Saturday, 10 July 2010

Colin Haycraft

Until a couple of days ago, I knew almost nothing about Colin Haycraft, except that he was the horrid man who upset Penelope Fitzgerald with a flip comment. What happened is described (at least from her point of view) in the hurt letter she sent him after she moved away from his publishing house, Duckworth, to Collins:

"Dear Colin,
I'm terribly distressed at having done the wrong thing and caused trouble when I meant to remove it. That is, I'd thought the most helpful thing to do would be to take myself off without making a fuss. You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn't want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad endings on your hands, and I thought, well, he's getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don't at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.
I would have liked to stay, because I'm not the sort of person who ever has any money anyway, and I admire the firm so much and then you were always so clever and funny that everyone else seemed exceedingly slow by comparison. However having made this mistake, and I'd rather be taken for an idiot than a liar, I'll be careful to make it clear that it was my mistake, which is what you want, I think.
I told Collins that I wouldn't give them an option on non-fiction just in case you were still interested in the LPH biography, -by the time I get the necessary permissions for that I expect you'll have forgotten my various errors and misunderstandings so it would be worth asking you again -
best wishes

(how is that for a master class in passive agression, by the way [that's me speaking, not Penelope Fitzgerald]?)

Then, when Beryl Bainbridge died a week or two ago, I saw that Haycraft came in for more bad press, this time via AN Wilson's obituary of Bainbridge, which devoted itself almost entirely to sticking the boot into Haycraft and his wife (making me wonder, inevitably, whether they had at some point rejected Wilson's own offerings [many of which I like]):

"Colin Haycraft and his wife, Anna (who wrote as Alice Thomas Ellis), made the mistake of patronising Beryl and believing that the various masks she wore – the timid-little-girl Beryl who was totally lacking in social confidence; the illiterate scouser who could not spell and needed editorial help to finish a sentence; the Gin Lane slag who keeled over at parties – were "real".The Haycrafts liked to suggest that they were an essential part of the Beryl Bainbridge production line. Anna, herself the author of novellas with a cult following, claimed that she was the one who somehow crafted Beryl's raw material. Colin, snooty about fiction, as about much else, said that novels belonged to the "distaff side of the business". But he was perfectly happy to pocket the profits from Beryl's novels – the only commercially successful books he ever published. She saw almost none of this money and it was a dark day when – Duckworth being in trouble – Haycraft came and asked Beryl to sign over her house. For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines – and that spelled the end of Beryl's association with Duckworth.
Here is perhaps not the best place to air Beryl's complicated relationship with the Haycrafts, who were both, in their different ways, monsters. She love-hated them both. In her morphine-induced trance in hospital last week, she imagined that she was dancing with Colin through a crowd of Hollywood film stars.
I felt that Colin's distaste for fiction had a bad effect on her work. Skilful as some of her historical reconstructions are – such as The Birthday Boys, about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition – I never felt they drew on such deep wells as the self-projections, such as her Liverpool-rep novel, An Awfully Big Adventure. That book, made into a superb film with Alan Rickman, was really a masterpiece.
In her fiction, and in her life, Beryl liked the role of the wronged woman. Stella, the would-be actress, who is seduced in An Awfully Big Adventure, wants to tell all to her mother. But the only way she gets to hear her mother's voice is by dialling the Speaking Clock, which her mother professionally reads. ("'There was this man who seduced me.' 'The time,' mother intoned, 'is 6.45 and 40 seconds precisely.' 'It wasn't my fault,' Stella shouted, 'I'll know how to behave next time. I'm learning.'")While the Haycrafts thought they were manipulating Beryl – Anna by supposedly improving her novels, Colin by playing the Sir Jasper role of total cad – some of their friends could see the dynamics of the infernal trio working very differently. Beryl was not short of men who fell in love with her."

