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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Peter Haining (1940-2007)

Peter Haining, the writer and anthologist of over 200 books, died on Monday, November 19, 2007, aged 67. He was talking to friends only an hour before suffering a sudden heart attack.

Peter was a good friend and lived just over the "border" in Suffolk, which meant he was able to drive down occasionally and root around amongst the books I've gathered over the years. He was one of the few people I trusted to take books away -- you can see lots of examples of covers in Peter's The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines and The Classic Era of Crime Fiction, for example. More recently he had been borrowing boxfuls of old Sixties paperbacks -- Digit, Badger, Pan, Corgi, etc. to help with various war-related books he had been writing.

Like me, Peter was a hoarder of old books. His office was filled with shelves full of books which I also had the chance to rummage through. Any collector will tell you that there's no greater pleasure. His tastes were eclectic: he even had books by William J. Elliott, a writer from the 1930s and 1940s unlikely to feature in anyone's collection (except mine). Some with dustjackets, which I promptly photocopied.

Our interests intersected quite a lot: since my own interests can be boiled down to "British pulp" -- cheap genre paperbacks, penny dreadfuls, children's story papers, comics -- Peter was, of course, part of that interest as he was a senior editor at New English Library during their (to me) most fascinating period and one of the instigators of the 1970s paperback boom. When I put together PBO, the newsletter of the British Association of Paperback Collectors, many years ago, Peter was my first port of call for an interview. I've extracted a chunk of that interview below.

In all the years I knew him I think we only disagreed once: he'd produced a book which tried to turn the fictional Sweeney Todd into a real historical case using fake newspaper reports and a fake Newgate Calendar entry; this created many problems when it came to sorting the wheat from the chaff about the true origins of the character (and he'd previously done -- with Bill Lofts -- a perfectly good proper history of the character's fictional origins). It's a very clever book but my least favourite amongst his output.

My favourites... well, there are plenty. Peter was a very good anthologist and I must have read dozens of them over the years; he wasn't a lazy anthologist and liked to dig out obscure stories wherever he could so even a collection on a familiar theme would have something new to most readers. I guess my real favourites were books like Mystery! and Terror! from the mid-1970s which were packed full of illustrations; he'd returned to producing similar books a few years ago which I was pleased to have had a small part in. Over the years Peter also produced biographies, joke books and even a handful of novels (although Terry Harknett had a big hand in those as ghost writer).

My sympathies go out to Peter's family and I'll leave you with this interview with Peter which was conducted in 1995; as we open I'd just asked Peter about how he had come to join New English Library...

I honestly can’t remember the actual date I joined New English Library [the owners of Four Square], but I was working on a trade magazine called The National Newsagent. I was the features editor and did a weekly column called ‘Paperback News’, which put me in contact with all the various paperback publishers in London including New English Library. I tried to not make it your average puff for the paperbacks that were being produced—occasionally the ones that I liked I would hype up and the others that I couldn’t see the point in publishing I would say so. Quite out of the blue I got a call from Gareth Powell who was the new, or comparatively new, Managing Director of New English Library, inviting me out to lunch. He had quite a reputation did Gareth, and I remember one of my colleagues saying, ‘Be careful, you never know what he’s going to try to trick you into or ask you to do.’

To cut a long story short, he said, ‘We’ve got a vacancy for an editor, would you like to join us?’ Well, that’s a natural step from being a journalist, to go into publishing, so I went. My immediate superior was a guy called Rodney Blumer, who nowadays is the editor of Ballet Today where he uses the name Rodney Milnes. Rodney was a wonderful, high-brow, literary publisher—loved the classics. But Gareth being a working class lad made good wanted to publish the stuff that people wanted to read which, I guess in a way, was probably why he brought in a young journalist like me to come in.

The early books I did reflected my own interests I suppose. I did the horror anthologies in my own time and didn’t get paid. At that time, there was only Clarence Paget at Pan doing horror - the Herbert Van Thal anthologies. Horror was regarded with considerable suspicion by the trade and I think Van Thal in this country and August Derleth in the States were about the only two people doing it. But I rather liked horror stories and got in touch with people like Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch and their contemporary writers and basically started putting these horror anthologies together at N.E.L.. And they did quite well, not surprisingly. I was working on salary for N.E.L. so there were no royalties involved. It was just part of the job I was doing, but I suppose it helped to reintroduce the horror anthology outside of Van Thal’s anthologies, which I was never a great admirer of anyway. But that’s another story.

