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When Tony Godwin died in 1976 the Times called him ‘the single most influential personality in British publishing since the war’ and added: ‘in his seven years with Penguin, Tony Godwin brought new life to what was fast becoming a moribund list and in doing so doubled their turnover.’ You would never guess this from J.E. Morpurgo’s biography of Allen Lane. He allows Godwin less than twenty pages out of almost four hundred and several of those twenty are devoted to a palace revolution Godwin is supposed to have plotted to depose the King Penguin. According to a letter to the Guardian from Godwin’s disenchanted but uniquely well-informed exwife, no such conspiracy ever existed.

But then, neither did the Tony Godwin Morpurgo portrays. ‘Whenever there was friction at Harmondsworth (and there was much more friction [after his arrival] than ever there had been in the past) there was Godwin as catalyst or provocateur.’ The charges which follow include ambition ‘not far short of megalomania’, instability with a suggestion of manic-depression, ruthlessness, truculence, offensiveness and ‘a genius for self-advertisement’. He even has a go at Godwin’s erratic spelling. On the credit side he admits that Godwin had an instinct wholly his own for literary quality and, grudgingly, was ‘a brilliant editor; though such things are difficult to measure, it is at least arguable that he was the finest editor ever employed by Penguin.’

In all fairness, Morpurgo seems impartial in his dislikes. Allen Lane also emerges from between the lines as something of a monster: tyrannical, philandering, interfering, wilful and relatively philistine – unlike Godwin, he seems to have read few of the books he published. Nevertheless, he was knighted, became a Companion of Honour and is now the subject of this exhaustive, garrulous biography. All Godwin got for his pains was a decent obituary in the Times and a prize named after him for bright young English and American editors. He also had, and still has, the gratitude and affection of a host of authors as different as Edna O’Brien and Eric Ambler, Ronald Blythe and Antonia Fraser.

That, perhaps, is the crucial difference between the two men. Lane was a publisher’s publisher, a man with immense commercial flair who opened up markets no one had ever dreamed existed but who had very little to say to his authors. Godwin was a writer’s publisher, bored by administration, irritated by inter-house politics and most happy when dealing directly with the text and its creator. Maybe that is why the reaction of his fellow publishers to his death was, with a handful of notable exceptions, muted. Few of them contributed more than was strictly necessary for propriety’s sake to the trust which funded the Godwin Memorial Prize, and I had the impression that many were secretly relieved that this troublesome, unorthodox presence had finally gone.

No doubt they had their reasons. Even with his friends Godwin could be spiky and difficult. You found yourself having to make allowances for his temperament, as if he were the author, you the publisher. As an equal or opponent in business, he must have been hard to cope with. The fact that he was so much brighter and more dedicated than the average publisher may have influenced people, but it probably did not make him many friends in the trade.

Neither did his attitude to what might now fashionably be called ‘authors’ rights’. Traditional British publishers take – or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, used to take – an appropriately traditional view of their authors. They regarded them rather in the way old-style imperialists regarded the natives: as necessary evils who provided the raw materials and the sweat, but were never to be indulged or given room to manoeuvre, and were intrinsically interesting only for the profits which might be made from their labours. Godwin would have none of this. He believed that writers write better when they are not continually fretting about money. So he haggled with his fellow-directors, more like an agent than a publisher, for generous advances which would buy his authors peace and time and freedom. As a gesture of good will to the board, he made economies in areas in which he himself might conventionally have been excused a little indulgence. Business lunches with him, for instance, were not only business like, they were also gastronomic ordeals. He specialised in third-rate restaurants where there would be no distractions – particularly not from the food. He paid you the compliment of assuming that you would prefer a larger advance to the dubious privilege of sharing with him an overpriced, drunken meal.

It was a question of priorities, not of parsimony. He could be immensely, unnecessarily generous and was as protective as a lioness when it came to the well-being of his authors. But he was frugal and exacting with himself and this frugality went with his monk-like dedication to his job. He got up at five each morning, put in three hours hard labour before walking to the office, then kept up the pressure all day and usually on into the night. Despite the chronic asthma which plagued him all his life and eventually killed him, he was inexhaustible, sprightly and buzzing with energy.