Leaving aside the fact that AN Wilson's claims do not appear to be borne out by this or this or this (in fact, the last of those three argues that, far from being, as Wilson suggests, limited to writing historical reconstructions by Haycraft, Bainbridge felt restrained from writing her greatest novel of that kind until after his death), what interested me most about Wilson's obituary, in as far as it concerned Haycraft, was the revelation - to me at least - that it was he who had been responsible for publishing Bainbridge in the first place. That meant, I realised, that it was Haycraft who gave three of my favourite recent novelists - Bainbridge; the wonderful Fitzgerald (a nice appreciation of her and one of her less good novels here); and Haycraft's own wife, Alice Thomas Ellis - the opportunity to be published.

(Of that trio, to go off at a tangent for a moment, the least known nowadays is Alice Thomas Ellis. Her books are not as magnificent as the best of Bainbridge's and Fitzgerald's, but they are still often pretty entertaining. For instance, I've just dug out Pillars of Gold by Ellis and immediately found a couple of passages that make me laugh. In the first, the book's main character is assaulted by absurd [but, to me, not completely unfamiliar] media-induced anxieties as she tries to decide what is the best thing to do with some courgettes she is cooking for her daughter:

"... if she immersed them in water, their vitamin C content would dissipate. She could cook them now and reheat them, but that, she believed, would be deleterious to their nutritional value: it would perhaps be best to entrap them, with their vitamins and trace minerals, in a china bowl enveloped in clingfilm in the coolness of the fridge, taking care that the film did not touch them lest some cancer-inducing chemical should migrate from the one to the other.
Next she considered the potatoes: in the past she had always cooked them in their skins, but recently it had been suggested that potato skins, if not carcinogenic, were yet harmful to the system, perforating the bowel or preventing it from absorbing the vital vitamins. She scraped them carefully and put them in a steel pan ... Scarlet had thrown away all her old aluminium pans since she had learned that they might cause Alzheimer's disease ... The chicken, which she next drew from the fridge, had, so the label proclaimed, ranged freely over a district of France before being hygienically and humanely slaughtered and packed. It somehow gave the impression that the fowl had led such a delightful and pleasurable existence that it was a positive act of virtue to eat it."

In the second, the trials of this woman continue, as she tries to engage with her teenage daughter:

"Do I look all right?" asked Scarlet. She was wearing what she considered to be an ageless garment - a hip-length coat of black watered taffeta; the shoulders were rather too narrow and too sharply defined to be precisely fashionable, but the material was of most superior quality. Underneath this she wore black cotton trousers - ideally these should have been made of silk, but she felt sure no one would notice.
"You look wonderful," said Camille without raising her eyes from the television set. She had eaten her supper" [which included the pristine courgettes, I think] "and was beginning to feel hungry again.
'No, really,' said Scarlet.
Camille fell to her knees from the sofa and gave her mother's leg a patronizing pat. 'You've got a sweet little face,' she said. Scarlet, though not reassured by her words, was touched by her gesture until she saw that Camille was merely reaching for the crisp packet and had patted her in passing.
'Do these shoes go with these trousers?' she asked.
'Yes,' said Camille, her fingers deep in the crispbag.
'You didn't look,' said Scarlet. 'Are they too old-fashioned?'
'No,' said Camille. Scarlet gave up. Only a few years before, Camille had been acutely conerned about her mother's appearance, sometimes refusing to be seen with her in public, but now it seemed that she no longer minded: she had expropriated from Scarlet's wardrobe those few articles that she felt would suit herself and had thereafter left her mother to her own devices. It gave Scarlet the impression that she had grown very old and from now on might just as well go round in her shroud.")

As well as providing us with the pleasure of Bainbridge, Fitzgerald and Ellis's writing, Haycraft also argued in defence of the short novel (apparently, he wrote something called 'a satire' on the subject for the Times Literary Supplement, but, as it was well before the advent of the internet, I can find no trace of it). I support that view, not because I don't enjoy Dickens or George Eliot or Tolstoy, but because I think the lengthy novels that are published nowadays are rarely up to the standard of their predecessors. Nowadays they are often really just sloppily edited - or completely unedited - short novels (there's a slim volume lurking inside every fat volume, or something like that). My impression is that few of today's writers - especially the really popular female ones - emulate the writing habits of Beryl Bainbridge, as described by Lynn Barber:
"It is here that she walls herself in for the four months it takes her to produce a novel, chain-smoking, never leaving except to sleep and collect the odd takeaway, writing draft after draft then cutting, cutting, till not one sentence, one phrase, one word is redundant. For every page of print, she will have written at least 12 pages of draft and then compressed it to the bare bones."
What is more the kind of editor Barber herself ended up working with at Penthouse, according to her memoir 'An Education' -

