Martyn Goff: Administrator whose gleeful machinations helped make the Booker Prize one of the leading awards for fiction

 

Martyn Goff was the driving force behind the rise in prominence and the international success of the Booker Prize, the UK’s most prestigious book award.

Described as “Mr Booker”, Goff, a literary administrator and novelist in his own right, masterminded the Booker, now the Man Booker, Prize for more than three decades, maintaining its reputation as one of the world’s leading fiction prizes.

He became what one observer described as a “master of tactical indiscretion” and a headline manipulator extraordinaire. He understood the power of publicity and was party to all the in-fighting and bitchiness that surrounded the Booker judges and their deliberations – on which he thrived, not least because he chose them in the hope of fireworks.

The Booker began in 1969; Goff continued to tinker with the format, all the while engineering press coverage. As one commentator described it, he was like “a happy wizard”, using “carefully placed leaks, official interviews, and, occasionally, strategic misinformation”.

There was controversy from the outset; in 1971 Malcolm Muggeridge resigned halfway through judging because he felt most of the entries were nauseating, ill-written and pornographic. A year later the winner, John Berger, for G, said he would give half his £5,000 prize money to the Black Panthers. In 1974 one judge, Elizabeth Howard, proposed a novel by her then husband, Kingsley Amis, for the shortlist; it didn’t win but the public furore ensured greater coverage than ever before.

In 1976, chair of the panel Philip Larkin threatened to jump out of the window if Paul Scott’s novel Staying On didn’t win (it did). In 1985, the chair Norman St John-Stevas, who “didn’t read everything, or possibly anything”, told Goff that there was no way he was going to read “that high-falutin and pretentious rubbish”, only to change his mind when he realised that the tide of opinion was against him.

Slowly, Goff increased the number of short-listed books and the number of judges and hit on the idea of celebrity judges alongside writers and academics; these have included Joanna Lumley, Nigella Lawson, Trevor McDonald and David Baddiel. Goff would sit in on meetings, and when he felt the time was right would orchestrate an anonymous tip-off; Booker leaks became a fixture on the literary calendar and rows were frequent.

Lumley said of her judging experience, “The so-called bitchy world of acting was a Brownies’ tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing”. Sales rose but Goff predicted that it would probably take a decade or so to have a real impact. Indeed, it was not until William Golding’s Rites of Passage (1980) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children the following year that the Prize began to be taken seriously. Schindler’s Ark’s 1982 success sparked a row among the judges over whether it could really be considered a novel; it became the best-selling Booker ever.

When Goff retired in 2006, it was likened to Caesar Augustus retiring from the Roman Empire; he had been the Prize’s overseer, quality-controller, protector and defender.

Born in 1923 to Jacob and Janey, Russian émigrés, he grew up in a large house in affluent Hampstead. His father had arrived penniless but turned his fortunes around, selling furs to stores like Harrods, Liberty and Selfridges.

Goff’s father had a drawing-room of literary classics but only for show. Goff once selected a work by Dostoevsky and took it upstairs to read. His father noticed the gap in the shelf and objected to his son’s reading anything so grown-up, and so expensively bound. By the time he was 19 Goff had read the entire library, and after Clifton College, Bristol, he won a place at Oxford to read English.

He decided, however, to join the RAF, and became a wireless operator on Lancaster bombing missions over the Middle East. Stationed in Jordan, he wrote to Siegfried Sassoon; he received a reply. Years later Goff learnt that Sassoon had written to Maynard Keynes, saying, “I’ve had writer’s block for two years. Now here’s an aerogram from an unknown airman somewhere in the western desert, praising my work, and I’ve started writing again”.

After the war Goff, was at a loose end, but following a trip to St Leonards-on-Sea he had an epiphany. Noticing empty shops while out on a stroll, he put a year’s rent down on one and worked unpaid for two months at Zwemmers in Charing Cross Road to learn the trade.

He opened his first shop in 1946 with two more in quick succession on the south coast. Visitors were horrified by a section labelled “Sex”, but the shops were successful. He moved to Surrey in 1950 and bought an established bookshop, Ibis, in Banstead. Goff believed that creative window displays brought in customers, as did personal service. His fame spread.

Over the years, he wrote nine novels, of which four were explicitly gay in theme. His first, The Plaster Fabric, was published in 1957, when homosexuality was still a crime. His publisher said, “You know, this book could land both of us in the Old Bailey. You’re not worried?” Fortunately John Betjeman, reviewing it for The Daily Telegraph, was wildly enthusiastic.

His second novel in the genre, The Youngest Director (1961), was cited by Angus Wilson as one of the books that changed the climate of opinion about homosexuality. It also brought him a fan letter from Rubio Lindroos, a Scandinavian; the couple later embarked upon a 36-year partnership, living in their Clapham house crammed with more than 10,000 books and over 100 paintings and sculptures bought from Keith Vaughn, Graham Sutherland, John Minton and the 1950s Soho-Bohemian crowd. Lindroos died in May 2014.

Goff remained a bookseller until 1970, when he took over as Director of the National Book League (Book Trust), a charity dedicated to promoting the pleasures of reading. He earned much-needed revenue by taking over the running of book prizes, to which he gave a professional edge, and persuaded the Arts Council to fund a literary-fiction book club, the New Fiction Society. He also wrote reviews, lectured and served on committees including several Arts Council committees and the executive committee of PEN. Sociable and approachable, he was always happy to advise newcomers to the publishing world.

Martyn Goff, novelist, bookseller and administrator: born London 7 June 1923; OBE 1977, CBE 2005; died 25 March 2015.

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