The last of the literary entrepreneurs

November 11 2000 / The Times

Ernest Hecht is perhaps the most unconventional figure in British publishing. He is certainly the scruffiest. Fast-talking (he has been called “the Brian Clough of publishing”), mischievous but with a shrewd eye for an unlikely bestseller, he has the untidiest office that I have ever seen, with books and notes double-stacked on his desk, and papers and letters scattered across the floor. He insists, however, that he knows where everything is.

It is hard not to believe him, because Souvenir Press, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is a jewel of a successful independent house and Hecht himself is the last of the great publishing entrepreneurs who escaped as a child from the Nazis and stayed in Britain to build a flourishing business.

Most of the great names of postwar publishing - Andre Deutsch, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Jonathan Cape, Penguin, Michael Joseph - have long since surrendered their independence, being swallowed up into vast, impersonal, conglomerate media empires. But Souvenir has somehow retained its independence, consistently publishing more than 50 books each year.

Its list is extraordinarily eclectic. Hecht is the publisher of five Nobel laureates, including the great Norwegian pessimist Knut Hamsun and the poet Pablo Neruda, but he also specialises in mass-market fiction, in sports books and has a nice sideline in the arcane and in whimsy. The Rear View, a history of bottoms; Politically Correct Bedtime Stories; Playboy Twelfth Anniversary Reader and Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, a study in New Age quackery, are among his more esoteric bestsellers.

“Anyone can create a high-class literary list of prestige titles,” he says. “It’s better to have a balanced list, comprising books that make money and those perhaps more worthy titles that don’t. My adage is that a publisher’s first duty to an author is to remain solvent.”

Hecht grew up an only child in a middle-class family in Moravia, Czechoslovakia. His parents, who ran a clothes manufacturing business, were assimilated Jews, ambitious for their son and largely uninterested in wider political events. Home life was stable and comfortably affluent - until, that was, the Nazi storm began blowing across Central Europe.

Hecht’s father, Richard, unlike many of his friends and relatives, did not underestimate the mortal dangers of Nazism. In fact, he saw with grim clairvoyance the dangers ahead and, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, he visited England, ostensibly on a business trip but really to find out more about the possibilities of getting the rest of the family out. Hecht himself did not leave Moravia until April 1939. When he eventually arrived in Britain he did so alone on the Kindertransport, the humanitarian trains that carried more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to safety, although many of them never saw their parents again.

Hecht recalls travelling by train with his mother through Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. “My mother and I were alone in a carriage with a Gestapo officer,” he says. “The atmosphere was very tense. And then, because I’ve never been a good passenger on trains, I made matters worse by being sick all over the Gestapo man. My mother must have died a thousand deaths.” He pauses, laughing at the memory.

“He was actually all right about it. He wiped himself down, telling my mother not to worry because he had young children, too.”

Hecht had to leave his mother in Prague as he made the long journey to England. (His mother eventually escaped from Czechoslovakia three weeks before Germany invaded Poland, in September 1939.)

Richard Hecht had, by this time, found a small flat on Tottenham Court Road; but soon his son was on the move again, this time being evacuated to the remote village of Great Somerford in Wiltshire, where his English improved and he began slowly adapting to a new life as a child refugee. Hecht speaks with calm detachment about his past. The distinguished American-Jewish historian Peter Gay, who escaped as a child from Berlin in 1939, has written of how he has long been haunted by a shadow life, by the very “Germanness” that was stolen from him when he was forced to flee the country of his birth, never to return.

Hecht, similarly, has never returned to what is now the Czech Republic. Nor is he curious to see what has become of the home town where he recalls enjoying “going to the theatre and to the circuses that used to travel through the country”.

Hecht set up Souvenir Press in 1951 in the bedroom of his parents’ flat after he had graduated from Hull University, where he ran the student football team and studied for two degrees. His first hardcover book was the autobiography of Ron Burgess, the former Spurs and Wales captain, which Hecht sold direct to the Spurs’ supporters club. He was on his way. His first bestseller was The Password is Courage, the story of Charlie Coward, a witness in the War Crimes trials.

His great love, apart from publishing, is football, and Hecht in his time has worked freelance as a sports journalist (“so that I could get official accreditation for the World Cups”) and as the British literary agent of Pele. He later became the official publisher of the great Brazilian football team, and of Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton.

One of his most vivid memories of Czechoslovakia is of being taken by his father to watch the Prague derby match between Slavia Prague and Sparta Prague. He supported the eventual winners, Slavia, who played in red and white. Once in London, his father took him to see another team in red and white, Arsenal, whom Hecht has supported ever since (he remains a committed season ticket holder).

At the age of 71 Hecht shows no signs of slowing down, or indeed of retiring. Resolutely single, he lives alone in Notting Hill and there is no heir or business partner poised to assume control of Souvenir, if he ever decides to step aside.

“The natural life of any business run by one person is, I suspect, 40 years,” he says. “So we have already gone ten years beyond our natural span. As for the future, I’m not unduly worried what happens to Souvenir when I’m not here, for the simple reason,” he chuckles “that I won’t be here. In any event, I don’t believe in dynasties.”

In an age of corporate gigantism, he keeps alive the original entrepreneurial spirit of publishing - publishing as a cottage industry, as the expression of the enthusiasms of one man or of a small group of people. Hecht is the maverick who goes it alone and thrives in an age of hostile competition and ruinous business practices. In person, he is a force of nature, an engaging, wised-up monologist, a natural joke teller and charged anecdotist. He is good company. And the books he publishes - eccentric, witty, erudite - are a reflection of the man himself.