"Harry ... had this obsession with redundancy. He could find extraneous paragraphs in any page and would merrily run his black fountain pen through them all. ... 'Can't print waffle,' he would say ... My ambition was one day to write an article from which Harry would be unable to delete a single word. But there, you see, I've already failed. 'What do you mean single word?' he would bark. 'As opposed to what? A hyphenated word?' -

no longer exists, (which is a pity as Harry sounds like my kind of guy).

Haycraft also gave Jonathan Coe his first break, which I think is excellent (I don't love everything that Coe writes, but I usually at least quite enjoy it, and I certainly regard him as pleasingly unslick, with a much more original voice, less driven by concerns of fashion and the desire to please a small coterie of London friends than, say, Ian McEwan). He lent a helping hand to the creator of the Bash Street Boys, as well, which is a good thing in my book. He helped a writer I've never heard of called Eva Hanagan, (and if he thought she was good enough to publish, I think she's worth at least looking for on Abebooks,) and I'll bet there are dozens more I don't know about.

Given all this, (but in light most especially of Haycraft's willingness to publish a variety of witty women's writing that is either no longer being written - which seems unlikely - or, since his disappearance, no longer has any outlet), it seems to me that the man has been given a pretty rough ride. He was clearly sometimes insensitive (possibly thanks to the wonders of a good dinner and a bit too much wine [and who hasn't sometimes in those circumstances been careless once in a while -regretting it at three o'clock in the morning when it's too late and the die is already cast]), but even so I am grateful to him for giving me some of my most pleasurable reading hours.

So hurray for Haycraft - he deserves much more credit than blame. The kind of fiction he published - tightly written, harshly pruned, spare but humorous writing which managed to be both serious and entertaining, light without being silly, and which left quite a lot to the reader's imagination - is virtually impossible to find nowadays, and I miss it. Possibly there was never much of a market for it, of course, given the financial state Haycraft left Duckworth's in. I wouldn't know. After all I have never managed to progress beyond the first sentence of Twilight, one of the most successful novels the world, the universe, infinity, has ever seen. In case you haven't read it, it goes like this:

"My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down."

I mean, I ask you -who has ever been to an airport where you can open the windows, let alone roll them down?


  1. I read that bit of typical Wilsonian venom (not that I don't like him) and wondered too. Thank you for providing a fascinating insight. I have to disagree about J Coe though. He's too much of a political axe-grinder to be really enjoyable, I find.

  2. only read one coe book (rotters club) and it was rubbish :/

  3. Gaw - I've never noticed his politics, which is probably an embarrassing admission, demonstrating my clod-like reading skills
    Worm - I remember reading it very quickly and finding it entertaining, which is probably further evidence of above.

  4. This has introduced me to a literary world I never knew, except as vague names. I am enlightened beyond measure. And I now know that I will never read a Twilight novel. Thank you for both favours.

  5. Madame - Glad to be of service. If you have not read Penelope Fitzgerald yet, The Bookshop is a good one to begin with (mind you, the book club I used to belong to were given The Beginning of Spring, also by Fitzgerald, and every member except me and one other hated it, so apologies if you fall into the hating camp.)

  6. Oh thanks for pointing me to this. I see you are a woman after my own heart: "tightly written, harshly pruned, spare but humorous writing which managed to be both serious and entertaining, light without being silly, and which left quite a lot to the reader's imagination" is just what I like. I haven't read those authors you mention though I do have a Fitzgerald in my pile waiting time to read it. I've itched to read it, in fact, but other things keep getting in the way.

    You might like to see an old post I wrote on SPARE. Clearly I should have read some of your authors before writing it, but anyhow you might be interested:

  7. Stone the crows, what you have missed.