Legends in their own lunchtime

The literary world lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died in April. I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me “Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns”. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.

Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. It was an industry lubricated with alcohol. At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at  L’Etoile on Charlotte Street, the Garrick Club or the Groucho Club in Soho.

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Writer, editor and luncher Jeremy Lewis

Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions with no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published. The industry began to change in the 90s. The ending of the ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon. Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot was setting in as early as the 1980s. He told me:

“I proposed to Gail (Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century) that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started. I even offered to pay – but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”

I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture when I started in publishing in the early 00s. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It seems like a long time ago now.

In the 80s publishers began to merge into corporations. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI – key performance indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’ – a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book. It’s what Jeremy Lewis refers to as the “Perrier Culture. “

You have to be sober to deal with all that.  One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk averse though when sales are often so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data that showed in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies, now it’s 263. No wonder publishers are so cagey about  releasing figures. The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) told me: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.

The market has become polarised between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harpercollins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of midlist, nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.” Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.

There are still some larger than life personalities stalking the corridors of publishing houses, however. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and for literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author.  Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.

Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had woeful figures.

As the publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys: Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for company like mine.” He was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favour of leaving the European Union.

Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, everyone reads. The heads are usually from a publishing background rather than outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma. That hasn’t changed” Philip Gwyn Jones told me. And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy.  Me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer. Now, there’s an industry that still knows how to lunch.

This is a version of something I wrote for a website called Heat Street which has now disappeared. You can read something of its rather tortured genesis here.


In praise of of the long lunch

If any man deserved the epithet, a legend in his own lunchtime, it was Keith Waterhouse. You probably remember him for his plays Billy Liar, made into a film with Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell but his lunching exploits are equally worth celebrating. His work day consisted of rising at 6am, reading all the papers, writing his Daily Mail column followed by lunch that went on until the evening. He wrote a non-fiction work, The Theory and the Practice of Lunch

“Whether they know it or not, for as long as they linger in the restaurant they are having an affair. The affair is lunch.”

His 1988 novel Our Song about a middle-aged man and his infatuation with a younger woman, revolves around lunch. The nascent affair takes place in the sort of wine bars and trattorias that London used to be full of. The kind of place where one orders a third bottle and a quick lunch lurches into an early supper and things are said that cannot be taken back. It’s hard to imagine their affair taking place in Terroirs over a glass of orange wine from Georgia. I thought it would be interesting to take a trip down the Charing Cross Road to see how the old school wine bars are faring against the new competition. For clarity I have given them marks out of ten for food, wine and how much Keith Waterhouse would have liked them.

Le Beaujolais, 25 Litchfield Street, London, WC2H 9NJ

‘Ahhhh Beaujolais, that sounds like the place for me. I’ll engage the owner in a conversation about Jules Chauvet and the Gang of Five’. Don’t! It’s not that kind of place. Most of the list is negociant wine, strong on Beaujolais (obviously) but also the Loire. There are some generics and, for as long as I’ve been going, the wine of the week has always been Picpoul-de-Pinet. So why do I like this place so much? Well the food is quite nice, well-kept cheeses and basic Boeuf Bourgignon, but mainly because it’s a really jolly place that has more in common with a pub than a restaurant. If you stay here for more than one drink, you will end up talking to the staff or the table next to you.

Food 6 wine 6 Keith Waterhouse 8.

Gordon’s, 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE

Simultaneously wonderful and dreadful, it’s a terrible tourist trap and always rammed and yet the novelty of drinking in a cobweb-infested dungeon never palls for me. The by-the-bottle wine list is uninspiring; more interesting are the rustic sherries and madeiras from the cask. The food is pub lunch, ploughmans and the like and perfectly decent. Oh and be warned, the darkness makes it a haven for thieves.

Food 4 Wine 3 Keith Waterhouse 1 (he’d never go somewhere this touristy)

The Cork and Bottle, 44-46 Cranbourn St, London WC2H 7AN

Now here’s a wine list put together by an enthusiast. They’re particularly strong on Australia which chimes with the 80s feel of the place; one half expects Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden to pop up from behind the counter wielding outrageous similes. It’s not cheap but if you’re with a few friends then you can do some serious exploring. And the food? I’ve eaten here many times and it’s never been less than awful. Particularly revolting is their famous raised cheese and ham pie.

Food 2 Wine 8 Keith Waterhouse 6

El Vino, 47 Fleet Street London EC4Y 1BJ

Like Keith himself, an old Fleet Street legend. It’s not as lively as it once was as all the journalists have been replaced by lawyers from the nearby Inns of Court but it retains a certain louche feel. The pies are excellent though the chefs deep-frying skills had gone awry on my last visit. The wine list majors on old Bordeaux vintages for the lawyers and for journalists there’s a good Savigny-les-Beaune from Philippe Girard by the half bottle and a delicious Australian Verdelho by the glass.

Food 5 (7 if you just order a pie) Wine 7 Keith Waterhouse 10

Vats, 51 Lambs Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB

Were it not for the decent Rioja section, notably Contino Reserva, then this would win the award for dullest wine list in London. The food isn’t great either. The thing that saves it is the room, which manages to simultaneously airy and cosy, and the clientele, there always seems to be a middle-aged man trying to break up with his secretary at the next table.

Food 3 wine 2 Keith Waterhouse 9 (I imagine Our Song was actually set here)

I hope I haven’t seemed too harsh. I love these places especially Beaujolais and glad that they still exist but the quality of the food and wine comes second to the company. I imagine that this is just how Keith Waterhouse would have wanted it.

I am writing a history of Britain told through alcohol called Empire of Booze. You can order an advance copy here

This originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s excellent website which is invaluable tool for wine bluffers like me.