There was standing room only at a packed memorial service to celebrate the life of “magnificent” agent Carole Blake in St John’s Smith Square, London, this afternoon (Monday 13th March).
Blake, born in 1946, died suddenly last October.
In an emotional tribute, novelist Lawrence Norfolk told of how his writing career began after a chance meeting with Blake at the London Book Fair in 1988, where she took the time to point out to the “spectacularly incompetent” budding writer that he hadn’t even supplied her with his contact details after a clumsy pitch. She was his agent ever after. “She would give you a chance. I was an unlikely proposition, but we all are. Carole had faith in her writers,” he said. “She took care of business – no detail ever escaped Carole. She was kind – even though she could slug it out with anyone if she wanted to… When I was really down, she was at her absolute titanic best….She loved pictures, music, arts and crafts, jewellery, the books her writers made, the books we wrote because of her. She was my backstop. I could take artistic risks because of her. I am the kind of writer I am because of her.”
Historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick remembered being taken on by Blake after 17 years of unsuccessfully trying to be published, as a stay-at-home mother without a university education. She said Blake “opened the door…she raised me up and nurtured my career for 20 years.” She also recalled first introducing Blake to the music of Meat Loaf, for whom, in a rather unlikely development, Blake developed one of her intense enthusiasms. “She went out and bought everything he had ever recorded, leaving me in the dust of her superfandom,” Chadwick recalled. The two ended at a Meat Loaf concert, “two rock chicks of a certain age.”
Crime writer Peter James, represented by Blake since 2000, remembered first meeting “a majestic apparition, with flowing blonde hair, and a rock the size of a planet around her neck”, as well as her fondness for alcohol-fuelled publishing lunches. “It was impossible not to feel proud of her,” he said, adding: “We have fair-weather friends and foul-weather ones; it is the foul-weather ones stick with us through the good and the bad who are our true friends. Carole took me on when my writing career was in the doldrums, kept her faith and made it happen. I owe so much to her. She is up there among the greatest champions of the UK publishing industry of all time.”
Former publisher Martin Nield said Blake had “left the great life party uncharacteristically abruptly and far too early” but that she had “partied right to the end, she was the life and soul of the party.” Citing her love of “long, bibulous and gossippy lunches”, he noted she could however “be fierce on behalf of beloved clients”. But she loved “everything about the book trade and revelled in its glorious bonkersness,” he said, noting the work she did as president of the Association of Authors Agents, chair of The Book Society [then named The Society of Bookmen], and a long and happy association with the Book Trade Charity.
Blake Friedmann agency co–founder Julian Friedmann, at one time married to Blake, eschewed sadness, telling the assembled company that Blake "would have wanted us to relish the fun she so conspicuously had as an agent and a friend.” Once described to him as “the nicest of the really tough agents, and the toughest of the really nice agents”, Blake once ducked out of haggling over a much-desired dinner set while on holiday in France on the grounds that “I can only negotiate upwards”, Friedmann revealed. In her last few days she had “very, very few regrets”, he said.
The agency's Books department head Isobel Dixon remembered, “the most generous person: with gifts, her time, her stories, her prodigious energy. I feel immense gratitude that I knew her and could learn from her and through her meet so many wonderful people,” she said. “Carole was magnificent: not just queen bee of the agency and queen of Twitter, but with a wonderful rich curiosity, she would become a connoisseur of art, of stories, and life. She did nothing by half measures and it feels to so many of us that that energy and generosity is with us still, including at the agency, doing turbo-charged deals in the run-up to the fair. Authors have been saying how they have felt Carole has been at their elbows as they write… she lives on with us in the stories she told and also the stories she inspired.”
Dixon read her own poem, “The Jewel”, written in memory of Blake, remembering: “Your clarity and force/your pleasure in the great bazaar of life,/the splendour and the clamour of it all."
Conrad Williams, an agent with Blake Friedmann for 30 years, praised the “enlightened and enabling” atmosphere of the agency, where so long as the work was done, great flexibility was exercised, and where Blake understood that the personal creative activities of the staff fed into and nurtured their work. He played Grieg’s “Melodie in A Minor”, from a December concert he’d participated in, and which Blake had planned to attend.
Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" and "Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion" from Handel's "Messiah" were also featured in the service, which ended appropriately with a serving of champagne, and a toast to friendship given by trade journalist Liz Thomson and US editor Olga Vezeris, both close personal friends of Blake’s.
Donations in Blake’s memory may be made to The Book Trade Charity.