I was working for the publisher Gerald Duckworth in the 1990s packing up books in their warehouse. I had dropped out of law, having spent two very unhappy years as an articled clerk in a city firm and started working for Duckworth when the company moved from the Old Piano Factory in Camden Town to Hoxton Square. They did their own distribution at that time and so they needed people to shift the books. My sister was an editor and director of the company and I was hired as casual labour along with the brother-in-law of the sales director, a resting actor. I had not expected to have a job there for more than a week or so but then hard on the heels of the move Duckworth bought up Bristol Classical Press and more stock started arriving. In the end I worked there for about six years between 1990 and 1996. This wasn’t unusual at Duckworth which had a habit of retaining its staff for extremely long periods of time. The obvious reason being that it was an exceptionally nice place to work.
It was not an easy time. The company, to coin a phrase from Sean O’Casey, was, through much of the period I worked there, in a ‘terrible state o’ chassis’ (at boardroom level, anyway) as Colin Haycraft, the owner of the company struggled to hold on to the company he had owned since 1968.
Despite the ‘noise of distant thunder’ I loved my job. Duckworth’s list was hilariously eclectic, ranging from The History of the Vlachs ( I don’t think I ever did quite grasp who they were) to The History of the British Pig (excellent photos and illustrations). Along with these there was an illustrious philosophy and classics list, which included books by A.C. Grayling and Michael Dummett. There was also of course fiction represented by Beryl Bainbridge and Alice Thomas Ellis. The Birthday Boys was published when I was there and it was probably the most copies of a single title that I ever packed up and sent out.
At that point Hoxton was not the hipster paradise it has become; it was grim and rough. Duckworth’s offices are now occupied by the art gallery The White Cube but before Duckworth moved in the building had been a sweatshop and the places where the plugs for the sewing machines had been were visible in the floor. The famous gay club The London Apprentice was on the corner of the square and it was boarded up with the kind of metal shutters that made you think it was derelict. This was because it was the frequent focus of homophobic attacks. A sign of how things have changed in the area is that now the places getting attacked are those selling expensive cereals!
I loved the job not just because of the entertaining list but also because I was much more suited to working for a small independent publisher than working in the law. My confidence had taken a bashing in the city but at Duckworth I began to relax and feel capable, liked and valued. Having felt depressed and directionless I found the physical work was good for me. I felt proud to be working there. There was something else as well that I did not talk about much. I dreamed of being a writer. At least now I was working with books albeit manhandling them rather than writing them. It seemed like a small step in the right direction.
An old fashioned but rather effective cover!
Colin Haycraft was the first to publish Oliver Sacks’ book, Awakenings (1973) after the book had been turned down by Faber and Faber. At that time Sacks was not the illustrious world famous author he later became. He had published one book in America on Migraine. In an affectionate essay he wrote after Colin died contained in the book Colin Haycraft 1929-1994 Maverick Publisher, Sacks described him as his ‘midwife and unmuddler’. As sweet a description of being edited as you’re ever likely to come across.
‘If it had not been for him Awakenings I think would not have been finished, much less published.’
‘But it was not just unmuddling that I demanded of Colin at this time, it was emotional support when I was blocked or when my mood or confidence sagged, as they did almost to the point of collapse.’
Then in the final month of working on the book Sacks’ mother died and
‘Colin became a mother for me as well as a midwife.’
Colin may have mothered him but at a certain point like all good mothers he put his foot down. This was after Sacks, back in America, sent him so many footnotes that they came to three times the length of the original book. Colin told him he could keep 12 and then allowed him to keep 82 including one of his own which was a pun on godness, goodness and guinness! Colin also refused to let him see the page proofs because Sacks had made so many changes to the galleys he knew what would happen if he did.
Colin went on to publish two more of Sacks’ books: A Leg to Stand On (1984) and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985). I didn’t know much about Sacks but I went to the film of Awakenings when it came out in 1990 and found it very moving. The hardback of Awakenings was out of print by then and the paperback rights had been sold so unfortunately Duckworth didn’t benefit from the publicity generated by the film. I have a hazy memory of sending out the odd hardback copy of ‘Leg’ at the time but no recollection of ‘Hat.’
One day Colin came down into the warehouse with a pile of notebooks and an address label. ‘New York,’ he said and went to make himself some coffee. They were Oliver Sacks’ notebooks and they were to be sent back to him in America. I presume now that Colin was doing some ‘housekeeping’ as it was never quite clear whether the company was going to survive or not. I opened the notebooks and flicked through them. An overwhelming desire to steal them came over me. I can’t remember anything that I read there. I seem to remember that the notebooks related to ‘Hat’ but I could be wrong. The handwriting was hard to decipher, the content chaotic and poetic; everything I imagined writers’ notebooks ought to be like. It crossed my mind that Sacks would never notice if one went missing. Or two? Who knew how long Colin had held onto these anyway? I wrestled with my conscience. Then I wrapped them all up securely and sent them off first class airmail.
That moment of wanting to steal them has remained with me. Looking back I think it was an exact reflection of how strongly I wanted to be a writer. Somewhere in these notebooks I imagined was the key to how it was done. If I had one of them then maybe just maybe some of that magic would rub off on me and like a benign genie from Aladdin’s lamp Oliver Sacks would appear and reassure me that I had what it took to be what I so desperately wanted to be.
If only life were like that. In the end I had my own rather simple awakening – that working with books is not the same as writing them. I did eventually become a published writer about ten years later. My first crime novel, Bloodless Shadow, was published in 2003 and six other books have followed. But sometimes I look back with a pang of regret to the moment I had Oliver Sacks’ notebooks in my hands. We all know how easily things can get lost in the post.