On meeting a grand old bookman

It was a glorious autumn day when I set out from the Endpaper office, strewn with the detritus of the literary life – old copies of theLondon Review of Books, invitations to launch parties, scraps of half-completed poems – and headed southwards towards Sussex. My quest was for nothing less than for a glimpse of the past, an encounter with a legendary figure from publishing’s golden age. I was to meet Sir Julian Farquhar, creator of the famous house of Farquahar and Velch, chairman of the Society of Bookmen 1963-75 and widely regarded as one of the last great publishers of the old school.

Books have been good to Sir Julian. Although his family were comfortably off, allowing him to live off a private income while working for Walter Hutchinson in the 1930s, he was later able to acquire an Elizabethan manor to which he retired and where we now meet in a walled rose-garden.

“Marvellous spot, this.” Sir Julian extends a shaky hand in the general direction of the orchard. “Full of bookish history. Dickens had lunch here. Henry James and HG Wells liked to arm-wrestle in the orangery. Leonard Woolf met Virginia Bell at a party here and planted a bower to commemorate the occasion. Now and then Vita Sackville-West would pop over from Sissinghurst and pleach Virginia’s hornbeams at the end of the garden.”

I asked Sir Julian what had first attracted him to literature.

“Literature?” For a moment, the old man looks confused. “Books, you mean. Well, you got a nice sort of person in publishing in those days – there was nothing too clever or strenuous about it. At first, I used to think that reading was important but soon I realized that fretting over words, commas, descriptions and all that malarkey had nothing to do with the books business. The true publisher looks at the big picture.”

I wondered how he was able to decide what authors to publish.

‘Smell. Weight. Instinct. When a manuscript came in, I sniffed at it, saw how it felt in my hand. Then, if my publishing intuition was telling me there was money here, I would give to a girl – they’re terribly good at reading, you know. I’d find out if the author was in need of money. If he was, I’d give him a few bob and told him to sugar off.”

Presumably there would have been royalties now and then.

“Royalties?” Sir Julian frowned. “Now don’t tell me, I’m sure I know what those are. Nope, sorry, I give up.”

Rather than get bogged down in technicalities, I turned to the moment in 1959 when the young Julian Farquhar met a young Ukrainian called Gyorgy Velch, who had arrived in London with 2/6 and library ticket in his pocket and a dream of becoming a publisher in his heart.

“It was a perfect fit, Velch and me. He was a workaholic, I made my best decisions in bed. He loved books, I couldn’t for the life of me see the point of them. I had a bit of family cash that was looking for a home, and he knew how to spend it.”

Farquhar and Velch became a renowned publishing house over two decades until they were bought up by a conglomerate in the 1980s. I wondered if, looking back on that golden age, he could explain why he was so successful as a publisher.

“There’s a simple formula which the young pups of today seem to have forgotten. One, have an attractive girl in reception – preferably one who can speak the Queen’s English and is prepared to look after the boss after work once or twice a week. Two, put a disappointed middle-aged woman in a cupboard on the second floor and let her do all the work. Three, keep your authors slightly hungry, like a lurcher before a day’s coursing . And finally, never let your salesmen out of the basement.”

The basement?

“It’s absolutely essential to keep Sales away from the light. As soon as you give them an office with a window, they’ll soon be expressing opinions, answering back, perhaps even asking if they can read a book. Once that happens, the balance which is so critical to a good house is lost.”

It seemed a good moment to ask Sir Julian is he can see any other reasons why publishing’s golden age made way to something rather greyer.

“Too many staff for a start. When he was in a bad mood, Velch used to get into the old lift at our offices. If there were several people there, he would fire a couple of them on the spot – fat people from the art department were particularly vulnerable. Then there’s the scourge of what we used to call “trade rats”. Agents, I believe are called now.”

“That seems a bit harsh, Sir Julian,” I murmured.

He smiled nostalgically. “Whenever one was spotted at the bar, one of us would shout ‘Cave rattum!’ and we’d scrag the little agent, de-bag him and tie him to the dining-room table where members would beat him with celery sticks. Unfortunately word got out and we were inundated with agents begging to join the club. Funny bunch.”

I asked Sir Julian how he spent his time these days.

“I visit my library every day – it’s a sort of ritual for me. I stand close to the shelves and breathe deeply. There’s nothing quite like the smell of unopened books, is there? It takes me back to the way publishing used to be in a simpler, more innocent age. I can feel quite emotional sometimes..”

Evening is closing in and, leaving the last of the great bookmen to his memories, I return to the bustling vulgarity of the modern world.

Autumn 2005