Interview: John Calder, 'the most important English-language publisher of the 20th century'

Interview: John Calder, 'the most important English-language publisher of the 20th century'

John Minihan

In advance of a weekend festival in his name, the publisher discusses a life in the literary fast lane

John Calder is a man with a serious reading habit. I find the 85-year-old sitting in his basement flat surrounded by books. There are 17 at easy reach, including biographies of Adolf Hitler and Laurence Olivier. Before I leave, he gives me two of his own (The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett and The Garden of Eros: The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-War Literary Scene) which he dutifully signs.

In another room is a mounting pile from his trawls of antiquarian bookshops. 'I was very much on my own as a boy so I've always hungered to get hold of books to pass the time,' he says.

If anyone has reason to be keen on books, it is Calder. For 60 years, he was the man in charge of Calder Publications, initially specialising in left-leaning anti-McCarthy authors from the US before branching out into classics of the literary avant garde.

On his list were Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco and Heinrich Böll. He also published Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi and Howard Barker. 'I missed a few people, of course, and perhaps came a bit late to some, but all in all, I think my instinct was reasonably good. I recognised talent when I saw it.'

Impressed by the 1955 UK premiere of Waiting for Godot, he befriended Samuel Beckett, who gave him the rights to publish his non-dramatic fiction in English. They met for the first time in Paris and had dinner together: 'I remember we talked all night. He was very friendly, very open, easy to get on with. We both liked music a great deal and had a knowledge of the same authors – he told me a lot about Joyce. He became a very close friend.'

It was his European outlook that made the multilingual Calder such an asset to the Traverse in its early days. Being a friend of co-founder Jim Haynes, who ran an Edinburgh bookshop, he took on the responsibility of recommending plays for the pioneering theatre to stage. 'The best friend they had was the Daily Express which used to attack them week after week,' he says. 'It was always under the headline: "Godlessness and dirt." Of course, that brought the audience in.'

Calder's claims to fame are many: I haven't mentioned the bookshop he ran in London, the theatre company he founded, the festival he ran in Kinross for 16 years or the the infamous literary conferences he staged in 1962 and 1963. But the man who has been called 'the most important English-language publisher of the 20th century' is typically cool about the forthcoming weekend festival in his name. 'I certainly didn't look for that,' he says. 'I'm going along with it, but … '

Reticence aside, he admits there is a lot to celebrate: 'I'm getting rather old, so I can't remember all the things I've done, all of the people I've known, but I've certainly known a lot of people – and I always tended to get involved in things.'

Uncensored Life: A Celebration of John Calder, Traverse, Edinburgh, Fri 18–Sat 19 Apr.

John Calder Festival

Festival celebrating the life of publisher John Calder featuring performances from the Hebrides Ensemble and Barry McGovern, plus Calder in conversation with Alan Taylor and Derek Watson.

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