Obituary: John Guest

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The Independent Online
For nearly three decades after the Second World War John Guest, at Longmans Green, was among the outstanding editors in London publishing.

When in 1972 the dramatic news broke that the Longmans general list was to close, he became a freelance advisor to Penguin, where on occasions he continued with his amazingly meticulous editing. Many of the authors he helped became friends - Christopher Hibbert especially - and their roll-call includes some famous names: David Storey, Mary Renault, Stevie Smith, Gavin Maxwell, Wilfred Thesiger, Nina Bawden, Philip Caraman SJ, Francis King, Richard Adams, M.M. Kaye, John Cornwell; as well as some once highly regarded writers, now less well known, such as Edward Hyams and L.T.C. Rolt.

He also assisted Anthony Eden with his memoirs, and was the editor of the very successful The Best of Betjeman (1978) for Penguin. In 1949 his own autobiographical book, Broken Images, was published, now regarded as a war classic, and in that year the winner of the Heinemann prize for literature.

He was born in 1911, the eldest of two sons, and spent his childhood at Grappenhall, near Warrington. His father was in the leather trade, a bit of an autocrat and latterly an alcoholic. His mother on the other hand was a sweet-natured, long- suffering woman, also from a family of leather merchants, the Bostons, an enormous tribe with many talented members, literary and artistic. He was educated at Fettes and Pembroke College, Cambridge.

As soon as possible he escaped to London, obtaining a proof-reading job at Collins, then with an emerging general list and in Pall Mall. In 1940, inspired by the example of Hammond Innes, he decided to volunteer, and chose to join the Anti-Aircraft - because, he was to say, he was such a crack shot (true). At any rate he was lucky to find himself in a gun emplacement with three exceptional characters, as high-spirited as himself; the poet Christopher Hassall, the architect Denys Lasdun and Angus Menzies, a socialite of immense charm, all of whom appear in Broken Images under pseudonyms. After OCTU they had to separate, and in fact from then onwards the book was based on journals he kept for Christopher Hassall in odd notebooks.

Guest found himself in the "Rough Riders", alias the City of London Yeomanry, actually artillery, and in due course went to North Africa and Italy, where he formed another great friendship, with Mark Longman, chairman to be of the publishing firm, which Guest joined in 1949.

Broken Images was by no means a blood and guts war book, and his writing was often compared to Kinglake's Eothen and Kilvert's Diary; one reviewer said he had the "concentrated vision" of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Sensitive and introspective, with a wonderful gift for describing natural scenery, he also revealed himself as a born raconteur with a wit that could be Rabelaisian. Throughout the war he carried a copy of The Albatross Book of Living Verse, from which he often quoted in Broken Images. He also collected all the numbers of Penguin New Writing and Horizon.

Oddly Broken Images was his only book. Perhaps too much of his energies went into other people's work, and no doubt his skill as an editor had something to do with his love of small-scale detail and tidiness. I certainly owed him a great debt in the years I shared a flat with him.

Favouring tweeds and bright ties, he hated fuss, and hated extravagance. He loved travel, which provided many an after- (or before-) dinner tale, often repeated and embroidered upon - when for instance he was arrested for taking photographs (he was an excellent photographer) in a military zone at Gilgit in northern Kashmir and was "flung" into a squalid prison for thieves and prostitutes. He also had a passion for wild flowers, about which he was very knowledgeable, and enjoyed long country walks.

The repartee with the artist Felix Kelly, one of his greatest friends, was an entertainment in itself, and his jokes helped to enliven the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, on which he served for many years. For a long while he had a weekend cottage near Amersham, with a tiny immaculately weeded garden filled with his favourite annuals. As a lover of church organ music, he found a fellow enthusiast in his neighbour Mary Wilson, wife of the Prime Minister, and she became a firm friend. In his old age he complained of deafness and losing his eyesight. When he developed cancer he was cared for with great devotion by his Italian companion Enzo D'Aquila.

John Guest, publisher: born Warrington, Cheshire 4 October 1911; died London 24 August 1997.