The year: 1978
This is what was happening:
James Callaghan was Prime Minister of a minority in the House of Commons and under great pressure from Margaret Thatcher to call a general election.
One of my all-time favourite singers, Sandy Denny, died following an injury sustained after she fell down a staircase and hit her head on concrete.
Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, died from an overdose in Curzon Place, Mayfair.
The advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi was recruited by Margaret Thatcher to revamp the Conservative Party’s image.
The first South Bank Show was aired with Melvyn Bragg.
James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small was screened for the first time.
Roman Polanski skipped bail and fled to France, after pleading guilty to charges of engaging in sex with a 13-year-old girl.
A poison-filled pellet was injected into Georgi Markov using an umbrella, on orders of the Bulgarian intelligence service; he died four days later.
This was to be my final year in a decade working in the world of publishing: a decade that I had adored. Thanks to Mark Collins, I’d even been allowed to work a four-day week at Fontana, giving me one free day at home to ‘think’ – crazy but true, that’s how wonderful it was.
But by 1978, the writing was on the wall. Publishing was in a state of turmoil. Many of the long-standing independent firms were being gobbled up or were amalgamating with large American firms. Penguin Books, which I very much looked up to in terms of design and literary integrity, had announced the appointment of a new ‘Chief Executive Officer’ (an unfamiliar title in UK publishing at that time) in the shape of Peter Mayer, who was coming from Avon Books in New York.
Mayer’s initial relationship with Penguin’s then Art Director David Pelham was seemingly good (as recounted in a joint interview between Mayer and Pelham in AOI’s Illustrator magazine at the time). It would appear that Penguin’s covers would not change that much. But, away from Penguin, rumours of major changes were rampant. Soon all became clear, with wholesale swathes of the Penguin list jettisoned: education, poetry and much of the Pelican list. So-called blockbusters (above) started to appear on the Penguin list, and there was a noticeable change in cover quality. It was sad to see the extremely talented David Pelham having to endure the new heavy-handed regime. Pelham resigned in frustration in 1979, saying at the time…
“The art department… became the whipping boys… if a book didn’t sell.”
From Penguin by Design, published in 2005.
So ended the heritage of considered cover design, which went back to the mid-1930s, and with it the loss of Penguin’s heart. All part of Mayer’s plan to turn Penguin around, which had been running at a loss when he joined. But in the process of his radicalisation, much of Penguin’s integrity as a publisher was being lost to a loyal readership. Something that has taken many decades to rebuild.
Meanwhile, back in my own Fontana camp, I was also being pressured to be even more ‘commercially’ minded in the presentation of covers. The way I coped with this was to design in a hard-hitting way without losing my design integrity. It didn’t always work out, of course, but I tried. It was like a mini war.
Even when a non-fiction cover had to be commercial I would try to find a way to make it acceptable. This being a cover on a cover.
There were also boardroom battles going on within the Collins family and whispers of selling the company. In between all that, I had got Mark Collins to agree to my producing three large-format illustrated books that I had devised and designed. Two were on advertising history: Bubbles (the history of Pears soap advertising) and Pipe Dreams (advertising from the tobacco industry). The third was The Magical Paintings of Justin Todd; Justin Todd was an illustrator whom I had commissioned a lot and was a big fan of. I collaborated with Tim Shackleton, one of Fontana’s editors, to help out on the text side.
Francine Lawrence and Ashted Dastor were still with me and a new secretary joined, Francis Magill: an expensively educated Scot with no trace of a Scottish accent, just like the entire Collins family. They were also Scots but sported cut-glass public school accents.
Above a classic John Gorham cover complete with his own illustration. Gorham would often collaborate with others as in the above two where he got Graham Percy to produce these delightful illustrations.
John Gorham and Ken Carroll were still my most regular and often used external graphic designers. By this time, Ken and I were pretty much inseparable. We had graduated from eating at Pizza Express and The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory to the more refined environment of Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street, Covent Garden (still there), where we would continue to drink copious amounts of wine.
