Toby Faber - author and lecturer

Other occasional journalism

This first article was commissioned by The Sunday Times in February 2001, but never published due to space constraints. It's a brief history of my time as Managing Director of Faber and Faber

I never expected to work at Faber and Faber, although I was brought up with the firm. It was founded – as Faber and Gwyer – in 1925 when my grandfather joined a scientific publisher owned by the Gwyer family. When they sold out in 1929 my grandfather was persuaded that Faber and Faber sounded grander than plain Faber, and one of the UK’s leading independent literary publishers was born. I put it like that because I can never remember feeling anything other than immense pride in the company’s existence and reputation. I’m sure it made me insufferable with my schoolfriends at times. TS Eliot joined the firm when it was still Faber and Gwyer and my father was his first godson. The Christmas and birthday letters which, as a very small boy, my father received from his godfather were in our house in Cambridge when I was a small boy myself. I used to enjoy them in private and boast of them in public: complete poems that were later to appear in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, as well as more personal lines: ‘Come with a flute and a fife and a tabor/To the birthday party of Thomas Erle Faber.’ 


We had only occasional visits in Cambridge from authors, but every so often a new box of books would arrive. The Faber list was pretty eclectic in the early 70s; William Golding and Philip Larkin rubbed shoulders with The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency and a flourishing science fiction list. I read much of it, and listened to my parents discuss the firm’s finances. My father, a physicist, sat on the board and until the success of the musical Cats – based, of course, on the Old Possum poems - the firm was hardly secure. So the family’s ownership of it did not bring much in the way of financial benefit. I remember one holiday in our trusty Renault 4 (we were four children, all squeezed on the back seat) when we told some other children that we were related to the publishers, and were met with open disbelief: ‘You can’t be, you’d be driving around in a Rolls Royce with a chauffeur.’ The firm’s sales and profits were always rather smaller than its reputation.


Despite my childhood, but like my father (whose own father had been so alarmed at his tendency to physics that he had made him promise to read at least one improving book every holidays), my career took me away from publishing. I read Natural Sciences and Management Studies at Cambridge and then – with so many of my contemporaries in the late 80s – entered the City, spending four years in corporate finance at BZW. After an MBA at INSEAD, I joined the management consultants McKinsey & Co, where I was to spend three years advising mainly banking and pharmaceuticals clients. If anybody in my family was likely to join the business it was my older brother, who read English at Oxford and started in publishing with Methuen before emigrating to Australia in the early 90s. In any case my family and the firm seemed to be moving apart. No Faber had worked there since my grandfather himself, and he died in 1961. In 1990, moreover, the firm was restructured, with Valerie Eliot’s help, giving staff the opportunity to buy shares in the company and diluting the family’s interest below 50%.


Nevertheless, I was intrigued when Matthew Evans, Faber’s longstanding Chairman and Managing Director, invited me out for a drink soon after I arrived at McKinsey. I had seen Matthew quite a lot in my childhood; he had been a scarily good draftee to the otherwise hopeless cricket team my father assembled in the summer vacations; but we had hardly met in the previous 15 years. We talked about his search for a successor as Managing Director, that had by then been going on for some time; various options hadn’t worked out and Matthew was now looking outside the publishing industry. He thought I might have both the necessary management skills and the equally necessary sympathy for Faber’s culture. He was right about the second point: I continued to rejoice in Faber bestsellers and prizewinners and felt I had a perspective on the firm’s history and concern for its long-term welfare that came naturally with being a Faber. As to Matthew’s first point, however, I had only just started at McKinsey and was clearly too inexperienced for what he had in mind. We parted on friendly terms and agreed to keep in touch.


Over the next three years we did just that; the drinks turned into lunches and I started to meet other Faber directors. Leaving McKinsey was a big step, but at some point I realised that if I turned down the opportunity Matthew was offering me I would never forgive myself. I joined in April 1996 as his assistant. My overwhelming feeling was one of coming home, not only because I’m a Faber but also because the whole business of book publishing is, intrinsically, such fun; there is no better word for it. After six months I moved onto the board, three months later I was looking after the sales and marketing departments during our publishing director’s maternity leave, and in April 1997 I became Managing Director while Matthew Evans remained as Executive Chairman.


So a member of the Faber family had returned to the firm. I would never have got the job without that connection, but I had good management credentials. Being a Faber was probably a double-edged sword when it came to taking hard decisions. The warehouse in Harlow and the American subsidiary Faber Inc were both too small to provide the service Faber needed at reasonable cost and the obvious option for each was either closure or sale. However, my attachment to both was strong, a childhood visit to Harlow had given me my only taste of being treated as ‘young master Faber’, probably by people who were still working there when I became MD, and the President of Faber Inc had been a friend for over ten years. A family firm is almost bound to have a paternalistic streak; and between them these operations employed almost a third of Faber’s workforce. It was over a year before - forced to confront the reality of sales significantly below budget – I and the Faber board took the two separate decisions to sell Faber Inc and close the warehouse, making almost 40 people redundant as a result.

