Obituary: Lord Horder

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The Independent Online
Mervyn Horder was an old-fashioned gentleman publisher at a time when old-fashioned gentlemanly publishing was scarcely visible. As chairman of Duckworth for 22 years, from 1948 to 1970, he never attained the distinction established by the firm's founder, Gerald Duckworth, or later achieved under his successor Colin Haycraft, but he quietly kept up its useful backlist, published a series of decent books, and acquired a few outstanding authors - though he often seemed prouder of those Duckworth had notoriously rejected, including John Galsworthy, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Evelyn Waugh.

Horder was very much a member of the Establishment - son and heir of the first Baron Horder, the royal physician to three monarchs; educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge; an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force during and after the Second World War, becoming a wing commander and being mentioned in dispatches. But he showed little or nothing of this.

He never took his hereditary seat in the House of Lords, or expressed much interest in political or social affairs. He never displayed his wealth, much of which he quietly gave away. He was almost ostentatiously mean with himself, and took no trouble with appearances. He lived in cramped flats. He drove an old car or rode an old bicycle, both very carelessly. He bought cheap and nasty clothes and cut his own hair.

When he took people out for a meal, whether unimportant colleagues or important authors, it was to a pub near the office in Covent Garden rather than one of the posh restaurants in the area. His conversation was an entertaining combination of genuine modesty with a touch of malice, supported by profound learning and expressed with much wit.

He had shown no interest in his father's profession, but went straight into publishing after university. He worked at Methuen and Nelson, joined Duckworth before the war, and afterwards took it over.

Perhaps his particular favourites among his authors were William McGonagall and Ronald Firbank, and he enjoyed publishing omnibus editions of two such wildly contradictory writers (I well remember transcribing some of Firbank's hilarious notebooks for him). He edited Ronald Firbank: memoirs and critiques (1977), and he wrote two books of his own - The Little Genius (1966), a biography of his father, and On Their Own: shipwrecks and survivals (1988). He enjoyed introducing people to one another, and through him I met such varied figures as the novelist Anthony Powell, the veteran bookman Alan Harris, C.R. Hewitt ("C.H. Rolph"), Trevor Hall, the ghost- buster, and Eileen Garrett, the millionaire medium.

When he handed Duckworth over to Colin Haycraft, he stayed on for a time, but he spent less and less time on publishing and more and more on writing, contributing gossip and reviews and obituaries to several papers, often anonymously or pseudonymously. He also spent more time on his real love, music, playing the piano and singing, composing and publishing, never with much success but always with much joy.

He was briefly and unhappily married after the war, but his true sexual orientation was firmly homosexual, with leanings towards exhibitionism (he used to pose as an artist's model, and he was twice convicted on ridiculous charges of sending obscene material through the post). This side of his life was well known, at least in the book trade, but was ignored partly because it was considered irrelevant but also because he was so universally popular in what was in those days a friendly community.

One of the happiest years of my life was spent working for the nicest boss I had. When Duckworth published books by my father and grandfather, Mervyn Horder became their friend as well as their publisher, and later became my friend too, and then my employer as well. When he heard that I had taken over a little anarchist magazine he offered free office space to produce it, and when he heard that I was looking for better work in publishing he offered a job as his assistant.

From 1961 to 1962 I read and edited manuscripts, corrected proofs, and wrote blurbs and advertisements under Horder's imperceptible supervision. I never got to know him well, but I appreciated his gentle kindness, and afterwards when we met for an occasional drink I continued to enjoy his wide knowledge and dry humour.

When I got married I couldn't afford to live on the low salary which was all Duckworth could afford, but when I gave notice he showed no resentment. He took us out to lunch, came to our wedding, persuaded a rich friend to give us a huge present which paid for our honeymoon, and himself gave us a pair of revolting mugs which we got rid of as soon as we dared.

Mervyn Horder named his recreations as music and idling. If by the latter he meant taking life easy, and giving and having as much harmless pleasure as possible, he was right.

Thomas Mervyn Horder, publisher: born 8 December 1910; chairman, Gerald Duckworth & Co 1948-70; succeeded 1955 as second Baron Horder; married 1946 Mary McDougall (marriage dissolved 1957); died London 3 July 1997.