Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Pat Kavanagh |
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Pat Kavanagh

Already a star agent in the days before there were any others, Pat Kavanagh had the glamour to reduce most men and not a few women to slavery. She was beautiful, clever and loved to laugh, but she could also have a blunt way with a fool. Since most writers are fools, especially about money, a new client was likely to find his dreams being set straight quite early in the relationship. I can’t speak for her other clients — she never spoke about them either — but in general I would be surprised if there were any who were spared a close encounter with brute reality when she first explained to them why it would be unwise to start living like Donald Trump on the assumption that the next advance would be as big as the last one.

Such bluntness could be daunting but it was also reassuring, because the client guessed, correctly, that his new mentor wouldn’t be pussyfooting with the publishers either. Pat could make publishers shake in their hand-made shoes. On the appointed day to have lunch with her they always dressed with extra care. Some of the awe she inspired at all levels of the business might have come from the fact that she had a self-assured hauteur and yet was hard to place. She didn’t come from any recognizable British social stratum. She was a South African who had sent herself into exile. Like the Australian expatriates of the same generation, she counted as having come from nowhere.

People who had come from nowhere could score an effect if they looked as if they knew something. Pat looked like that. She didn’t even have to say anything. At the parties and book-launches that endlessly punctuate the literary round, one babbles to stay alive. Pat never babbled. Her gift for waiting until she had something to say was enough to scare the daylights out of those of us who were busy saying anything at all without waiting for a moment. Julian Barnes, who doesn’t babble either, was at a loss for words when he first met her at a party in the old A. D. Peters office. Wisely he sent her a letter saying so, and from then on he was the lucky man. But not even Julian’s looming presence could subtract from her individual status. She was always at the centre of a roomful of admiring glances.

On a grand occasion, she had a way of looking unimpressed that could set the assembled company to wondering if they quite measured up. Actually her inscrutability might have had more to do with shyness, but there was no telling for sure even when you knew her. Perhaps you had done something wrong. I once turned up for a book-launch in a flared-trouser all-denim suit that was very wrong indeed, and couldn’t help thinking that my appearance might have had something to do with the way she looked into her glass of white wine as if a fly had drowned in it.

But she forgave us all, as long as we kept writing. Pat’s client list, always bung full for decade after decade, was a persuasive indicator that she was on the side of the creator. To be effectively on the side of the creator, however, an agent must know the business. Pat did. I can well remember her first explanation to me of why it was better, on a book of memoirs, to have a rising rate on later royalties (the ‘escalator’ clause) than to inflate the advance, especially if I also wanted the publisher to put out off-trail stuff such as collections of essays and poetry. ‘The secret,’ she said, ‘is to be a long-term asset.’

I wish I could say that the idea had been all mine, but without her deep knowledge of the practical possibilities I would have been stymied. I am sure that there are many other clients who could say the same about their careers. Every literary career is different but the same principles apply, or anyway they ought to. The first principle is to have principles. The writer should not expect to have junk published; the publisher should not expect to get away with publishing junk; and the agent should not expect to be praised for extracting a huge advance from the publisher for a piece of junk that will never get the advance back.

Pat saw all this nonsense coming a long way off and she could be very funny about it (she was never more delightful than when pouring on the scorn), but she profoundly disapproved. Everyone in the business knew how honest she was and it must have made some of them uncomfortable. When PFD, of which she had been a stalwart, was taken over, it was an awkward situation for many of us because the literary world in London is quite small and everyone knows everyone. But Pat’s clients went with her en masse to the new outfit, United Agents, and I doubt if even one of them hesitated any more than I did. I would have gone with her even if I had known that she was soon to grow fatally ill. Every minute of knowing her was valuable. This week many voices will be heard saying the same thing. Being literary voices, they will all say it differently, but there will be common themes: respect, admiration, love, and a racking grief at so cruel a blow, which had an awful quickness for its only mercy.

(Guardian, October 21, 2008)


She died on a Monday morning, and in the afternoon the Guardian called me ten minutes before the Times did. I had already composed my first few paragraphs, because I knew somebody would be asking, and it was something to do. One of the dubious privileges of sharing your life with famous people is that if you outlive them, you will be called upon to help bury them. Pat was good at fame: disliking the attention intensely, she perfected a natural gift for public privacy. Her lifelong physical beauty announced itself always, but through no fault of her own; and she flaunted nothing, not even her principles. But they were fiercely held, and one of the many things to regret about her unexpected death was that it came just a few days too early for her to see a black man become President of the United States. In her youth, she had left South Africa because of apartheid. The renunciation cost her much regret, which she bore without complaint. I tried to get some of that heroic quality into my piece. In all the pieces — and I suppose there will be more, unless I check out early to be summed up in my turn — I make it my first and only task to catch the character. The standard obituary, with all the biographical details, is beyond me. What I write is what the obit editors call the additional feature. It’s easier, but I still wish I didn’t have to. The only way out of it, however, would be if your loved ones lived forever: and we can’t have that.