Obituary: Martin Eve

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MARTIN EVE was a remarkable figure in post-war British publishing. He founded the Merlin Press in 1956 when he published G.B. Chambers's Folksong Plainsong on the origins of English folksong, and worked continuously for Merlin until the week of his death.

Eve is probably best known for the books he published by the historian E.P. Thompson. Eve and Thompson enjoyed a lifelong friendship, which began at Cambridge, where Eve, an alumnus of Winchester Cathedral Choir School and the then progressive Bryanston, read History at Corpus Christi College. They had both served in the Second World War (Thompson in the Army in Italy, Eve in the Navy - he was present at D Day), and they returned to undergraduate studies filled with inspiration from their wartime experience. They were young men committed to building a better future, and like many of their generation they joined the Communist Party.

With Thompson and others Eve participated enthusiastically in volunteer brigades working to rebuild Yugoslavia. This led to an enduring interest in the Balkans and perhaps somehow shaped him as a "partisan" - a word of defiance, comradeship and commitment that summed up so much of what he did.

After Cambridge Thompson joined the extra-mural department at Leeds University, and Eve went into publishing. He worked initially as a rep in the West Country for Michael Joseph and then carried the list in central London. It was a natural step for Eve to start his own list.

The year of 1956 was a momentous one for him. The Merlin Press began publishing in the spring; in September his political world was rocked by the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary. A large group of dissenters, including Eve, left the Communist Party and joined the loose association known as the "New Left". Thompson eloquently expressed the new movement's open-minded views and its support for democratic socialism.

Eve published a series of books from the New Left in the late Fifties and early Sixties, most notably the work of Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian critic and philosopher, and The Socialist Register, edited by Ralph Miliband and John Saville - "a survey of movements and ideas". The Register was first published in 1964; it became a key forum for the Left, and has published continuously since.

Eve was a man of broad interests and entrepreneurial flair. In the 1960s he teamed up with the BBC producer Hugh Burnett to publish the Monk cartoon books that made a substantial contribution to Merlin's turnover at the end of each year. Eve published numerous books on English history, initiating a distinguished historical reprint series; and he also secured the English rights to much of Stendhal's work. This is to say nothing of the sailing imprint "Seafarer Books" that latterly became a major part of Merlin's publishing activities.

Brought up on the rivers of England's east coast (his father, a proficient yachtsman, had retired to Orford in Suffolk, to run the Butley Oysterage), Eve had inherited a love of the sea and sailing. In his own inimitable way he combined all these elements in his work, and would regularly take landlubbing booksellers, publishers and political enthusiasts for a weekend's sailing on his beloved Privateer. He sailed across to Copenhagen and Amsterdam on visits to booksellers. Eve wrote a charming account of his and his family's adventures with Privateer in An Old Gaffer's Tale (1984), his own contribution to the Seafarer list.

In the mid-Seventies, typically canny and in advance of the Yuppie invasion, Eve secured the freehold of a building on the Isle of Dogs where he published and warehoused the books, and took on distribution of other lists, notably Monthly Review Press and the distinguished American reprint list August M. Kelley. These were successful times for Merlin. Edward Thompson was in a prolific phase of writing and campaigning. Eve reissued in 1977 his marvellous biography of William Morris and published a series of his polemical essays - The Poverty of Theory (1978), Writing by Candlelight (1980) and Zero Option (1982).

The spread of a new political culture in the late Sixties had led to a proliferation of radical publishers and booksellers. Merlin was joined by NLB/ Verso, Pluto, Writers and Readers, Journeyman Press etc - lists whose titles sold well in campus bookshops and in the growing number of independent radical bookshops. Eve was a member of a different generation to those he perhaps regarded as the tyros of '68 but he was always willing to offer advice and guidance, and through the Merlin Press provided a bridge into much mainstream publishing of the time.

Eve's engaging manner and quick mind made him a successful salesman (I was always amazed at the orders he could bring back from a bookshop), a fine publisher and a great companion. He also had a fierce determination, which sustained him through all the political, publishing and business challenges he faced - and latterly in the face of severe illness and disability. Following the diagnosis of cancer in 1986 he showed quite extraordinary will power and courage in facing his growing incapacity, undergoing a series of treatments, and yet continuing to run his publishing business, and surviving withdrawal from an unsuccessful partnership with another publisher. Through all this he was unstintingly supported by his wife Pat.

He published for over 40 years and has left his mark through the Merlin Press. He began when publishing houses and firms embodied their owners' enthusiasms and when imprints had clear eponymous identities - a different world from today when lists are bought and sold as branding shells for some new corporate initiative. He was working right up to his death, preparing the new Socialist Register for the printers, and taking steps to ensure the press's continuity.

David Musson

Martin Weston Eve, publisher: born London 22 June 1924; married 1949 Betty Crawford (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1981 Pat Kilshaw; died Woodbridge, Suffolk 26 October 1998.