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Naim Attallah – Oldie supporter and the most memorable man I've ever met. By James Pembroke

Blog | By James Pembroke | Feb 07, 2021


Naim Attallah was the last of the post-war buccaneer publishers: a Palestinian Puck, in the wake of dynamic Jewish grandees like Andre Deutsch and George Weidenfeld who had already torn up the staid rule book of the gentleman publishers.
Naim happily remained an outsider despite his benevolence to the arts - he bankrolled the 1976 British musical, The Slipper and the Rose, and Literary Review for decades. He preferred the mischievous world of the polemicist Auberon Waugh, his best friend who unfailingly requited his devotion, and Richard Ingrams who persecuted him in Private Eye as Naim Utterly-Disgusting, largely thanks to the stories he was given by his daughter, Jubby, who was working for Naim at the time.
As far as Naim was concerned, his code of loyalty compelled him, in late 1991, to invest £120,000 in The Oldie, a sum which steadily grew to £500,000 in its first few years. He loved chairing its board of rogues: Auberon Waugh, Alexander Chancellor, Stephen Glover, John McEwen and Richard Ingrams.
I joined The Oldie as its marketing manager, in June 1992, four months after its hasty launch. Naim was always supportive and encouraging but, two years later, he could no longer underwrite the monthly losses of £20,000 , and, with the board’s consent, the magazine was closed in July, 1994.
Two days after the decision was announced in the press, I approached Naim and the board with a plan to resurrect the magazine as a monthly. I asked them to give me until Christmas to make the magazine break even. Thanks to a huge rise in advertising revenue and reduced costs, it duly did. Yet, only Naim could and would have taken the risk. It was a definitive case of ‘without whom….'
Naim enjoyed cutting a ridiculous figure: the ladies man with a combover, his guttural accent rising to high-pitched squeals of joy, his suit-linings matching his handkerchief. 'Let ‘em laugh, all they like', he seemed to say. After all, he was a very successful businessman, who dragged Asprey’s out of penury. Not bad for the boy from Palestine who, in 1948, the British army had made stand all day in a football stadium without any shade from the midday heat. ‘Fuck’em!’ He was only too willing to blast.
Like all over-confident extroverts, he had a weak spot, two in his case: his vanity and horror of betrayal. Richard Ingrams had been only too happy to publish Naim’s interviews with the great and not-so-good; they took a straightforward Q and A format. The questions were adroit and well-researched, but one could see that the subjects, whether Spike Milligan or Ernst Gombrich, truly warmed to Naim, to whom they revealed a great deal more, often about their love lives. To Naim's repeated joy, Bill Deedes dubbed him ‘the smartest burglar in the business, a dab hand with the skeleton keys'. As CEO of Asprey’s, Naim was a busy man; it was obvious to The Oldie staff that a researcher had compiled the questions, transcribed the interview and submitted the first draft.
Scoring the ultimate own goal, he massively over-reacted when that researcher, Jenny Erdal, revealed herself as his pen in a thinly disguised revelatory book, Ghosting, in 2004. She had assumed that ’Tiger’, as she dubbed him, who had been so kind and devoted to her, would laugh it off. She told me she was genuinely shocked when he cut her forever more and, like the rest of us, was even more amazed when he published 'Fulfilment and Betrayal: 1975-1995’, a 750-page collection of panegyrics from celebrity friends to the humble likes of me. This garrulous attempt to right Jenny’s wrong only made things far worse, drawing even more attention to the original allegations. Yet, he continued to oversee Quarter Books, and was immensely proud to be awarded a CBE.
For me, he is the most memorable person I have ever encountered. His kindness and lust for life far outweighed his peccadilloes.