Publishing’s one-man bandIn the shabby back room of John Calder’s bookshop on The Cut in south London, an intriguing literary event is about to begin. The shop itself is an anachronism, one of those tiny havens that once populated Charing Cross Road before the arrival of megamarts such as Waterstone’s and Borders. Where you might normally expect to see Man and Boy or White Teeth displayed are copies of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, the collected works of Antonin Artaud and Inside Out and Other Plays by Jan Quackenbush. The event itself, readings from The Writings of Jean Arp, recently published by Calder, is equally eccentric. Sparsely attended by a gaggle of well-heeled ladies and a couple of ragged students, it consists mostly of snippets of Dadaist poetry read in resonant received pronunciation by actor Peter Marinker interspersed with Calder’s mumbled, fidgety monologues: “We are here to talk about art, about Dadaism and Surrealism,” Calder begins. “Today’s conceptual artists are interested in publicity, fame – and money also comes into it. Anything called art suddenly becomes art and people are afraid to voice an opinion. But the artists at the beginning of the 20th century were trying to divorce art from the whole commercial world. Everything was rather different then…” Despite his curmudgeonly and taciturn exterior, Calder doesn’t take long to win over his audience. He is a publisher like no other in Britain today. The website for Calder Publications proclaims – “Publishers of the most significant literature of the 20th century”. Over the course of his 50-year career he has squandered fortunes on difficult, uncommercial writing. He championed freedom of speech and was a scourge of the conservative literary establishment, and his list has included avant-garde firebrands such Henry Miller and William Burroughs as well as numerous Nobel laureates, including Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll and Claude Simon. Almost single-handedly, Calder is responsible for introducing the French writers Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras – moving spirits in the “new novel” – to Britain. “What is important about John is that he has gone to the wall, both artistically and financially, for his literary beliefs,” says poet and critic Al Alvarez. “And he continues to publish experimental work with a strictly minority appeal. I’m sure he will be part of literary history for what he’s done in terms of getting difficult minority writers a hearing.” Calder has always been unorthodox in his approach to the business of publishing, to design and typographical blunders. A 1990 collection of Beckett’s unpublished works, entitled As the Story Was Told, which Calder freely admits contained “some ghastly mistakes,” led to tensions with the Beckett estate, while his latest Beckett volume, Poems 1930-1989 , was recently denounced in these pages: “Readers need to be warned,” cautioned the reviewer, Christopher Ricks, “to take the book with more than a grain of salt, since the whole thing is peppered with errors.” At times, Calder has been financially stretched to the point where he has been forced to forego the payment of expenses and royalties:”He is a very trustworthy person,” says Alain Robbe-Grillet, who has featured on Calder’s list for almost 50 years, “with the slight exception of money. He would always promise great things, inviting me to England and offering to pay my fares and fees. But when I arrived, he would cleverly avoid the topic of remuneration.” But Calder is extremely loyal to his writers, often publishing entire oeuvres and never letting books go out of print or be remaindered. “I know of nothing like him in modern publishing,” says the playwright Howard Barker, who has been published by Calder for over 20 years. “I always like to be with someone who is a one-man band in an age of corporations.” Now 75, Calder divides his time between a book-lined Paris apartment and a bed-sit just around the corner from his London bookshop. He is a determined pessimist and will bend the ear of anyone who cares to listen about the corruption of modern culture and its imminent collapse: “He has always been a person who has said ‘The sky is falling,’” says Jim Haynes, co-founder of the Traverse Theatre and a friend since the 1950s. “He has a pessimistic streak. In some ways he is a romantic gentleman of the old school, and a complete Luddite – he uses a portable typewriter, not even an electric, with a ribbon and carbons. He does all of it on two fingers.” Apart from publishing, Calder’s most ardent passion is opera and he can regularly be seen shambling through the foyers of the world’s great opera houses, these days increasingly leaning on a cane because of advancing arthritis. “He very scrupulously keeps a book in which he lists every opera performance he goes to,” says his old friend, the musicologist Arthur Boyars, “and if he was in the middle of vastly important negotiations and you were to say ‘Be in Santa Fe by tomorrow evening, because they are going to perform Arlecchino by Busoni’, and it wasn’t already in his book, he would leave everything and look into how to get to Santa Fe.’” The opera book reportedly now contains over 2000 entries. It is not very difficult to extrapolate from Calder’s gruff personality the frustrating private individual described by many who have been close to him. Both his marriages appear to have ended bitterly: “John has this Walter Mitty-Baron Münchausen aspect to him,” says his second wife Bettina Jonic, referred to in Calder’s autobiography Pursuit as a “Croatian peasant”. “Once you understand that, you understand a lot of things. I am really not terribly happy that you are writing this article. I really