Life as a publisher in the days when a good read was enough

Esther Menell

Esther Menell - Credit: Archant

After fleeing the Nazis in Estonia, Esther Menell’s colourful life as a London publisher has spurred a book in itself, finds Alex Bellotti

Flicking through the pages of her new memoir, Esther Menell suddenly pauses to point out a set of black and white photographs – one of which sees two rows of toddlers posing for her third birthday.

“They were all murdered,” she says, moving around the page with her finger before directing it sadly towards a picture of her grandmother and then a pretty young Estonian girl called Ruti.

“At the time that we left, there was no particular threat of war, but of course it happened very quickly. The older people were more frightened of the Russians than the Germans; in fact it was the Germans who came in and it was the Russians who liberated them.”

When Alexander Michael Menell led his family out of Estonia in 1939 to help with the war effort in Britain, his daughter was only four years old and the country they left didn’t feel under threat from Germany.

Soon after they left however, the Nazis invaded Estonia and butchered the majority of its inhabitants. Of the 1000 Jews who remained, only seven were left alive.

Menell’s fourth birthday – “or was it fifth?” – passed as a rather sombre affair during their train ride from Sweden to the UK. By the time she was able to celebrate her next, it was in the country she would spend her subsequent life in – becoming an Oxford graduate and celebrated publisher along the way.

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“There comes a time in life – a sure marker of the onset of middle age – when one begins to prefer evenings in and to take an interest in gardening,” the Kentish Town resident writes in the preface of Loose Connections: From Narva Maantee to Great Russell Street. “Old age, following all too swiftly, may then announce itself with a sudden interest in Family and the Past.”

This, the 81-year-old admits, was at least the spur for writing her memoir, which primarily details the origins of her family and her 30 year career as desk editor for cult London publishers Andre Deutsch under the tempestuous helm of its penny-pinching namesake and his extravagant successor, Tom Rosenthal.

Sandwiched between these narratives are colourful tales of growing up and starting a family in North London, battling Camden Council to save her street (Harmood St) (“I had that great advantage of sounding middle class, it’s what you need for fighting bureaucracy”) and even working as a film critic for the Ham&High during an eventful nine month spell in the 1970s.

“Some things are good and most things aren’t,” she says when I ask how she would decide which books to publish during her years as ‘Queen of the Slush Pile’ (ie. the person who sifted through the dozens of book submissions the company received each week). “It was nice because we were small and incredibly badly paid, but we did have this thing that if you really liked something, you could get it through. Most of the people I worked with, I found in the slush pile.”

Menell’s sense of language – which was enhanced during a brief spell attending ‘crammer’ classes in Maida Vale to gain entry to Oxford to study English – led to her helping unknown entities such as Nadeem Aslam, Madeleine St John, Eva Figes and Roger Edric to enter into the literary world.

While never tempted to try the form herself, the story of Loose Connections is not just a tale of Menell’s own personal journey – encompassing her two contrasting marriages and the birth of her son – but also that of publishing before its commercialization:“What was more like a cottage industry, fuelled by a love of books, appears to have become a vast money-making machine,” she adds.

Quoting the novelist Julie Myerson, Menell writes that ultimately, “truth or fiction, fact or fantasy, all we really want is to feel we are part of a story worth remembering”.

At the very least, her realisation of this desire is indisputable.

Loose Connections: From Narva Maantee to Great Russell Street by Esther Menell is published by West Hill Books for £13.95