John, who has died at the age of 91, was in his late twenties in the late 1950s when let in the light on dreary post-war Britain with his publication of a flood of progressive foreign writers and became the scourge of its conservative literary establishment in the process.
In 2002 the poet and critic Al Alvarez said : "What is important about John is that he has gone to the wall, both artistically and financially, for his literary beliefs and he continues to publish experimental work with a strictly minority appeal. I'm sure he will be part of literary history for what he's done in terms of getting difficult minority writers a hearing."
It had started when John became friends with the US publisher Barney Rosset, who had discovered Henry Miller and Maurice Girodias, the Paris-based publisher, who first introduced him to Samuel Beckett's experimental novels 'Murphy', 'Malloy'
and 'Malone Dies'
, which John published as a single volume in 1958.
In his first meeting with Samuel, John said they "talked about life, its pointlessness, the cruelty of man to man."
It was a friendship which would last for over 30 years and only ended with Beckett's death in 1989. John spoke of their friendship in the BBC documentary.'Samuel Beckett : As The Story Was Told' in 1996 : https://goo.gl/zpmWL3 and also the creative process : https://goo.gl/HWU4Ud
In 1960 he organised a nation wide reading tour of three of his authors : Marguerite Duras,
who had just won a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. for her script for the film 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'; Nathalie Sarraute, whose 1956 essay 'The Age of Suspicion' had served as a manifesto for the 'Nouveau Roman Literary Movement' and Alain Robbe-Grillet
, another member of the Movement. He recalled the impact of the trio, when questioned about them in Paris in 2013 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux-orp_JLiA&t=5m56s
In the same year, with Jim Haynes and Sonia Orwell he arranged the first 'Writers' Conference' at Edinbugh and assembled a list of progressive writers : MacDiarmid, Trocchi, Wilson, Mailer, Burroughs and Henry Miller : "There hasn't been anything like it before or since,"
said Jim Haynes.
John recalled the creation in 2013 : https://vimeo.com/77972056#t=55m30s
. Subsequently, writers such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Angus Wilson chaired sessions, discussing issues such as sexuality, censorship, colonialism and the repression of writers overseas.
The following year, he managed a drama conference, presided over by critic Kenneth Tynan and featuring playwrights Arden, Wesker, Pinter and Ionesco along with Laurence Olivier and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz
In 1962 he inherited Ledlanet, a shooting lodge in Kinross-shire, from his great uncle, Sir James Calder and converted it into a kind of Scottish Glyndebourne, presiding over his Ledlanet Nights in a kilt, providing early opportunities for singers like Josephine Barstow and Philip Langridge and staging plays and concerts as well as his beloved operas.
In 1963, he published Henry Miller's landmark novel, 'Tropic of Cancer'
, which, because of its graphic sexual content,no publisher had dared consider before in Britain. Later that year, his publication of Scottish beat writer Alexander Trocchi's, 'Cain's Book'
, which detailed the life of Joe Necchi, a heroin addict and writer, who was living and working on a scow on the Hudson River in New York, sparked an obscenity trial in Sheffield, which John lost.
The year ended with publication of William Burroughs's drug-fuelled beatnik trilogy, 'The Naked Lunch', 'The Soft Machine' and 'The Ticket That Exploded', which had been the subject of an infamous obscenity trial the previous year in the US. John published all three in a single volume called 'Dead Fingers Talk',
from which William had excised some of the more objectionable passages.
In 1964, his publication of 'The Naked Lunch'
sparked a lengthy correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement, the high point of which was a letter from Dame Edith Sitwell in which she said of John : 'I do not wish to spend the rest of my life with my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories'
and added : 'I prefer Chanel Number 5.'
In 1967, after the Conservative MP Sir Cyril Black
had taken out a summons against a London bookseller for stocking Hubert Selby Jr’s 'Last Exit to Brooklyn'
, calling it "pornogrpahy incarnate"
and the copies were consigned to the flames. John decided to go ahead with British publication and the book, with its gang-rape scene, was sent to trial at the Old Bailey.
The aged publisher and bookseller, Sir Basil Blackwell
, declared in court that he had been irremediably corrupted by his reading of it, but although a guilty verdict was returned, it was quashed after an appeal won by John Mortimer
and this success virtually ended censorship in Britain and the light flooded in.
John was now publishing 350 titles a year and earning the support of the Arts Council. He took over London’s 'Better Books' and then started another shop in Edinburgh. For a time he was joined by the publisher Marion Boyars
to form Calder and Boyars and they published Miller’s 'Tropic of Cancer.'
These were the years in which he could justifiably boast : “My literary success, as well as my lack of business sense, can be judged by my having published more Nobel Prize-winners than any other publisher in Britain during that time, while making no money doing it.”