Very, very rapidly, New English Library got itself into several major book contracts with the likes of Harold Robbins, John O’Hara, Irving Stone, Irving Wallace and whathaveyou. It meant that a large amount of N.E.L.’s annual budget was taken up paying for these large-name authors and we had to do whatever publishing we could with the little money that was left, picking on whatever subjects we thought might be commercial.

Rodney subsequently moved on. I’m not sure what he wanted to do, but he left New English Library, and I took over as Senior Editor - the top position at that time - and proceeded to go initially into film tie-ins and books about the pop business; I think we did the first book about The Beatles, by a Fleet Street journalist called Charles Hamblett [Here Are the Beatles, 1964], and we turned this thing around in about three weeks. I wrote a couple of pieces for it and we got lots of photographs together. It was certainly one of the first books about the Beatles.

I suppose our main breakthrough into genre publishing came with a film tie-in called A Town Called Bastard [by William Terry, 1971]. We wanted to do film tie-ins and this was available to us, and we needed a writer. Terry Harknett had been a colleague of mine on the National Newsagent and I knew he’d written thrillers before. He was quick, he was competent, and I just rang him up and asked him if he wanted to do it. He delivered it in a matter of weeks so we could get it out to coincide with the film. It was astonishingly successful.

We used to sit down at editorial meeting to brainstorm through various ideas, and there was a lovely guy called Bert Grey who was production manager who’d sit toking away at cigarettes during meetings. He didn’t usually say much, but when he did it was usually quite relevant; and Bert said, ‘We’ve done quite well with A Town Called Bastard, why don’t we create a series?’

We thought it was a great idea. My input, such as it was, was to say that I wanted the character to look like Lee Van Cleef who was my great hero of western films. We asked Terry to do it, and the whole Edge series evolved from that. It was the success of Edge that then put us into other areas: we did the Slaver novels, Romances, wherever there seemed to be a market.

I suppose the other significant breakthrough was with the Skinhead books. There was another editor in the company called Chris Moroney who’d actually worked in the Sales Department; I think he’d always wanted to work in the editorial department and finally we had an opening and he was sitting around one day and literally just said ‘Why don’t we do a book on skinheads? There’s a lot of interest.’ Jim Moffatt, who’d been doing other books for us and had become one of this sort of team of people who churned books out on whatever subject we wanted, was the only one who was actually available who could do it quickly at the time and, of course, wrote what became the very successful Skinhead. The thing that amuses me about that whole thing is that Jim probably never got nearer to a skinhead than the opposite side of a bar. I certainly don’t think he spent a lot of time talking to them, although as you know, subsequently a lot of people said those books really understood skinheads and suadeheads. I think it was Jim’s instincts as a writer that really carried him through.

And that’s really how it came about: because we had these heavy financial commitments to all these big name authors who, frankly, I don’t think we sold anywhere near the number of copies that were anticipated. But New English Library was owned by New American Library who wanted us to be big name publishers. But we had all this middle of the road stuff which none of the hardcover publishers were producing, so we generated our own.

What happened to Chris Moroney?

I honestly don’t know. I have a feeling he left and became a librarian or something like that. I can see his face and I can remember him being a very tall, quiet guy who wanted to get into the editorial department, and that was his main contribution as I remember it, and I’m pretty sure he became a librarian. Getting away from the chains and the skinheads.

My number two there was Laurence James who was very much into science fiction and science fantasy, and we published some good SF which was very much down to Laurence. He came to us from Leslie Frewin, Frewin having been a publicist who set up his own company which is where I think Laurence and I first met. I bought the odd book or two from him for N.E.L. and then invited him to join because he had the same sort of feel for the quickie paperbacks which were, in fact, the saving grace for N.E.L. in those years.

The names of the others escape me. There were a couple of girls who came in, and one...Felicity Smart worked with us for a while and then moved away and briefly had her own imprint - Harwood Smart I think it was called - which was into hardcovers, but I don’t think it lasted very long. There are probably other people that I should remember but I can’t. I mean, I quit N.E.L. in around 1971, so we’re talking about a long time ago.

