Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Francis King’

Remembering Gary Pulsifer

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th March, 2016

Gary PulsiferThe American publisher, Gary Pulsifer, who died yesterday from cancer chose to spend most of his professional life in England, where he became a much-loved feature of London’s literary scene. Quite small and slight, he was a bundle of energy, with a waspish tongue that relished mocking the pretentious without being viscious. I met him through the novelist Francis King, at whose dinner parties Gary would keep up a running commentary on authors of the day, including special favourites such as Shere Hite, as well as giving devastating impersonations of figures such as his earstwhile employer, Peter Owen. Gary thrived on gossip, whether it was the latest goings-on within the tightly-knit expat community in Tangiers or the tempestuous domestic life of Britain’s royal family. He really came into his own when he founded Arcadia, which became one of the UK’s most interesting independent publishers, though one that often lived from hand to mouth. Finance was not Gary’s strong suit. However, he did have an eye for interesting new ventures, spotting the potential of Norwegian and other Nordic fiction long before this became mainstream. His personal life had its ups and downs, which is largely why he ended up living at the Retreat at Park Langley, where members of the book trade on limited incomes could roost. He seemed unperturbed by being surrounded by fellow residents who were considerably older than himself, and he relished the chance to garden in the Retreat’s grounds. Eventually Arcadia went into receivership, and not very long after it was bought out and relaunched he was dismissed. The official reason for this was financial savings, but Gary commented stoically that he could see it coming as there was not room for more than one big fish in such a small pond. While ending his days in a hospice, typically he left instructions that there should be no funeral, but I do hope there will in time be a giant wake, at which his legions of friends will drink late into a summer’s afternoon, while Gary emits his characteristic shriek of mock horror and delight from the beyond.

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Remembering Peter Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th July, 2014

Peter DayThe publisher, editor and longtime English PEN activist Peter Day, who has died, could on occasions be extremely sharp-tongued, but at heart he was a man of immense human kindness. He particularly sprang into action whenever any of his friends was ill. When our mutual friend, the late novelist Francis King, was in deteriorating health, Peter virtually moved in to look after him. I first met Peter through English PEN, when we were both serving on that writers’ body’s executive committee, he ex officio as the editor of International PEN’s newsletter. Later, he would edit the first paperback edition of my book on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and André Gide, André & Oscar; he was a joy to work with, meticulous but also deeply supportive  and it helped that several of our working sessions were conducted over lunch at his flat up in the tower of a gothic block of flats in Shepherd’s Bush. He loved to entertain, but was an eccentric host, especially at his dinner parties at the table in his kitchen. He insisted on washing up between each course, which was distinctly disconcerting, and in order to make sure that people didn’t stay too long, Peter had his lights on automatic timers so that after 10pm they used to go off, one by one. Only the most thick-skinned guest failed to get the message. In his latter years, Peter moved into Charterhouse, the residential accommodation for distressed gentlefolk. The rule there was that everyone had a set place allocated at the communal dining tables, so one’s neighbours at meal times were always the same until one died, yet to my surprise Peter adapted to this somewhat monastic lifestyle with remarkable good faith.

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Remembering Peter Burton

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 17th November, 2011

The writer, editor and publisher Peter Burton, who died suddenly of a heart attack. aged 66, on 7 November, made an enormous contribution to the promotion and then mainstreaming of LGBT literature in the UK. He was also an extremely kind friend, a generous host at his ramshackle little house in Brighton and a mentor for many young writers trying to find their own voice and forge a literary career. I first met him about 40 years ago, while I was still a student, but it was only after I moved back to England in 1981, after seven years in Brussels, that I began to see him regularly, often in the company of our mutual friend Francis King (at whose Memorial Service on 2 November I last saw Peter, looking hale and hearty, although he only had five more days to live). When Liberal Democrat conferences took place in Brighton, I always enjoyed taking one extended lunchtime off to go to Peter’s for a boozy, wholesome lunch, at which there would usually be one or two of his latest protégés present. The house itself was extraordinary, seemingly held up by the enormous mountains of books, which covered not only all the walls, but every flat surface (other than the kitchen table) and most of the stairs, so that navigating oneself around them was quite a challenge. Peter simply adored books, which was perhaps remarkable for someone who had grown up in a working-class home in East London. Friends (including me) were worried that the house would literally fall down, as it had had no maintenance for decades and there were holes where there shouldn’t have been; mercifully, it was patched up successfully before disaster occured, I think with the help of the Council. Following a mugging, Peter rarely came up to London; at least that was his excuse, but I think he was essentially the sort of bird who feels uncomfortable away from its nest. This afternoon I will go down to Brighton for his funeral and for the subsequent wake. He may be physically present at the former, but spiritually it will be the latter that he relishes.

