Publishing gamekeeper who turned poetic poacher
Biteback Publishing, £25 Reviewed by Hester Abrams
JEREMY ROBSON ought to be exhausted. Having stepped down from running publishing houses only to write his memoir and bring out two new volumes of poetry, he surely deserves a quiet life. Yet this memoir, subtitled A Poet’s Life in Publishing, reveals a man so gregarious it’s clear that retiring is not his style.
I know how sociable he is, since I have been to a few Robson book launches over the years. Pretty starstudded they would be, too, with actors and politicians of a certain era, many of whom became his lifelong friends. Wine and laughter would flow, no matter who the author was — and latterly it was Robson himself.
So I picked up this “Anecdotal Memoir” with amused expectation. People Poet and publisher — and pugilist: Robson with his author Muhammad Ali
said he had so many stories to tell, he must write them one day — much as he had persuaded the Goons, Alan Coren, Maureen Lipman, Joan Collins, Barbara Cartland and more, to put their experiences, sketches, even lists, between
covers. (Michael Caine’s Not Many People Know That, and Cricket’s Strangest Matches rank among Robson’s bestsellers, along with Evelyn Rose’s Complete International Jewish Cookbook.) Milligan and Peter Sellers, patients of Robson’s doctor father.
Though the book is about these people, it’s autobiography. Robson keeps himself centre-stage, demonstrating his own maxim that “the art of good editing… means having a good ear together with a large dose of humility”.
He is reverential, but not excessively. “I came to know three Michael Winners,” he writes. “One rude, one very rude, and one impossible.”
Much is very funny, with the hero barely believing his luck, whether things go to plan or appallingly wrong: Muhammad Ali was quixotic and generous, but failed to appear for his own book launch. Uri Geller and Shmuley Boteach were having an event for their book when Michael Jackson rocked up, nearly causing a riot.
Robson began on Fleet Street’s TitBits, then worked his way to Aldus Books under the terrifying-sounding Viennese refugee maverick Wolfgang Foges, where his big break was David Ben-Gurion’s opus The Jews in Their Land. Back then, publishers could follow their passion and authors were not “products”, he laments.
The revelation for me is in the parallel account of a half-century of poetry writing and performance. Robson launched hundreds of live poetry and jazz concerts with his friend Dannie Abse and stellar casts of the likes of Laurie Lee, Ted Hughes and Michael Garrick. These gave him promoting experience and his own voice.
Like one long party, it was enjoyable but I felt before the end I’d perhaps had one too many stories. As for Robson, I have a feeling he’s still going strong out there, composing poems and making friends, while a band plays on.
He had so many stories to tell, he had to write them
Hester Abrams is a former director of Jewish Book Week