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The Review - FEATURE

Pelé is presented with the International Football Book Sword of Honour by Ernest Hecht in 1966

Willard White

Helene Delavault

Normi Noel

Ernest Hecht
Celebrating the voices which sang the changes

Ernest Hecht is the champion of independent publishers, a life-long Arsenal fan and Pelé’s literary agent, writes Tom Foot

WILLARD White’s tribute to civil rights activist Paul Robeson heads an extraordinary celebration of “independent voices” at the Bloomsbury Theatre throughout this week.
The Jamaican-born opera singer joins Liam Clancy, the youngest member of the Clancy Brothers, Patricio Guzmán’s award-winning documentary about Chilean Prime Minister Salvador Allende, cult cabaret artistes Barb Jungr and the star of Peter Brook’s Carmen, Helene Delavault, and a widely acclaimed theatrical premiere about combat nurses in Vietnam by Normi Noel.
The week-long festival marks the 55th anniversary of the independent publishers, Souvenir Press, founded by the colourful Ernest Hecht – life-long Arsenal fanatic, champion of independent publishers and one-time literary agent to Pelé.
Hecht, who fled the Nazis from his homeland then Czechoslovakia in 1939, is the publisher of five Nobel laureates, including the great Norwegian pessimist Knut Hamsun and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, but he also specialises in mass-market fiction, in sports books and has a nice sideline in the arcane and whimsy.
He has assembled an eclectic mix of contemporary artists, paying tribute to singers like Bob Dylan, Paul Robeson, the Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and the Australian Eric Bogle, to name but a few.
“Not many people know this about Robeson,” says Hecht who published the first rock n’ roll biography of the Beatles before they were big, “but he was a great American football player.
“People remember him for Old Man River but he was a top college player as well as a great actor. He made seven English films when he lived here and played Othello. He had his passport taken away because he was a communist and spoke 20 languages. It’s an extraordinary story.”
“But the less well-known guys are really interesting. I saw Helene Delevault at the Almeida and Sadlers Wells. She had astonishing reviews – it was real beg or steal for tickets stuff. It’s her first time back in London for 20 years.”
Willard’s tribute to Robeson is just one of the independent voices celebrating a bygone era when musicians and artists genuinely felt they could change the world.
I asked Ernest Hecht, himself a pioneer of free thought as director of Souvenir Press for 55 years, why it was important to celebrate the independent voice.
He says: “It is hard to get books published that look at the minority or publish anything that goes against accepted wisdom. But by going against that we have had books investigating mad cow’s disease, getting cancer from pylons and the rock n’ roll biographies, years before the subjects became big news. We did early biographies of the Beatles and the Stones before anyone thought to do it.
“As an independent publisher, you are in charge of your direction – there are problems but at least no one can interfere. Even film and music makers are second-guessed by conglomerates these days – there is so much censorship.”
Hecht might not have been here to tell his story. Fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1939, he recalls his greatest act of resistance with a wry smile.
He says: “On the train to England as a young man, I remember throwing up on one of the Gestapo. My mother must have been terrified but the man said it was ok because he had children of his own.”
Eventually settling in Kensington, Mr Hecht set up his successful publishing company and was able to indulge in his life-long passion: Arsenal and Brazilian football.
A season ticket holder at Highbury he claims to be the only Englishman to have seen Brazil lift all three World Cups.
Czech-born Hecht became an unlikely ambassador for Brazilian football and acted as European literary agent to the legendary Pelé after the 1962 World Cup in Chile.
He says: “It wasn’t easy getting Pelé good publicity. Younger readers won’t believe it. But at that time, Pelé had just been thrown out of the 1962 tournament and English football fans didn’t want to know about anything outside of England. That would all change after the 1970 World Cup of course. Everybody wanted to know about him then.”
Hecht’s passion for football is satisfied by a season ticket at Arsenal. He goes to every home game, sitting in the directors’ box and is a good friend of Arsenal’s money man David Dein. But what with his ethical approach to publishing, how does he feel about Arsenal’s steady shift from football club to corporate marketing machine?
He says: “I think they have handled it badly. They got greedy and probably have not treated the fans as they might have done.”
Hecht has been known to make up tall stories to avoid clashes with arts events so he can see the real artists at Highbury, but it is testament to the significance of the evening he has created that he is willing to miss his beloved Gunners historic semi final clash with Villarreal to see Liam Clancy, which falls on the same night.
“I’ve told the theatre to announce the score – if it’s appropriate,” he says.
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