Call it lazy journalism if you like, and we at Jot 101 do, but in all the obituaries of the great
publisher George Weidenfeld in 2016 there is no mention of the magazine Contact, which he edited from 1950. This is a glaring omission, since it is a showcase for the talents that this refugee from the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, shared in abundance with so many other émigrés from the Third Reich.
According to one obituary, having landed in the UK Weidenfeld soon put his knowledge of Germany and the German language to good use by enrolling in the BBC’s Overseas Service, though others say that he was recruited to the BBC Listening Station near Evesham, where his co-workers would have included British journalists like Geoffrey Grigson and Gilbert Harding and other German-speaking émigrés, such as the art historian Ernst Gombrich. In 1948 Weidenfeld joined up with Nigel Nicolson to form the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicholson with the express aim of launching a socialist magazine that would unite politics with the best of culture. There is no mention of the name of this magazine anyway on the Net, but Contactwas certainly not it, as there is no hint of any political agenda in the copy for September 1950 that we found at Jot HQ the other week.
What is obvious is that although the name of the publisher is absent from the title page of Contact, if we turn to page 56 we find that in an advert for three books published by ‘ George Weidenfeld and Nicholson’ the address of the editorial office of 7, Cork Street is the same as that of the editorial office of Contact. Why Weidenfeld should not want to be easily identified as both the editor and the co-publisher of the magazine is not immediately apparent. What is obvious is that he was keen to sign up some of the rising stars in British cultural journalism as contributors.
But not all were British. The ‘ provocative’ American columnist on the New Yorker, Emily Hahn, contributed an entertaining sketch on the behaviour of well-heeled American tourists in post-war London:
‘ They are afraid of boredom; they do not have their own kitchens and sitting rooms. They simply must find restaurants and places of amusement; they are homeless wanderers otherwise…Average English restaurants are not inspiring. Americans soon become aware of this fact. In Paris one eats with pleasure in French restaurants: in Italy one eats Italian food. But in London the wise American looks around for a restaurant which is not typically native… ‘
This particular issue of Contact seems to have been a gastronomy special, for as well as this account of the gastronomic preferences of Americans in London, there are descriptions of the leading eating houses in the capital ( none of which, apart from Wheelers, seems to have been an English joint) and also a piece on Spanish cookery by Elizabeth David—not yet the domestic goddess she later became—whose first book, Mediterranean Food had just been published.
Another young contributor was the architect and designer, Dennis Lennon, then Director of the Rayon Design Institute, who the following year contributed significantly to the Festival of Britain, later gave a job to Terence Conran and from 1963 to 1998 was set design of Glyndebourne. The novelist Constantine Fitzgibbon, who wrote the first biography of Dylan Thomas was also a contributor to watch in 1950, as was Jenny Nicholson, daughter of Robert Graves, who wrote a travelogue. Another promising contender, Alan Ross, then just 28, was a practising cricketer and sports writer at the Observer with an interest in poetry. Undeterred by a caustic review by Geoffrey Grigson of his Corsican travelogue Time Was Away (1948), he went on to become editor of the London Magazine–in which he published Grigson. His vivid portrait in Contact of Tottenham Hotspur confirms the theory that poets are often the best writers on sport—one thinks of John Arlott and fellow Spurs supporter Ian Hamilton, for instance.
But arguably the most talented contributor to this issue of Contact was Denton Welch—not yet a cult figure, but one whose premature death in 1949 had been mourned by all in the literary world. In the autobiographical fragment entitled ‘The Earth’s Crust ‘, which was found among his papers, Welch described in his inimitable, highly visual style, his days as a London art student in the ‘thirties:
‘The art school…had been chosen by my aunt because she had once bought a print from the man who taught wood engraving there. The journey out to it was long, the ‘ bus crossed the river, passed under thundering Vauxhall railway bridge and came to Kennington, where the blackened acanthus railings of the Regency church were covered with yellow and red placards, asking for money. I would be sitting on top of the ‘bus, right in front in order to see everything. On the other side of the road was a park with screaming children standing the paddling pool and splashing one another. The girls had their dresses bunched up above their thighs or tucked into their bloomers. Little boys, clad only in braces and trousers, ran amuck, shooting off water pistols. Girls screamed more piercingly than birds, lolled out their tongues and rolled their eyes like epileptics. There was madness in the air.’
Accompanying the piece was a neo-romantic vision by Denton of a gothick cottage with rabbits, snails and a mushroom in the foreground and in the background oast-houses and sheaves of wheat. It recalls the magical ‘Shoreham Period ‘drawings of Samuel Palmer who, like Welch, had been inspired by his life in rural Kent. [R.M.Healey]