Obituary: Noel Brack

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The Independent Online
Noel Douglas John Brack, or "NDJB" as he will be remembered by those of his colleagues who have managed to outlive him, was not a member of the Longman family, but from 1928 to 1968 devoted his working life (at times more accurately, his waking life) to the well-being of the great publishing house of Longman (founded in 1724 and thought to have been the oldest commercial publishing house in the land) and especially to the well-being of its staff.

In later years his younger colleagues probably thought of him as essentially belonging to the era of publishing as an "occupation for gentlemen" with a management style not particularly relevant to publishing in a time of great change as, rather self-pityingly, publishers think of themselves as having lived through, and had to cope with, in the last few years.

Noel Brack, though, had to cope with change and catastrophe in the house of Longman which were and are way outside the experience of modern publishing executives. He was born in 1902. Having been educated at Haileybury and Caius College, Cambridge (where he read Natural Sciences), he started in publishing with the technical publishers Crosby Lockwood.

He joined Longman in 1928 and was quickly close to the core management of the company and although still young and relatively inexperienced "in less than three years" (in the words of At the Sign of the Ship, 1974, a short history of Longman by his close colleague Philip Wallis) "the task of preserving the slender cash resources was thrust on him and his colleagues". They did manage their way through it the Depression, pay cuts were taken by all and there were no redundancies (was the word known then?).

Brack might then have reasonably hoped for a period of stability but, far from that, was faced with all the enormous challenges of managing a publishing house in wartime. The gentleman-publisher responded brilliantly and with high professionalism to those challenges. He planned (and carried out) the firm's evacuation to Wimbledon, he coped with all the government restrictions, with paper rationing and with the absence of staff gone off to the war. But he faced the ultimate challenge when, on his 38th birthday, 29 December 1940, the Longman offices and warehouse in Paternoster Row (the historic heart of British publishing) were destroyed by incendiary bombs. In a tour de force of crisis management (now a fashionable phrase) Noel Brack organised the firm's survival and recovery and the delivery of such replacement stocks of books as was possible under wartime conditions. Longman carried on successfully, with Brack at the centre, for the rest of the Second World War.

It must have been a joy to him, after the war, to be able to work for the expansion of the house of Longman, at home and overseas, and that expansion was rapid and demanding with enormous increases in the number of staff. He joined the board of directors in 1955 and was named as joint managing director in 1964. He masterminded office moves in London and the move of the firm's warehouse to Harlow in 1959. He retired in 1968, perhaps fittingly the year of the company's major move of virtually all its publishing operations from London to Harlow.

By that time Longman was a great international publishing house but it largely owed its very existence to the gentleman-publisher. And gentleman he was in the best sense of that word; calm, modest and, above all, kind. His chief concern was always the well-being of Longman staff. He kept up a lively correspondence, despite all the extraordinary burdens upon him, with the Longman staff members who were away at the war and kept a close eye on the welfare of their families.

He maintained contacts with his Longman friends through the nearly 30 years of his retirement and was a regular attender of pensioner reunions and pensioner directors' Christmas dinners when, drawing on his extraordinary memory (which never seemed to falter however old he got), he would, in his highly measured style of speaking, deliver a stream of reminiscence of his experience with Longman and of the "characters" among its staff. He would also muse upon the state of publishing and the changes being thrust upon it and (with only a hint of censure) the response to those changes of his successors.

It gave enormous pleasure to his Longman friends and former colleagues when, in 1989, as a widower, he married Joyce Nairn, who had worked with him and for him over many years in the personnel department and who was (and is) herself a great Longman character who above all shared his commitment to the care and welfare of Longman staff.

Noel Douglas John Brack, publisher: born Bayham Abbey, East Sussex 29 December 1902; staff, Longmans, Green (Longman Group) 1928-68, general manager 1938-55, director 1955-68, joint managing director 1964-68; married 1926 Sybil Evers (marriage dissolved), 1934 Tertia Kennard (died 1987; one son, one daughter), 1989 Joyce Nairn; died Harlow, Essex 19 March 1997.