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Attallah ensures book goes nowhere

What was billed in this spring's bookseller lists as The Man From Nowhere now shows every sign of becoming the biography that goes nowhere.

Naim Attallah, former jeweller to the Queen at Asprey's, head of publishers Quartet, backer of the Oldie and the Literary Review magazines, owner of the Academy Club, author, and fixture on the London literati scene, took exception to an unauthorised biography about him due to be published in the next few weeks.

His solution was radical and effective: the book's publisher has sold, for an undisclosed sum, the manuscript and rights, lock, stock and barrel to Quartet (chairman: N Attallah, major shareholder: N Attallah).

The first the author of the book, Frank Dobson, knew about Mr Attallah's coup was when he received a letter by registered post from his publisher, Blake Publishing. "We have now transferred the contract signed by yourselves and Blake Publishing on 3 May 1995 to another publisher," it announced.

The letter, from John Blake, managing director of Blake Publishing, continued: "Your new publisher will be Jeremy Beale, Quartet Books."

Mr Dobson, a former Fleet Street journalist turned financial investigator and would-be author, is livid. He spent 18 months researching Mr Attallah's life and last summer was introduced to Mr Blake. The book started as a joint production between Mr Dobson and Ken Parish, another ex-Fleet Street journalist. Mr Blake paid an advance of pounds 2,500 and agreed to pay a further pounds 2,500 on delivery of an 80,000-word manuscript. Royalties were to be shared one-third each between the two authors and Mr Blake.

The book was to be the life and times of Mr Attallah, looking at his rise from humble origins in Palestine, his sudden arrival on the board of Asprey's in 1972, his friendship with a member of the Asprey family, the subsequent history of that company - including its problems last year, culminating in its sale to the brother of the Sultan of Brunei - his retirement, and literary connections.

Mr Parish subsequently dropped out and Mr Dobson took on the book himself, completing it in August last year.

"I was asked to do one rewrite which I did, then John Blake told me it was great and would be published," said Mr Dobson at his Wiltshire home yesterday. A cover of the book was produced, bearing the title The Man From Nowhere: the mysterious life of Naim Attallah.

That was in September. Then Mr Dobson sat back and waited. In November, he received a phone call from Mr Blake: he was not prepared to publish. No explanation was offered and Mr Dobson began sounding out other publishers. Last week, he received the letter saying the book had gone to Quartet.

Unknown to Mr Dobson, negotiations between Mr Blake and Quartet/Mr Attallah had been going on since October and the book's appearance in the catalogue at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was no secret the biography was being prepared: the London Evening Standard had flagged it last August and Mr Dobson had sent 57 questions to Mr Attallah, receiving by return a firm refusal to cooperate from Biddle & Co, his City lawyers.

Mr Beale of Quartet said yesterday his firm intended to publish the book "subject to editorial and legal requirements". He had not read the manuscript before buying it, he admitted.

Quartet, he said, operated independently of Mr Attallah. "We pride ourselves on editorial freedom and we publish books independently of Mr Attallah's taste," said Mr Beale.

Mr Dobson is having none of it. He has instructed his lawyers to seek return of the manuscript and photographs he gave to Mr Blake. "I am not interested in a publishing deal with Quartet because it would not be the book I've written," he said. "This is a blatant and rather stupid attempt to suppress a story I believe should be told. Naim Attallah is a public figure who has come to play a prominent part in British business and literary life. His story is a fascinating one."

As for the action by Mr Blake, Mr Dobson said, "it speaks for itself, let other authors be warned".

Mr Blake and Mr Attallah were unavailable for comment.