naim Attallah, the Palestinian businessman who for a couple of decades supported small but worthwhile publishing enterprises (The Literary Review, The Oldie, Quartet Books) employed some good-looking Sloane Rangers and held good parties.
The progress of Attallah through the Britain of Thatcher and Blair provides an instructive little parable of influence. Everything about his career would seem to guarantee that he would be regarded with some suspicion and yet that he has always known what the British media establishment liked, and how far he could go.
Under normal circumstances, a man who made no secret of employing attractive young girls from smart, high-profile families – “Darling, you’re pretty, come work for me” was apparently his favoured approach – might be seen as dodgy or faintly pitiable. Yet not only was this somewhat old-fashioned approach to employment successful – The Literary Review and Quartet were like finishing-schools for well-connected girls who wanted to get into the media – but it was generally rather admired.
At a time when sexist comedians were being banished from the screens and a new mood of gender appropriateness was afoot, Attallah boasted of his pretty employees, published books of upmarket sexual content and even wrote a massive book of interviews with eminent women. He was said to be one of those men who just happened to like women. There was nothing wrong with that, was there?
Much later it was revealed that Attallah’s own literary output was not quite as it seemed. In fact, it was claimed that books and articles written over a 15-year period, which included two novels, had in fact been ghosted by an employee Jenny Erdagh.
A literary man who was said to have faked his writing, a millionaire who used his money to employ posh totty: one might reasonably assume that the satirists and moralists of the press would be rubbing their hands with glee at such an obvious and tempting target. In fact, Attallah is treated with some affection. His former employees speak well of him. His memoirs are respectfully reviewed. In Private Eye, which normally takes a dim view of this kind of stuff, he is gently ribbed rather than lacerated.
Perhaps it is because Attallah has played the media so well down the years. He provided excellent parties; gave employment to the daughters of the influential. His support of a loss-making literary magazine, rightly seen as saintly and generous, also provided a useful platform now and then for posh amateur critics to contribute the occasional review.
So, while guests at Attallah’s social events might have smiled knowingly to one another at their host’s vulgar over-enthusiasm, they were aware they were lucky to be there and that they were mixing, thanks to Naim, with some of the most influential people in London. The fact that he was foreign actually helped. The English like their sacred monsters to be exotic and larger than life, and only turn on them – think of Robert Maxwell or Mohamed al-Fayed – when they are perceived as having gone too far.
In its way, the story of Naim Attallah is rather inspiring, even if its hero can sometimes seem like the literary world’s version of Dick Emery – saucy, funny but essentially innocent. Ooh, he is awful… but they like him.
Reinventing Whitehouse is a scandal
There is something faintly alarming about the news that Julie Walters is to play the part of Mrs Mary Whitehouse, the scourge of liberal values during the Sixties and Seventies, in a BBC docudrama called Filth. Ominously, the producer has said that the story of Mrs Whitehouse’s campaign of family values, religious nagging and attempted censorship is “surprising and often very funny”. All the signs are that Julie Walters will be in whacky, warm-hearted mode, presenting the ghastly woman as a cross between Mrs Overall of Acorn Antiques and Dame Edna Everage.
In fact, it was not particularly difficult at that time to get the English clucking self-righteously in favour of banning anything new with which they disagreed. Whitehouse was not an amiable eccentric, but a bully and a force for disapproval and division. We should be laughing at her, not with her.
* It is perhaps time to admit that the interest in fame of many people is now so odd and intense that it could best be compared to some kind of religious ecstasy.
Interviews with the poor, over-excited saps who thronged eagerly outside a shop where clothes with Kate Moss’s name on the label were to be launched, suggested a state of emotion akin to that of villagers in a remote part of Italy who believe that their local statue of the Madonna is weeping tears of blood.
The semi-riot outside the shop in Oxford Street was not over clothes, but was about proximity to fame. Just as thousands of people once bought a novel published under the name of – but not written by – Naomi Campbell, so it is with Kate’s adoring disciples. By wearing a T-shirt with her name on the label, they feel closer to her, almost as if a tiny shard of her glamour and fame were theirs alone. It is creepy, this obsessiveness, and it will end in tears.