would like him to just disappear.” A number of his professional relationships seem to have ended in similar unhappiness: “He used the fact that he was a reputable publisher as a kind of visiting card,” says Boyars, husband of the late Marion Lobbenberg, who was Calder’s business partner throughout the 60s. “But publishing really is a lot of work. For John, it meant an occasional appearance in the office – and that was only possible if you had somebody like Marion to do all the work.” Calder puts this animosity down to his former partner’s jealousy: “She hated the greater attention given to me by other publishers,” he says. “She resented it every time an article appeared in either the trade or the public press.” Calder’s family relations too are extremely fraught; he was disinherited by his grandfather and no longer speaks to his brother James. However, it is precisely this same grumpy eccentricity and stubbornness that made him so attractive to the likes of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet. It also translates into the tenacity that compels him to persevere in an age when the independent publisher has all but disappeared: “The publishing boom that people talk about now is just a few titles that are for one reason or other in vogue,” Calder says. “But overall there has been a massive decline. Waterstone’s are selling about 10% of their range of 10 years ago. And any book that doesn’t sell after a month gets returned immediately. The availability of books is so much smaller and nothing is being translated from other languages. What we have now is exactly what I’d hoped all my life to prevent.” John Mackenzie Calder was born on January 25 1927, the first son of James Calder and Lucienne Wilson. His father, the scion of a prominent Scottish brewing clan, had distinguished himself during the first world war, winning the Military Cross, but had experienced little business success after demobilisation. “He had various jobs but never amounted to much,” says Calder. “His moment of glory came in the first world war, and he never equalled that.” The family’s transcontinental lifestyle was almost wholly financed by Lucienne’s father, a Canadian industrialist and later senator who had made his fortune during prohibition. His generous allowance funded extravagant spells in London and frequent trips back to Montreal, until the family was evacuated to Canada at the outbreak of the second world war. In their early years, John and his younger siblings James and Betty appear to have lived an artificial existence. “We didn’t mix with other children,” says Betty. “Until war came I didn’t meet any. For a long time we were taught at home by tutors. My mother had a horror of germs. She didn’t believe that children should go on buses or anywhere you would meet other people, because you might catch germs.” A shy young man, Calder sought refuge in books and was writing poetry and plays before he entered his teens: “He was a great reader, and he read very early, from about the age of four,” says Betty. “I don’t know where he got it – certainly not from our parents. It must have been some kind of genetic aberration. He was always inventive, he would write little plays and he would get us to act in them. And everybody had to go with his direction.” Despite winning a place at Oxford to read English, John chose an entirely different path. His father had died of tuberculosis in 1944 and within weeks of the funeral his mother had begun an affair with a Canadian soldier named John Barnard. “What interested him,” says Calder, “was my mother’s considerable income and the life of ease it offered.” It was Barnard who convinced Calder to take up a place to study economics at Zurich University: “He had read an article in an American business magazine about how Zurich was the most prominent business university,” Calder says, “so I allowed myself to be sent there.” Despite the unexciting classes, some beginning at 7am, Calder managed to enjoy his time at Zurich, mostly by going to the opera. At the end of his course, while staying in the luxury Dolder Hotel, a chance encounter changed his life. Called on by staff to help translate for a demanding American guest, Calder, on entering the room, was confronted by what he now calls “an apparition in pink,” who introduced herself as Christya Myling, an aspiring Hollywood starlet. Under contract to MGM but never cast, she had turned down the part eventually played by Claire Bloom in Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight and was now seeking work in Europe. The two began a passionate affair, conducted in Lausanne, Paris and London, where they were married only weeks later in Westminster Registry Office. When Calder returned to Zurich to take his final examinations, however, Christya became involved with a Hollywood producer and, within 10 days of getting married, was already looking for a divorce. After a tense 24 hours, Calder managed to talk her out of it. On his return to London, Calder began some small publishing ventures, including, in 1950, a short-lived company with André Deutsch which published some Tolstoy translations and Petronius’s Satyricon . However, most of his energy was directed into his uncle’s timber firm, Calders, Ltd. Despite his success in turning around an ailing timber yard in Birkenhead, he still couldn’t quite match Christya’s talent for expenditure: “She was opening various accounts with department stores, which I did my best to limit or cancel,” Calder writes in Pursuit. The tensions in the marriage were compounded by the death of their baby son James in March 1952. When Christya fell pregnant again the following year, she was determined not to disappoint the Calder clan, who were hoping for a male heir. In