David Campbell

The voice that comes from under the medieval torture rack is a deep, dark mahogany. ‘You must be Nick,’ it says with an assurance that defies correction. Though decidedly English in register, it belongs to Campbell of Strachur yr – David Niall MacArthur Campbell of Strachur the Younger, that is – the 48-year-old Scotsman who gave the kiss of life to the ailing Everyman publishing house, just in time for it to leap from its bath chair, put on a paper crown and celebrate its 90th birthday this Wednesday with a lavish bash among the Canalettos and Gainsboroughs of the Wallace Collection, in London. Among guests expected to be raising their glasses will be the Prince of Wales, Mick Jagger and Sir Isaiah Berlin – for Everyman or, rather, Campbell, has an eclectic, and charmed, circle of friends.

The owner of the voice now springs to his feet and offers a firm, dry hand to shake. The moment to say, ‘It’s Nigel, actually,’ has passed and has been filled instead with a feeble, ‘And you must be David,’ followed by a companionable silence in which we stare down at the exposed ratchets and cogs of what turns out be a vast antique dining table with its leaves removed. ‘Got someone coming to fix it, Nick,’ Campbell says, with a thoughtful scratch of his chin.

Glowering down at us, meanwhile, from above a marble fireplace, is a portrait of Major General John Campbell – ‘a kinsman but no known relation’ – who commissioned the 25-room Robert Adam mansion in which we are standing. David Campbell bought and restored this imposing, supposedly haunted Georgian building in the late Eighties and early Nineties, just before he bought and restored Everyman. As he talks animatedly about the two ventures, it becomes apparent that in his imagination they have merged into one – a means by which it can be declared proudly that David Campbell Has Exceedingly Good Taste.

It would be reckless to suggest otherwise. On this cloudless afternoon, dust motes are playing in the shafts of light that spill through the sash windows. From these can be seen a heart-stopping view of the Argyllshire countryside: wildflower meadows stocked with shaggy Highland cattle; parkland dotted with round-bale silage; bosomy hills which lead the eye down to the loch and fill the heart with envy. Though I think to myself, ‘You’re a lucky bugger, Campbell’, what I say is, ‘So where do you keep your books?’

In the next room but one there is a shelved wall of Everyman titles: pristine, soldierly and Teutonic, the distinctive ivory- and ebony-coloured bands of their spines unbroken. Campbell takes one down – Anna Karenina – caresses its silky cover with the back of his hand and launches into an unsolicited but heartfelt description: ‘Mm, mm. Bound in full cloth, Nick. Sewn. Silk headband. Beautifully blocked. Sumptuous. It’ll open without breaking its spine and it’s printed on a cream-coloured, wood-free, acid-free, Scottish wove paper that will last for centuries without discolouring.’

Given this elegance, it’s small wonder that Everyman books appeared on the Linley wedding list; that Mick Jagger bought three complete sets – 210 books in each – for his various houses; and that Campbell once received a postcard from his friend Min Hogg, editor of World of Interiors, which read: ‘I’ve been photographing Madonna’s home in Miami. Surprise number one: she has a library. Surprise number two: it’s full of Everyman books. Surprise number three: she hired them for the shoot!’

David Campbell says that he prefers people to read his books – but if they just want to admire them, as objects of beauty on their shelves, then that is fine by him: ‘As Anthony Powell once put it, “Books do furnish a room”.’ This books-as-wallpaper notion goes some way to explaining why Everyman racked up a turnover of £2.4 million in the first nine months of its relaunch in 1991 and why, in just five years, it has sold more than three-and-a-half million copies of its bon marché – £9.99 – and devilishly handsome hardbacks. But their appeal also lies in what they cough discreetly at visitors: ‘Ahem. The person who bought us is refined, cultured and erudite.’

For Everyman does not publish any old cookery guide, gardening manual or sex-and-shopping novel. Absolutely not. Everyman publishes the time-ignoring classics, the canons of excellence, the names that read like a roll call of the undisputed heavyweight champions of world literature: Homer? Here. Boswell? Here. Tolstoy? Here. Wilde? Here. Lawrence? Lawrence? Has anyone seen Lawrence? Aye, lad, ‘ere. And all of them blessed with a heavyweight introduction by, say, George Steiner or Malcolm Bradbury.

