The twenty-third of November, 2010: Mr Pick, Mr Pollinger and the Giant Peach

Spent much of today putting together my application for the Charles Pick Fellowship (wish me luck). So I thought I’d look into who Mr Pick was and what he got up to.

What he did was make literary stars of, among others, Graham Greene and JB Priestley (well done on those, but less well done on propelling Paul Gallico – whose novella ‘Ludmila’ (“a charming pastoral legend of old Liechtenstein”) might just be the most nauseating thing I’ve ever encountered between Penguin covers – into the bestseller charts).

Pick, judging by his obituary in the Guardian, was an old-school – archetypal, even – publishing man:

“His career was a mix of high style and parsimony. He loved smoked salmon and champagne, the Connaught restaurant, where Graham Greene, he said, always ordered Irish stew, Glyndebourne, the Savile Club, and custom-made suits from Savile Row. Yet his attitude to staff salaries and authors’ advances was, at best, the result of his father going bankrupt when Charles was 10, leaving his wife, two sons and daughter to fend for themselves.

“After the second world war, spent in Burma, India and on Mountbatten’s far-eastern war crimes commission, Pick joined the firm of Michael Joseph, where he cultivated mid-list authors beloved of libraries and middle-brow readers. He suavely initiated many a young editor … into the complex rites of the publishing lunch and had a reputation for wiliness, cultivating a manner best described as opaque.”

As so often when researching these posts, I found a coincidental intersection: Roald Dahl, the subject of an excellent Imagine documentary repeated on the BBC this week, was picked up by Pick in 1960 when he and agent Laurence Pollinger encountered Dahl by chance aboard a liner bound for England from New York:

“Pick and Pollinger seized the opportunity to persuade Dahl that they were the team to revitalise his British career. Pick’s flattery worked a treat.

“I have never been so assiduously and pleasantly wooed and wined and dined as I (and Pat) were on board ship by Messrs Charles Pick and Laurence Pollinger,” Dahl wrote to his New York agent Sheila St Lawrence on his arrival in England, informing her that from now on he intended Pollinger to represent him in Britain and Michael Joseph to publish both Kiss Kiss and the incomplete James and the Giant Peach.”

I think that, seeing as he helped to bring James and the Giant Peach into the world, I can perhaps forgive him Paul Gallico.

He loved smoked salmon and champagne, the Connaught restaurant, where Graham Greene, he said, always ordered Irish stew, Glyndebourne, the Savile Club, and custom-made suits from Savile Row. Yet his attitude to staff salaries and authors’ advances was, at best, the result of his father going bankrupt when Charles was 10, leaving his wife, two sons and daughter to fend for themselves.
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