Fred Newman, co-founder with the late Clive Labovitch of Publishing News and the British Book Awards, has died aged 76 after a brutal battle with cancer, which he bore with stoicism and dignity.
Charismatic, iconoclastic, Fred was a man of contradictions who much enjoyed his three decades around the book trade yet was never fully a part of it, though there was a handful of publishers and authors with whom he would occasionally socialise. Indeed, he was probably happiest in an outsider’s role, an observer by inclination and training.
An only child, born Manfred Neumann in Vienna, on 13 October 1932, he came to England with his parents around the time of the Anschluss, his mother having bribed a guard to effect his father’s escape from Dachau.
He grew up in London and Wales, to where he was evacuated and, in 1946, went to the William Ellis School, Camden, and then to Christ Church, Oxford, where he met Labovitch. Nigel Lawson and Michael Heseltine were contemporaries.
At Oxford, he read modern languages, though what most engaged him was student journalism, and he edited Cherwell. On graduation, he was called up for national service, becoming a corporal in the army, and then joined the Daily Sketch as a junior reporter.
Later, as editor of its Simon Ward diary column, he chronicled the unfolding drama of the Profumo Affair and trailed Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend around the playgrounds of Europe. Though his attention to the nuances of punctuation often left a good deal to be desired, Fred could always be relied upon to advise on the correct way to address a royal or a bishop.
Journalism in the Sixties must have been very heaven, and Fred surely led an exciting and glamorous life, though only rarely could he be persuaded to talk about it; he certainly never name-dropped.
At the Sketch, he moved from the diary to the feature pages, becoming chief feature writer (one memorable encounter was with Mick Jagger who, he wrote, ‘strums his lips like loose elastic”) and, ultimately, features editor.
When in the early Nineties, Jean Rook – the presiding queen of what was still, just, Fleet Street – published her memoirs, Fred let slip that she’d been his protÃ©gÃ©e and he decided he’d interview her for Publishing News. He returned from the encounter judging her to be ‘just the same, only more so’– which, she later told me, was how she felt about him.
Publishing News is born
In the late Seventies, quite by chance, Fred encountered his old friend Clive Labovitch, who had been the creative force at Haymarket Publications, where his business partner had been Michael Heseltine. The two men – different as chalk and cheese but great foils for each other – teamed up to capitalise on the latest teen craze. Skateboard Special was an immediate, if short-lived, success and provided both men with a fund of anecdote.
Publishing News, Fred and Clive’s second joint endeavour, founded in 1979, was much more to their liking. In a trade unrecognisable to today’s young publishers and booksellers, it challenged the staid supremacy of the Bookseller, the so-called ‘organ of the book trade”, focusing on the people and addressing itself to what was then more of a community than an industry.
Its first office was in the basement bar of the Park Lane Hotel, then owned by a friend of Clive’s – hence the name of the paper’s long-serving diarist, Harry Barr, whom many people believed actually existed. Ten years later, they realised their long-held ambition of launching an evening of trade-wide awards, the British Book Awards, known as the Nibbies, now a much more significant event than either of them dreamed.
By the time I first met Fred, in November 1983, having answered an ad for an editorial assistant with ambitions, PN had recently located to appropriately Dickensian offices in Museum Street.
At the interview, there was little discussion of publishing and scarcely any more of journalism – even in my anxious state, I noted Fred’s shyness and an inarticulacy that contrasted sharply with his writing – but I was offered a three-month trial. My plan was to stay a couple of years and then apply for a ‘proper’job in publishing.
When PN published its last issue on 25 July this year, I had clocked up six months short of 25 years, which seems unbelievable, even now. I stayed because I loved the position and the entrÃ©e it afforded me: I was on the outside looking in yet felt a part of the book trade and still do, which is what made PN’s demise so upsetting. The core staff was astonishingly long-serving, and, chronicling the vicissitudes of the book trade, we felt like the still point in a turning world.
Those moments when books set the nation’s news agenda (Andrew Morton on Diana; the Thatcher memoirs; Chris Patten on Hong Kong) or when the industry’s tectonic plates shifted (Penguin buying Thomson; the dissolution of CVBC; Bertelsmann buying Random House) were a total adrenaline rush.
While no one ever got rich working for Fred, professionally he was very generous, always quick to give credit where credit was due. Fred taught me – and everyone who worked for him, if they were receptive – a great deal.
Always he did it unconventionally. He dropped you in at the deep end, gave you enough rope. If things went wrong, he hauled you in. If they went right, there’d be a word, sometimes a note, of praise (‘good piece, my dear, good piece”).
He encouraged ambition and, in the golden days before publishers became enmeshed in heavily embargoed serial deals, he allowed me to roam freely interview-wise across all manner of political figures, including Gerry Adams. When Robert Maxwell’s most high-profile biographer attempted to defend himself by claiming I’d misquoted him, Fred was steadfast and gave short shrift indeed to some hectoring phone calls.
When he himself wrote, often about business issues or about some fundamental company restructuring, or about a problem with which he believed the trade needed to grapple, he was without peer, combining a grasp of the facts and clarity of thought that made him a must-read. Had he spread himself less thinly, he would have been brilliant, but there was always too much to do and too few people to delegate to. Yet through sheer force of personality Fred held everything together.
Impatient (on the only occasion I drove with him to Frankfurt, I had to negotiate ‘five minutes – and hurry up!’to clean my teeth after breakfast in Calais), impossible, irascible, he was quick to anger but never bore a grudge, even after the most furious row. Indeed, he respected those who stood their ground and showed the courage of conviction, much as it infuriated him at the time.
He had an unerring knack of asking the one question you couldn’t answer or enquiring as to the progress of the one thing you hadn’t done, but was reasonable in the face of an honest admission of failure. And if you made a wrong decision about something – well, that was better than no decision at all. He didn’t suffer fools gladly (though he put up with a few down the years) but was without sexism and totally colour blind.
In the early years of PN, Fred was, as he said in his valedictory article for the paper, ‘reporter, news editor, sub-editor, designer and chief proof reader’and he went about it all with a demonic energy. He expected, but did not always receive, the same from his various employees.
He was a force of nature who brought to whatever he did a terrific sense of energy and drive which was infectious. Little about him was conventional, certainly not his management style.
At the PN Christmas lunch last year, both Fred and the company he founded were weathering monumental storms. Prevailed upon to make a short speech, he wished us all luck, but noted that, whatever happened, it wouldn’t matter to him: ‘I’ll be horizontal by this time next year”. We all laughed, as we were surely intended to, few of us realising in the merriment of the moment that Fred was making a very black joke indeed.