Between the first and second world wars, a number of gifted men in London started their own publishing houses using their own names. These included Jonathan Cape, Michael Joseph, Victor Gollancz and the first prominent newcomer of the difficult 1930s, Hamish Hamilton. This was a brave step for a young man. Half Scot and half American, Jamie Hamilton (Hamish – the Celtic form – was adopted for the company) had read modern languages at Cambridge, studied for the bar and then worked as an assistant at Harrods book department. He had rowed for the British Olympic Eight and won a silver medal at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928.
He served his apprenticeship at Jonathan Cape and then, aged twenty-five, moved to the American firm of Harper and Brothers, where he learned the ropes with Cass Canfield, the publisher that famously said ‘I am a publisher, a hybrid creature: one part stargazer, one part gambler, one part businessman, one part midwife and three parts optimist.’ According to Canfield, Jamie soon showed an ‘acute editorial instinct’ and the ‘intelligence and furious energy’ that were later to prove the driving force behind the success of Hamish Hamilton Ltd.
The combination of friends and books was an essential part of Jamie’s life as a publisher. Authors, and colleagues such as Roger Machell, became close friends. However as well as having great friendships, Jamie was also capable of intense hatred for his enemies and would refuse to enter a room if someone he disliked was there. His attitude towards publishing was very personal and to lose an author to another publisher was a personal tragedy, even if he remained on good terms with the author. Jamie would be dismayed too, by an unfavourable reception of the books he published, which he usually chose himself and in which he firmly believed.
As well as being an emotional man, he was also extremely competitive. This competitive streak was clear from his success at the Olympics and it carried through into his work as a publisher, where he would pursue books and authors tenaciously. The first book to be published by Hamish Hamilton was Time Was, the reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson, a man who in the years between 1890 and 1910 was friend and confidant to many celebrities including Rossetti and Wilde. The book remained in print until 1981, but no one could have called this a spectacular launch, just as no one could have gone on to predict that Hamish Hamilton would eventually publish and house some of the most talented authors in the publishing world.
Soon, there were a number of major additions to the list including John Dickson Carr, Lillian Hellman, R. K. Narayan and Angela Thirkell. In non-fiction the most enduring author from that first decade was John Gunther, whose Inside Europe and, subsequently, Inside Asia and The High Cost of Hitler set the agenda for the appeasement debate of the late 1930s, and were huge bestsellers. By the end of the decade, Jamie had established a distinctive and successful company with a character and special brand of publishing that have endured to the present day. Because of strong links with the States, Hamish Hamilton became a major publisher of important American authors, such as Raymond Chandler and James Thurber. Chandler was to become a close friend of Jamie, relying on him greatly in his dark periods of depression, but he was also befriended by Vince, the ferocious warehouse manager with whom he went on serious drinking sprees whenever he was in London.
The 1930s were difficult years for trade publishing and there were attempts at diversification. In 1939 Jamie created Hamish Hamilton Law books and Hamish Hamilton Medical books, each with its own colophon. Neither was to last, perhaps because of the war, or perhaps because no one could feel really passionate about Treatment of War Wounds and Fractures or The Law Relating to Private Street Works (2nd edition) as they could about The Big Sleep or French Without Tears. In any event professional and academic publishing was a short-lived experiment.
During the war, Jamie Hamilton worked for the American Department of the Ministry of Information, where he maintained his company and managed to obtain paper (which was scarce) for printing books, as well as encouraging Anglo-American cultural contact and, whenever possible, inviting authors and publishers to come to England despite the conflict. Here he also met Roger Machell, a major who had been invalided out of the Army. They became great friends, and by the end of the war Machell was a partner in Hamish Hamilton Ltd, a gentler foil to the dynamic and entrepreneurial Hamilton. Machell has been described as ‘a great editor’, who had a faultless instinct for what was right and wrong with a manuscript and was always unfailing with helpful advice to all of his authors.
