August 14, 2014 12:35
From Bookbrunch by Liz Thomson
Biteback has withdrawn the offer of a book contract to Roger Lewis following a homophobic review of a Robson Press [Biteback’s sister imprint] title on the late Dusty Springfield.
Writing in The Spectator, Lewis began: “Call me a crazy old physiognomist, but my theory is that you can always spot a lesbian by her big thrusting chin. Celebrity Eskimo Sandi Toksvig, Ellen DeGeneres, Jodie Foster, Clare Balding, Vita Sackville-West, God love them: there’s a touch of Desperate Dan in the jaw-bone area, no doubt the better to go bobbing for apples.”
In a letter to The Spectator, Dale said: “I’m surprised and appalled by your decision to publish Roger Lewis’ review of our book Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend. The reviewer clearly displays homophobic sentiments towards his subject and, indeed, a litany of other lesbian celebrities. The reasoning behind your decision is as incomprehensible to me as his overt homophobia is. We had been discussing with Mr Lewis the possibility of publishing his next book. He has just been told those discussions are at an end.”
Dale told BookBrunch: “I and several members of staff at Biteback, found Roger Lewis’s comments homophobic and totally unacceptable, and we are not prepared to work with someone who holds those views.”
My letter is published in this week’s edition of The Spectator. Mr Lewis has accused me of ‘totalitarianism’ and being obsessed by political correctness. No, Mr Lewis, it’s not political correctness, it’s common decency. Had he expressed any degree of regret or understanding of the offence he has caused we might be in a different place, but we are where we are.
Actions do indeed have consequences, and I am fully aware that he is unlikely to ever give a favourable review to any of our books in the future in The Spectator or the Mail on Sunday. So be it. At least I can look my colleagues in the eye and myself in the mirror.
August 08, 2014 15:45
Today is my last day at Biteback. I joined this company five years ago, fresh from the bar. Behind the bar, I should say – The Carpenter’s Arms, to be exact. It’s safe to say they took a bit of a punt on this one. Having just revisited my initial letter to try to secure an interview, I can confirm that I actually likened myself to Mary Poppins and somewhere along the way decided that it was appropriate to use the adjective ‘juicy’ to describe the magazine Iain Dale was then publishing, Total Politics.
I can’t really begin to describe what the last five years have been like.
That’d be like trying to describe the fear I felt when Hilary Devey was scheduled to be my first presenter but suffered a bout of the runs an hour before we were due to go live with the Political Book Awards. Or the elation I felt when my colleagues and I spent half an hour replacing words in our book titles with ‘muff’, which was time acceptably spent because our MD found them funniest of all. Or the embarrassment I felt when, at a Daily Mail party, speaking to Anne de Courcy I confused Margot Asquith with Nancy Astor (don’t ask) and she prodded me hard in the chest, yelled ‘NO! Bone up!’ and immediately found other company.
A mix, shall we say…
Once or twice, perhaps thrice, I’ve been shown ‘the line’. ‘The line’ is a trail of Biteback catalogues laid out across the floor. They’re placed there to delineate the division between what is acceptable and what is not. If I have crossed the line, James Stephens, my line manager, will take me by the arm and make me step over it in front of my colleagues (that’s what a real line manager is, by the way). In extreme cases I’ve been asked resolutely to leave the room and think about what I’ve done. Proper HR.
There really is one thing I’ll miss above all, however. And it requires a little context, so bear with me.
Last Thursday The Spectator ran a review of one of our books. A biography of Dusty Springfield. Dusty, famously, was bisexual. This is the opening paragraph of the review:
“Call me a crazy old physiognomist, but my theory is that you can always spot a lesbian by her big thrusting chin. Celebrity Eskimo Sandi Toksvig, Ellen DeGeneres, Jodie Foster, Clare Balding, Vita Sackville-West, God love them: there’s a touch of Desperate Dan in the jaw-bone area, no doubt the better to go bobbing for apples.”
In this paragraph alone the reviewer has: wrongly equated bisexuality with lesbianism, made derogatory and sweeping remarks about the appearance of a number of female celebrities and literary women based solely on their sexual orientation, and, just for good measure, added a great smattering of condescension. It’s one hell of an achievement; I can’t even express how offensive it is in so few words.
The reviewer is Roger Lewis. What I didn’t realise while reading this last week – becoming increasingly riled and appalled at The Spectator’s decision to run such a crass review – is that the wheels were in motion, and a contract drawn up, for us to publish Mr Lewis’s next book. When I was told, I decided this was something Iain Dale should know about. His response (this is where Iain’s ever-poetic turn of phrase comes into play): ‘Fuck me gently. Put everything on hold.’ In the space of a week after the review was published, Mr Lewis and his agent have been informed that we will not be proceeding with the book in light of Mr Lewis’s homophobic comments, a letter has been sent to The Spectator, and we’ve burned bridges with one of the principal reviewers at the Daily Mail and The Speccie.
