steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Bles in the Time of Narnia

I’m back from the first of my Christmas jaunts, which was a flying visit to my mother, although tomorrow I’ll be packing my spotted hanky and going to London, partly to see fjm and chilperic, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Over coffee this morning my mother told me a little about her time working at the publisher Geoffrey Bles from 1949 to 1955, first as a secretary and later as an editor. These notes are a little ill assorted, but I think some of these memories are interesting both as giving an insight into the post-War publishing industry and specifically into C. S. Lewis’s main publisher. (My mother’s tenure there coincided more or less exactly with the publication of the Narnia books.)

Lewis would often appear in the office in a pall of smoke (from his pipe, nothing mephistopholean) to discuss his books – both the Narnia ones and the theological books Bles also published. He and Geoffrey Bles got on very well, and enjoyed chatting in ancient Greek.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was just a working title, at first. Lewis asked for better suggestions, and was persuaded that it was fine as was.

I will add, although my mother didn’t mention it today, that Lewis was eventually poached by the Bodley Head when his editor moved there, taking him with her. This was just before the publication of The Magician’s Nephew, and caused great resentment at the Bles offices (directed at her rather than at him). I may have mooted this private theory before, but I believe that this move lies behind the later re-ordering of the books (posthumously dubbed “The Chronicles of Narnia”) so as to make The Magician’s Nephew first in the series, thereby increasing its sales. I’ve no positive evidence for this theory other than my conviction that it’s the sort of thing a publisher might think of, but I feel obliged to promulgate it both because I hate that re-ordering, and by the noble tradition of blood feud.

In those smoggy, pre-Clean Air Act days every room had an open fire, which meant that in winter seven fires burned continually in the Bles offices. The job of maintaining them belonged to Mr Bowesfield, a cross-looking man, who would often bring his “quite large” son Victor to work. Victor had Down’s Syndrome, and would sit cross legged in the window all day, apparently quite content, as publishers and authors milled about him. Once a year Mr and Mrs Bowesfield, who were members of the Dickens society, would dress up as a Dickensian couple and set off in a carriage from Dickens’ house in Doughty Street, which was just two doors down the road. It was quite a sight.

My mother’s immediate boss was Jocelyn Gibb – a man I vaguely remember meeting when she took my brother and me to London one time in about 1969. (He was kind enough to look at some stories we had written - officially I suppose my first professional submission!) When she left to get married, they held an office party, and on running out of booze my mother remembered that she’d seen a case of champagne in Gibb’s office. She suggested they start in on that (Gibb himself being away at the time), and she’d replace it when she got back from honeymoon. Inevitably, when she did get back it turned out to have been the last existing case of some very rare vintage, which Gibb had just bought at enormous expense. She tremblingly confessed, but he laughed until his face was like a wet cloak ill laid up.

Bles was grand, but rather mean with money. They used to have to take the bus to their Christmas lunch: he would ask the conductor for “ten penny ha’pennies”. When he retired, in about 1954, Billy Collins took the firm over. The Collins lunches were far more lavish, with plenty of free booze, to the extent that several of the staff (most of whom were Cockneys of humble origin and not used to getting anything gratis) threw up before they even reached the food. At these meals she would find herself sitting next to Billy Collins, who was a lot of fun, and told her anecdotes about his life (he had an affair with Joy Adamson of Born Free fame – who knew?).
Tags: books, c. s. lewis, conversations with my mother, family history
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