Book review : Life and loves of a great ideas man

REMEMBERING MY GOOD FRIENDS George Weidenfeld HarperCollins, £20
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The Independent Online
Apocryphal stories stick to George Weidenfeld like glue to a wall. They congregate in two categories, chronicling either his prowess as an epic boudoir jockey or his legendary career as a networker. My favourite combines both. We have George, a ve teran of three divorces, ringing a friend with the news that he is to marry again: "You, my old friend, are the first to know."

"George, I am delighted. Who is the lucky woman?"

"I haven't decided, but I'm down to a shortlist of four."

There is something irresistibly comic about all that feverish social energy. Do we not, to be honest, envy just a little those endless parties, with their A and B guest lists, those long vistas of congresses, conferences and symposiums from Helsinki to Lisbon, with Berlin (Isaiah, that is) and Mailer and Spender and the gang, the serried ranks of the stage army of the good?

The Weidenfeld memoirs are an almanac of name-dropping, a compendium of spear-carriers. If George were to claim authorship of the concept of networking, here is the evidence. There must be close to 2,000 names in the index, most of them with one mention each. We enter stage left, receive a respectful pat on the shoulder from George, and exit promptly stage right, often equipped with a book contract.

He hands out few brickbats along the way. George has warm feelings about the upper echelons of the human race. This may explain his difficulty in stopping long enough to focus fruitfully on individual members, as I suspect many women have found to their cost.

However, few people whom he has met draw his fire like the publisher Hamish Hamilton, an odious snob who epitomised the sneering attitude of a generation of English publishers to Weidenfeld's efforts to break into their ranks.

Comic he may be, but ludicrous he definitely is not. I have known Weidenfeld for most of the past 30 years of his publishing career, and found him by turns stimulating, funny and totally infuriating.

Yet I have missed the most important parts. Indeed, this is a much better book then I expected it to be. (Full marks, I suspect, to Gina Thomas, his editor, who "kept me up to the mark".)

First, there is a brilliant picture of growing up in Vienna between the wars. Then he gives a moving account of escaping from the nightmare of Nazism, in his case from post-Anschluss Austria, leaving his father behind imprisoned by the new regime, and coming to Britain penniless.

His gregariousness stood him in good stead in wartime London, and the story of building up his network of significant friendships during and after the war is fascinating.

He records an affection and gratitude for this country from those times. Publishing was a vehicle for the great passions of his life, above all his Zionism and his total commitment to his friends in Israel, but also his attachment to the European ideal, to social democracy, his feeling for the culture of Mitteleuropa, his love of music and, not least or last, his fascination with women.

It is ironic that, after he had been awarded first a knighthood and then a peerage for his services to publishing, awards that were greeted with close to choleric indignation by his Anglo-Saxon competitors, Weidenfeld's own publishing company eventually had to be rescued, because it was unable to bear the burden of his huge remuneration and expenses.

He was first baled out by Ann Getty, and when she lost interest he found a stable home with Orion, Anthony Cheetham's company.

As he acknowledges, his own lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of his trade, sales, marketing, promotion and, above all, cash management, found him out as the Eighties became tougher. He is, above all, an ideas man.

I have an indelible impression of a Weidenfeld lunch. He bustles in and, as his bottom hits the chair, he is off into a round of suggestions and ideas ("I'm planning a history of the universe. Do you think Trevor-Roper would do Mars?"). A quick tour d'horizon of Brussels, Oxford, Westminster and Frankfurt, then a discreet look at the watch and he bustles off.