BMCR 1996.02.19

Colin Haycraft 1929-1994: Maverick Publisher

, , Colin Haycraft, 1929-1994: Maverick Publisher. London: Duckworth, 1995. viii, 152 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 0715626817.

Any classicist outside the United Kingdom who wonders what interest a volume celebrating the life and mourning the death of a (well nicknamed in the title) maverick English publisher might comport for them should turn at once to the Appendix (pp. 127-49). There they will find Colin Haycraft’s presidential address to the Classical Association of Great Britain, delivered on April 6, 1994, only (as it sadly turned out) five months before his sudden death at the age of 65, having just got past the dangerous sixty-third year as described by Augustus (apud Aulus Gellius 15. 7) and the sixty-fourth one more famously commemorated by the Beatles. This speech, deceptively entitled ‘On Not Knowing Greek, or Latin either’, constitutes the best defence of traditional classical philology and its role within humane letters as a whole that I have read for a long time, perhaps ever. Stress ‘traditional’: not a word (except dismissive) will be found on the Scylla and Charybdis of our times, computers and literary theories. In a breathtaking display of lightly worn erudition, clear old-fashioned English prose, elegant wit, and (where warranted) bare-knuckled pugnacity, Haycraft invites us along on an intellectual Baedeker. How can any survivor of the usual after-dinner presidential patter, crambe repetita as bad as the meal that went before, not warm to a speaker who begins by dubbing himself (in Greek) ‘an ape in purple’ and quoting the opening of Housman’s ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’: ‘First, then, I thank those who have appointed me, for this token of their good will; secondly, I condemn their judgement and deplore their choice.’ Then we zoom (the original audience—of which, alas, I was not one—must have wondered what had hit them) along a dual carriageway of Haycraftian reminiscence and opinion, frequently convergent parallel lines, hurtling (this long sentence is deliberately crafted to give readers a taste of what is in store) from his army days (dismissed with the Ciceronian tag cedant arma togae) to the Roman custom of deponting sexagenarians to Gray’s ‘soppy’ Ode on Spring to Johnson’s contempt for cucumbers to defending the elder Pliny on ostriches to Gaisford on the ‘considerable emoluments’ that await the classicist to Horace on his publishers who (Haycraft speaking as one) shine notho lumine to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ (Woolf, incidentally, was half-sister of Gerald Duckworth, founder of the firm directed by Haycraft) to the lament ‘Not to know Latin is to be forever a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture’ in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Ezra Pound’s defence of Latin (a compliment at once ruthlessly withdrawn with the parenthetical ‘How did he know?’) to a reminder that the name of Horace’s favourite girl friend Cinara means artichoke (not even Fraenkel noticed this) to Oliphant Smeaton’s commentary on Gibbon to a startling observation (made at some length) that our tag memento mori makes no sense, or rather not the sense intended, and so on and so forth (had I but space enough and more…) to a triumphantly mendacious ending taken with acknowledgement from Sir Leslie Stephen’s Clark Lectures on English literature and society in the 18th century (published by Duckworth in 1904): ‘I hope I have not said anything original.

This is not (alas) the place to describe at length the fascinating life of Colin Haycraft, one somewhat reminiscent of that of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, A father murdered (apparently by mistake) by a sepoy in the Indian army; two children lost to tragic accidents; marriage to the distinguished novelist Alice Thomas Ellis; some hectic boardroom tussles at Duckworth—in the last such episode, worthy of a Dallas scriptwriter, Haycraft was fired and given two hours to clear his desk, the locks being changed to keep him out thereafter, but having marshalled his forces he was back in command less than two weeks later after an extraordinary meeting known in London publishing circles as the Boardroom Coup.

The full story of Colin Haycraft is recounted in this elegant libellus by a variety of contributors, ranging from Hugh Lloyd-Jones on the classical side to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre to the puckish and indomitable historian A. L. Rowse to the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, and so on. The texts are enlivened by a sequence of gorgeous photographs, proving mainly if not exclusively that Haycraft knew how to organise memorable symposia. In one, we glimpse a lady editor with large wine glass in fetching pyjamas, worthy of Abfab. In another, Haycraft, suitably attired in cut-back frock coat of cream and gold brocade, is reading aloud from Gibbon’s autobiography the historian’s feelings on completing his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to a garden party held on June. 27, 1987, the bicentenary of this great moment: ‘I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summerhouse in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias.’ This was not just a frivolity, rather a union of otium and negotium—as Haycraft reminded the audience in his presidential address, the Roman word for business was a denial of leisure. Gibbon’s two works were Haycraft’s favourite books in English. When he was serving his apprenticeship in the publishing world, he was assigned the unenviable task of abridging the Decline and Fall. Characteristically, he remarked: ‘We had to omit the decline.’

