William Armstrong

Publisher at Sidgwick & Jackson


William O'Malley Armstrong, editor and publisher: born Peshawar, India 9 November 1938; married 1965 Clare Collins (one son, one daughter); died London 22 December 2006.

William Armstrong was a publisher of the old school. He was admired, respected and loved at an international level, especially by the Americans. He had a rare knack of gathering talented people around him, not least of whom was Nigel Newton who, after nine happy years of being mentored by Armstrong at Sidgwick & Jackson, went on to set up Bloomsbury Publishing. Armstrong forged close relationships with his authors, lucrative deals often being sealed by a handshake over a convivial lunch at the Garrick Club.

He had joined the somewhat fading publishing house of Sidgwick & Jackson in 1968. With the active support and encouragement of its then owner, Charles (later Lord) Forte, he set about changing the company's fortunes. From 1970 until illness forced an early retirement in 1995, he presided over S&J's renaissance.

Armstrong's chairman, Lord Longford, and he proved to be an effective double act - both Irish, both intellectual, and mutually respectful of one another. Longford admired Armstrong for his commercial acumen, which he (Longford) lacked.

Indeed, it could be argued that Armstrong was the originator of the cult of author as celebrity. Edward Heath's books Sailing (1975) and Music (1976) were both No 1 bestsellers, propelled there by a barrage of personal publicity, organised by S&J's dynamic publicity supremo Stephen du Sautoy, which included a specially commissioned train taking the author the length and breadth of the country. Of these books it was said the unsigned ones were the valuable ones.

Other books that prospered from Armstrong's belief in aggressive promotion were Superwoman (1975 - his title) by Shirley Conran, and her first novel, the original "bonkbuster", Lace (1982); Our Story (1988) by Reg and Ron Kray; Fight for the Sky (1973) by Douglas Bader; Their Trade is Treachery (1981) by Chapman Pincher; In and Out of the Garden (1981) by Sara Midda; Is That It? (1986) by Bob Geldof; and Take It Like a Man (1995) by Boy George. The title of the last had to be explained to him.

Some of Sidgwick's biggest successes were books commissioned by Armstrong from his own ideas; for example, James Bond: the authorized biography of 007 (1973) by John Pearson and, perhaps most famously of all, The Third World War (1982) by General Sir John Hackett, a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

William O'Malley Armstrong was born in 1938 in the General Hospital, Peshawar, the son of Irish parents; his mother Maeve (née O'Malley), a Catholic from the South, and his father Alfred, a Protestant from the North. The latter was absent at his birth, away fighting in the Khyber Pass, so it fell to the regiment's CO to visit the cradle of the infant Armstrong, declaring him "good officer material", then promptly exiting the ward.

He was educated by Benedictines, first at Worth School, then at Downside. He won an exhibition to Merton College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. He graduated in 1960 and started work writing jingles for an advertising agency, before being lured over to Purnell (BPC) by Patrick Cavendish, an old friend from Merton, to edit partworks. The first of these was Knowledge, which Armstrong followed up with publications of his own devising: New Knowledge, Purnell's History of World War Two and Purnell's History of the Twentieth Century, the last edited by his tutor at Merton, J.M. Roberts. He moved to Sidgwick & Jackson in 1968.

Armstrong met his future wife, Clare Collins, while they were both up at Oxford; and then at a party on St Valentine's Day 1964, which led to their marriage on 22 May 1965. They had two children: Rowland Constantine O'Malley ("Rollo") and Florian Cloud de Bounevialle ("Dido") - both of whom afforded Armstrong the greatest joy, especially as their musical careers blossomed, Rollo as producer and Dido as bestselling singer-songwriter. He was intensely proud of their achievements and enjoyed his VIP "access all areas" visits behind stage, albeit he once forgot to remove the cotton wool from his ears before being introduced to members of the heavy metal band to whom he had been listening.

William Armstrong was a man of many passions: history, especially military history; music, especially Irish music; squash; tennis (at which he was ferociously competitive); Arsenal FC; books (his favourite was War and Peace) and film. He was possessed with a keen intellect, but also with a beguiling otherworldliness, perhaps best exemplified by the story of his hailing a colleague one lunchtime:

"It says here that my son Rollo was cavorting on a beach in Ibiza with someone called Helena Christensen . . . Why is that in the newspaper?"

"She's a well-known supermodel, William."

"Oh really . . . so it's a good thing?"

For many years he was beset by a constellation of illnesses centred around the auto-immune disease lupus. He nearly died on several occasions, but over and over again he confounded medical science with his lust for life. Finally, on 22 December, as his daughter sang to him "Raglan Road" by Patrick Kavanagh, believed to have been written about his aunt Hilda O'Malley, the road rose up to meet him for the last time.

Patrick Janson-Smith

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