Virago founder Carmen Callil remembered by her friend Rachel Cooke: ‘Of course she was difficult’

I’d love to be able to say that it was Antonia White, or Rosamond Lehmann, or one of the many other women writers she championed who brought us together. But that, alas, would be a lie. In the first instance at least, it is Padma Lakshmi, the TV cook who used to be married to Salman Rushdie, who must take the credit for my friendship with Carmen Callil.

The year was 2004 and I was at a book launch at the Polish Club in South Kensington, trying hard both not to look shy and not to drink the dangerously terrible wine that was in my glass – a tricky proposition, given that the two acts were in direct opposition to one another. The weekend before, the Observer had run a disobliging profile I’d written of Lakshmi, with whom I’d spent a long and humiliating day in New York, and to my amazement, it was this that Carmen brought up when, as the party reached its noisy climax, we were unexpectedly introduced. “Padma Lakshmi!” she all but shouted on hearing my name. And then, with even greater ferocity: “My heroine!” For a few seconds, I was confused. Was she a… fan of Lakshmi? I took a step backwards, just in case. But, no. Her smile (she had the greatest smile in the world) was benign. It appeared to be me she was praising. I decided to drink the awful wine after all.

After this, we began to get acquainted: slowly at first and then quickly. We had friends in common, which helped, and there was work to bind us, too; when her beloved Virago Modern Classics celebrated its 30th birthday in 2008, I went to her house to talk to her for a piece. But really, our relationship, and everything it eventually became, was mostly down to Carmen herself. She had – this cannot be overstated – an extraordinary capacity for friendship. Most people have half a dozen true pals, if they’re lucky. But she had a hundred at least and a way of making each one feel adored and important.

You were a heroine. You were a genius. You may even have been a heroine and a genius. My Liz, she would say, her voice an embrace even before her arms went around the person in question. My Deborah, my Nell, my Sophie. My Peter, my Colm, my Robert. She might well have read everything – it often felt to me as if she had – but she also loved company. Talk was her oxygen. When she asked you a question, it wasn’t to be polite. It was because she wanted to hear your answer.

It goes without saying that I was in awe of her brilliant career as a publisher; of all the people she’d known (Rebecca West, for God’s sake); of the way she connected the present to the past, a walking, talking library with a voice, even now, that was straight out of Melbourne (whether ecstatic or furious, she would screech like a parrot). The Virago classics, with their green spines and covers decorated with obscure paintings from even more obscure art galleries (friends gave her postcards as inspiration) had played a big part in my life, as they have in so many people’s.

And talking about books with her was an intense pleasure. One of the happiest memories I have is of the two of us, wedged into a couple of deck chairs in a garden in Saint-Émilion. Carmen was reading Jonathan Coe’s novel Number 11, which I’d just finished, and I was desperate for her to do the same so we could argue about it – or not, as it turned out: she loved it, too.

In the end, though, there was more to it than books. Carmen was a singular person, which makes her easy to describe, but impossible properly to capture. She had a way of getting to the heart of things; an unlikely, erratic wisdom. But she was also incredible fun. If she was a workaholic, she was also a sybarite. She loved the sun and could lie in it, like a lizard, for hours. She loved clothes, always looking fabulous in her – “it’s vintage now, darling” – Missoni coat. She loved food, especially tripe (delivered by her friend Simon Hopkinson), frisée (eaten with her fingers, usually), cheese and pavlova, of which she could easily devour three portions. Taking her out for sushi was like watching a sea lion eat a mackerel, an entire menu disappearing in seconds. She was the only person I’ve ever met who actually smacked her lips after eating something. And then there was wine (never champagne). “I haven’t had a drink in hours!” she once announced plaintively, on finding her glass empty at dinner. This became, among a certain group of us, a catch phrase, deployed in case of thirst, whether extreme or not.

She loved games: online Scrabble, bridge with friends. She loved television. She loved the cinema. She loved music. She loved dogs; her terrier, Effie, was with her until the last. And she loved sport, especially cricket. In 2018, we went to Lord’s together for a one-day game (one of her quirks, of which there were many, was that she supported England, not Australia). We weren’t under cover, it was very hot, and I sloped off at about three, feeling faint. But Carmen, 30 years older than me, stayed put. “Goodbye, darling!” she said, somehow peeling her eyes from the pitch.

When she was 80, she had a grand party in the Long Room at Lord’s. On the same night, England were playing Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup, which spelled misery for those who didn’t want to miss it (a surprisingly high number of senior novelists were already wondering if they could run, unnoticed, back and forth to the nearest pub). Carmen, though, came to their rescue – and her own – by arranging for a huge screen to be set up next door. England lost, of course, but it was the best party ever, even if what Germaine Greer made of Kieran Trippier’s goal isn’t recorded.

She loved “junking” (her term for rootling in antique markets) and she loved presents (giving and receiving) and took them seriously. She agreed with her friend, the agent Pat Kavanagh: it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the present that counts. The best present she ever gave me was a rolling pin on which is written “les six commandements du mariage”. The best present I ever gave her – or so she told me – was an old wooden kookaburra, originally a child’s toy. Also, the sparkly necklace she wore on the day she got her DBE. As a republican, she pretended to be grumpy about becoming a dame, which happened in 2017. “I went to the palace, YOU NITWIT,” she wrote, in reply to an email in which I’d innocently asked why she’d sent me a picture of herself in a hat (she’d sneaked off there, rather furtively). But she was pleased, really. It was an acknowledgement. She understood that.