Classics, as Mark Twain once noted, are something that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. That David Campbell himself has read all his classics goes without saying. But not the set he’s been showing me. His well-thumbed, dog-eared copies are downstairs, in his study. As he leads the way, down a great stairwell sporting plinths for oil burners, on past walls decked with tapestries, shields, claymores and suits of armour, he talks lovingly of the feel and smell of books: ‘Terrifically important, Nick. The first thing you do when you pick up a decently bound book is smell it.’

He talks of books as warm, reassuring objects that he doesn’t mind lending to people but doesn’t like to annotate. ‘I love reading other people’s annotated books, though,’ he adds, talking over his shoulder as we walk along a hallway lined with fishing rods and waders. At the moment he is just finishing Umberto Eco’s latest book and is about to start Graham Swift’s Last Orders. Future Everyman titles? Possibly.

The study, though high-ceilinged, feels cluttered. Three walls are lined with bookcases bracketed by antler trophies. Unruly piles of papers, books and copies of Country Life are scattered on the threadbare carpet. The curtains are in the dark green and blue Campbell tartan, and these colours are echoed in the forlorn-looking, dusty bagpipes that compete with copies of Horse and Hound for space on an occasional table. On another table is a photo of David Campbell, tall, trim and tweedy with a broken shotgun in the crook of his arm. This is the authorised version: gentleman publisher; old school; not having to deal with volatile, precious first novelists. As comfortable in the wild, craggy beauty of the west coast of Scotland as in Notting Hill (where Campbell has another splendid house).

Today, Campbell is wearing faded blue trousers, a raspberry pink shirt and Docksiders, without socks. He has the sort of features which come under the heading ‘distinguished’: slightly beaky but strong jawed; hair thinning, but quite long and dishevelled. And he has about him an air of urbane confidence that could stem from his looks but more likely comes from his background. Eton – which he has been known to refer to as Slough Grammar – inevitably; then Oxford, where contemporaries recall he affected a certain upper-class Bohemianism and was wont to blow his nose on the curtains of the house he shared with the Maharajah of Jodhpur; the mandatory offer of a job in the Secret Service which he loudly announced moments after it was made; the hippy trail to Afghanistan; then work – first with a Belgian oil company and later as a leading light of French publishing. Always in the right place at the right time, Campbell happened to be there when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague in ’68. And, with similarly effortless timing, he jumped aboard the Jane Austen nostalgia bandwagon, selling 55,000 copies of Sense and Sensibility last year, compared with 1,000 the year before. By happy coincidence Campbell shares a birthday – 15 April – with Emma Thompson, star of the film of the book. But he also shares it with Samantha Fox, Lord Archer and that scourge of the Scots, Butcher Cumberland. ‘Ah yes,’ Campbell grins, as he rocks back precariously on a wooden chair, ‘but with Leonardo da Vinci as well.’ It is also the day on which the Titanic sank – a bit of trivia that can be gleaned from reading the Your Birthday series that, in recent years, has proved such a nice little earner for David Campbell Publishers, Campbell’s umbrella organisation. Originally a German idea, it’s a book for each day of the year, listing famous birthdays, horoscopes – the sort of stuff, indeed, Everyman authors would run a mile from. Still, with sales of five and a half million so far, it pays the bills – as the man at Euston station’s WH Smith said: ‘It’s our best-selling item after Biro refills’. It makes you think, though: Jeffrey Archer. Might he end up an Everyman author one day? The answer is tactful. ‘I don’t think it’s Everyman’s duty to publish literature of entertainment, Nick. Although many of the classics are entertaining. Byron was the Mick Jagger of his day. His poetry sold 30,000 copies on the first day of publication. And Dickens was certainly a populist. But books were a mass market medium then, the main vehicle of popular culture. Today’s equivalent is that enemy of virtuous reading, the television.’ When pressed, he admits he has never read any Jeffrey Archer.

