Life in the house of Eliot

The peerless publisher Faber and Faber is 75. Christina Patterson traces the history of a glittering institution whose stable of authors reads like a Who's Who of modern literature

For Seamus Heaney, it was like "having a wand waved over your life". For Andrew Motion, it was "like coming home". They are talking about being published by Faber and Faber. Seventy-five years after it was founded, the house that has spawned nine Nobel laureates, six Booker winners and two Poet Laureates continues to represent the acme of literary achievement. It remains independent in a world dominated by the mass conglomerate, with a cultural weight that exceeds even that of its stars.

For Seamus Heaney, it was like "having a wand waved over your life". For Andrew Motion, it was "like coming home". They are talking about being published by Faber and Faber. Seventy-five years after it was founded, the house that has spawned nine Nobel laureates, six Booker winners and two Poet Laureates continues to represent the acme of literary achievement. It remains independent in a world dominated by the mass conglomerate, with a cultural weight that exceeds even that of its stars.

It started humbly enough. In 1924, Geoffrey Faber, an academic and businessman, was asked by the Gwyer family to manage The Scientific Press. Faber took one look at its list and decided to branch out. The first Faber and Gwyer list, in autumn 1925, included Spain in a Two-Seater by Halford Ross and Poems 1909-25 by TS Eliot. The poet had already been recruited as an editor after 11 years at Lloyds Bank.

In 1929, the Gwyers pulled out and the firm was renamed Faber and Faber. There was, in fact, no second Faber, but Walter de la Mare (father of Richard, one of the original directors) suggested that, "you can't have too much of a good thing". The Faber family's interest in the firm has remained. Geoffrey Faber's son, Tom, who died in July, was on the board, and Tom's brother, Toby, the managing director from 1997 to 2000, has taken his place. The company's shares are still split between the Fabers and the Eliots.

Geoffrey Faber was one of a dying breed of gentlemen academics. A poet and biographer as well as a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was also a farmer, music lover and country squire. No wonder Faber and Faber's more memorable titles have included Goat Husbandry, and Harnessing the Earthworm. Rosemary Goad, who worked at Faber from 1954 until her retirement in 1989, remembers a remarkably diverse list. "Mrs Hatt published a lot of organic and farming books," she recalls. "And so did Dick de la Mare. They were always known as 'muck and mystery'."

Goad shared a room with Valerie Fletcher in the old Faber offices in Russell Square, and has vivid memories of the two of them sitting on the floor, sifting through a pile of Ted Hughes's poems. Eliot popped in from time to time to see how they were getting on. She remembers Philip Larkin, "owlish" and "always on his way to Lord's". She remembers Seamus Heaney delivering Death of a Naturalist two days after his wedding. Most of all, she remembers the weekly book committee. "Everyone went to it," she explains. "Mrs Lister, the caretaker's wife, would cook lunch."

If the book committee was the place where future masterpieces were discussed (and costed), it was also the focus of practical jokes. "Eliot had a very dry sense of humour," Goad recalls. "There were these big April fools." The ones she remembers are mostly of the "your bugbear author is in the hall" variety, but TS Eliot as a Publisher offers a more detailed record. Its author, FV Morley, one of the original directors of the firm, remembers the "private zoological names" they had for one another, "the cigarettes which somehow produced snow storms" and the coal scuttle filled with giant firecrackers. When Geoffrey Faber, "startled by the noise and stench", looked down, "there it was, banging and spitting like the mouth of Hell".

It all sounds rather relaxed. Rather amateur, in fact. "It was very much a gentlemen's club," agrees Matthew (now Lord) Evans, who retired as chairman in 2001. "One of my colleagues used to have to light his boss's fire and get his cigarettes. It was like fagging. I'd come from the LSE so it was all a bit of a shock." Evans started in 1964 as personal assistant to the managing director, Peter du Sautoy, and became MD himself in 1972. "They had given no thought to the succession," he says. "A normal group would have said, 'We need a chief executive. Where do you look?' There was a feeling that you had to be there to carry on." If the feeling at the time was that Faber was "living on past reputation", Evans is careful to give credit where it was due. "T S Eliot will one day get the plaudits for being an absolutely brilliant publisher," he declares.

It was in the Thirties, of course, that Eliot published Auden, MacNeice, Pound and Wallace Stevens. The company also had a good Second World War. Wartime publications included Memoirs of a Dutch Boy, which was part of the British propaganda effort. The "Dutch boy" turned out to be a middle-aged intelligence officer in Whitehall, while Morley, who ostensibly spent the War years at Harcourt Brace in California was really working for American intelligence in Washington. "It explains," says Evans, "why Faber, unlike most publishers, had no trouble getting paper."

The Faber that Evans inherited as managing director was "sailing close to the wind". "The bank got worried," he says, "and said 'you need a financial director'." With this radical innovation in place, Evans turned his attention to publicity. "There was a feeling," he explains, "that Faber was so distinguished you didn't need to promote it. It was a sign of the complacency." To counteract this, he recruited Desmond Clark from the Book Marketing Council. Clark's most memorable promotion idea was a helicopter tour with Seamus Heaney and Craig Raine. "In Northern Ireland," Heaney apparently said, "helicopters are not usually used to promote poetry".

"It was a golden age and we were pushing the boundaries," says Joanna Mackle, who started working in the publicity department in 1982 and stayed for nearly 20 years. "Faber became very fashionable. The kind of publishing we were doing was where it was at: Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, Paul Auster, Mario Vargas Llosa." It was indeed where it was at. Robert McCrum, who had arrived as a youthful editor in 1979 and inherited a fiction list that was largely in the doldrums, was building one that was changing the face of British fiction. "I was 25 and I was making it up as I went along," he says. But while he was doing this he was discovering, and signing, the authors Mackle mentions and a whole raft of others: Caryl Phillips, who was chronicling the British Caribbean experience; Hanif Kureishi, who was writing about being brown in Bromley, and Vikram Seth, who drew on a Californian-Indian mix for his novel in verse, The Golden Gate, which became an international bestseller.