We were also taking happier – more expansive - decisions. One of my first projects on arrival at Faber had been to consider the future of the children’s list, following the resignation of its editor. The list had always found it hard to get attention, and the rest of the firm never quite knew what to make of it. My recommendation to continue with the list and appoint a new editor was backed up by hard McKinsey-style analysis; but I had an emotional response too. I had grown up reading the Faber children’s list: books like Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, The Mouse and his Child and The Children of Greene Knowe. There was no way I was going to be responsible for its demise. It’s been great to see these books reappear under the Faber imprint in our new Children’s Classics series. We have made many other appointments over the last few years, and some parts of the firm have changed radically, but I hope its culture remains one that my grandfather would recognise and that he would agree that the firm is flourishing: commissioning interesting books, putting them in attractive jackets and formats and generally publishing them with creativity and flair.  

The particular highlights of my time at Faber have been the successes of individual books. In every one of my first four years we won the Whitbread Book of the Year, each time with a book of poetry: two by Ted Hughes and two by Seamus Heaney. I take no credit for any of them but it was terrific to be part of it all. And of course the poetry list itself goes back to the roots of the firm. My grandfather was still Chairman – and TS Eliot still an editor - when Ted Hughes joined the list. 
Now after five years I feel it’s time to move on. My feelings about publishing itself have not changed, but over the last few months management has allowed me little time to enjoy the books themselves. Being a Faber makes the decision to leave that much harder, but it’s not a good enough reason to stay. I will remain closely involved with the company, as a director of Geoffrey Faber Holdings, still a major shareholder; and there’s a whole new generation of the family waiting in the wings, including my four-month-old daughter, who I hope will grow up feeling the same way about the firm as I do. One thing is for certain: it will be some time yet before I stop scanning the books pages for reviews or hanging around in bookshops.

© Toby Faber

The disappearance and subsequent recovery of  a Stradivarius cello played by a member of the LA Philharmonic prompted me to write this article which I thought would be good for the LA Times - it wasn't the first time that a Los Angeles musician had lost a Strad.

Having spent the last three years writing a book about Antonio Stradivari, I think I can imagine some of Peter Stumpf’s feelings when the General Kyd Stradivarius cello disappeared from his porch last April. For one thing, of course, these instruments are famously valuable. As an early example of Stradivari’s work, the General Kyd should be relatively cheap, but its quoted value of $ 3.5 million must have made the LA Philharmonic’s insurers blanche.

Then there is the General Kyd’s history. Like every other Strad it has been valuable for the best part of three hundred years. It boasts a succession of famous owners and players, Leopold Stern among them. Was Mr Stumpf destined to be the last of them?  Overwhelming all of that, however, must have been Stumpf’s intimation that one of his life’s most important relationships had reached a premature close. Male violinists are apt to speak of their partnership with a Strad as a marriage. The metaphor might not be appropriate for cellos – deeper voiced and bigger than violins, they are surely more masculine – but the depth of the bond is just as great. The British cellist Steven Isserlis told me how his ‘heart soars’ every time he takes his Feuermann Stradivarius out of its case, and of his weekly nightmares that he has left it on a train. Yo-Yo Ma says of his Stradivarius – previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré – that he ‘can think of anything on that instrument and put it into action. It comes out as beautifully or more beautifully than I would have thought.’ If there is one consolation that Mr Stumpf could have drawn, it would have been that he was by no means the first player of a Stradivarius to find himself in this predicament. Readers with long memories may remember the case of the Duke of Alcantara violin, now back in the ownership of UCLA after going missing for twenty-seven years. When Joshua Bell played at the Walt Disney Concert Hall earlier this year he was accompanied by the Gibson Stradivarius. Stolen from the dressing room of the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman in 1936, it did not resurface for fifty-one years, following the death-bed confession of the original thief.  Then there is the case of the Red Diamond violin. In 1953, its player, Sascha Jacobsen, was driving along the coastal highway to Pacific Palisades when his car was caught in a flash flood. As he struggled through the rising waters, his violin case was snatched out of his grasp and swept out to sea. The case was found the next morning, but its contents appeared irretrievable. Only nine months of painstaking restoration brought the Red Diamond back to something like its former glory. In comparison with all these stories, the three weeks that Mr Stumpf had to wait before his cello was turned into police is a mere bagatelle, although he must still have palpitations at the idea that it was very nearly turned into a CD-holder. Only good fortune meant that the cello’s finder saw a news report on its disappearance before her boyfriend started work: his serendipitous procrastination saved the instrument.  

There is of course a hidden facet to all these stories. Normally one might expect objects with such astronomical values to be locked up in vaults or museums, not used daily. But the string instruments made by Stradivari – and some of his contemporaries – are different from your average work of art. They are so valuable not because of their beauty or antiquity but because these three-hundred-year-old instruments are still the best in the world at doing the job they were designed to do. Modern instruments simply cannot match them.


How can that be? To my mind, it is one of the great mysteries of our era. The instruments made by Antonio Stradivari are the ultimate rebuke to its arrogance: science does not have all the answers; Renaissance technology still cannot be bettered. Add to that the fact that almost every Strad has a great story behind it and you have an almost irresistible combination. It has fascinated successive generations of players and audiences and caused heartache to musicians like Peter Stumpf for centuries – and it has made the last three years of my life immensely rewarding.