That was when all the genre publishing seemed to be picking up.

Yeah. The thing that I liked about New English Library, and I don’t think it was much of a secret, was that when Gareth Powell took over it was owned by New American Library who, if it could have been sold in London, probably would have done so. But we started to pick things up with this kind of instant publishing which nobody else was really doing on quite the same scale and nowhere near as ashamedly. Gareth Powell was subsequently replaced by Christopher Shaw and after Christopher came Bob Tanner who’s now a literary agent in London; I think Bob was responsible for some of the most subsequent most significant development.

The nice thing from my point of view is that we got a reasonable amount of success doing paperbacks, and then started a hardcover list, went into part-works, published our own magazines about people like Johnny Cash - again, very current things that we could get quick magazines out of, we did a science fiction poster magazine. It was always quick on the feet stuff that we could see a market for. We developed a small company into a company that had major divisions: there was the hardcover division, the paperback division, the magazine division producing everything from slimming to science fiction and the partworks, mainly done by outside consultants on railways and cars and things like that. So we generated a lot of product which could be recycled as hardcover books and paperbacks and so on.

We also had a distribution company as well. We handled Penthouse and Forum in their early days—so in a very short space of time from being a paperback firm, we became quite a major imprint. For a while we also took on the running of the London office of Bernard Geis. Geis was an American publisher who developed the genre of novels like The King [by Morton Cooper], which were all novels that were based on real characters. You didn’t know it was about Sinatra, but it was so obvious. He developed that whole genre, which was very successful. So I doubled up as Publishing Director of Bernard Geis in my latter years at N.E.L.. But that was an idea that only worked for a while, or maybe there were no more people’s lives that you could write about in that particular way. It sort of faded away.

From my own point of view, in the early seventies I was getting asked to do more and more things myself. Also I was pumping ideas into a company and people were doing them and I just thought, I would have done it a different way, so there’s only one decision really: go on doing that or go and do it yourself? I had certain family problems as well: my second son is mentally handicapped which was putting increasing demands on my wife, and I was never there. I also think it is true to say that the nature of the job as Publishing Director took me further and further away from what I wanted to do, which was create books. I travelled to America and produced five year plans, and all this kind of nonsense, which took me away from what I wanted to do. So in ‘71, I decided ‘Enough’s enough,’ and pulled out. And here we are, twenty-five years later and I’m still producing books.

I’m simplifying it in a way I guess, but that was the pattern of it. Those years at N.E.L. were marvellous years and I’ve retained quite a number of friendships from those years. The thing that N.E.L. did, or the American owners of N.E.L. did, was to break certain of the publishing traditions. When I first came into the publishing industry, certainly as far as the hardcover companies were concerned, you had to have gone to University to get in. They let you open the mail until you were twenty-five; from twenty-five to thirty-five they might let you read manuscripts; from thirty-five they might let you start making decisions; at forty-five they might allow you to commission books; and if you were any good, by your mid-fifties they might just make you a director, so you saw out the twilight of your career as a comfortable director lunching at the Garrick.

The Americans came in and said, ‘If you’re good enough, age has got nothing to do with it. If you’ll make a brilliant Publishing Director at 18 we’ll give it to you. But, if somebody else comes along who’s quicker and brighter and smarter than you, watch out for your back.’ It meant that it was a short life, but it was a good life, and for us, as young guys in our early twenties, being able to travel all over the world and buy books was very special and very exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed it, learned a great deal, and it set me up for a subsequent career as a writer, editor, anthologist, consultant, and whatever.

It not only gives you a good grounding it how to do what you do, but you know exactly what people want.

Sure, and in a way the principals are ones that I’ve carried on over into my own work. Doing thematic anthologies, as you know I don’t believe in just throwing twelve stories together and calling it a collection, there’s got to be a theme, there’s got to be development, the stories have got to work together, and I think they should have introductions and background details and I believe very passionately an anthology should represent an editors temperament, idiosyncrasies, and so on.