Talent and publicity went hand in hand. Even a collection by an unknown poet, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, became an overnight bestseller. "They did a great job with it," says its author, Wendy Cope. "What they didn't realise," she adds a touch wistfully, "was that the publicity I received aroused tremendous hostility in the poetry world, which I've never recovered from." This was a time of spectacular author lunches, dinners and parties. It was, after all, the Eighties.

If you were part of that group of golden girls and boys (mostly boys, of course) then you were having the time of your life. The jokes that were such a feature of Faber's early days continued in its new offices in Queen Square. Anne Elletson, who worked in the publicity department from 1983 to 1992, recalls "that mix of the very intellectual books and the fun". She remembers a series of spoof letters: one to the poetry editor Craig Raine telling him that he would be sharing his job with a hated peer from another firm, and one to Robert McCrum explaining that Pete Townshend was moving into his office. When he got back from holiday it was full of rock paraphernalia, smashed-up guitars and lines of coke. Townshend had indeed been brought in as a consultant editor - in what Evans calls "a brilliant flash we didn't follow through" - but McCrum's office remained his own.

For those outside the clique, and those whose titles were not winning Booker prizes, the picture was rather different. If it no longer published Goat Husbandry, Faber continued to cater for an astonishing range of interests: children's, medical, art, cookery and gardening books as well as film and music lists that are still leaders in their field. When I did a brief stint as a press officer in 1988, the list of books I was given to promote included Living with Multiple Sclerosis and Safer Sex. My first launch party, at The Garrick Club, was for a book called Drilling for Wine. I drank far too much and floated home in a haze.

It was poetry, of course, that continued to carry the Faber reputation, even when other parts of the firm's list seemed a little tired. "In the back of those books," says Seamus Heaney in a voice that could turn a gas bill into a poem, "it was like a census taken on Parnassus." Heaney has nothing but praise for Faber. "It's like a domestic arrangement, and a personal one," he says.

As jobs go, the post of poetry editor at Faber must be one of the more daunting: to follow Eliot and edit the work of Poet Laureates and winners of the Nobel prize. "As soon as you get there," says Craig Raine, who took over from Charles Monteith in 1980, "you get things into proportion. Faber published Ronald Duncan, Wilfred Gibson, Idris Davies, Donagh MacDonagh. You pretty soon get the idea that although there were some marvellous finds, it wasn't a daunting full house that you had to match." Christopher Reid, who succeeded Raine in 1991, agrees. "You think of Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Pound, Larkin; but the Faber poetry list is very varied. I wanted to find new poets," he adds. "That was the main job."

It was Reid who took on current stars of the poetry firmament like Simon Armitage, Don Paterson (who won this year's Whitbread award for poetry) and Lavinia Greenlaw. "I was hysterical when I got the call," confesses Paterson. "I ran up and down the hall shouting." Greenlaw is more measured. "It was like being allowed to enter a room full of the poets I most admired. When you say you write poetry, people expect you to have been published by the Silverfish Press. If you say Faber it shuts them up."

Paul Keegan, the current incumbent, believes that the job is "to do with looking backwards as well as forwards". "It was very clear to me what needed to be done," he explains. "To make the back list and front list belong together. That's why we went back to the typographic covers. To make new poets feel as if they're part of some continuing story."

The design element of Faber books has always been central to its identity. Pre-War jackets profiled the work of figures like Ben Nicholson and Wyndam Lewis. Post-War, the key influence was Berthold Wolpe, whose Fifties covers, according to Faber designer Ron Costley, still "look as fresh as when they were first published". In the Eighties, the design group Pentagram was hired to shake things up. It was they who established the distinctive F&F "wallpaper".

But it is perhaps the concept of "continuous publishing" that marks Faber out from the literary crowd. The traditional view is that they publish you until you die. It was true of William Golding, Philip Larkin and, more recently, Ted Hughes. Seamus Heaney has been published by Faber since 1966, John McGahern since 1963. When McGahern was asked to complete his first novel, Barracks, he had the temerity to ask for a contract and some cash. "Peter [du Sautoy] asked why I needed money," he says. Later, he asked why the reviews on the jacket were not the best he'd received. Du Sautoy paused, then replied: "One doesn't want to blow one's horn too loud."

Some have felt that Faber didn't blow its horn too loud because it just assumed it was the best. "They were just unbelievably pleased with themselves," says Liz Thomson, editor of Publishing News. "They certainly used to ride the Faber brand." She believes, however, that Stephen Page, the managing director since 2001, is a good influence, "admirably no-nonsense".

If anyone can steer Faber through the stormy waters of 21st-century publishing, it is probably Page and his "passionate" team. "We wondered," he confesses, "whether we presumed too much on our identity. But Faber has always had a sense of redefining itself. The main job over the past couple of years has been to make the publishing house more profitable. It's about publishing less and making more of what you have... It's about a partnership with a writer that's going to last a long time." His words are echoed by Kazuo Ishiguro, who has been published by Faber since 1981. "Every time I have a book to deliver, I sit down and think: 'Is this the best house for me?' And the answer has always been yes. I think I've sold more books with Faber."

Andrew Motion tells me about the launch party for High Windows. In his speech, Larkin said that he now understood Eliot's dedication to Pound in The Waste Land: "il miglior fabbro". Larkin offered a new translation: "It's better with Faber," he said.

An exhibition of 75 years of Faber and Faber design is at the Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martins College, London WC1, from 13-24 September (020-7514 7000; www.csm.linst.ac.uk)

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