Roger Lewis is a highly respected, well-connected and prolific book reviewer. Indeed, he’s reviewed a great many of our books in the past. The decision that was made and the action that was taken could conceivably come back and bite us. But that’s what it means to be a Bitebacker. And I couldn’t be prouder.
Now I’m off to Sky News. I wonder what they draw their lines with…
August 06, 2014 12:00
Famed for his scoops for the Daily Express, the veteran journalist Harry Chapman Pincher passed away on the eve of 5th August 2014 at 100 years of age.
He served in the Ministry of Supply during the Second World War before embarking on a lengthy and successful career in journalism, joining the Daily Express as a science and defence correspondent. He is regarded as one of the finest investigative reporters of the twentieth century. Most recently, Harry Chapman Pincher recounted his life story in Chapman Pincher: Dangerous To Know, to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Biteback’s thoughts are with his friends and family at this time.
Read the Guardian’s moving tribute to the remarkable man
Watch the BBC Interview with Chapman Pincher on his 100th birthday
Chapman Pincher preparing to fly with the RAF over the Yemen in 1962.
July 18, 2014 13:00
Alom Shaha’s brilliant book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, has just been released in paperback. Earlier on this year, The British Humanist’s Association were responsible for sending this book to every secondary school and library in England and Wales (see here for details). The book has been very well-received, with everyone from Stephen Fry to A. C. Grayling singing its praises. To find out what the fuss is about, read Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s foreword and purchase the book for just £6.49.
Not that long ago, most non-religious people would have been reluctant to declare their atheism in public or in polite conversation, particularly if they didn’t know the person they were speaking to and didn’t wish to offend. And if they did, they may well have encountered the response that surely they mean they are agnostic, not atheist, for how could anyone be so absolutely certain that there was no God. This was often the charge levelled at scientists; after all, doesn’t science always teach us never be certain about anything?
Gradually, in many countries around the world, declaring one’s atheism is becoming less socially taboo. This is not so much because people are suddenly turning away from religion in their droves, but rather because many, in the secular West in particular, are finding the courage to ‘come out’, declaring that they no longer buy into the religion of their
parents and communities. This new-found freedom to express one’s beliefs, or lack of them, is in large part thanks to the availability of books such as this one. Of course, for hundreds of millions of people around the world, renouncing the religion of one’s birth is easier said than done, and it takes an understanding of these cultures and traditions from the inside to appreciate that one cannot so easily dismiss everything about them.
Just as many theists are content to keep their faith private, so most atheists are not on a proselytising mission to enlighten the ‘poor deluded masses’ that still believe in a supernatural divine power controlling their affairs. For they understand that to try to do so shows a misunderstanding of why people find their religious beliefs so important. It is, as Shaha explains in this book, like trying to talk someone out of being in love using logic.
Instead, I believe this book sets out to achieve two aims, and is brilliantly successful in both. Firstly, and more importantly, it provides a gentle and heart-felt reassurance to those living within devoutly religious communities where dissent or questioning of the faith is taboo, and who have drifted away from a belief in their god, that this is OK; that they needn’t feel a sense of guilt for not subscribing to the religion into which they were born. Many atheists living in the liberal West don’t always understand the interwoven nature of faith, culture and tradition within societies in the Muslim, Jewish or Hindu world, and even in Christian communities in many countries. To renounce God in such societies is to renounce their culture and possibly even to ostracise themselves from loved ones. Therefore, Shaha states that he has written this book to ‘let countless others who keep their lack of faith a secret know that they are not alone’. It is not a call to arms, but simply a reassurance that there is no need for any feelings of shame or betrayal.
The mistake made by some atheists is to assume that anything short of the outright vocal dismissal of religious beliefs and the open declaration of having thrown off the shackles of superstition in favour of rational enlightenment is, at best, evidence of a lack of conviction and, at worst, cowardly pandering to outdated superstitious nonsense. But we must never forget that not all atheists are in the privileged position of living in the cocooning bubble of selfassured liberal, educated rationalism in which they don’t have to worry about riding roughshod over the deeply held convictions of family, friends and community.
