Thursday, March 20, 2014

Martin Secker, Child of The Yellow Book - Roger Dobson

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some publishers are almost as interesting as authors (we should emphasize the word almost). Great individuals are a vanishing breed as the suits and accountants are gradually taking over what used to be a gentleman’s profession. Nineties enthusiasts have reason to be grateful to Martin Secker (1882-1978), whose Unicorn Press revived much engrossing material.

For example, ‘A “Period” List’ printed on the jacket of Roger Lhombreaud’s Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography (1963) includes such treasures as Aubrey Beardsley’s His Best Fifty Drawings, Dowson’s Poems (7s. 6d.), George Egerton’s Correspondence and Diaries, Lionel Johnson’s The Complete Poems, Richard Le Gallienne’s From a Paris Garret, Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics and The Hill of Dreams, Vincent O’Sullivan’s Opinions, Arthur Symons’ Aubrey Beardsley: A Memoir and eight titles by Wilde.

Mervyn Horder, the chairman of Duckworth & Co. from 1950-78, published a tribute to Martin Secker in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1979, writing: ‘Adolescent during the 1890s, he always retained a temperamental affinity for the Yellow Book period and spoke of himself as a child of that age. His spiritual home was the Domino Room of the Café Royal . . .’ A copy of Lord Horder’s article was found among the papers of the late Colin Summerford, a member of Machen’s circle. Colin was friendly with Secker (Machen got on less well!) and helped Horder with the Blackwood's piece: he is listed in the acknowledgements. Horder cites the authors Secker published between 1911 and 1934:

"fiction by Compton Mackenzie, D.H. Lawrence, Hugh Walpole, Frank Swinnerton, Norman Douglas, Oliver Onions, Gilbert Cannan, Francis Brett Young, Arthur Machen, Rafael Sabatini; criticism by Lascelles Abercrombie, Edward Thomas, Arthur Ransome, Arthur Symons; the collected poems of James Elroy Flecker, Alfred Douglas, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Martin Armstrong, T.W.H. Crosland, Ford Madox Ford, Maurice Baring; the early plays of Noël Coward. Works in translation included those by Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Gerhart Hauptmann, Arnold Zweig, Leon Feuchtwanger, Franz Kafka, François Mauriac — most of them well in advance of their general fame."

Secker was born at 24 Holland Road, Kensington. His father’s forebears were German and his mother Irish. As a young man wishing to make a start in publishing — after an abortive beginning working for the Bank of England, where he claimed to be the only employee sacked for incompetence — he approached a number of successful publishers, William Heinemann, John Lane and Grant Richards, before being taken on as an apprentice by Eveleigh Nash. Over the next eighteen months he learned the trade, and by 1910 was ready to branch out on his own. He established his company — always with a tiny staff — at 5 John Street, the Adelphi. A few years later he took on Rafael Sabatini, the author of The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, as a partner, but Sabatini proved less than ideal and he was replaced by the reliable P.P. Howe, the biographer of Hazlitt. (While hunting for the residences of Ernest Dowson’s family, an address for Sabatini accidentally caught our eye in the 1922 Kelly’s directory: he lived at 81 Albert Bridge Road, not far from Albert Mansions, where Dowson’s father took his life, perhaps, in 1894.)

Financial difficulties arose in the 1930s. ‘Secker’s friendliest friends would never have called him a businessman,’ writes Horder. ‘Secker had his share of that amiable vanity which animates, at the same time as it fatally weakens, most one-man band publishers — the simple idea that because he in his wisdom has chosen to publish a book, the world will automatically rush to buy it.’

After his firm went into receivership in 1934, Secker was obliged to enter into partnership with Frederic Warburg and Roger Senhouse, and in 1935 the firm of Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd was created. ‘By then Secker, aged fifty-two, was far too set in his ways, far too much of a lone wolf to accommodate the publishing habits of those of a pair of younger partners, and by 1937 he was on his own again.’ He acquired the publishing rights and assets of Grant Richards (called ‘the impeccable Granty’ by Secker) and carried on Richards’ business as The Unicorn Press Ltd, operating from the Unicorn Bookshop in King Charles Street (now gone) and then at 4 and 5 Royal Opera Arcade, which had formerly been Leonard Smithers’s office. Secker changed his imprint to The Richards Press, in honour of ‘Granty’ after Richards’ death. In 1948 John Gawsworth made him a Redondan peer in his first Birthday Honours List: Secker had published Prince Zaleski in the New Adelphi Library in 1928. After Secker retired, the publisher John Baker took over the shop and continued with the Nineties reprints. Horder comments:

"Both witty himself and a catalyst of original wit in others, he acted as a kind of laughter-vortex in any company; long after blindness overtook him, he still got carried away by his favourite funny stories, the suicide of John Davidson, the premature knighthood of Sir George Hutchinson, what Gilbert said on Sullivan’s death, and so on — and would tell them with the tears pouring from his eyes. He remembered from a news item that Davidson, who regarded himself as a failure and was a prey to violent depressions, hired a rowboat and jumped overboard some miles off the Cornish coast; nothing was found in the rowboat but a formal letter from Davidson to the directors of the Great Western Railway complaining that the charms of the Cornish Riviera had been grossly overstated in their advertising."

In 1972 deterioration of the retinas of both eyes left Secker completely blind. He was glad to receive friends and neighbours, who would read to him and gossip. Secker died after a series of strokes, on his ninety-sixth birthday on 6 April 1978. His ashes were scattered by his wife Sylvia and son Adrian in the garden of Bridgefoot House, Iver, in Buckinghamshire, where Secker had lived for more than seventy years.

(This is one of a series of writings Roger Dobson compiled for The Lost Club Journal issue 4, which alas never appeared).

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