A young child runs in, shouts and then runs out again. It is not one of Campbell’s – he and his wife, Alex (a Spanish marquesa, naturally) have two, Charles, 20, and Iona, 18 – and so he raises an eyebrow. Concluding that the child must be with the man who has come to repair the table, he goes back to teetering on the spindly legs of the chair, perhaps thinking that if the chair is going to break it may as well be while the repair man is here. One friend has described David Campbell to me as a Catherine wheel that has fallen off its pin. Now, as he debunks the modernist idea that there are no universal criteria by which great literature can be defined, he is restlessness incarnate, twiddling his specs, flipping them over repeatedly, gathering momentum with his rocking, reminding one of the death throes of a landed fish. ‘It’s like any art form, Nick. There is great architecture and there is lousy architecture. Great literature has to be open to multiple interpretation. It has to transcend its period – so that we can read about the fourth century BC and see the human condition there. But it isn’t just me who makes these judgements. Everyman has some distinguished advisors on its editorial board: John Updike, John Carey, Isaiah Berlin, Frank Kermode, among others.’

The Catherine wheel analogy may be stretching things a bit, but Campbell has nervous energy to spare, forever chivvying you along, impatient for his turn to speak: ‘Mm, mm, yup yup, exactly, exactly.’ The subject has turned to American universities who take DWEMs (Dead White European Males) off their syllabi. ‘Terminal decadence. Absolute madness. Asinine. Risible,’ Campbell says, the chair now a blur of movement. ‘It doesn’t matter if a book is written by a one-legged Guatemalan single mother, it has to measure up. You can’t ignore Homer just because he was white – who knows what colour he was? – it’s ludicrous.’

He can be single-minded, too. In the nine years before he bought Everyman (from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which, in turn, had bought it from JM Dent) he was living in Paris, running Hachette, the distinguished publishing house. For much of that time, he says, his idŽe fixe was to find a way to relaunch Everyman and make it profitable. Once he had bought it, this obsessive passion led him to spend hour after hour rummaging around warehouses in Oxford searching for what he felt was the most appropriate typography for just one Bront‘ novel.

Equally, working from an office isn’t really Campbell’s style. Everyman is based in a pink, Georgian house in Berwick Street, Soho, with 18th-century panelling, an open fire and, below, a sex shop on the ground floor advertising rubber, leather, books, mags and videos. ‘One or two distinguished scholars have been known to look nervous about being photographed when emerging from Everyman,’ Campbell laughs (Prince Charles, too, was once a lunch guest there). The original icon for the Everyman Library was a lighthouse. A friend from Campbell’s Oxford days, who now works with him, thinks this appropriate. ‘David is very focused. Bathing you in light one moment, then, for the other 300 degrees, leaving you in the gloom. He has the sort of charm that makes you feel wanted when he turns his eye on you and then unwanted when he looks away. It’s not malicious or manipulative. It’s just the way he is. When I’m cross with him I’d describe him as a Luftmench, one who flies around all the time without touching the ground.’

There is also a rash side to Campbell’s nature, and a ruthless one. The first could be seen when he asked Martin Amis, a famous fan of Vladimir Nabokov, to write the introduction to Lolita but, in his enthusiasm, published Amis’s offering in place of a cod introduction written by Nabokov himself under the name John Ray Jnr, PhD. The newspapers had a field day. ‘The Amis thing was a storm in a teacup,’ Campbell says tersely. ‘It was spotted early and corrected.’ The second was evident when he rejected a plea from a renowned Joyce expert – who also happened to be a close friend – to write the introduction to a James Joyce novel on the grounds that his friend’s offering would be too opaque.

But, in general, a straw poll of his friends and colleagues paints a picture of a lovable rogue. ‘Full of bluster,’ says one. ‘A hustler. An old Etonian barrow boy,’ laughs another. ‘The only man I know who could sell Doctor Zhivago in Russian to the Russians,’ offers a third. ‘David?’ says an old friend from university. ‘He’s been everywhere, knows everyone – and likes you to know he does. He will more than half hint at the weekends at Sandringham and the dinners with Mick and Jerry.’

