9 a.m. this morning and a session with literary agent Toby Eady talking to David Elworthy. Toby Eady is well known of course as being the son of Mary Wesley and the husband of Chinese writer Xinran.
A very English Englishman and to bring a note of appalling trivia to the processings, what is it about English chaps and socks? Recovering from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s standout socks at Auckland, it was hard here not to notice the bright red socks of Mr E. (and I was towards the back of the room too). Enough of this drivel, you might say…what we got in this session was a highly entertaining anecdotal gallop through the life and career of the gentleman in question.
He described his childhood as paradise and life in the very setting of his mother’s The Camomile Lawn certainly sounded idyllic. His mother’s own childhood had not been like this and was in fact quite bad. Her father had suffered hugely from his experiences in World War I and Mary said later she wished Pat Barker’s novel The ghost road had come out years back as she would then have been able to understand her father more. Mention here too of another excellent novel about the effect of war, Rachel Seifert’s Afterwards.
Her family had been deeply conventional but not particularly pleasant.
He said it put no value in humanist qualities and emphasised instead a class-driven respectability and an obsession with money, particularly inherited wealth. Mary’s experiences working in soup kitchens and shelters at the time of Jarrow March gave her a view of another world and then her work in M.I.5. during the war and the freedom she experienced then and after (being ” very openly unmarried but married”) was the basis for much of her fiction.
Toby himself went to a few schools, then to boarding school, refused to go to Eton. He was at school with later luminaries such as Terence Conran and John Eliot Gardiner. School didn’t especially impress him as it exists “to give you a repetitive memory” and prepare you for a conventional life. Take that, educators!
He went into banking (in a private bank run by Central Europeans) at when he was 25 one of the partners suggested he move into the selling of books and work for himself. He has now been a literary agent for 41 years. He set himself up in the 1960s (a lot of fond memories of the halcyon days of publishing in the 1960s where a gamble was taken on a writer rather than a bet on a second rate celebrity as happens now) and his first book was the Ted Lewis novel Jack’s return home. It’s a very gritty thriller set in the North of England and it was made into a cult movie, “Get Carter”, with Michael Caine that predated by decades the British movie fascination with gangsters (and was remade as a dreadful vehicle for the lumbering S. Stallone).
All went well in the British publishing world until the crash of 1973/74 and Eady moved to New York. He had interesting stories to tell about the American publishing world and the way that paperbacks revolutionised and changed the industry.
There were so many anecdotes this session could have gone on tillafter the cows came home. I especially liked the one about the successful television version of The Camomile Lawn. You may recall that this one had a lot of actors peeling off (not surprising when one was Tara Fitzgerald of whom it was once said that if she trusted and respected the director and if she felt it was integral to the part, she’d keep her clothes on for a whole film) and Mary said it was all wrong: English bedrooms at the time were not centrally heated and all disrobing had to happen under the bedclothes.
I’d like to have heard more about fishing in Labrador, the book on Confucius he is having translated into English, or the translations of Harold Pinter plays into Chinese (the mind boggles here: how do you translate endless pauses?) but it was an hour long session so that was that. Great stuff for a Saturday morning. and it might sound as if there was a lot of name dropping but if you know the names then it is natural to drop them.