April 1954, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, but convinced her husband to conceal the sex of the child from his family, and had the baby christened James: “It wasn’t my idea, it was hers and I was still very much under her thumb,” Calder says. “She may even have sent them a telegram to force my hand. It was stupid. I knew it was going to come out sooner or later.” In the short term, the deception worked, and Calder received funds due to him on production of an heir. But it was unsustainable: “There was quite a lot of money at stake,” says Calder’s daughter, who has retained the name of Jamie and now runs a company producing wrought-iron goods. “The family were hoping that before anything was discovered, I suppose, that the old boys would die, leave them the money and afterwards they could reveal the truth.” The ploy was foiled when James/Jamie was left in the care of Calder’s sister Betty, who was called upon to change the baby’s nappy: “I was horrified,” she says, “I rushed off to Scotland to tell the others what was happening.” The result was that Calder was immediately disinherited. The marriage to Christya finally ended when a late-night bout of cello practice triggered an explosive argument: “I had become rather adept at playing the instrument,” he recalls. “But while I was practising on this particular night, she came and said: ‘You and your fucking cello.’ She took a cigarette box and threw it straight through the front of it. I saw red, and nearly strangled her. I packed a couple of things and moved out there and then.” They were divorced in 1961. By now the timber company was in the throes of a takeover, and Calder was devoting more and more time to publishing. Around 1953 he had struck out on his own and begun publishing popular opera annuals as well as, for a brief period, the British Film Institute magazine Sight and Sound. In the mid-50s he produced a number of pioneering anti-McCarthy books, including The Un-Americans by Alvah Bessie. Towards the end of the decade, Calder took the bold step of publishing The Question, by Henri Alleg, an indictment of French colonial policy in Algiers, followed by Gangrene, a collection of articles edited by Jerome Lindon that formed a powerful critique of British and French colonialism. Most importantly, Calder formed a friendship with two other figures who would become central to his life and career: the US publisher Barney Rosset, who had discovered Henry Miller, and Maurice Girodias, the Paris-based publisher of the famous Evergreen review and the man who first introduced Calder to Beckett’s experimental novels Murphy, Malloy and Malone Dies , published under the Calder imprint as a single volume in 1958. After a first meeting with the author, during which “we talked about life, its pointlessness, the cruelty of man to man,” Beckett and Calder struck up a close friendship, which ended only with Beckett’s death in 1989. In late 1960, Calder organised a nation wide UK reading tour of three of his authors: Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet. The success of the trip led Calder to plan a more ambitious literary event: the first Edinburgh Conference. He assembled a list of progressive writers: Hugh MacDiarmid, Alexander Trocchi, Angus Wilson, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs and Henry Miller: “There hasn’t been anything like it before or since,” says Jim Haynes. The following year, Calder tried to do the same with a drama conference, presided over by critic Kenneth Tynan and featuring playwrights John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco plus Laurence Olivier and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz. The conference was subdued, but ended on a controversial high as Kenneth Dewey staged one of the UK’s first happenings. Jim Haynes remembers that “a naked young woman was wheeled along the organ gallery on a trolley. The people in the auditorium saw her for about 10 or 15 seconds. But then the photographers all went to the dressing room and took photographs of her naked.” The Edinburgh authorities decided to bring an obscenity suit against the conference organisers, but lost the case. During the conference Calder’s uncle James had died and bequeathed him one of the family’s country estates, Ledlanet, about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. Immediately, Calder began to develop it into a venue for music theatre, and the first Ledlanet Nights festival opened in 1963 with Rossini’s Serate Musicale and Richard Arnell’s short opera Moonflowers. One of the regular performers was Calder’s second wife, Bettina Jonic, a Croatian singer he had met in 1957 after one of her concerts: “He can be charming and is very knowledgeable – knows good wines, good food, nice restaurants,” she says. “We spent one of our first evenings together in Paris, walking up the Champs Elysées singing Mozart duets.” Calder arranged an audition at Covent Garden, but one of the conditions of the job, and in particular the work permit, was that Jonic be married to an Englishman: “They rang me up,” he recalls, “and said ‘we’re only allowed to engage British artists, we thought you were going to get married. When is it going to happen?’ She said: ‘Well, why don’t we get married? I’ll not be an encumbrance if we don’t get on.’ I let it happen, and came to regret it.” Almost from the beginning, Calder indulged in numerous often very open affairs. Pursuit describes a classic 60s orgy in which he played a prominent role. He says now that the marriage was “an open relationship,” something that Jonic denies: “No woman in her right mind would have an open relationship, certainly not with my Roman Catholic background. Marital commitment, as far as I’m concerned, means just that.” The 60s proved to be a golden era for Calder. In April 1963, building on the relationships established at the first Edinburgh conference, he published Henry Miller’s landmark novel Tropic of Cancer, which no publisher had dared consider before in the UK because of its graphic sexual content. Later that year, he published Alexander Trocchi’s novel Cain’s Book , a frank account of heroin addiction. The year ended with publication of William Burroughs’s drug-fuelled beatnik trilogy The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, which had been the subject of an infamous obscenity trial the previous year in the US. Calder produced all three in a single volume called Dead Fingers Talk, from which the author had excised some of the more objectionable passages. All this took place in the year after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial. Calder exploited the controversial status of some of the works he was publishing. He concealed the fact that the director of public prosecutions had decided not to proceed against the Miller book, and on the date of publication there were queues outside Foyle’s bookshop: “Everyone was waiting to see if there would be a prosecution,” remembers Calder, “people were rushing to buy it before it was banned.” Dead Fingers Talk provoked a furious exchange of letters in the TLS after an outraged review by the critic David Millet: “Struggling upstream through it is not unlike wading through the drains of a big city,” he wrote. “The first shock effects are strong as the rash reader plunges in, then a steady nausea follows which hangs around him long after he has fought his way into the fresh air.” Calder was called to defend some of his publications from the dock. In 1964, Cain’s Book sparked an obscenity trial in Sheffield, which Calder lost, and then in 1966 Hubert Selby Jnr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, with its gang-rape scene, was the focus of a potentially far more threatening obscenity trial in London, though Calder was vindicated on appeal. By the end of the 60s, Calder had built up an impressive list that included Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Robert Pinget, Heinrich Böll, Ionesco and Fernando Arrabal. However, Marion Boyars, who had provided a good deal of the funding for the firm, had become frustrated with their professional relationship. Her husband Arthur Boyars says, “Marion to a larger extent found herself running the firm. When she found that she could no longer continue to do all of the work and still got little of the credit, even though the firm was called Calder and Boyars, she decided to split it up and go her own way.” There followed a protracted struggle over lists, which resulted in Calder retaining the lion’s share but losing key authors. About the same time, Calder’s marriage to Bettina broke up over his infidelities: “Once I found out, within three months he was moved out,” she says. “I didn’t want to share my life with someone on that basis. Why live with a womaniser?” The divorce proceedings, which dragged on through much of the 70s, were rancorous. Ultimately, Calder lost much of his Scottish trust income and in 1979 was forced to sell Ledlanet. The 80s and 90s proved very difficult, in part because of a sea-change in publishing: “Thatcherism had taken its toll in a xenophobic dumbing down of international culture,” he claims. There was also a succession of disasters, including a profligate lease agreement that in 1989 saddled the company with tens of thousands in building costs. Later, a US distributor confiscated Calder’s stock. He says, “I had to stop production of all books, stop paying royalties.” Many authors fled or were taken away by executors, including Miller and Burroughs. Now Calder Publications produces only five or six books a year, down from the 350 titles a year in its 60s heyday: “Shops in Paris sell more books of ours than any bookshops in Britain,” he laments. Yet he continues organising weekly events and is the driving force behind the Shadow Arts Council, a pressure group which includes Peter Hall and Tom Stoppard. Calder intends to continue living in the same dogged, lugubrious, gleefully pessimistic spirit he always has: “I’m not that particularly interested in getting credit for anything,” he says, “What matters is what has been thought, written, done, painted – the repository of the cultural heritage of the country. People like myself are just cogs in the wheel, and cogs get worn out. I don’t think that anyone is ever going to try to do again what I did.” Life at a glance: John Calder Born: January 25 1927. Education: 1936-40 Gilling Castle Boarding School, ‘41-45 Bishop’s College School; 46-49 University of Zurich. Married: 1949 Christya Myling (daughter Jamie born ‘54) divorced ‘61; ‘61 Bettina Jonic (daughter Anastasia born ‘63) divorced ‘75. Some publications: 1957 The Un-Americans (Alvah Bessie); ‘58 Is The Monarchy Perfect? (Lord Altrincham); ‘56 The Voyeur, ‘61 Last Year at Marienbad, ‘67 In the Labyrinth (all Alain Robbe-Grillet); ‘62 Ten Thirty on a summer night,The Sailor from Gibraltar (Marguerite Duras); ‘59 Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau (Nathalie Sarraute); ‘58 Malone Dies, ‘59 The Trilogy, ‘61 Poems in English, ‘63 Murphy, ‘70 More Pricks than Kicks (all Samuel Beckett); ‘63 Tropic of Cancer, ‘66 Quiet Days in Clichy (Henry Miller); ‘64 The Naked Lunch, ‘63 Dead Fingers Talk (William Burroughs); ‘63 Cain’s Book (Alexander Trocchi); ‘66 Last Exit to Brooklyn (Hubert Selby Jr.); ‘72 The Clown (Heinrich Böll). Some writings: 1999 Pursuit: What’s Wrong? What’s Right (autobiography); 2001 The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett; ‘01 The Uncensored Memoirs of John Calder.