The focus of all this buzz and concentration was not, pace Morpurgo, office politics, but the books he edited. To his authors, he seemed like the Platonic ideal of a reader. He had the shrewd instinct of a good literary critic for the tone and underlying purpose of a book and also for the hesitations and padding and false notes. And he combined this with an attention to detail which was positively saint-like. For example, when I handed him the manuscript of The Savage God, I had been working on the thing for nearly four years and had put it through something like seven rewrites, each shorter than the last; I simply could not see what more I could do to it. For three nervous days I heard nothing, then he telephoned, asking me to come round that evening. He was waiting with black coffee and six foolscap sheets of notes in his tiny handwriting – notes on everything from details of punctuation to the reorganisation of a complete chapter. He also had on the table a second foolscap pad on which he had made, for his own use, a page-by-page synopsis of the book so that he could be certain of following the arguments clearly; I think there were another 12 pages of that. He made me feel that no one had ever before really read anything I had written. It was a sobering, rather moving experience.

So, too, was his objectivity, his critical disinterestedness. The literary world is never short of editors who fancy themselves as closet authors. But instead of coming out dangerously into print, they content themselves with imposing their own preoccupations and notions of style on those whose work they have to deal with. Godwin had no taste for that kind of bullying, or any illusions of creativity by proxy. If he made a suggestion which you thought mistaken, he would listen to your arguments and then, once convinced, would let the matter go. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told Dan Jacobson during a session with the manuscript of a novel, ‘my ego’s not involved.’

He had not been to university, and spent a good deal of time catching up on subjects and authors he thought he should know about: Tinbergen, Winnicott, Hannah Arendt. This, too, made him a natural for Penguin. A large number of people survive by getting their food from Sainsbury, their clothes from Marks and Spencer and their culture from Penguin. Godwin knew this and took Penguin’s cultural responsibilities very seriously indeed, commissioning single books and whole series which he felt should be available to the public, however slowly they moved off the shelves. After his departure and the takeover by Pearson Longman, many of these ventures – the poetry, in particular – were allowed to lapse, or were simply pulped because the accountants reckoned it cost too much to keep them in the warehouses.

He went from Penguin to Weidenfeld, then, after the inevitable disagreements, to New York where he started his own list at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. He had divorced for a second time and was living alone in a small walk-up apartment on the top floor above a sports shop on Lexington Avenue, a few blocks north of Bloomingdale’s. He had always been an art collector in a minor way, with a shrewd and independent eye for paintings. He also made a point of having one portable treasure which he could pop into a briefcase and take with him if the going got rough. In London it was a Benin bronze which he sold before he left, in New York a stunning Renaissance statuette he had picked up for almost nothing in California. When I last visited him there the place was beginning to fill up with his characteristic bits and pieces. Despite the traffic hooting and fuming below and the standard New York view of iron fire-escapes, rooftop water-tanks and the new skyscrapers on Third Avenue, it seemed peculiarly English.

So did Godwin. And because of that he gave me the impression of being very lonely. He said he missed his London cronies, which was, for him, an unusual admission of weakness. His New York colleagues were at first curious about this weird middle-aged English cuckoo in their nest, then perhaps a bit scared, as their British counterparts had been, of his unorthodoxy and his voracity for work. Although it was not necessary, he had arranged his contract with Harcourt Brace in such a way that there could be no let-up in the pressures on him. He seemed to work even longer hours than he had in London, and eventually the strain began to tell. It combined with the unspeakable New York weather to produce progressively more and more savage attacks of asthma. Nevertheless, he went on working, as though not to have done so would have been a loss of face as well as an unforgivable relinquishing of his professional responsibilities.

In October 1975 he wrote to tell me of a beautiful little cabin he had found far out on Long Island ‘in an acre of woodland on a salt-water creek and marsh’. It would do as a hide-away when Manhattan got too much for him. Then he added:

The asthma is still guerrilla warfare … When I feel really bad I comfort myself with the remark a NY doctor made when I was having a really bad bout, wondering if I was for the high jump. Managed to get to the phone, dial and croak into it. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘are your lips blue yet? If not you’ll be OK till I get there.’

 Dear Al, are your lips blue yet?

Five months later he had another devastating attack and this time was not able to reach the telephone. It was three days before he was found.

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