My Mentor: Clive James On Terence Kilmartin

'He enjoyed bringing new writers along'

Terence Kilmartin was in charge of the arts section at The Observer when I joined as a television columnist in 1972. He was a very handsome, gentle looking man, of the old school. During the war he had been in the Secret Service, doing all kinds of daring things behind enemy lines. Among these, he saved the life of David Astor, who edited the paper when Kilmartin was literary editor.

Terence "ummed" and "ahhed" a lot, and took a long time to say things. When the message finally came out, it was always very relevant. After writing my first book review for him, he called me into his office. It was obvious to me that he couldn't publish what I had given him, as he didn't like it.

It was all tangled and I was trying to say too many things at once. Slowly, he started picking my sentences apart and showed me that I should write a separate sentence for each thought, instead of trying to crowd everything in at once. He wrote wonderful clear, crystal prose. Terence was simply magisterial, with huge patience. He very much enjoyed the process of bringing a new writer along, and with me he had a lot to work with.

Terence died of cancer in 1991. I, among others, gave an address at the funeral. He was a major influence on everyone he knew, and everyone admired him. There used to be a regular Friday night get-together back in the Seventies and Eighties, of writers including Kingsley Amis, Ian McEwan and James Fenton. Terence was a treasured member of that circle and when the rest of us meet now, we always have one drink for him.

Clive James' new book, 'North Face of Soho', is published by Picador

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