Publishing life was poetry in motion for Jeremy Robson

THE list of names Jeremy Robson has worked with could fill a hefty copy of Who’s Who.

From Israeli statesmen to Muhammad Ali and from Spike Milligan to Joan Collins, the independent publisher’s roster of bestselling authors has been the envy of many of the large publishing houses.

At the centre of the poetry scene since the 1960s and, having written a number of collections, the Londoner has penned his engrossing memoir, Under Cover: A Poet’s Life in Publishing (Biteback Publishing, £25).

“I had been friendly with a literary agent for a long time and, whenever we met, I would tell her stories about publishing until, one day, she said I should stop talking about it and write it down,” Jeremy told me.

“It took me a year to write, but now there are things I have remembered which I should have put in!

“There definitely won’t be a sequel, though, as I want to write more poetry, which I had to put on hold while I wrote Under Cover.”

In 1964, he went to Israel — on his honeymoon with his Egyptian-born wife Carole — to meet the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who had been commissioned to write Jews In Their Land.

Jeremy recalled: “I was asked to go to his home in Sde Boker and spent a little time with him.

“I knew his wife, Paula, was quite confrontational and that a few editors had been thrown out of their home. Luckily, she was in hospital with a broken leg.

“Ben-Gurion asked Carole where she was from and when she said Egypt, he replied, ‘Ah, the land of Moses’ and he started talking to her.

“After an hour, I said, ‘What about the text?’ and he answered, ‘Well, your English is better than mine, let’s go and have lunch’.”

Jeremy had met Cairo-raised Carole at a party in London.

Her family moved to England during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the majority of Egypt’s Jewish community left, as well.

“I met her at a party and was immediately struck by her exotic beauty,” Jeremy said.

“I asked a friend of mine at the party to play Sunny Side of the Street on the piano and Carole and I danced.”

They now have twin daughters, Deborah and Manuela, and three grandchildren.

Jeremy and Carole also met with Moshe Sharett, Ben-Gurion’s successor, while in Israel.

“My grandparents were close to him and, when he was in England, he would have Shabbat lunch with them. They are rich memories.”

Another trip to Israel came when he took poets Ted Hughes, Peter Porter, DJ Enright and Dannie Abse on a British Council poetry-reading tour of the Jewish State in the 1970s.

“Hughes, in particular, was devoted to Israel,” Jeremy explained. “Wherever he went in Israel, there were crowds and his partner for many years was Assia Wevill, who was an Israeli.”

Jeremy was born in Llandudno — his maternal great-grandfather, Morris Wartski, had set up jewellery stores of the same name in North Wales — but was raised in north London.

The surname Robson was anglicised from Rabinowitz and he describes his maternal grandparents as “very Orthodox” and his paternal grandparents as “extremely Orthodox”.

Raised in a traditional Jewish home, Jeremy’s doctor father, Joseph, who specialised in psychiatry, left his native Leeds due to antisemitism to practise in London.

Jeremy read law, but gave it up, and went into journalism for a year, before he “slipped” — as he described it — into publishing.

At 22, Jeremy became an editor at Aldus Books, which had been founded by Viennese Jewish émigré Wolfgang Foges.

He worked there for seven years before joining Vallentine Mitchell as a commissioning editor and launched Robson Books in 1973.

He also set up The Robson Press, as an imprint of Biteback, in 2011.

But, if he was starting out today, he admits that he would probably choose not to go into publishing.

Jeremy explained: “I always worked closely with my authors, which was one of the reasons I managed to keep them.

“A book could be too long, too short or even sloppy, but if you work on it, you can produce a really good book.

“I don’t think publishers have time for that today.

“They receive a manuscript one day and the next day, the author will phone them and ask what they think of it.

“You sometimes need time to let it settle and brood, although maybe what happens now is second nature to that generation.

“Smaller, independent publishing companies, which were usually more vigorous in their outlook, have been swallowed up or vanished, too.

“Publishing entrepreneurs, such as George Weidenfeld, are no longer there.

“These were cultured men and women who spoke many languages and were steeped in literature.”

He said that, in today’s climate, it would be difficult to even set up a publishing company.

“I am a good tennis player and Alan Coren always said I would make a good tennis coach, so maybe I would have done that, instead,” he laughed.

Poetry, however, has always been Jeremy’s first love.

And he initiated the Poetry and Jazz in Concert events, as well as having his own poems published, with his two most recent collections being Blues in the Park and Subject Matters.

Jeremy has another poetry book in the pipeline, too, and he continues to give readings at various festivals and literary events.

He knows there are major differences when it comes to writing poetry compared with prose.

“Poetry is much more intimate and the subject matter sometimes finds you unexpectedly,” Jeremy added.

“When you finish a poem, you sometimes wonder where it came from. With prose, you know where you’re going, right from the start.”

One of the fascinating stories featured in Under Cover is Jeremy’s time spent with Wolfgang Lotz, a German-born Jew who spied for Israel and provided intelligence and conducted operations against Egyptian military scientists.

Arrested by the Egyptians in 1965, he was repatriated to Israel in a prisoner exchange.

“I was at Vallentine Mitchell at the time and someone contacted me to say he was representing a gentleman who had been a top Israeli spy,” Jeremy recalled

“Lotz wasn’t circumcised, so in Egypt he was able to hide the fact that he was Jewish.

“One of the lines in his obit in The Times read, ‘Not being circumcised kept his cover intact’, which is a very good line, although how deliberate, I do not know.”

Lotz’s book, The Champagne Spy: Israel’s Master Spy Tells His Story, was published in 1972.

Jeremy also published Maureen Lipman’s debut book, as well as her husband Jack Rosenthal’s autobiography.

Lipman, who is currently starring in Coronation Street, remains a close friend of Jeremy and has regularly joined him at literary festivals to read his poems.

While at Woburn Press, he published the Goon Show Scripts, which turned out to be a huge bestseller.

“My father was friendly with Spike Milligan and I would go to the Goon Show recordings every week,” Jeremy explained.

“Spike was a bit sceptical — he didn’t think anyone would buy it — but it was among the most popular books I have ever published and it was number one for months.”

At the same time as being a passionate supporter of Israel, he feels that the Jewish State should not be immune from criticism, however.

“Israel has changed immensely since I started visiting,” Jeremy added.

“What makes me boil is when Jewish people express anti-Israel feeling. We have enough enemies, as it is.

“I don’t understand why people don’t turn their attention to the atrocities which take place in the countries surrounding Israel.”

He describes himself, when it comes to Judaism, as “spiritual and sentimental”.

Jeremy said: “The cultural link is something which is very important to me.

“I keep the festivals and we do the Friday nights — it is about that link with the past.”

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