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CLR James’ publisher Margaret Busby: ‘My 50 years working with books’

PUBLISHED: 14:41 23 January 2017 | UPDATED: 08:56 25 January 2017

Margaret Busby (Photo: Polly Hancock)

Margaret Busby (Photo: Polly Hancock)

(Photo: Polly Hancock)

Hackney publishing veteran Margaret Busby tells Emma Bartholomew about resurrecting the works of her father’s childhood friend CLR James

Margaret Busby sharing a joke with Nello, or CLR James, on his 80th birthday Margaret Busby sharing a joke with Nello, or CLR James, on his 80th birthday

“Never tell anyone how old you are,” Margaret Busby advises the Gazette.

“People say you are too old to do that or too young to do this. There was a time when I was the UK’s youngest black woman publisher. But people start judging you once they put a number on you so I resist. I’m all in favour of people starting to do things at all sorts of ages. I may still be an airline pilot – who knows?”

Ghanaian-born Margaret was fresh out of uni when she started a publishing company 50 years ago. “You know when you are young and everything seems possible? I think that’s what happened.”

She was at a book launch party in the Bayswater Road house where JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan when she was introduced to Clive Allison – who would soon become her business partner. Margaret, of Reedholm Villas, Stoke Newington, said: “At parties people introduce you to people doing similar things. We both said we’d like to get into publishing – so that’s what we did.

Margaret Busby with Clive Allison in 1967 Margaret Busby with Clive Allison in 1967

“We didn’t do it for money. We believed in it and wanted to make poetry available cheaply.”

Allison & Busby published three poetry books in 1967, then the first novel by African American writer Sam Greenlee – who had been rejected by other publishers.

“Someone once said to me what characterised Allison Busby was you never knew what they were going to do next but you knew it would be interesting,” remembers Margaret. They published sci-fi, fiction, non-fiction, political poetry, and “rescued things that had gone out of print” – including The Black Jacobins and other works by the Trinidadian Marxist historian CLR James, who was her father’s childhood friend.

“It was a wonderful thing to know CLR from a personal perspective but also to publish him,” said Margaret, who knew Cyril Lionel Robert affectionately as Nello – short for Lionel. “When we published him it was difficult to get publicity, but it was part of the process of getting him better known which he should have been.

Allison Busby book covers (Photo: Picasa) Allison Busby book covers (Photo: Picasa)

“He was a very erudite and well read, but also very interested in new things that were going around.

“To say he was interesting is banal but he was interested in people and ideas. He had very strong beliefs.”

Margaret, whose cousin is BBC newsreader Moira Stuart, was part of the campaign to make sure Hackney Council did not rename the CLR James Library “Dalston Library and Archives” in 2010.

She likens her own home to a library. “I have more books than anyone should safely have,” she said. “Every wall is shelved, things topple over and people can’t sit down. I can’t think of any other pastime where you can be informed, entertained and transported to other places. It’s a crucial thing.”

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