Finding the Words

Finding the Words

listerm02pic1.jpg Finding the Words is ‘a book about books, about those who write and publish them, and about why and how a born-to-books loner started, ran, made a living by, and disposed of his small firm in the second half of the twentieth century.’ So begins Jon Wynne-Tyson’s retrospect on his life in books, being a memoir of a world of the ‘small independent publisher’ that is now almost completely gone, most SIPs having been swallowed up not by that ‘delicate monster which is Boredom’ but into the maws of the mighty conglomerates, most of which are subject to American dictates.

In his foreword to this book, the bibliophile, historian and fellow of All Souls Sir Keith Thomas writes, ‘the Centaur Press was the single-handed creation of Wynne-Tyson, which he founded in 1954, partly to publish a book of his own – Grin and Bear It, a take-off of Marie Stopes’s lyrical portrayal of the joys of motherhood and a mixed bag of other titles.’ By 1960 and with a modest but respectable number of titles to his credit, Wynne-Tyson moved into Centaur Classics. Described early on by one reviewer as ‘a little Oxford University Press’, the role of the Classics series was to reprint ‘books of real merit which had become unobtainable. These minor masterpieces, undeservedly forgotten … were all pleasurable books which were out of copyright, and thus available to be reprinted. At the same time they were too recherché to be of interest to the big commercial publishers, but had not yet received the attention of the university presses.’ Titles in the Centaur Classics series included the great Elizabethan and early Stuart translations of Ovid, Pliny, Plutarch, Camoens, Ariosto and Tasso; English minor poets of the nineteenth century; and ‘unclassifiable treasures’ such as Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft and Joseph Spence’s Anecdotes. Keith Thomas adds, ‘the Centaur Classics were not cheap, but they were handsomely produced, they were usually edited or introduced by contemporary scholars, and they met a real need.’

But Finding the Words is no means a dry chronological history or a book-by-book account of the Centaur Press. (For those keen to have publication figures: it published about 150 titles between 1954 and 1994. And of special interest to us here in Scotland is the fact that in 1965 Centaur Classics issued a handsomely turned out crown folio facsimile of the 1938 edition of Robert Burns’ first Commonplace Book, with an added foreword by David Daiches, which Wynne-Tyson writes, ‘has probably sold as many copies for Burns Night prizes as to the nation’s librarians’). Rather Finding the Words is an autobiography of its founder, with anecdotes about almost every aspect of the book-trade on almost every page. For each amusing anecdote that Wynne-Tyson recounts, he counterbalances with a doleful one, whether on backlists, ‘remaindering fever’ or warehousing. On the fraught question of accountants’ hysteria at the cost of warehousing stock, he comes up with a modest proposal first aired in the Bookseller: any publisher swamped with heavy backlists and accountants breathing down their neck should build a shed – a kind of variation on ‘Protect and Survive.’ It is not known precisely how many publishers, small or otherwise, have followed this tried and tested – and free – advice.

A close second to accountants in Wynne-Tyson’s experience come newspapers. On their role, and in terms of the diminishing support they can give to small publishers, Wynne-Tyson laments ‘that the relentless increase in new titles … has not been adequately matched by the literary papers’ allocation of reviewing space, while reviewing standards have been increasingly sacrificed to the cult of personality.’ Where literary editors are concerned, Wynne-Tyson concedes their lot is really not much easier than the small publishers.’ Though how sad it is to learn that even a well-meaning literary editor on the Guardian should admit that ‘in general, I think it is a mistake for small publishing houses to rely on the benevolence of literary editors.’ Small publishing houses be warned.

In almost any account of a small independent publisher’s life, readers might be forgiven for expecting to find frequent references to wolves and bailiffs approaching doors; here though at least two Rolls-Royces feature in Wynne-Tyson’s autobiography, though neither of them sadly his own – one he had on loan and the other belonged to that other publisher John Calder. (There is also a chapter on the fantasy-throne of the island of Redonda, about which there has been an interesting correspondence in recent issues of the TLS.) Perhaps more in keeping with the precarious existence we come to expect of the small independent publisher is Wynne-Tyson’s description of the Centaur ‘van’, used for transporting the catalogue mailings to the post office. This was ‘a unique vehicle, a long timber box … bolted to the supporting frame and wheels of (his daughter) Tilly’s coach-finished Silver Cross perambulator, bought second hand in the lean year of 1951.’ Now that is more like it!

As to be expected also, Wynne-Tyson writes amusingly and entertainingly about his many adventures and the many interesting character-building experiences he has had in his life in books. In particular there is one story that repays many a retelling: this is the background to the publication of Derek Stanford’s 1963 study of Muriel Spark. It appears that the Centaur Press entered into this venture innocently and in good faith. Before long, solicitors were being consulted, and following publication, heated exchanges of correspondence appeared in the TLS between Spark, Stanford and Wynne-Tyson. According to the writer Lynn Barber, Spark was ‘still seething’ about Stanford and his book when Barber interviewed her in 1990. But Wynne-Tyson is generous about the whole controversy and writes with something approaching great beneficence, ‘for Derek … the sun is setting low in his terminal old folks’ home in Brighton, and it would be nice if he were to receive an olive twig from Toscana before there is only a headstone to receive it’ – but not before saying ‘the book sold poorly and is still in print, Muriel may be glad to know.’

Finding the Words is a charming account of a life in books. Though now retired from his profession and calling, Wynne-Tyson is far from retired from life. One is almost envious of the work and the world that Jon Wynne-Tyson has made his own.

Finding the Words: A Publishing Life by Jon Wynne-Tyson is available from Michael Russell Publishing, Wilby Hall, Norwich (ISBN 085955287X £19.95 HBK).

© Michael Lister 2005