At this time, Hamish Hamilton’s offices were at 90 Great Russell Street, at the heart of the literary world in Bloomsbury. Life in Great Russell Street was not uneventful. In Roger Machell’s words, ‘We’ve had our occasional dramas – the time for instance, when our old office in Great Russell Street burned down and Stanley Unwin (one of the company’s biggest rivals) rang Jamie’s house at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. ”Hamilton,” he said, “I know most publishers don’t go to their offices on Saturday mornings. Well, I do and I thought I should tell you that yours seems to have been on fire all night. Let me know if I can lend you some typewriters or anything. Goodbye.”’ Jamie had to call the fire brigade before rushing to the scene. Luckily the damage was only minor.’
The late 1940s and 50s were great years for Hamish Hamilton. In 1940 Jamie had married Yvonne Pallavicino and their home in Hamilton Terrace became a haven for authors and international publishers. The Hamiltons of Hamilton Terrace were famous hosts and their dinner parties did much to lure and cement authors to the firm.
These were the years in which Hamish Hamilton published A. J. P Taylor, D. W. Brogan, Alan Moorehead, Terence Rattigan, Nancy Mitford and the great French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Georges Simenon, who was to become a close family friend of the Hamiltons, with two of his novels being translated by Jamie’s son Alistair, also began his prodigious output during these years. Roald Dahl joined the list with Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers Flying. Unfortunately, it was to be his only book for Hamish Hamilton before he defected to arch-rival Stanley Unwin. One book deserves special mention because it exemplifies Jamie’s adventurousness. In 1951 J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was published to huge critical acclaim. It was the novel of an era, bridging two generations, and in Penguin has sold over 2 million copies. But, at the time, Jamie Hamilton saw it as a risk. He wrote to John Betjeman: ‘I think that Salinger, whose first novel this is, has remarkable talent and that the book is extraordinarily funny, though whether the idiom of adolescent American will appeal to English readers I cannot say.’
Throughout the 1950s the list grew richer and stronger. L.P. Hartley’s outstanding The Go-Between was published in 1953 and Raymond Chandler’s books continued to enjoy enormous success. One of his many fans was Truman Capote, who sent this cable to Hamilton in 1958: ‘See in the paper you have published a new Raymond Chandler. I wish you would be so kind as to send it – I’m a fan,’ and then another: ‘Bless you for the Chandler; so sorry Marlowe is getting married: great mistake.’ After his collection of short stories and a novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was to become a memorable film with Audrey Hepburn, Capote branched into something completely different. In Cold Blood was based on a true murder story. Hamilton’s reaction when he saw the manuscript was typically effusive. A cable to Capote in November 1964 said:
THE MOST EXCITING AND HORRIFYING BOOK OF THE CENTURY DWARFING DOSTOYEVSKY STOP CONSTRUCTION CHARACTERISATION WRITING ALL BRILLIANT AND WORLDWIDE SENSATION ASSURED STOP.
In 1965, Jamie decided to sell Hamish Hamilton to the Thomson Organisation, the Canadian media conglomerate, who were themselves shortly afterwards bought up by Illustrated Newspapers. He was prompted partly by the need for new capital to finance the expanding company and partly by the decision of his only son Alistair to pursue a career as an academic rather than a publisher. However, he retained a considerable degree of personal control, remaining managing director.
When in 1972 Jamie relinquished the managing directorship, his years at the helm were crowned with a spectacular success. The actor David Niven was an old friend and had promised Jamie a book of memoirs. The Moon’s A Balloon was published in the autumn of 1971 and went on to sell 100,000 copies in hardback and 5 million in paperback. In the years that followed, Jamie continued to play an active role staying on as chairman and then president of the company until his death in 1988. Colleagues and authors expressed the esteem in which he was held in a privately circulated collection of tributes published for his eightieth birthday in November 1980. Five hundred copies were printed, of which the first ten were bound in leather. It was called simply Jamie.
In 1974 Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, who had been an editor with the firm for thirteen years, became managing director. He rapidly established a close-knit and successful team, and developed an unrivalled reputation for looking after his authors. This instilled an enduring loyalty and deep affection for both the man and the company. Although many established authors continued to write successful books for Hamish Hamilton throughout the 1970s, the decade is best remembered for the launch of new writers who have since gone on to become amongst the most important of their generation. They include Paul Theroux, William Boyd and Peter Ackroyd.
