The Prospect Behind Us
Part 1, page 3

Meanwhile, in 1981, we had a bumper year for new titles. The first of these, Traditional Recipes of Laos, was essentially a facsimile edition of manuscript recipe notebooks compiled by the late royal chef in the then Kingdom of Laos. We took pleasure in telling other publishers that we were doing this, and in observing their amazement - amazement which we compounded by remarking that the manuscript was not in ordinary Lao script but in a special and antique palace script which even Lao people could not read with complete ease. We might also have mentioned that the notebooks were of that maddening French type whose pages are completely covered with a close grid of pale blue lines and that it had taken three Lao people (by coincidence immured at what was just the right time for us in a London hospital for tropical diseases, where they were being rid of a rare parasite) three weeks and several pots of whiting-out liquid and many very fine brushes to efface all trace of the blue lines. To be fair, we should then have explained that the recipes were accompanied by a translation (done by a team of Lao and Thai young women, working with our youngest daughter Jennifer) and a full introduction about Lao ingredients and foodways, and many beautiful drawings by a Lao artist (Soun Vannithone, who had already attracted attention by his lovely illustrations for Sri Owen's book). The cover (also by Soun and reproduced in part here) was brilliant. Even so, the venture looked risky, especially as we had to plan a print run of 2500.

However, the Lao venture was supported by three factors. First, there was no other worth-while book on the subject. Second, profits were to help Lao refugees in the UK (for whom we helped buy a Lao typewriter, among other things). Third, there were large numbers of Lao refugees around the world, and it was not only they (anxious to preserve their culinary culture) but also all those engaged in helping to look after them who formed a special market for the book.

I like to think that there was a fourth factor; that our seemingly lunatic enterprise had heavenly support. Before leaving Laos in 1975, we had paid a visit to the royal chef's widow in the royal capital, Luang Prabang. Our purpose had simply been to thank her for the use of some of her late husband's recipes in a book I had written and published on Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos. But she told us to our astonishment that it had been her husband's dying wish that his recipes should be published and the revenues used to repair the shelter of a certain statue of the Buddha in Luang Prabang. It became clear that she saw us as the people who could bring this about.

I stammered something to the effect that we would see what we could do when we returned to the outside world. In return I received one of those unmistakeable 'you-are-the-man' looks from her clear eyes as she pronounced with great distinctness words which were translated for us as: 'If you succeed, then the soul of my dear husband will at last rest in peace.'

Well, that seemed to settle it. If the soul of Phia Sing could only rest in peace when we had seen to the publication of his book, we would see to it. The decision involved no thought about markets or costs or technical problems; it just emerged out of the air in that small room in Luang Prabang. (Of course at that time we were not, and did not intend to become, publishers; but who could seriously suppose that any other publisher would step forward? Yes, we could sense that our fate was being determined there and then.)

As it happened, it was a good decision. The book did well in every way, giving much pleasure to many people and bringing benefits to the Lao community in England (Phia Sing's son, whom we later tracked down selling jeans in a clothes shop in Paris, had readily agreed that his father's wish about the shelter for the statue could be transmuted into a wish for the welfare of Lao people who had become refugees), and made money for Prospect Books too.


The Prospect Behind Us - Part 1, page 4
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