Certainly his friendship with Sir Isaiah Berlin meant that he could swing Spencer House as a venue for the Everyman launch party in 1991  (Lord Rothschild waived the normal fee to hire the place and – hustle, hustle, hustle – Mo‘t supplied free champagne). Next day the gossip columns pictured Campbell ‘sharing a joke with literary appreciation duo Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger’. Yet ask him directly about his friendship with Mick while the tape recorder is running and he will cringe and waft a nervous hand as if to say, ‘I can’t really talk about that’.

When pressed to describe himself Campbell says: ‘Oh, I don’t know. Easy-going. Energetic. Know what I want.’ But he does not understand the lighthouse comparison. ‘Oh dear. I hope not,’ he says, adding crisply: ‘I think I’m rather loyal actually.’

One thing all are agreed on is that David Campbell is not afraid to take risks. He had to raise £1 million worth of backing to relaunch Everyman. And this once almost-derelict mansion on the west coast of Scotland was just as dicey a proposition. The previous owner had entertained proposals to have it demolished and, when the Campbells first arrived, there was a dead sheep in the drawing room and rain pouring through the ceiling. Now, with the help of heritage grants (more hustle), there’s a new roof, the interiors have been sympathetically decorated, new stone urns have gone up on the faade outside and all but the dressed stone has been re-harled (rough cast) in pale yellow ochre.

We take a stroll along a lane by the side of the house, through a rickety gate that complains when you open it, and down to a small, humpback bridge under which a river babbles. From here can be seen a mound where Olaf the Viking king is supposed to be buried – Campbell’s life has been so full of happy coincidences that it is not surprising to learn that among the many titles published by the original Everyman was The Olaf Sagas. I ask Campbell what epitaph he would like on his burial mound. Nothing comes to mind. Does he want to leave his mark with a novel, then? He laughs. ‘Oh I’d be incapable of writing one – although the prospect of keeping a diary is tempting.’

You suspect it would be a good read for, at dinner that night, an even more vivid Campbell emerges – the exhibitionist who’s always only just hidden. On the menu are the oysters that Campbell grows in the salt water of the loch and that he and I have gathered. You can tell he quite enjoys taking guests to collect them: checking his watch for the tides before throwing his waders into the back of his careworn black Saab, disturbing wisps of hay and straw as he does so. Instinctively, he tries to get into the left-hand side of the car, perhaps a legacy from his years in Paris and perhaps also a prompt to ask why he does it. Five minutes later, when he parks the Saab next to the loch, he trustingly leaves its hatchback up. As he strides out toward the brackish waters that lap against the sand he points out that just visible through the heat haze is the island of Jura where Orwell, another Everyman author, lived off a diet of kippers while he wrote 1984. To get to the secret place where his oysters are anchored in nets, we have to cross several burns and stretches of muddy sand elaborately patterned with worm-casts. From here you are afforded a fine view of Campbell’s house, which sits at the mouth of a steep-sided glen.

There has been just enough time before supper to walk up it and I take the opportunity to brief my wife that she must call me Nigel as much as possible this evening. The dining table now repaired, we sit down to eat fleshy and succulent oysters. The wine flows and the conversation flits from what happens to your Adam’s apple when you have a sex change, to a mutual acquaintance who, according to Campbell, ‘used to take drugs for Britain and still has the constitution of a Rolling Stones guitarist’. Occasionally a name slips off the table – ‘Ah yes, poor Fitz’ (the war hero and spy Fitzroy Maclean, a Campbell neighbour who died recently) – or an elliptical reference is made: ‘Mm, mm. McCartney and Jagger. Yup yup, exactly, exactly. Well, I don’t know about McCartney, but…’ In the absence of a tape recorder, Campbell proves to be a droll and candid raconteur.

As he talks, I try out in my imagination different epitaphs for the Campbell gravestone. ‘Not to be Forgotten’, as the motto underneath the Campbell coat of arms translates, is ruled out because it seems too pompous. At one point, Campbell has said that when he sits in London traffic jams his thoughts turn to his oysters growing in the clean Hebridean water, so I toy with, ‘David Campbell. The world was his oyster’ – but reject it on the grounds that it is too twee. It is nearly midnight when, reminded of the Campbell hand wafting at the tape recorder, the perfect phrase comes: ‘Here lies David Niall MacArthur Campbell of Strachur. Gone to meet someone incredibly important – but can’t really talk about it.’