© Toby Faber

One of the five violins I followed in Stradivarius was the Lipiński, which had been missing for years. Its reemergence in September 2008 prompted me to write this article

The Lipiński Stradivarius

The re-emergence of a great violin

‘On the next day, with much fear and hesitation, I went to Signor Salvini’s house at the appointed time. He received me with great cordiality, and before I had unfolded my music he said, “Please give me your violin.” I handed it to him and was amazed to see him grasp it firmly by the neck and strike it with all his might on the edge of the table, on which it fell, smashed to atoms. But with the greatest coolness and tranquillity the old gentleman then opened a violin-case which was on the same table, and carefully taking from it a violin, said to me, “Try this instrument!”


‘I took it, and after I had played one of Beethoven’s sonatas, Salvini held out his hand to me, and said with some emotion, “You are doubtless aware that I was once formerly a pupil of Giuseppe Tartini, my famous fellow countryman, and one of the greatest violinists of the time. On one occasion he gave me this large and genuine Stradivari violin, which I have cherished as a souvenir of his memory. You, Herr Lipiński, know how to use such an instrument, and to give expression to its hidden power.”’


This is the story that the nineteenth century Polish virtuoso, Karol Lipiński, told of how he came to acquire the Stradivarius that bore his name. I knew as soon as I came across it that the Lipiński would have to be one of the violins whose life I followed in the book I was writing about Antonio Stradivari. Lipinski’s anecdote alone was good enough, but the violin’s link with Giuseppe Tartini made it irresistible. He was one of the fathers of modern violin-playing; he’s there somewhere in the teaching ancestry of every virtuoso. And Tartini’s own account of how the devil played to him in a dream has entered folklore: ‘The piece I then composed is truly the best I ever wrote, and I called it “The Devil’s Sonata”, but it is so inferior to what I heard that if I could have subsisted on other means I would have broken my violin and abandoned music for ever.’


Lipiński himself was another great violinist, regarded as one of the great Bach exponents of his era, in contrast to the showiness of his friend and rival, Nicolò Paganini. The only disappointment – from the point of view of the story I was telling in my book – was that during the twentieth century the Lipiński violin seemed to have been almost silent. I could track down its presence in a concert played in Havana during World War II, when, according to the Havana Post, the young Cuban soloist, Angel Reyes, ‘brought out tones of exquisite beauty from the $40,000 Stradivarius with which he appeared on Monday evening.’ But that was it. The violin’s last entry in the history books seemed to have been its sale in 1962 to a Richard Anschuetz, who purchased the violin for his wife, ‘Ely Livak’. I could find no trace of any performances by her, and none of the dealers I spoke to had seen anything of the violin for forty years. I had to reflect, sadly, that for now the Lipiński was silent. Even worse, it was possible that its tone had been ruined by poor restoration – an example of how the world’s supply of great violins was gradually running out.


So I can hardly fail to be excited by the news that the Lipiński violin has once again emerged from obscurity – in a bank vault in Milwaukee. Typically, the catalyst was a death, in this case of Richard Anschuetz, that purchaser in 1962. His wife was in fact called Evi Liivak, an Estonian child prodigy who never achieved great fame in the West, but whom I would have undoubtedly been able to track down if her name had not been mis-transcribed from the account books of the dealer who sold it 1962. Anschuetz himself was a pianist, and the pair toured a bit in America, but after Liivak’s death in 1996, the violin fell truly silent. Now it is on permanent loan to Frank Almond, leader of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.


Almond recently talked to the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal about his new violin: ‘It really changes day to day. It's really opening up, after not being played for at least 10 years and then sitting in a bank vault for a year. It's amazing how these things live and breathe.’ More than that, almost 300 years after Stradivari made it in 1715, the Lipiński has delighted another player: ‘It's incredibly even and powerful; there are no real dead spots. Through the entire range of the instrument, you get that focus and intensity. It's the loudest violin I've ever played, by maybe 30%. There's colour, too; you can find so many different stories to tell. You can shout or you can whisper.’


So I can be relieved as well as excited. On this evidence at least, the Lipiński remains a great violin. Its longevity belies my fears. But there’s a more personal reason why I’m especially happy that Almond is the violin’s new player. My book on Stradivarius eventually came out in 2004. In its introduction I made an assertion as I struggled to explain why a book on a long-dead violin-maker deserved a general readership: ‘From Melbourne to Milwaukee, the bus driver will ask you, as you struggle with your violin case, “Is that a Stradivarius?”’ So far so flowery, but then came my American tour to promote the paperback of the book. I had engagements on both the East and West coasts, it made sense to stop somewhere in between, and, in their wisdom, my publishers chose Milwaukee. There, I received a question I was dreading: ‘I’ve seen the sentence in your introduction, and I’m a bus driver in Milwaukee…’ Why had I picked on this particular city?


I floundered. I certainly couldn’t give my real reason: a combination of alliteration and the faint improbability that I was looking for to make my point. Now, at last, I have a good answer: ‘Because, here of all cities, that violin really might be a Stradivarius.’

© Toby Faber