By 1978, the company had outgrown its Great Russell Street offices and moved to Garden House in Long Acre, where it was to remain for eight years – happy ones characterized by the same mixture of high-quality literature and commercial publishing that had been the hallmark of Hamish Hamilton since the 1930s. In 1986 the Thomson Organisation sold the company, together with Michael Joseph and Sphere, to Penguin. It was the second time Hamish Hamilton had changed hands, but this time it was accompanied by another move: to Penguin’s new offices in Wrights Lane, off High Street Kensington.
The change of ownership made no difference to the calibre of Hamish Hamilton’s output. There were important and distinguished bestsellers each year, Patrick Suskind’s chilling olfactory murder story, Perfume, in 1986; William Boyd’s The New Confessions and Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde in 1987. The latter was notable not only for selling 75,000 copies in hardback but also for creating a new interest in literary biography as a significant genre. But these years also saw the company slipping into serious financial difficulties, and various tensions with the new owners arose. In 1989 Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson resigned to set up his own company, and a number of staff and authors followed him. Christopher’s departure was traumatic for Hamish Hamilton and 1989 was a difficult year, though it was greatly helped by two Booker shortlisted titles: Rose Tremain’s Restoration (which went on to win the Sunday Express Award) and Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw.
1990 was a year of rebuilding. The company was given a fresh face with a revised colophon. Book and cover design were revitalized, and the number of books published was trimmed in order to devote more energy to each author and title. In this era the list was ably steered by a group of talented publishers and editors, including Andrew Franklin, Alexandra Pringle and Kate Jones.
After their departures in the late 1990s, Simon Prosser joined the imprint as its publisher. Publishing around 20 new books a year, the list has become a home for writers both young and old, embracing the innovative, the experimental and the new, while maintaining a deep commitment to literary and political values. From Zadie Smith’s million-selling White Teeth in 2001 to Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole at the end of the decade, Hamish Hamilton has launched the debut novels of a number of outstanding younger writers, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist and Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine.
Other great successes have included W.G. Sebald’s magisterial Austerlitz, his final prose fiction, Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ali Smith’s Hotel World and The Accidental, James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Hamish Hamilton staffers were especially pleased to have had books shortlisted for or win the Man Booker Prize four years running from 2004 to 2008.
Further highlights have included acclaimed new novels from earlier Booker Prizewinners James Kelman and Pat Barker and forthcoming books from two favourite American writers, David Foster Wallace and Lydia Davis.
On the non-fiction side, Alain de Botton’s ‘philosophies of life’, from The Consolations of Philosophy to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work have all been bestsellers, as were Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle, Iain Sinclair’s Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire and the exemplary travel books of Paul Theroux and Redmond O’Hanlon. Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival became the canonical text on the new American imperialism, selling over 100,000 copies, and opened the way to a more political bent in Hamish Hamilton’s publishing, with Arundhati Roy’s Listening to Grasshoppers and The Shape of the Beast, Susan Sontag’s late essays, and books forthcoming on the global arms trade, by Andrew Feinstein, and on climate change, by Mike Davis.
Hamish Hamilton also found itself at the centre of the renaissance in British rural nature writing, with bestsellers from Richard Benson, with The Farm, and Roger Deakin, with Wildwood and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, and with Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways to come.
2006 was an especially golden year for Hamish Hamilton, with its authors winning all three of the UK’s major prizes: Kiran Desai the Man Booker, Zadie Smith the Orange, and Hilary Spurling the Whitbread.
In recent years Hamish Hamilton has also worked closely with the great American journal McSweeney’s, producing special issues with such writers and artists as Michael Chabon and Chris Ware.
Our offices have now moved – with the rest of Penguin – to 80 Strand, a stone’s throw from the old Hamish Hamilton quarters in Long Acre. We face the old red-light area of Five Dials, which has lent its name to our recently-launched monthly literary magazine edited by Craig Taylor. In its first ten issues we have featured work by many Hamish Hamilton authors, old and new, alongside other favourite writers including Philip Roth, Geoff Dyer, Suketu Mehta, Diana Athill, Paul Farley, David Vann and B.S. Johnson, and some of the best illustrators around.
Seventy-three years ago, Jamie’s first catalogue opened with the words: ‘This first Hamish Hamilton list looks like the start of a new lighthouse – it will be noticeable at a great distance in the dark.’
It is still alight and burning brightly.