His partnership with Marion ended in the 1975 and he lost half of his authors and his 80s and 90s proved very difficult, in part because of a sea-change in publishing which he blamed on the fact that : "Thatcherism had taken its toll in a xenophobic dumbing down of international culture."
The Arts Council under William Rees-Mogg
discontinued his grant in 1983, a manifestation, in his eyes, of Thatcherism at its most brutal and philistine. There were also a succession of disasters, which most seriously led to a US distributor confiscating his stock which meant he "had to stop production of all books, stop paying royalties"
and as a result he lost Miller and Burroughs.who were taken away by executors.
He sacked his freelance sales force, preferring to sell his books himself to booksellers, not just in Britain but around the world. In 2007 he sold the business to another independent publisher, though the imprint retained his name.
John once said :
"I'm not that particularly interested in getting credit for anything. What matters is what has been thought, written, done, painted - the repository of the cultural heritage of the country. People like myself are just cogs in the wheel, and cogs get worn out. I don't think that anyone is ever going to try to do again what I did."
John was born in Montreal in 1927, the son of French-Canadian born, Lucienne Wilson and James, the scion of a prominent Scottish brewing clan, who had distinguished himself during the First World War, winning the Military Cross. The money in the family came form his Canadian Grandfather, an industrialist and later senator, who had made his fortune during the prohibition of alcohol in the States in the 1920s and early thirties. In fact it was Prohibition which had brought the two families together, with Calder whisky being funnelled into the States via Canada.
A shy boy, John could read by the age of 4 and did so avidly. Betty said : "I don't know where he got it - certainly not from our parents. It must have been some kind of genetic aberration. He was always inventive, he would write little plays and he would get us to act in them. And everybody had to go with his direction."
His was a lonely childhood : At the age of 9 in 1936 and for the next four years he was packed off a a boarder at the Benedictine Gilling Castle Preparatory School
in North Yorkshire. When the family moved to Canada in 1940, after the Second World War, he continued his private education at Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Quebec for the duration of the War.
John's father died from tuberculosis in 1944 and the following year John was set to take up his place to read English at Oxford, but be came under the influence of his mother's new lover, a Canadian soldier who was interested in the widow's fortune and convinced John to study economics at Zurich University. John recalled : "He had read an article in an American business magazine about how Zurich was the most prominent business university, so I allowed myself to be sent there."
Despite the unexciting curriculum and semi-monastic regime, with some classes beginning at 7am, John still managed to enjoy his time in Switzerland, by indulging, what became a life long passion for opera. At the same time his literary tastes were eclectic and international. He became fluent in French and German and couldn't understand why back home in Britain there was so little interest in other cultures or in foreign literature.
At the end of his course in 1949, while staying in the luxury Dolder Hotel,
John by chance met "an apparition in pink,"
who introduced herself as Christya Myling, an aspiring Hollywood starlet under contract to MGM. He was now 22 and began a passionate affair with Christya conducted in Lausanne, Paris and London, where they were married within weeks at Westminster Registry Office. When John returned to Zurich to take his final examinations, however, Christya became involved with a Hollywood producer and, within 10 days of getting married, John, with difficulty talked her out of getting a divorce.
John's first involvelemnt with publishing was in 1950 in the shape of a short-lived company he formed with André Deutsch which published some Tolstoy translations and Petronius's 'Satyricon.' Most of his time, however was devoted to his uncle's timber firm and despite his success in turning around an ailing timber yard, he still couldn't quite match Christya's talent for expenditure and recalled : "She was opening various accounts with department stores, which I did my best to limit or cancel."
With the timber company in the throes of a takeover, John devoted more and more time to publishing and in 1953 started to publish in succession : opera annuals, the British Film Institute magazine 'Sight and Sound' and in the mid-50s growing number of pioneering anti-McCarthy books, including 'The Un-Americans'
by Alvah Bessie. In addition, he began publishing new translations of the works by Goethe and Chekhov.
In 1954, Christya gave birth to a healthy baby girl and at her insistence, they had her christened 'James' to satisfy the Calder family expectation that he would have a male heir and when the deceit was discovered John was disinherited by the family. His marriage to Christya finally ended when he was 34 in 1961 when his late-night bout of his cello practice triggered an explosive argument, as he recalled : "I had become rather adept at playing the instrument, but while I was practising on this particular night, she came and said : "You and your fucking cello." She took a cigarette box and threw it straight through the front of it. I saw red, and nearly strangled her. I packed a couple of things and moved out there and then."
Surprisingly, the marriage had lasted 12 years.
John's publication of 'The Question'
by Henri Alleg, an indictment of French colonial policy in Algiers which described the brutalities inflicted by French paratroopers, had became a surprise bestseller and sold 5,000 copies in two days. It was followed by 'Gangrene', a collection of articles edited by Jerome Lindon that formed a powerful critique of British and French colonialism. These were the first steps he made in a career which would see him become one of the most significant publishers of literature in the 20th century.