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Remembering Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd November, 2011

The text of the Address I will give at his Memorial Service at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, later today:

Remembering Francis King

Francis was a man with many voices. That is, of course, the novelist’s prerogative. But he had multiple personalities as well. Many people only saw his formal side; a short and for many years rather portly figure  with Edwardian manners and movements. He’d be immaculately turned out in suit and tie, and more often than not a hat as well, chosen to match the season. His natural courtesy extended to all those strangers he encountered. More than once I witnessed the look of astonished pleasure on the face of a young waitress at the Café Rouge off Kensington Church Street when she handed him the menu and he declared in a voice redolent of the British Raj, ‘Thankyou!’

But those of us who knew Francis as a dear friend were aware of the complex individual that inhabited that courtly carapace. The man who’d chaired International PEN with such flair and tact actually had quite a low threshold of tolerance when it came to bores and time-wasters. It was a source of permanent astonishment and aggravation to him that most human beings were neither as self-disciplined nor as productive as he. Though never rude to anyone’s face, he could be devastating about them once they’d gone. Occasionally the mask would slip, as happened on one of English PEN’s annual summer outings to a place of literary interest. As the assembled party dithered and bickered about which tea-shop they should visit for afternoon refreshments, Francis’s sighs and murmerings got louder by the minute, until Josephine Pullein-Thompson – who ran these jaunts with all the military efficiency of a Pony Club event – exclaimed in exasperation, ‘Stop grizzling, Francis!’

I wonder how many of the hundreds of people Francis entertained in his role as British Council representative in Greece, Italy and Japan realised that their punctilious host also had a side that can only be described as camp. He’d apparently acquired the nickname Francesca da Rimini Pimini while at Baliol College, Oxford, and many of the hundreds of letters that I have from him are indeed signed Francesca, though in recent years he adopted another moniker: Auntie Fanoula. I realised after a while that this was actually a useful device that he’d devised, consciously or unconsciously, to let off steam. Francesca and Fanoula could be as bitchy as they wanted about mutual acquaintances, whereas Francis would never have been so indiscreet.

He did however see a certain affinity between himself and Mrs Thatcher. This conclusion was based not only on their shared Conservatism but even more importantly on the fact that both only needed four hours sleep. When Francis and I travelled together, in places as disparate as Egypt and Romania, I would struggle down to breakfast bleary-eyed to find that he had already written a review for The Spectator, or corrected the proofs of a chapter of his latest book and was now chomping at the bit to go out sight-seeing.

He was able to squeeze a lot into his 20-hour days. Though he went much more rarely to the theatre after he ceased being a drama critic, his social diary in London was packed. He disliked large gatherings, but thrived on lunch and dinner parties, of which he hosted a great number himself. As a neatly embroidered little cushion on the sideboard in the dining room of his house in Gordon Place declared, ‘The Queen Doesn’t Cook’. Catering was invariably courtesy of ‘Maisie Sparks’, the Marks and Spencer food hall in Kensington High Street. In the middle of the round glass-topped dining table sat a Lazy Susan, on which the food revolved, like in a Chinese restaurant. Often Francis had invited too many guests to fit round the table, so chairs were placed along the walls. Dessert and cheese were set out on a second sideboard underneath a magnificent reclining male nude by Duncan Grant.

Afternoons were often spent walking in Holland Park or Kew Gardens, unless Francis had some friend to visit in hospital or in prison. Visiting the afflicted and the convicted was a charitable act that was about as near as Francis got to any religious belief or practice. I don’t think he did this for the good of his soul; the very concept of ‘soul’ was lost on him. But he was fascinated by the human condition, and one often sees that at its most raw when people are vulnerable. He relished details of friends’ illnesses and treatments, as well as stories of the criminal underworld. Not surprisingly, these sometimes later filtered into his novels.

For a man who was so kind and so generous, he was extraordinarily interested in people who were mean or even wicked. They were like specimens under a microscope for him, and he would often be on the phone to me to describe the latest appalling behaviour by some acquaintance. Perhaps he was able thus vicariously to feel sensations that were completely alien to his personality. For Francis himself was one of the 20th Century’s true gentlemen, a wonderful friend and a compassionate confidant. In a nutshell: rather naughty, but so nice.

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In Memoriam Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th July, 2011

Francis King, who died at the weekend, was my oldest friend and closest confidant. In the 35 years or so that we knew each other we shared not just our views on everything under the sun but also our innermost thoughts and fears. I suppose everyone has someone like that in their lives, or would like to. I first met Francis in Brussels, at the home of my honorary (not blood) grandmother, Edith Bisch, who wrote novels under the pen-name Edith De Born. When I later moved back to England, Francis helped me settle into literary London, particularly through the activities of English PEN, but also at the many lunch and dinner parties that he organised at his house in Kensington, which became a fixture of my social life for three decades. He had an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances and was extraordinarily welcoming to strangers who were visiting London and who had been given his name. He was also unstinting in the time he was prepared to give to reading unsolicited manuscripts — a degree of self-sacrifice that I found incomprehensible. Though a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, Francis was very liberal in most ways: a gentleman of the old school, in the best sense of the term.

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