November 29, 2010
RA (Reginald) Caton’s legacy is ambiguous at best. He published the debuts of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Cecil Day Lewis as well as books by Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and many others. Some of the editions published by the Fortune Press between 1924 and 1971 can fetch upwards of £5,000 today and Caton himself, an independent book publisher who generally worked alone, died an exceedingly rich man. On the other hand he also dabbled in exploitative vanity publishing, was found guilty of obscenity following a criminal trial and had a general aversion to paying his writers (most notably Larkin and Amis). Is it possible to reconcile the more dynamic elements of Caton’s list with these failings, or are the Fortune Press’s achievements irreparably tainted by the roguish publisher himself?
Caton’s palpable ego and sense of entitlement can be seen in some of the Fortune Press’s earliest exploits. With no apparent clue about copyright, he admired Nonesuch Press’s 1924 translation of Plato’s Symposium so much he decided to publish an almost exact copy of it. Nonesuch were, understandably, somewhat displeased and immediately threatened legal action, calling Caton and the Fortune Press “thieves and pirates”. Caton promptly threatened action in return, saying he objected to being likened to “thieves and pirates”. The matter was eventually settled out of court at a cost of £600 to Caton (something like £25,000 today). Caton’s biographer, Timothy D’Arch Smith, suggests that he managed to recoup his losses fairly quickly though by trading black market Wimbledon tickets.
This somewhat spirited attitude may be what led Caton to produce many books that would never have been published by any other press at the time. Their subject matter is described by D’Arch Smith as “amatory unorthodoxy”, evident in titles such as The Pharaoh Ne-Ovser-Ra and his Little Slave Girl or the more potent Nell in Bridewell – Description of the System of Corporal Punishment in the Female Prisons of Southern Germany Up To The Year 1848. In 1934 he was prosecuted for obscene libel, found guilty and ordered to pulp the offending books. Though publically acknowledging his guilt, these editions could still be found on sale in the 1970s. It is however impossible to say whether his wilful disobedience was a sign of pride or simply a desire to avoid losing more money.
Some of his titles have been described as mild homosexual porn and even “rank sodomy”. When you consider that homosexuality was only decriminalised in the UK in 1967, it’s actually surprising he didn’t get taken to court more often. The Brighton Ourstory archive points out however that the Fortune Press was the closest thing people had to a queer publishing house until the Gay Men’s Press was established in the 1970s. It’s therefore tempting to look upon Caton as an activist for gay rights in difficult times, but in fact the main result of the obscenity trial was a swift shift in focus from porn to poetry. He referred to the trial as “no joke” and seems only to have taken to heart the financial implications.
There’s no denying that his poetry list was rather spectacular. He published poets including Charles Causley, Cecil Day Lewis, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas and many, many other poets of varying legacies. Always commercially minded, he was quick to reissue books when the opportunity arose and could almost always be guaranteed to do so without contacting or remunerating the author. Where poets had no commercial possibilities however, Caton was not averse to taking their money and printing their books anyway in a vanity setup, in this way pleasing both publisher and author (if not reader or critic). The real problems came when the money had to leave Caton’s hands and get handed back to the authors.
There are many stories of various Fortune Press authors never being paid, but the most striking are those of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Neither saw a single penny for their hard work and Larkin suffered the additional frustrations of delays to his books and the bungled printing of his novel Jill. After some rough drafting, Larkin sent the manuscript over to Caton who then sent it directly to the printers without casting an editorial eye over any of it. There was no proofreading, no correcting or redrafting, and to make matters worse the text was then violently censored by the printers themselves who were suspicious of Fortune Press’s dubious reputation. Amis contented himself with inserting crude parodies of Caton into his later novels, eventually killing off the disreputable “L. S.” Caton in The Anti-Death League with a hail of machinegun fire. The “L. S.” stood for “lazy sod”, a nickname devised by Larkin, who derided Caton and the Fortune Press as “a yelping-ground for incompetents”.
Caton does seem to epitomise the idea of publisher as profit-monger, bent on turning out a product with little or no interest in its quality or contents. While he is to be commended for his commercial eye and some truly wonderful books, the bulk of criticism levelled at him concerns his lack of respect for authors and general lack of interest in editorial matters, not to mention the shadier elements of his vanity publishing and reluctance to pay anyone. The most frustrating thing about the Fortune Press, at least for idealists, is that it actually worked. It does seem to have made him a huge amount of money, in one way or another.
Caton invested incoming cash into other projects, anything from a Parisian publishing/bookselling business to wholesaling unauthorised copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The time that he saved by not actually editing the books was spent attending to the properties he bought with the profits and rented out in Brighton. Each one was a slum, and there are stories that he would deliberately wear scruffy clothes when going to see his tenants so they wouldn’t realise he was rich and therefore ask more of him. At the time of his death he owned and personally managed 91 different properties, and donated £129,251 to charity, the equivalent of over a million pounds today. How many contemporary small press publishers can say they are property magnates?
In terms of Caton the man himself, it’s virtually impossible to get an idea of what he was really like as there are so few details available about his personal life. His own sister once had to follow him home just to find out where he actually lived. We know he ran the press more or less singlehandedly not because of a fierce independence but apparently due to an overly secretive nature. He loathed the telephone but loved to travel and so was a master of inefficiency, regularly turning up unannounced and imposing upon writers he would elicit work or money from without recompense. His warehouses were a mess too, with books stored in buildings two miles away from their corresponding dust jackets.
Squalid to the last, D’Arch Smith remembers finding an ageing Caton sat in piles of discarded newspaper pages that had built up around his chair, in an office containing half-empty milk bottles and packages piled right to the ceiling. One of his authors Margaret Crosland described Caton as “a second-rate accountant, wearing the traditional dirty raincoat, on his way to a sex shop”. Think: Withnail as publisher. He died a very rich man, and yet at the time of his death he’d been in dispute with an advertiser who broke into his offices and stole his typewriter, the only object of real value to be found.
Caton died shortly after he sold off the Press in 1971, and D’Arch Smith suggests that he simply couldn’t bear the idea of life without his publishing. It seems odd that he could be so attached to the Press that made him the object of mockery and loathing for unethical choices and unprofessional practices. D’Arch Smith also mentions that one of his authors even threatened him at gunpoint in a desperate bid to claim payment. It would be tempting to try and rewrite Caton as a Tony Wilson-esque entrepreneur and enabler, but his lack of integrity and interest in the works themselves make this impossible. In fact it’s hard to tell what he thought about poetry in general, let alone the poets he published.
There’s nothing particularly commendable about Caton’s legacy in the end: he was exploitative, untrustworthy and unethical. As his biographer says in brief conclusion: “Grim, unlovable, he had published more than 600 books.” Even with the list’s stellar highlights, taken as a whole the back-catalogue is easily as embarrassing as it is impressive. As a publishing model, it feels unsavoury to say the least. He is quoted as saying that Fortune never smiled on him but he certainly had the last laugh financially, something that’s hard to ignore in both a publisher and a pirate.
Bibliography (and further reading)
R. A. Caton and the Fortune Press: A Memoir and a Hand-List, Timothy D’Arch Smith, Bertram Rota, 1983
‘Fortune Press – Amis & Larkin etc’., c/o Any Amount of Books, Charing Cross Road, www.bookride.com/2009/06/fortune-press-amis-larkin-etc.html
‘Philip Larkin and the Case of the Missing Manuscript’, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, www.hull.ac.uk/oldlib/archives/paragon/1997/larkin.html
‘Why, it’s Rank Sodomy!’, Brighton Ourstory Archive, www.brightonourstory.co.uk/newsletters/summer06/sodomy.htm
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