A cold war publisher called Blair
by Kelvin Smith
“If your friend’s novel is published by the great house of Abercrombie & Blair, believe me, you can be assured of total privacy”, a rival facetiously points out to Katya Orlova towards the beginning of John Le Carré’s The Russia House. Barley Blair is not a successful publisher, and as Zapadny, one of his Russian friends, says to him at the Moscow Book Fair: “A. & B. are living off God’s good air and Scotch whisky, they say. Personally, I consider that an excellent diet”.
The Russia House is set in the period of perestroika when publishers at the Moscow Book Fair could see some of the changes happening to the Soviet Union, although many of the old distinctions remained. The “Leader’s speeches, wrapped in shiny covers and rendered into English, French, Spanish and German, made a totally resistible appeal” and there were “the usual unreadable books on agricultural development in the Ukraine and the traditional dances of Georgia”.
As Barley points this out to his new partner Henziger in the CIA-sposored firm of Potomac & Blair:
Finally they arrived, as they had to, at the two pavilions housing the fair.
‘On my right, the publishers of Peace, Progress and Goodwill,’ Barley announced, playing the referee at a prize fight. ‘On my left, the distributors of Fascist imperialist lies, the pornographers, the poisoners of truth. Seconds out. Time.’
They showed their passes and walked in.
In the world of international publishing in the 1980s, whisky and “nicotine-stained fingers” were the norm, and many publishers let it be imagined that they too were, or might soon be, involved in the secret world of espionage, global politics and propaganda. Barley Blair was a character of the times, and at the end of the story we see that his days are numbered.
Formal letters of resignation, postmarked Lisbon, were received by his aunts within a few days of the book fair and bore the marks of Barley’s earlier style – a general weariness of publishing, the industry has outgrown itself, time to turn his hand to other things while he still has a few good years ahead of him.
John Le Carré, The Russia House, 1989