That rascally teller of bad jokes and acerbic wit, publisher extraordinaire Ernest Hecht would have chuckled, if he had been around, at the memorial “celebration” of his life at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, on Thursday.
Before it began the minister, Simon Grigg, apologised for a mistake he had made about its starting time and would have to leave earlier than intended. Ernest, who enjoyed breaking every rule in the book, would have enjoyed the moment of confusion in the church.
The lavishly illustrated “order of service”, full of humorous photographs of Ernest as well as his wit, told the story of his colourful life. He died earlier this year at 88.
Under the frontispiece picture of Ernest he is quoted as saying: “If you take a job in publishing the pay is awful … if you start up on your own, and work hard, you have a business clear of debt, and a personal income of £3,000 and £5,000. And watch all the football you want to.”
That was important to Ernest because he was a fanatical Arsenal fan with an executive suite at Highbury and the Emirates – and often went around wearing a Gunners cap.
He came to Britain as a Jewish child fleeing from the Nazis in the late 1930s and started his publishing house, Souvenir Press, in the 1950s in his bedroom at his parents’ home with a loan of £50.
It became a leading name in publishing, turning authors other publishers hadn’t spotted into big names – among them were his sporting heroes Pelé and Manchester United’s manager Matt Busby. His best sellers included the wartime memoir The Password is Courage and books by Cliff Richard and Brian Epstein – the first book on the Beatles.
He would often invite me to “lunch” at the café, near his office in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury – that is sandwiches and coffee – and tell me about the publishing world, interspersing his flow with bad jokes.
But he was a generous man with a social conscience which he concealed behind a bluff exterior. Typically, when I wanted to reproduce a haunting sketch of an emaciated Japanese prisoner-of-war on the war memorial, funded by Camden New Journal readers, he quickly got the permission of the artist Ronald Searle, one of his authors.
Barb Jungr, who organised the celebration on behalf of the executors of Ernest’s estate, wanted friends and family members to talk about the man they knew – and their memories painted a pretty full picture.
His cousin John Stevens, a psychiatrist, joked he never understood it to the end but for years Ernest spurned him – even at his wedding day. He said: “For all his outward socialising and friendship there was a side of him that was defensive and secretive.”
Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, got to know him well because of their shared support for Arsenal; a fellow publisher, Anne Dolamore, recalled how they met for lunch in Soho and found Ernest banished to the back of the restaurant because he was wearing an Arsenal cap and a tracksuit.
The opening music at the Actors’ Church was a Bach piece by Myra Hess – a great pianist who gave wartime concerts at the National Art Gallery even during the Blitz. In her honour, Ernest used to organise charitable lunch-time concerts at the gallery.
The main hymn was the beautiful Lord of the Dance by Sydney Carter, a folk musician and supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who lived in Gray’s Inn Road, Holborn.
Apparently, the minister wondered whether Ernest would want it to be played as he was Jewish but Barb thought he would have loved it.