Giving up the ghost

The millionaire author and publisher Naim Attallah was rattled by accusations that he didn't write his own books. John Walsh hears his side of the story
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Naim Attallah wears eccentricity like bankers wear braces - not because he has to, but in order to stand out from the crowd. From his mismatched socks (one blue, one red) to the dressing-gown overcoat he wears en route to lunch, from the glass-shattering squeak to which his voice rises in indignation, to the constant finger-prods on your arm that accompany his conversation, he's a man who'd stand out at the annual meeting of the Eccentrics Club. Two minutes in his company, though, and (provided you're not obviously hostile) you're enlisted as a friend for life, pummelled with gossipand droll stories from his empire of eclectic projects.

Naim Attallah wears eccentricity like bankers wear braces - not because he has to, but in order to stand out from the crowd. From his mismatched socks (one blue, one red) to the dressing-gown overcoat he wears en route to lunch, from the glass-shattering squeak to which his voice rises in indignation, to the constant finger-prods on your arm that accompany his conversation, he's a man who'd stand out at the annual meeting of the Eccentrics Club. Two minutes in his company, though, and (provided you're not obviously hostile) you're enlisted as a friend for life, pummelled with gossipand droll stories from his empire of eclectic projects.

He seemed to be everywhere in the 1980s and 1990s, his fingers in a hundred pies, his gangly frame a reliable presence at launch parties and theatre openings. As the publisher of Quartet Books, which he bought in 1976, he was a leading Palestinian polemicist and a godfather-figure to a generation of clever young Englishwomen. He was chief executive of Aspreys, the Queen's jewellers, and chairman of the Namara Group, which owned several arty and glamorous things (such as the Literary Review and The Women's Press), none of which seemed to make any money. He was a compulsive "angel" - a risk-taking backer - of plays, movies and fashion collections, apparently heedless as to whether he recouped his investment. He seemed too good to be true.The press yelped with frustration as they tried to establish three things. Where did he come from? How the hell did he make all his money? And what devilish secret agenda was he pursuing in the heart of the English establishment?

Attallah was back in the news last year, a little uncomfortably, when his former employee, Jennie Erdal, brought out Ghosting, a "fictional memoir" of her 17 years working for a publisher called "Tiger" who produced several books under his name, despite the fact that she had, she said, written them. Erdal had been Attallah's assistant for years, and reviewers jumped to the conclusion that Ghosting was a factual account. Attallah's response was to get writing in earnest. By Christmas he had published The Old Ladies of Nazareth, a slim fable of boyhood that turns out to be a first book of autobiography. And by the end of February he will finish The Boy in England, laying bare his years in blue-collar penury; it's due for publication at the end of April, three days before his 74th birthday. But will it come clean about his hazy past? And is he a real writer or a charlatan?

Mounting the steep staircase at his office in Shepherd Market, in central London, you find Attallah seated in a kind of shrine to his glory days. The walls are lined with photographs of parties, first nights, celebrity bashes, photos of Naim with girls on his arm, snapshots of society beauties and fashion divas. His parties were the stuff of instant legend. The launch of his 1,200-page Women, a record of his conversations with 318 high-profile Englishwomen, took place at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where a tall Amazon, naked except for white body-paint, wobbled on a plinth like a statue.

But away from the parties, a whiff of controversy hung over Attallah's decision to bring out several books explicitly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. "I had to do it," he says. "I thought, enough is enough, the poor Palestinians are being bashed right, left and centre, I must try to redress the balance." Tongues wagged that he was a PLO mole in the soft meadow of English publishing. And then there was the business of the harem...

It wasn't a real seraglio, with sex, milk baths and ostrich feathers, but it had some exotic girls all right. "Naim's Harem" was the title given by newspaper gossips to the astonishing slew of aristocratic twentysomethings who went to work for Quartet in the 1980s: Nigella Lawson was one of his most prominent employees, but he also drew Lulu Guinness, Emma Soames, Cosima Fry, Sabrina Guinness - their name is legion. Had Naim been attempting some sneaky infiltration of the British aristocracy, via its foxy offspring? "Don't be ridiculous," says Attallah. "I never mixed with aristocrats at all. But the first secretary I had was the Hon Davina Woodhouse, one of Princess Margaret's ladies-in-waiting. And every time we needed to employ a girl, she'd say, 'I have a friend we could ask...' and the friend would know another friend - and suddenly we were the It Publisher."

He speaks of the girls today with fond, mentorly pride: "Look at these names. They're all in the limelight. They all achieved greatness." Probably the only employee whose celebrity he now regrets is Jennie Erdal. "I never thought in a million years she would do what she did," he says, voice rising alarmingly. "She said, 'I want to immortalise you.' I said I didn't want to be immortalised. She said it was going to be 'a fictional memoir'. I said, 'You can do what you like provided you're careful about what you write.' She sent me chapters one and two and said, 'Don't worry, it'll be an affectionate portrait of you' - then I saw an extract in a magazine. I was horrified. She wrote to me after the book was published, saying, 'You are larger than life, what are you getting so upset about?'."