The book also serves another vital purpose. It demolishes eloquently and passionately that most insidious of claims by many of religious faith: that without a belief in God and the guidance of a holy book society would dissolve into some sort of hedonistic, anarchic, amoral, self-gratifying decadence. I have long argued that this is not only arrogant
rubbish but groundless intellectual laziness. Shaha demonstrates this argument through many touching examples that highlight what is best about our values and our morality, not as defined by our culture and tradition but because it defines us as members of the human race. The recurring theme is that oft-quoted motto of the growing worldwide humanist movement that we don’t need God to be good.
People will say that religion provides so many good things, like a sense of community, social cohesion, hope, a moral compass, guiding principles in how to lead a good life, grand architecture, pomp, tradition, festivals, charitable causes – the list goes on. But guess what? Everything on that list was achieved not because we have followed ancient teachings or subscribed to the existence of a deity whom we are told we must obey, love and fear, but because we are human. Our species has the capacity for doing great good and great evil.
Sometimes we serve our own selfish needs and desires, and other times we are driven to altruistic acts of kindness and compassion. None of that changes if we stop believing in God.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.
Jim Al-Khalili, 2014
Buy The Young Atheist’s Handbook.
July 15, 2014 16:30
We’re delighted that 8* books from Biteback Publishing and The Robson Press have made their way on to Keith Simpson MP’s famous summer reading list.
Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister
Attlee is always rated highly as a Prime Minister by British political scientists and has been well served by biographers including Kenneth Harris, Frances Beckett and Thomas-Symonds. So perhaps not much more to add? Well Michael Jago in Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister has discovered some new sources and has admirably reworked old ones to show that that whilst Attlee was lucky, he has experience, determination and grit. One for Ed Miliband.
For those parliamentarians unfortunate enough to have fallen foul of the law and thus served Her Majesty under constraint, there is always the opportunity to keep a diary and write about those experiences – Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken being two examples. Now the former Labour MP Denis MacShane has followed that example and written Prison Diaries.
The Eye of the Storm: The View from the Centre of the Political Scandal
Rob Wilson, Conservative MP and PPS to the Chancellor, wrote a very good study on the formation of the present Coalition. In The Eye of the Storm he considers how politicians and ministers deal with political and personal crises, including Charles Clarke, Jacqui Smith, William Hague, Jeremy Hunt and Vince Cable.
How To Be A Minister
John Hutton and Leigh Lewis
In their time, both David Davis and Gerald Kaufman have written “bluffer’s guides” on how to be a minister. Now former Labour Cabinet Minister John Hutton with Leigh Lewis, have brought their experiences up to date with their own How To Be a Minister. A must for ambitious thrusters in the Conservative Parliamentary Party 2010 intake.
The Last Victorians: A Daring Reassessment of Four Twentieth Century Eccentrics
W. Sydney Robinson
Famously, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) ridiculed the great ones of the nineteenth century. Now W Sydney Robinson, who recently wrote a well received biography of the Victorian investigative journalist W T Stead, has written The Last Victorians: A Daring Reassessment of Four Twentieth Century Eccentrics. They are William Joynson-Hicks 1866-1932, the moralising Home Secretary; W R Inge (1860-1954), the gloomy Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral; John Reith, 1889-1971, the moralising and intemperate founder of the BBC, and Arthur Bryant (1899-1985), the ultra patriotic popular historian and journalist.
The Too Difficult Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack
Edited by Charles Clarke
Government, like many professions and businesses, is susceptible to kicking difficult problems into the long grass. The former Labour Cabinet Minister Charles Charke, experienced government under Blair and has been fascinated by the habit of Whitehall to prevaricate and avoid taking difficult decisions. In The Too Difficult Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack he has edited a series of lectures by former ministers and experts on all the big issues frequently avoided, from Europe, national security, climate change, pensions, banking regulation, immigration, Lords reform, to assisted dying, just to mention a few. Proactive and stimulating as an editor, Charles Clarke shows what a loss he is to the political world.
Tennis Maestros: The Twenty Greatest Male Tennis Players of All Time
Speaker Bercow has always been a very keen, competitive tennis player and coach. He has written Tennis Maestros: The Twenty Greatest Male Tennis Players of All Time. Perhaps he will also write a second volume on the twenty greatest female tennis players of all time?
Finding The Plot: 100 Graves To Visit Before You Die
Ann Treneman the Times parliamentary sketch writer has written a fascinating if at times macabre book Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die. She accepts it is a personal choice and is open to suggestions regarding omissions. I have suggested she includes the gravestone of Parson James Woodforde the eighteenth century diarist who was rector of Weston Longville in my Norfolk constituency.
For the full reading list click here
*Apologies for our initial error, there are in fact 8 Biteback books on the summer reading list!