When the recruitment agency asked if I wanted to be considered for a sales and marketing position at Boydell & Brewer, I thought it would be interesting to work for a commercial publisher that felt it could make money from publications such as a selection of letters by the British composer, Gerald Finzi.
British music has always had a rather lowly reputation internationally. Interviewed for a TV documentary on Vaughan Williams, the folk guitarist Richard Thompson described how, as a young man, he tried to convince German friends that A Lark Ascending was worth listening to. He was met with the now familiar claim that Britain was “ein Land ohne Musik”. When I tried to persuade a French bookseller that they should stock one of our books on a British composer, the buyer said that he already had one. One what? I asked. A book on British music, was the reply.
In the 1990s Faber published Stephen Banfield’s excellent biography of Gerald Finzi, but there were rumours that another was in the works – in fact had been for some time. I could hardly believe it when, some years into my time at Boydell, I discovered that the author of this fabled volume, Elgar-scholar Diana McVeagh, had finished it and had been persuaded to publish it with us. The book eventually arrived and it was astonishingly good. It’s a clear-eyed look at Finzi, his music and his achievement: writing often wistful melodies in an age of experimentation and atonality, music that has endured despite being unfashionable.
The book was rapturously received: “one of the best-written books about a musician to appear for many years,” said Michael Kennedy in BBC Music; “a lovely, warm and elegiac book” concluded Music & Letters; “she sings with a lyricism that matches Finzi’s own,” enthused the Times Literary Supplement, “a timely reminder that there should be a place for the finely wrought music of a minor master.”
To celebrate its publication and its reception, Diana McVeagh threw a party in her beautiful garden in rural Buckinghamshire. Many of the great and good of London’s music world were there, including Ursula Vaughan Williams. Christopher “Kiffer” Finzi, one of the composer’s two sons, was the first person I spoke to. I asked him about the 380+ varieties of apple tree his father cultivated: “Some of them tasted bloody awful,” he confided.
At one stage Diana McVeagh asked if I would talk to her cousin, who was sitting alone at one of the tables. Her cousin turned out to be Doris Lessing and, as I sat beside her, I realised to my horror that I’d never read any of her books – not even the classic Golden Notebook. It’s more than a little awkward to be sitting with a Nobel Prizewinner and to know little about her work except its reputation, so I asked her what she was working on. “A novel about a world where men are irrelevant,” she replied. This was going well. “Do you think they are?” I probed, like a poor man’s Melvyn Bragg. “Well their bits and pieces are so unattractive, don’t you think? Not like women’s.” The Cleft appeared some eighteen months later.
As the afternoon wore on and Diana signed copies of her book for the departing guests, as the widow of one of our greatest British composers was helped to her car and the sons of another posed for photographs, it felt like a great privilege to work for a publisher that could include a book like Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music on its lists. The hardcover went on to sell nearly two and a half thousand copies, the paperback a thousand more, and it still sells in double figures every month. More important though is the fact of it: that, as the TLS reviewer said, “there should be a place for the finely wrought music of a minor master” and a beautifully-written book about him. We should be grateful that there are people like Diana McVeagh willing to spend so much of her life researching and writing about artists like Finzi and that there are still companies like Boydell & Brewer who feel that it’s important to publish them. Not even my French bookseller could deny that.
Do you have your very own “first book at Boydell”? Do you remember the first Boydell & Brewer book that you read, bought, borrowed, referenced or even wrote? We’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories on the Boydell & Brewer books that have impacted you or stir up strong memories. You can email them to Sean at [email protected]