Faber & Faber 80

One of the world’s most distinguished publishing houses this year celebrates its 80th anniversary. Jane Coyle looks back on the days when she worked as an editorial assistant in the company co-founded by TS Eliot

Many moons ago, on a sunny summer afternoon, I sat nervously on a wooden bench in a leafy London square, while, in the building behind me, a softly-spoken elderly man pondered my fate.

TS EliotHe was Alan Pringle, one of the city’s most highly respected editors and a director of the publishing firm of Faber & Faber. I was a raw young graduate, armed only with a degree in English and French, a couple of certificates in bi-lingual secretarial skills and a passionate desire to join the staff of this distinguished publishing house, established by Geoffrey Faber and the great American poet TS Eliot.

This year, Faber celebrates its 80th anniversary and the literary supplements are awash with fond reminiscences and personal anecdotes from the days when its headquarters in Russell Square and, later, Queen Square, was at the very heart of literary London.

The company logo of the double lower case letter ‘f’, precipitated the nickname ‘the effers’ for Faber staff members. But, as poet Seamus Heaney recently pointed out in a tribute in the Times newspaper, there was another ‘f’ word with which we all came to identify. 'Over the years,' Heaney wrote, 'I myself have had a strong sense of a family.'

There certainly were plenty of family connections – poet Walter de la Mare and directors Richard and Giles de la Mare; husband and wife poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; writer George Ewart Evans and his son Matthew (now Baron Evans of Temple Guiting), managing director, then chairman of Faber; and, of course, Eliot and his secretary Valerie Fletcher, whom he married in 1957 and who now, at the age of 82, controls his literary estate.

But what Heaney was hinting at is a more subtle, long lasting phenomenon – that once you are received inside the Faber fold, you join an extended family to whom you will be connected for life.

I, of course, had no sense of any of this as I sat in the sunshine, waiting to be summoned back inside 3 Queen Square to be advised of Mr Pringle’s decision.

The thing was, this had suddenly become not just a case of a penniless graduate grabbing a job - any job - in the sought-after world of publishing. During my interview, I had learned that Pringle’s main author, on whom he lavished most attention and tender loving care, was none other than my own literary hero, Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet and other memorable titles. The prospect was almost overwhelming and during my interminable wait, I muttered every prayer known to man and beast that the job would be mine.

In the quiet cool of his neat office, Pringle peered at me over his half-moon glasses. A man of few but always well chosen words, he shook my hot, sticky hand and said, 'I’d be delighted if you’d join us'.

I came to adore this meticulous, sometimes crotchety, intellectually demanding, but terribly kind man, Seamus Heaneyfrom whom I learned so much about writing, grammar and the necessity of finding exactly the right word for a given sentence.

We would spend hours debating whether curtain hooks would clatter or jangle along a rail? It would, of course, depend on whether they were made of wood or metal. Then again, if they were of plastic, they might rattle … and so it would go on. That was the degree of rigour to which he submitted every manuscript that passed through his hands – and how his writers appreciated it.

In Faber terms, to be ‘pringled’ was a rare privilege. It signified that you had passed through the hands of this great editor and come out the other side cloned in his exacting image. All these years later, I confess that the effects of being ‘pringled’ stay with you always.

One never knew who would pass through those famous revolving glass doors. One day, a colleague in the editorial department asked me to bring up from reception a young poet, whose work was causing quite a stir. 'Charles is awfully keen on him,' she said. 'He comes from somewhere in Ireland. You’ll easily spot him. He’s the one with the scruffy hair.'

‘Charles’ was her boss - Charles Monteith, Faber’s legendary poetry director and a towering literary figure with family connections in Northern Ireland. Sitting in the reception area was none other than Seamus Heaney, whose third collection, Wintering Out, had been published a few months previously. In the lift he chatted away in his familiar friendly manner, while attempting to tidy his ‘scruffy hair’ and make a hasty adjustment to the toggles of his duffel coat.

Heaney is one of an extensive roll-call of Northern Irish writers on the Faber list, which includes Samuel Beckett, Paul Muldoon, Louis McNeice, Marie Heaney and illustrator PJ Lynch, as well as, from the south, novelist John McGahern and up-and-coming names like Peter Murphy and Claire Kilroy. And a fellow staff member was one Henry Slane, whose easy charm and quirky eccentricities gave little clue to the fact that before too long he would inherit Slane Castle and become the Earl of Mountcharles.

When a new novel from Durrell was in the offing, a palpable sense of anticipation would hang in the air until the customary large brown envelope arrived from the South of France, addressed in bold felt-tipped pen in Larry’s distinctive hand. I still occasionally wake at night in a panic at the recollection of having left one of those precious typewritten manuscripts on the Tube and of dashing frantically between stops to retrieve it. If it had not been found, I doubt very much that I would still be alive today.

WH AudenIn the autumn of 1973, the poet WH Auden died suddenly and the literary world descended on Faber to share its grief. He had been due to give a reading in London with Heaney, Hughes and his great friend Stephen Spender. After much discussion, the event went ahead in dramatic fashion, with the three poets seated on a darkened stage and an empty spotlit chair beside them.

One of my greatest personal regrets is that I didn’t hang onto a handwritten note I received from Auden. For the princely sum of an extra £50 a year, I looked after our writers’ mail, which allowed me glimpses into their private comings and goings, their family lives and love affairs. Auden had written to tell me that he would be away from his home in Austria for a few weeks and that until further notice I should forward mail to his Oxford address.

I recorded the instruction and binned the note. Next day he was dead. You can never anticipate these things, but imagine how it would feel today to be in possession of, possibly, the last thing Auden ever wrote.

Happy 80th birthday, F&F. Thanks for the memories and the lasting friendships.