Scots literary lion who didn't wait for Beckett

HE HAS published some of the most avant-garde writers in literary history, scandalised the establishment and escaped brushes with the law. But now John Calder, Scotland's greatest publisher and an enfant terrible of the Swinging Sixties, is retiring and cashing in copyrights that could earn him millions.

For decades, the disinherited son of one of Scotland's great 'beerocracies', was the publishers' publisher, who pushed the envelope and beat the pack to discover new talent.

His fiercely independent publishing house notched up the British rights for no less than 19 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now, at the age of 80, Calder has finally decided to call it a day and cash in on the crown jewels of the publishing world, which include the rights to much of the output of Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett.

Calder said last week: "I have been at it for 58 years and I can't keep going forever. Like the family dog, I want to see it go to a good home. The Beckett copyrights will go into other hands."

Jamie Byng, the owner of Booker Prize-winning publisher Canongate, called Calder one of his "true heroes".

Byng added: "John was a trailblazer in respect to the writers he published and the way he published books. John played a key role in Beckett's career and in him becoming one of the greatest writers in the 20th century.

"He has had an amazing career and one that any publisher would be immensely proud of. He's a legend."

It is believed that publishing giant Faber, which already owns the rights to Beckett's major dramas, including Waiting For Godot, is desperate to secure the rights from Calder.

Alistair McCleery, professor of literature and culture at Napier University, who produced the documentary, John Calder: A Life In Publishing, said: "John Calder saw Peter Hall's production of Waiting For Godot in London in 1955 and was so stunned by the play, that he wrote immediately to Beckett's publishers in Paris. Unfortunately, for him, his letter arrived just after a letter from Faber & Faber offering to publish all of Beckett's dramas.

"[But] when Faber & Faber decided not to publish Beckett's novels, which they found too raw and too erotic, Beckett offered them to Calder. Faber must have been regretting that decision for the past 50 years."

Calder was born in 1927, the first son of Lucienne Wilson and James Calder, of the prominent Scottish brewing clan.

He studied economics at Zurich University, but on his return to London returned to his first love, books, and founded Calder Publishing in 1949.

By the late 1950s, Calder was publishing a group of new writers who were changing the face of 20th-century literature, including Samuel Beckett.

Calder said last week: "All my life, I have tried to discover talent and put it where it belongs. I brought a lot of authors to Britain who did very well."

He has published some of the best of contemporary British and international dramatists including Steven Berkoff, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco, Georg Kaiser, David Mercer, Robert Pinget and Heathcote Williams, as well as works by novelists Henry Miller and William Burroughs.

But Calder was never far from controversy. At the 1963 Edinburgh Festival he was charged with allowing indecency when a nude model appeared during his Play Of Happenings. The case was later dropped.

He also speaks of modern publishing with some contempt: "When I was young, publishing companies were run by people with editorial knowledge and experience, who could read things and make up their minds on what was good or otherwise.

"But now, it's the accountants and marketing people who make the decisions, caring for nothing but money."

Scottish poet Alastair Reid, also 80, said: "He was there when I began to publish in the Fifties when he was in the battle, and he's still there.

"He is a real warrior, always courageous and adventurous. He was ahead of his time in many ways."

Between the acts

SAMUEL Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906, and educated at the city's Trinity College before moving to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale.

He returned to Dublin to teach at Trinity but resigned after four terms, declaring in future he would refuse to do anything except write.

Despite that, he did work in a mental asylum to research Murphy, one of his early novels.

He struggled for two decades before the play Nothing Happens - Twice brought him to prominence.

Waiting for Godot and Endgame are regarded as indispensable Beckett works.

He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 and died in 1989.

Back to the top of the page