Wildwood House

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Rachel Caldecott

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Nov 13, 2017
Lodeve, France
Some of you may have gathered from my previous posts that I come from a publishing family (not that this has helped me to find a publisher).

A year or so ago I posted an article by my father, Oliver, on his reflections of 35 in the publishing business.

Yesterday’s Huddle with @AgentPete reminded me of this extract from Elaine Elkington’s blog. Elaine was (don’t know if she still is) married to John Elkington, writer of Green Consumer Guide and about 20 other books.

I thought this description of life at my dad’s firm, which he founded after leaving Penguins, might amuse you. Although she doesn’t mention them here, I know there were usually cannabis plants growing on the fire escape. She does make a mistake here. She mentioned Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics, thinking they didn’t publish it. Quite the opposite. Dad did publish it with bells on, and Fritjof has remained a great family friend. Dad published his subsequent books too. He was the sort of publisher who published books because he believed in them, not because they would necessarily make him rich.


Alternative London: TEST and Wildwood

By now, John (Elkington) was working in Floral Street, Covent Garden, for TEST, (Transport and Environment Studies), run by a very likeable man called John Roberts. There seem to have been a lot of Johns in my life at this time. Weirdly, when I applied for the job at Wildwood House, I realised it was in the same building as TEST, on the floor below.

Wildwood House was a very small, start-up publisher, run by two ex-editors from Penguin – Dieter Pevsner and Oliver Caldecott. Oddly enough, I am writing this on the day I read in the newspaper that Niklaus Pevsner’s house in Hampstead is up for sale. He lived in Wildwood Grove.

I arrived for my interview and got on very well with both Olly and Dieter. The office was one large room with lots of windows. Helen and production were at the far end, Dieter was in his own corner, Oliver and I sat opposite one another in the middle and David, the sales director who spent much of his time out at ‘the sharp end’, sat with his P.A., Beverley, near the door. Beverley had perfect make-up and outfits, including false eyelashes. She must have got up very early every morning to look so pristine. There was a caretaker called Andy, who drank heavily but who loved us all. His desk was on the far side of the building and it took some while, running up and down endless steps and corridors to emerge into the obverse side of the universe.

The front end was smarter and shinier and lots of PR people shimmied in and out. Andy had a uniform for sitting in the foyer on that side. I have a feeling he slept somewhere in the building at nighttime as he was often there early in the morning, but in a slightly grievous looking state.

We published some great and fascinating books, like Alternative London by Nicholas Saunders, who set up Neal’s Yard, just off Neal Street in Covent Garden. He was eccentric and fabulous and a much welcomed visitor to the office. I once went with Olly to a house Nicholas had in Edith Grove. The corridors had been made into round burrows with papier mache. The cistern above the loo was made of clear glass and had goldfish swimming around in it. It wasn’t quite as dire for them as might be thought, although, on second thoughts, maybe it was. For some reason, this water system was connected to a pond, which was half in and half out of the house. There were some ducks on it. I had been thinking that the fish might on occasion escape to the pond for a more pleasant view of the world but obviously that would have constituted another hazard for them.

The possibilities were endless. Olly was very creative and artistic and playful and we published people like Studs Terkel, Talking to Myself, a book on the drovers’ roads of Wales and a similar one on the Ridgway, with photographs by Fay Godwin, and I remember one called Getting There without Drugs by Buryl Payne. Then there was Radical Technology by Godfrey Boyle, which John took great interest in, a book on self- sufficiency and one about the Findhorn founders and their giant vegetables. I was particularly keen on The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and although I don’t think we published him, Lyall Watson used to come in and see us. I remember my friend Celia, who worked at a nearby literary agency, found him irresistible. But I think the book that possibly sold the most copies was probably The Tao of Love and Sex, by Jolan Chang.

Chang looked Chinese but I’m not sure what he was. He used to come to the office on a bicycle. He lived in Sweden and told us he had sex ten times a day. One day he arrived with a large bag of pumpkin seeds, which he said were an aphrodisiac and proceeded to offer them to Helen, Beverley, and myself. Beverley announced that she was married and very much looked down her nose at Chang and his antics. Helen and I ate a handful of the seeds but, sadly for Chang, did not feel able to oblige him in his regime of ten times a day. Chang went off, saying that English girls were frigid and that was why he lived in Sweden.

Olly thought we could have managed it at least once each, if only to keep the author sweet. We did not agree, pointing out that Chang was not the same as Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck or Omar Sharif. Or Paul Newman, Robert Redford, or George Clooney for that matter! But we never did get around to doing a book on film stars…

One of my jobs at Wildwood was to do some simple accounts with the hope of balancing the books at the end of each month. Dieter explained the mystery of bookkeeping and I did get the hang of the columns quite quickly. If people didn’t pay on time I used to ring up and harangue them viciously. Just as well I hadn’t studied accountancy, because I fear I would have become very grumpy. Getting some people to pay was like squeezing blood out of a stone.

I loved working at Wildwood with all these idiosyncratic people who were creative and civilised, witty, wild and well informed and had leaps of imagination and a Stephen Fry sense of humour and were so warm hearted. This was my top job along with John St. John’s at Heinemann (whom I introduced to Olly and Dieter). I think they enjoyed each other’s company over lunch at The Reform Club and Poon’s in Covent Garden (Oliver’s favourite lunchtime venue). I miss Olly in the same way that I miss John St. John. They both died about the same time and I still think of them as if they were here. I felt very much at home with all these people.

She includes obituaries here: Two lovely men
 
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