I’m appalled by this new development that I see in America, which I can only call editing by committee, these anthologies which have three or four editors names on. To me that’s a nonsense. To me, a good anthology should have the same impact on a reader that a good novel does, a sense of satisfaction that, although you’re reading pieces by different writers, you still come to the end of it with that sense of satisfaction that you would from a good novel.

There has to be some sort of conclusion to be drawn.

Exactly. You feel that you know more about the subject not only because of the stories but by the way they’ve been put together and the introductions that give an added dimension and depth to them. That’s always been my philosophy.

It shows. I was looking at the Frankenstein Omnibus last night and you can follow the development of the theme all the way through from the stories written by Shelley and her contemporaries, through the films, radio and play adaptations, to modern interpretations...

Well, I like doing that. The main work at the moment is for Orion publishers who have given me the scope that I now want, because having been anthologising for twenty-five years and being very familiar with the material you can do a subject like that justice if they give you 500 pages. In 192 pages it’s really no good. You can’t do it. But they will allow me to do them that length and I think their faith has been justified because the books have done really quite well. It’s nice to have the opportunity.

I was having, I suppose you’d call it a mild argument with Mike Ashley who was taking me to task for using the same story several times. I said, Over twenty-five years what do you expect. I would consider it arrogant to consider that everybody who picks up one of my anthologies is as knowledgeable about horror as I am and knows that Bram Stoker wrote a story called ‘‘Dracula’s Guest’’ that was taken from the original book, I don’t think you can assume that. And every ten years you get a new generation come along to whom you have to, if you like, spell it out all over again. And I’m fortunate enough to have been in the business long enough to do that. But I don’t assume that I should ignore everything I’ve done before and say I can’t possibly use that because I’ve used it before. If it’s an important part of the structure of an anthology then I’ll use it again and make no bones about it.

If you’re developing a theme through a book, it’s impossible to take out half the stories that make up its structure.

There are certain times that I have done, when a story is incredibly easy to get hold of, I’ll say ‘A similar story is...and the reader is recommended to consult...’ But not if it’s central to the theme that I’m developing. I wouldn’t drop something because I’ve used it before, not if it’s important to the structure of the anthology. A good anthology should have a structure in the same way that a good novel or a non-fiction book does. But I think that’s very important.

I noticed that you used some quite obscure stuff like that Michael Hervey story.

Sure, sure. I think that’s one of the nice things that I can do now because my name has a certain ring in the trade, I suppose. I can actually pick out something like that. They may not be terribly good - not literary masterpieces - but they work well in the context of allowing you to demonstrate another element of publishing that was going on. In other words, the mushroom publishers - you can pop that in. It’s something that went on. Obviously if I was restricted to 200 pages there’s no way I could use them, but if you’ve got that number you can and it’ll give the reader another flavour of another area of publishing that was going on at this time. I’m really glad to have the opportunity to do that. And I think they work, and it’s nice when people like you notice and comment on things like that.

You can’t get everybody in, and you are going to miss certain elements, but it’s amazing how it’ll spark off people. Some of the nicest letters I get from people are on just that sort of thing: ‘I always liked the stories by such and such and I’ve never seen one included in an anthology before. Do you know of any more?’ That’s a fairly regular occurrence. And then you feel that justifies the effort.

Obituaries: The Independent (28 November), The Guardian (5 December).

(* Images are just a few of my favourites from Peter's incredible output of books.)

4 comments:

gazza34 said...

The obit on Peter is excellent. And the story of his early years at the New English Library is totally accurate. In the interview he skipped one fact. His very first book was a guide to the Channel Islands which he produced in three weeks from scratch. Far away from anything he produced after that. He was a very pleasant cove and much admired by other publishers. Anthony Cheetham (who had worked with him at the New English Library) thought the world of him and published quite a few of his books.

Gareth Powell

Steve said...

Thanks, Gareth. If you ever care to share any memories of your days at Four Square and Mayflower, drop me a line (my e-mail address is over on the right under the pic.).

Steve

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting. Peter Haining may have re-used stories from time to time, and he didn't commission original stories as much as, say, Mike Ashley, but his productivity must leave anyone who has tried to edit an anthology in awe. A very impressive body of work.

thebookhaven said...

Then best Peter Haining anthology I've read is The Black Magic Omnibus. Terrific collection of occult stories.

Great article Steve.