by Ann Curtin

Linda Yeatman and her husband, Robert, came to live in Cambridge in 1985. They run their own publishing company, Colt Books. Linda has been involved in many aspects of publishing; a special interest has been children's books. A recent publication is The Bridge Player's Bedside Book by Tony Forrester. Linda and Robert began their duplicate bridge career at the Cambridge Club and now play regularly.

Linda, how did you initially get into publishing?

Well, I was lucky. During my last year at St Andrews University, way back in 1959, I discussed the possibilities of going into publishing with my medieval history Professor. He kindly offered to write to his publisher, Macmillans, to ask if they had any openings. I can see him now, standing in South St, with the wind billowing in his gown, and a bit of paper fluttering wildly in his hand, as he called me across the street to show me their reply. This suggested I came to see them. And so, after graduating, I found myself in the academic division of one of the great publishing houses in London. It was a good start.

Please tell us how you became involved with children's books.

Like most people who are avid readers in their childhood, I moved on to adult reading, but in my case, I never lost my interest in children's literature, and my enjoyment of the really good books for children. In the early 1960s most children's lists were tucked into the schools' divisions of publishing houses, but Penguins already had a children's paperback list called Puffins. When Kaye Webb took over from Eleanor Graham as editor of Puffin Books, I became her first assistant. She was married to Ronald Searle at the time, and, since the Penguin office in Harmondsworth - very modern, all open plan - hadn't got round to finding desk space for either Kaye or myself, much of our work at first was done from their wonderfully dramatic home near Paddington.

Kaye was a dynamic person to work for, and while she had no competition in children's paperbacks she bought rights in virtually anything she considered good enough for Puffins. The first book I remember working on was Tolkien's The Hobbit, and many brilliant books followed. I learnt most of my publishing skills from Kaye. It was a wonderful job.

What are your criteria for a good book for a child?

That's a very large question. Without sounding flippant or trite, it has to engage the child fully, taking the reader into a world of imagination, story-telling, and/or make-believe that he or she would not encounter without that book. Of course, there are marvellous information and reference books too, and they all have their place on a child's bookshelf.

You have three daughters: Catherine, Lucy and Rosanna, now grown up. How did you combine your flourishing career in publishing with looking after a family?

For years I worked from home, while the children were small. At first I did freelance editorial work for various publishers, and then I branched out into freelance journalism. I had a good working relationship for several years with the Women's Page on The Times and also with the new colour magazine of The Observer. I covered all sorts of topics for them. The first major article was on why people play games, which opened with the statement "Sex and Scrabble have one thing in common. They bring people together ..." (Perhaps one could say the same for bridge?)

For several years I had my own fortnightly column on children's books in the Observer magazine. This was very popular with the family as for all that time a copy of every children's book that was published was delivered to our home. No wonder that the girls are all voracious readers.

You have had Colt books running for over ten years now. Can you list some of your favourite titles and tell us about them?

It rather depends how you define "favourite". I would not be in business if I didn't regard the best-selling titles as favourites...One book I particularly like is The Fisherman's Bedside Book which was compiled by BB (who wrote one of the great books of my childhood, The Little Grey Men). BB collected together such superb writing on the subject of fishing that you don't have to enjoy fishing to love the book.

We have recently published a very fine biography of a Victorian woman called Alice Greg, called What Grandmother Said by Dame Alix Meynell which is attracting a good deal of attention from the media. The Poacher's Cookbook by Prue Coats is a classic cookbook with country recipes. I'm proud of them all. As you know, one bedside book has led to another, and we particularly enjoyed publishing The Bridge Player's Bedside Book last year. This was compiled by Tony Forrester. We wanted to have a book on our list for bridge players which is entertaining, and he found some great pieces to include in the anthology.

We shall be publishing another bridge book later this year, called Mendelson's Guide to the Bidding Battle. Paul Mendelson, the bridge correspondent for the Financial Times, is highly regarded as a teacher, and he has written up his recommendations for improving yours and your partner's strategy while causing maximum disruption to your opponents' bidding. It already feels like one of my favourites.

And now to bridge! When did you start to play?

When I was fourteen, I was sent to France for six weeks to live with a family and learn to speak French fluently. For the first four weeks I was bored out of my mind at the home of one of the grandm` eres, and I was looking forward to the last two weeks in Normandy with the other grandm` ere, where I knew there would be a large household. "Vous jouez le bridge, ma petite?" I was asked on arrival, and scowling, I replied "Non, absolument non!" I quickly realised my mistake as the entire household, when they were not eating six-course gourmet meals or shooting partridge, played bridge all day long. Immediately after breakfast at least two bridge tables started in the salon, the summer house always had a bridge four, while the teenagers and children crouched on the steps of the French windows, or huddled under the cedar tree on the lawn - and there was nothing for me to do, no one to talk to.

It wasn't long before I revised my position and asked the 10 and 11 year olds to teach me, and within a few days I graduated into the teenage games. It was terrific fun, very animated and uninhibited, lots of "contre" (double) and even "passe" could be spat out pretty aggressively. I have never lost my enjoyment of bridge.

Had you played duplicate bridge before you came to Cambridge?

Only once. My father, a good bridge player who played regularly in a couple of clubs in London, invited me to partner him in a match that was important to him. When he retired and my parents moved to the north of Scotland, he found the local club would not accept new members without a partner. There was one open tournament, in April, called The Highland Bridge Tournament, and he asked me to come up and play with him, and told me that we must win, so that he couldn't only have a partner for the following season, but the pick of the partners. I nearly lost my nerve when I went to have my hair done on the morning of the match. The hairdresser, Mr Struthers, told me that he and his wife were the champions of the highland region and they had held the Highland Bridge Cup for the past 15 years. "Don't worry," said my father. "Introduce me to Mr Struthers if we play against them, and I'll make sure we bid and make a grand slam." Sure enough, we came to the Struthers' table, I introduced him, and before we picked up the cards my father winked at me. In fact it was left to me to bid and make the grand slam. We clearly had a slam in spades, and he bid it up to six, and without glancing at him I put it up to seven. It was marvellous, every card that I needed was there, and we won the cup on that swing. No one else bid the grand. I was able to stand in the bar afterwards and watch the club members gather round and congratulate him and hear them asking whom he'd like to play with the following season. I can't remember going to the hairdresser again there.

What is the appeal of duplicate bridge for you, as compared with rubber bridge? Do you have a preference?

I do really enjoy both. But duplicate is much more satisfying, even if it's frustrating too, as there comes the point that you really want to know how other people would fare on certain hands and whether you could have done better. (Nearly always the case with us!). We are lucky with the Cambridge Club, too, I think, in that there is a wide range of players and systems which makes each evening more fun. And I enjoy playing against people who really want to win, whereas in rubber bridge it can be a little too easy to brush off an error. I'd hate to give up either. And I'd like to think I'm not too old to improve my game - as long as I never let it take me over. One has to stay in control, don't you think?

Linda, your charm and style at the bridge table add a glow to our bridge club evenings whenever you play. Thank you for talking to us.

Ann Curtin