Above all, she loved holidays, preferably to France, where she’d once owned a home. In the strange summer of 2020, when it briefly seemed as if the worst of the pandemic might be over, we flew to stay with friends on the Côte d’Azur. Heathrow airport was hushed, the quiet only broken by an Australian woman talking at the top of her voice about Monoprix and how she absolutely had to get there to buy knickers. That week, somewhat glamorously, we went on a speedboat to the island of Porquerolles (people arranged treats for her, that’s just how it was). Carmen sat up front, the wind blowing in her hair, surrounded by charming young men (the sons of our friends), a look of perfect delight on her face. We took turns holding on to her legs, in case she blew away.

The next holiday we planned – in August, I was to take her to the Languedoc, which she wanted to see again, perhaps for the last time – was cancelled. It was on the day before we were due to leave that she found out about the leukaemia.

I’ve written all this not to rebut the obituaries, which have universally referred to how difficult Carmen could be. She was spiky. I knew that side of her, too. A friend who’d briefly worked for her at Chatto visibly blenched on catching sight of her at a party we threw (there was, everyone agrees, a lot of crying in loos both at Virago, the company she started, and at Chatto, which she ran from 1982). But she had, as all people do, many sides and as she got older, she mellowed. She was still furious: about Brexit, about climate change, about Palestine. Her tolerance for mansplaining ex-public-school boys was even lower than mine. But the clouds would pass quickly now.

And in any case, of course she was difficult. She’d had to be. How else was she to achieve anything? Her story is that of all professional women in the second half of the 20th century: a matter of extreme bravery, of hiding one’s fears and insecurities and of trying one’s best to ignore the chauvinists. She had to work harder than any man and she did.

She was born in Melbourne in 1938, her mother of Irish descent and her father of Lebanese (it was, she said, thanks to her “Lebanese side” that she was such a canny marketeer). Her father died when she nine, a terrible blow, and she hated her convent school, though she never quite shook off her Catholicism; guilt racked her all her life. At home, the washing and ironing were left to her and her sister, while her brothers went off to play rugby – a situation so boring and unfair, she’d no option but to become a feminist. By the time she’d graduated with an English and history degree from Melbourne University, she was itching to leave Australia. She set sail in 1960.

In London, she worked first for the underground paper Ink and then as a publishing PR (she was a publicity whizz). And then, in 1973, she founded the Virago Press, setting up shop above a pinball arcade in Soho: a publisher whose goal was to deliver to the mass market books by, and for, women. Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker and Angela Carter were among her authors. In the end, though, it wasn’t new names that made Virago a triumph, but old ones. Her stroke of genius was the Modern Classics list, which republished forgotten and neglected women writers: Willa Cather, EM Delafield, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens more. It was a commercial success. It also changed the way people thought, for ever.

She will be remembered for this, of course, but I always thought what followed was just as awe-inspiring. In 1982, Jonathan Cape bought Virago and she was appointed to run its imprint, Chatto. Five years later, after disagreements with management, she bought Virago back. This wasn’t a success and in 1995 Virago was bought by Little, Brown. Carmen stepped down. In the years that followed, she did some of the usual things, chairing the Booker prize judges in 1996, and joining various boards. But she also wrote two remarkable books.

Bad Faith, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize in 2006, describes a suicide attempt Carmen made aged 22, a crisis that led her to see a psychiatrist, Dr Anne Darquier; only later did she find out that her doctor’s father was Louis Darquier, a commissioner for Jewish affairs in the Vichy government who was responsible for sending thousands of French Jews to Nazi concentration camps. In the book, she uses all of her righteous anger to pin this banal monster to the page. Oh Happy Day, which came out in 2020, tells the story of her family’s forced emigration to Australia: a tale of poverty and violence in which she could see painful parallels with today. “It’s very depressing, darling,” she would say to people, her smile the size of New South Wales.

Carmen once told me a story about her earliest days in London, when she was still trying to find her feet, struggling with the awful weather, the awful food and the awful men. She was staying with a cousin and had a temp job at a newspaper, one of whose editors assaulted her after asking her out to lunch. Traumatised, she fled to King’s Cross, getting on the first train she could. It was heading for Cambridge and there, she wandered around, dazed, confused, hardly aware of her surroundings.

Her cousin was worried. Where was she? What to do? In those days, some newspapers still carried small ads on their front pages and she decided to place one (it may have been in the Evening News, I forget). WOMBAT COME HOME!, it said – Wombat being Carmen’s cousin’s nickname for her. Carmen saw the ad and to London she returned. I always thought Wombat Come Home should be the title of her autobiography, a book she was writing, but will now never finish.

In the days after she died, I kept thinking of this. Wombat come home, I said to myself whenever I cried, which was every five minutes. Where is she? What to do? Carmen used to say that it was easy to publish her authors: all that was required was to care passionately about what they did and to stick up for them. She was my friend, not my editor, but I know all too well how it must have felt to be in her protection.

She was the only person besides my husband who read everything I wrote, who always let me know what she thought of it, and who (this is the important part) understood the effort it might have taken. Her emails and texts, encouraging and enthusiastic, would arrive every Monday almost without fail and inevitably ended the same way: “No need to answer this, I know you are busy.” Somehow, she gave me the ineffable feeling that she always had my back and I wonder now what kind of writer – what kind of person – I will be without her. I hope it isn’t a bad sign that I have found writing this so bloody hard. She was the best person I ever knew and I will miss her for ever.

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