Literary Notes: `The cheers could be heard at Hyde Park'

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The Independent Culture
NOVEMBER MARKS the 50th anniversary of the publishing firm of Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

As the Second World War was drawing to a close George Weidenfeld, who had arrived in this country as a penniless refugee in 1938, and whose career during the war in the BBC's Overseas Intelligence Department had brought him into contact with many of the literary and political figures of the day, founded a periodical. This was called Contact and he hoped it would "capture and perpetuate the European spirit of wartime London". To circumvent the restrictions of paper rationing this led to the publication of several hardcover books with the Contact imprint, the first of which was by a young statistician at the Ministry of Fuel and Power whose name was Harold Wilson. But it wasn't until four years later - on the strength of a commission for a series of children's books from Marks & Spencer - that Weidenfeld, together with his assistant editor on Contact magazine, Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, a figure at the heart of the literary establishment, took the decisive step of founding a publishing imprint with their own names.

The launch party was held on 10 November 1949 at Brown's Hotel, with a glittering list of guests who included Peter Quennell, Peter Ustinov, John Sparrow, Richard Crossman, C.E.M. Joad, Compton Mackenzie and Somerset Maugham. Although considered prospective authors, they did not all come through, and it wasn't until 1953 that the breakthrough years came, with the publication in one season of Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox, Rose Macaulay's Pleasure of Ruins, Hitler's Table-Talk edited by H.R. Trevor-Roper and Cyril Connolly's The Golden Horizon.

As always in publishing, prestige was not the same as profitability, and it was not until 1959, with the publication of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, that the company had its first really commercial bestseller. This novel had originally appeared on the list of the Olympia Press, the well- known erotic publisher in Paris, and had come to fame when Graham Greene chose it as one of the three best books of the year. The Sunday Express reacted by calling it "sheer unrestrained pornography" and, as moral censorship in this country was still almost as strong as it had been in the Victorian period, no British publisher dared to bring out Lolita until Weidenfeld made the decision to do so.

Nigel Nicolson admits he was shocked by the book, both his parents violently objected to it and he realised that its publication would put an end to his political career. It was Nicolson who came up with the idea of "token publication" - printing a few copies, one of which would be sent to the Director of Publications to see if prosecution would follow. To this day Weidenfeld plays down his immense courage in going through with the whole business. The stratagem of token publication did not produce the immediate result which had been hoped for and the critical moment arrived when 20,000 copies had to be printed if the publication date was to be met. Nabokov and his wife arrived in London for a grand party at the Ritz and there was still no reaction from the DPP. Elizabeth Longford remembers it as the most low-key book launch she has ever attended.

Nicolson describes what happened next: "In the middle of the party George was called to the telephone and an anonymous voice, possibly from the DPP's office, or from an even higher source, told him, `This is highly irregular, but I am a great supporter of your cause. You can go ahead. The DPP has decided not to prosecute.' I announced the news to the assembled company, which included the cream of literary and political London. The cheers could be heard as far as Hyde Park Corner."

John Curtis is the editor of `Weidenfeld & Nicolson: fifty years of publishing' (for private distribution by the publishers)