Clive Allison: Publisher whose eclectic imprint was in the vanguard of independent houses


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Clive Allison was the co-founder, with Margaret Busby, of the eclectic publishing house Allison & Busby. Set up in 1967, it was in the vanguard of new independent book production in Britain in the 1960s and '70s.

Born in Sutton in 1944, to William Allison, a newspaper journalist and columnist, and his wife Mabel Stearn, Clive was 10 years younger than his sister Christine. He attended Sutton High School, and at 16 won a place to read English at Trinity College, Oxford, although he was too young to take it up for a year. The seeds of his future career were sown when he embarked on publishing pamphlets, starting with his own work in 1964, and he became President of the Oxford University Poetry Society (as well as starring in a student film made by friends at Bristol University).

His momentous meeting with Margaret Busby, herself a poet and an editor, was in 1965 at a party in Bayswater while they were both undergraduates. Clive described how, after the party, they walked along the Embankment in the small hours of the morning, discussing life and the universe, including plans to start a publishing company for affordable paperback editions of poetry after they graduated. Thus began a joyride of a literary business partnership, held together by common aspirations, mutual respect, vision and intelligence, plus an admirable tolerance on Margaret's part for the foibles that offset Clive's virtues (something she has graphically described as his "seat-of-the-pants style"). A crucial later player in the joint venture was Lyn van der Riet, who was married to Clive for four years, and a salutary instrument of oft-needed comfort, practicality and calm after I began working for A&B in 1977.

Launching the imprint in 1967 with three poetry titles – Selected Poems by James Reeves, A Stained-Glass Raree Show by Libby Houston and The Saipan Elegy by James Grady – Clive and Margaret left their day jobs with other publishers in 1969 to set up office in a friend's flat at 6a Noel Street, Soho. Allison & Busby's first book under these auspices was Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat By The Door, a thriller by a black American writer previously rejected by numerous publishers. Its success with A&B foreshadowed many another in a list that, alongside the eponymous founders' interests, reflected the era of hope and political consciousness in which it was conceived.

The office shelves when I joined the company displayed a galaxy of published titles: Project Octavio by Clifford Irving (about an amazing biographical hoax featuring Howard Hughes); a formidable political series, "Motive", including such titles as Switzerland Exposed by Philip Ziegler; historical novels set in the Glasgow tenements by Margaret Thompson Davies; Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta; my grandmother Katharine Moore's study Victorian Wives; Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch; Marie Stone's The Covent Garden Cookbook, and many more.

During my time, among a great variety of notable additions to the A&B list were CLR James' classic The Black Jacobins; works of speculative fiction by Michael Moorcock; Roy Heath's award-winning The Murderer; and Michael Horovitz's book of poems and drawings, Growing Up. Clive also boldly promoted trade paperback reprints in what is now an accepted format, but was then in its infancy, including: Absolute Beginners, City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice by Colin MacInnes; the South American novels of B Traven; and a crime series that boasted Donald Westlake and Chester Himes.

A later employee, Polly Dyne Steel, describes what made Allison & Busby such an unusual workplace, and Allison such an unforgettable figure: "Crammed into the upper part of a Victorian house in Soho, commanding an impressive vista down Great Marlborough Street and with the most questionable lavatory ever accepted by 10 or more vocal employees, Allison & Busby in the '80s was a hive of the sort of committed activity, creativity and integrity that other grander (and who was not grander?) publishers could never hope to inspire.

"The top floor was Clive's cave. Here he could be found perched on theelectric radiator that we all envied in the winter months (gloves were essential typing wear), flashing his frightening and extraordinary letter-box grin with an apparent amusement oftenunmatched by his cold blue gaze... The bulging filing cabinets of A&Bcontained a true and touching note from Clive to an irate author: 'Whatever you may feel about us, believe me, we are not the fat cats of the publishing world.' And Clive was too compassionate and lacking in greed to become one of them, no matter how much literary oil A&B struck."

Always run on a shoestring, A&B was taken over by WH Allen in 1987; Clive stayed on for two years. He then became proprietor of The Golden Hind secondhand bookshop in Deal, where he moved with his partner, Val Horsler, and their adored daughters, Emily and Polly. In 1999, he reappeared in London, always his spiritual home though changed since the days when a room could be rented for peanuts; thereafter his fortunes were again entwined with my family. He stayed with us in Islington, helped me launch my play The Isle of Dogs, wrote two stylish obituaries for my grandmother and worked at my solicitor father Peter Kingshill's office, committed to helping gypsy and traveller clients, characteristically championing the underprivileged.

Acute illness in 2003, beginning with an epileptic seizure, prevented Clive from pitching into projects with his accustomed abandon, but not from radiating interest in the passions nearest his heart: cricket, politics, and most of all people. Walking with him to the York pub at the Angel, after his recent return from hospital, was a royal progress: passers-by showered him with delighted greetings. Clive's life-force continues to be felt by the diverse personalities whose paths crossed his, and in the limitlessly wide-ranging books his imprint with Margaret Busby produced. Maddening at times, Clive Allison was an Icarus irresistibly flying too near the sun, generous, brave and funny, always his own man.

Clive Robert William Allison, publisher and bookseller: born Sutton 15 June 1944; married Lynette van der Riet (divorced); partner to Val Horsler (two daughters); died London 25 July 2011.