Haycraft’s other beloved English book was the Dictionary of Samuel Johnson, on which he wrote a typically learned and elegant essay in the London ‘Observer’ to celebrate the Longman facsimile edition 235 years after the original publication. Many people regretted that Haycraft did not write much. When chided for this, he issued a memorable riposte: ‘Who needs a pregnant midwife?’ It is a shame that a translation of Erasmus, commissioned by Penguin Books, never materialised. On the other hand, since he liked to affect misogyny to tease over-solemn feminists, it is especially nice to learn (p. 53) that he wrote the prefaces to  Natural Baby Food and The Sayings of Dr Johnson under the pseudonym of Brenda O’Casey. I happen to know from some correspondence (the point is not mentioned in the volume) that he was doing something on John Locke and the Classics just before his death.

But (something the profession would do well to ponder), not publishing needn’t mean not writing. Haycraft could have become a don. He learned his classics well, first at Wellington, then at Queen’s College, Oxford, where he had lectures and tutelage from the likes of Anthony Andrewes, Guy Chilver, Eduard Fraenkel, and John Griffith, taking a double First in Mods and Greats. However, he chose another path.

As with his multifarious ways of keeping Gibbon’s memory green, Haycraft lived his classics. A male friend recalls (p. 23) that he described an undergraduate girl friend as ore longo, lunis exiguis (this application of lunis to fingernails is hard to parallel); we are not told her reaction to this compliment. For cognate delight, there is the account (p. 36) of Haycraft discoursing in Latin over tea and baked beans on toast in a London cafe. The death of a son, Joshua, was mourned by him in Greek verse, while we are frequently told (pp. 60, 83, 99) that he was forever composing Greek and Latin epigrams, sometimes in his bath (shades of his beloved elder Pliny), often with bawdy results. Alas, no specimen is reproduced here. Perhaps they are all lost. Should any be extant, his successors at the House of Duck could give us fresh delights by publishing them in a collection of modern classical verse. This would suit a firm that, thanks to Haycraft, brought out John Sparrow’s anthology of Renaissance Latin Verse and Carol Kidwell’s Marullus.

Colin Haycraft, in fact, transformed a publishing house whose former quiet ways had been the object of some affectionate satire in Anthony Powell’s early novel What’s Become of Waring? into a classical powerhouse that reflected his own dynamism. In his contribution (p. 70), Lloyd-Jones lists his own favourites from the astonishing array of big names and seminal works that Haycraft brought out in his classical list. Its distinguished batting order includes Averil Cameron, Kenneth Dover, George Forrest, Jasper Griffin, Tony Honoré, Mary Lefkowitz, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Fergus Millar, Richard Sorabji, and John Sparrow. I would also herald two particular favourites of mine: Leofranc Holford-Strevens on Aulus Gellius and Carol Kidwell on Marullus. There is enough for some future Photius to compile an anatile Bibliotheca. Except to cricketers, the sign of the duck is a welcome one, a beacon of light and hope for humane studies and cultivated taste. For classicists in particular (the duck’s range is, of course, far broader), already grateful for its salvation of the Bristol Classical Press series, it is high time to transfer the old double-edged compliment, ‘Sir Basil Blackwell, to whom we all owe so much’, from Broad Street to the Old Piano factory.

In these days, when too many classicists despond over their profession, talk only of crisis and/or seek to inject new life through the quack remedies of trendy theories (I think I shall vomit if I see another piece of gobbledegook about Bakhtin and the ancient novel), the life and example of Colin Haycraft stand as an encouraging reminder of what real classics is all about. And real publishing, too. At the end of his 1976 catalogue, Haycraft subjoined this splendid remark:  ‘Duckworth is a firm whose editors employ accountants, not vice versa.’

Given his love of Latin verse, Samuel Johnson, and the eighteenth century in general, I can think of no better way of rounding off this little tributory notice than by quoting the first stanza (the whole thing would have been ideal, but is too long) of Johnson’s address to Cave in the Gentleman’s Magazine, March1738, p. 156: Urbane, nullis fesse laboribits, / Urbane, nullis victe calumniis, / Cui fronte sertum in erudita / Perpetuo viret et virebit. In response to a parody of these sentiments in the London Magazine (April 1738, p. 196), an anonymous writer rose to the bait and writing as ‘Briton’ (which suits Haycraft, aggressively proud of his own Englishness) imitated the Latin original (GM , May 1738, p.268) thus: ‘Hail Urban! Indefatigable man, / Unwearied yet by all thy useful toil! / Whom no base calumny can put to foil. / But still the laurel on thy learned brow / Flourishes fair, and shall for ever grow.’