I was still young enough to take it, but this was pretty stupid as I had a long daily drive back home to Essex and a young family.
Francine Lawrence assures me that I fired her around this time. I have no idea why and would love to know the circumstances, as I liked her so much. As the year progressed, I became increasingly concerned about my future with the rapidly changing firm. I realised I would have to find another job outside of publishing. I had thought that, having had a lot of work published in various design annuals (particularly D&AD, which had featured 12 Fontana covers that year),
I would be able to pick up work outside the publishing world; I had already forged relationships with David Puttnam, Alan Parker and Ridley Scott.
Over one weekend, I did some deep thinking. By this time, I had three growing children to feed and educate. I looked at them and started to panic. My first wife was a wonderfully clear thinker and would always calm me down in my moments of panic.
I decided that I would put it to Ken Carroll that we should start a design consultancy together. The next day, I phoned him to suggest we have a booze-free lunch. I arranged for some sandwiches and fruit and set up a table and chairs in the one-time ballroom of Collins’ elegant Georgian house. Over that light lunch, we agreed to start a company. We were both completely void of any experience of running one, but the die was cast and we were about to plan our journey not just into the unknown but seemingly blind to the fact that 1978 Britain was engulfed in what was called ‘The Winter of Discontent’ – an ongoing saga of strikes as a result of the Labour government’s attempt to control inflation by imposing rules on the public sector, on top of an economic downturn. But that didn’t faze us. We were excited and pretty gung-ho with the idea.
In October 1978, I gave three months’ notice to Mark Collins and continued to work with an increasing sense of fear, anticipation and excitement at the prospect of being in control of my own destiny. Those last months slipped by as the evenings drew darker and the temperature dropped to what was to be a bitterly cold winter.
My leaving the firm coincided with the Christmas break. I recall farewell drinks, some hand shaking and walking down the stairs from my top-floor studio along the chequered tiled corridor that opened out into the elegant, warmly lit reception area of Collins. It had an arrangement of friendly, rust-coloured sofas set against hessian-covered walls and an array of rich, oriental rugs, with a runner that ran down the entrance hall to the front door. Looking back, I realise why they were called publishing ‘houses’ – they really were in those days, unlike the clinical, corporate spaces they are today, with security barriers and identity ribbons. As I left Collins for the last time, stepping out onto the darkened street, snowflakes were flurrying down past the glowing street lamp. I was on my own, out in the cold. And so ended my decade in publishing.
My Films for 1978:
The Deer Hunter directed by Michael Cimino an audacious beginning and end to his film career.
Days of Heaven directed by Terrence Malick proving that he is the new Lean/Kubrick
Interiors directed by Woody Allen. An underated masterpiece by Wood in Bergman mode.
Superman directed by Richard Donner with a touching cameo performance by Glenn Ford as Pa Kent
The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Philip Kaufman
My Album for 1978: While visiting the Design Council, when it was in the Haymarket and had free exhibitions open to the public, I was looking at one about the British Airport Authority. It a multi-screen carousel projector presentation, there was also mesmerising sound track that I instantly liked. I found out that it was appropriately called Music for Airports by Brian Eno. I have been a fan ever since.
My Project for 1978:
Post Script 1979:
I designed the above spoof cover on a cover for Illustrators in 1979 as a satire on the direction of paperback cover design at the time. Inside it featured a damming piece by me on the publishing industry and the strangle hold that sales departments was having on the art directors. In the following issue of the magazine, Patrick Mortimer, the art director who took over from me at Fontana Books, heavily criticised me. He said that I was naive and should have stayed in the industry to fight the good fight. However I never saw anything remarkable come out of Fontana ever again. So, the fight was clearly lost.
The story continues:
I hope you have enjoyed this part of the journey and found it of interest.
You can pick up on what happened next in my history of Carroll & Dempsey and later Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell (CDT). HERE.