He shakes his head. He is more distressed by his former assistant's disloyalty than by the blow to his reputation. "You can say anything you like about me but I value loyalty above everything else. For her to betray my trust is something I cannot fathom." About the accusations of ghosting, he says, "It was a genuine collaboration. If I am an assistant to Tony Blair, and he says, 'Here, answer Lord so-and-so and say there is no vacancy for such-and-such a job', am I ghosting for Blair?" He is particularly stung by the implication that his famous interviews were not his own work. "Yes, she researched them, for which she got half the credit and half the money. But you know how interviews work, how you depart from the set questions if things are going off at interesting tangents?" Indeed, many of his 400 interviews contain startling moments - as when he asked the seraphically homosexual Harold Acton if he had ever held a naked woman in his arms (yes, actually, Acton confessed - a young Chinese girl, with a completely hairless body). Attallah blithely wound up some of his subjects. He accused the Irish MP Conor Cruise O'Brien of being "a stooge of the British government". He accused Laurens van der Post of embroidering his gruelling adventures in the desert, long before he was unmasked by JDF Jones's biography.

Did he embark on his autobiography in response to those who said he couldn't write? "Subconsciously perhaps, but not intentionally. The Old Ladies of Nazareth got going in August, a very hot day. I was sitting in the garden at my flat in Mayfair, when I had a vision of my grandmother and her sister. All my life I've wanted to celebrate them, immortalise them. I started writing and the more I wrote, the more it flowed. At the back of my mind there was Jennie Erdal saying I cannot express myself, that she did everything for me. And I said to myself, 'Well - let me have a go'."

The Old Ladies is a slender book, a 70-page novella about a boy growing up in Palestine, under threat from a bullying father, a chronic undiagnosed illness and the constant fear of war and homelessness. He is good at evoking the timelessness of the life he grew into - telling time by the sun, drawing water from a well - and the memory of his forebears makes him weep. "I heard my grandmother in the garden, once, with her arms stretched out, saying, 'God, I have only one request, and that is for my little Naim not to be poor as we are, not to suffer as we do, to be prosperous and have a family and not want for anything'. When I bought our house in France, I looked at the land I owned, and I said to myself, 'I wish my grandmother could see this'." The Old Ladies answers the thorny question of whether Attallah can actually write - yes of course he can, once he lights on the fact that his real subject isn't the purity of his female ancestors, but the frustration and ambition seething in his own heart.

Growing up in Haifa surrounded by doting women, becalmed by illness and bullied by his father, Attallah was delighted to be moved to Nazareth to live with his grandmother. It was there he met his hero, a cousin of his father, and an alarming figure. "He was tall, dressed all in white and there were rumours that he was a hitman. When he walked through the town, everybody cleared a path. When I sat next to him, I was a celebrity, I was a somebody." He invited Naim to lunch, showed him his arsenal of guns and gave the delighted youth a pistol of his own. He wasn't, by any chance, being inducted into some Palestinian paramilitary organisation? " Naow," says Attallah, "of course not. I slept with the gun under my pillow, and shot only at five-gallon tin drums."

He has nursed for years an understandable grievance about the politicking that resulted in the persecution of Palestinian families by British soldiers after the partition of Palestine in 1947. "When I read about the abuse of prisoners by British soldiers, and everyone saying it's 'only the minority' who are doing these shocking things - it's just not true. I remember, as a little boy, British soldiers coming at four or five in the morning, breaking down the door of our house, bundling us all into lorries and taking us to an empty football arena for communal punishment. It was because someone had taken a pot-shot at a soldier. They let us roast in the sun all day without water or food, and they'd hit us with the butt of their guns. When I came to England, I dreaded the thought of the place, I viewed the English as I'd seen them, as a colonising power. I was much relieved when I came here and found that the English were such cultured people, that they don't represent the riff-raff they send abroad."

In London (where an uncle lived), he studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic. Then his visa expired and he had to contemplate going home. "But how could I go back?" demands Attallah today. "The State of Israel had been formed. If I went to university at home, I'd have had to study Hebrew." Instead, the stateless 18-year-old worked at a succession of dirty jobs. He painted electrical transformers on Battersea Bridge. He tightened nuts and bolts all day long. He worked as a bouncer. And he started the long, slow process of becoming a banker, a foreign-exchange dealer and ultimately - where the big money was - a "consultant" to Aspreys and other high-finance concerns, introducing them to stupendously rich new clients all over the Middle East.

The details of these heady days will come out in the three volumes of the autobiography. It's a project of self-realisation for a man who (you get the impression) has been too busy living his life to stop and examine it until now. And while happily in the throes of composition, he is experiencing few regrets. "When I go to bed," he says proudly, "I go straight to sleep and I don't worry about a thing from the past. In the long view, anything that went wrong was an experience worth paying for." His granny would be proud.

'The Old Ladies of Nazareth' is published by Quartet, price £10

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