Obituary: Roland Gant
Monday 29 March 1993
THERE ARE two types of people who call themselves, and are called, publishers: those who run the whole business, and those who choose and edit books. Roland Gant was one of the latter. Like David Farrer, Barley Alison, Diana Athill, Milton Waldman, and very few others, he gave a shape and a style to the publishing houses where he worked.
Gant's life was as strange as any of the fiction he edited. Had his own books been luckier in the hurly-burly of the marketplace we might have had a great memoirist, but literary London and the world of publishing in general would have been much the poorer. On the day he died he got a letter from a man whose life he had saved when they both parachuted into France on D-Day.
Part Scottish and deeply Francophile, he could seem to his English friends and his Garrick Club cronies like either a professional Scot or a professional Frenchman, roles which of course, since he had huge gifts of humour and mimicry, he played to the hilt; yet, as with many poses adopted by complex personalities, his mannerisms scarcely concealed his deep but by no means uncritical passion for both countries and their cultures.
Gant's childhood and adolescence were plagued by illness, and he was not the first sickly child to choose medicine as a career. During his studies he spent considerable periods in Paris. Befriended by Cocteau and Arletty (about whom he wrote fiercely and movingly in the Independent, 19 August 1992), he followed his passion for jazz, became a close friend of Stephane Grappelli, and even sang in various French cabarets.
When the Second World War broke out, his gifts for paradox were fully deployed. Like a few other physically and morally courageous men, he registered at once, not for military service, but as a conscientious objector, and after ordeal by tribunal joined a bomb disposal squad. When not facing instant death by explosion he spent his time in a remote Dorset hut, and wrote poetry and criticism which was published in various little magazines such as Opus.
As the war progressed, he became a private in a 20-man medical section attached to one of the battalions of the 6th Airborne Division. Knowing that his short-sightedness would disqualify him from parachute training and action, on the eve of his own medical examination, before jump training, he sneaked into the medical quarters and memorised the entire eye-test chart. He passed the next morning. He was dropped into France on a clandestine mission but ground-fire got his leg as he emerged from the plane.
His very good, undeniably heroic and adventurous war, full of captures, escapes, crawls across mined fields (when he saw a cow blown up by a mine only 20 feet away), ended in one capture too many. He finished his war in a Nazi stalag and, typically, turned that grim experience (which gave him TB and a lifetime of severe chest trouble from scarred lungs) into a human and spiritual adventure. His fellow prisoners included Dutchmen, Belgians, Russians and Slovaks, and he became an early and committed European. His wartime experiences produced his first book, How Like A Wilderness, published in 1946 by Gollancz, and in a Left Book Club edition.
His publishing career began with the Grey Walls Press and the Falcon Press, owned by the Conservative MP Captain Peter Baker. Roland Gant was the editorial department. Paul Scott was the accounts department. Neither of these two tiro publishers, whose lifelong friendship was to prove so fruitful, could control the bizarre activities of the owner, who defrauded Barclays Bank of some pounds 40,000. Baker was tried and sentenced to seven years in prison.
After that, Gant could only progress upwards, and he joined Heinemann. From there he went to Michael Joseph, where he became Editorial Director, and stayed until 1962, when, with his colleagues Charles Pick and Peter Hebdon, he was involved in an abortive attempt to take control of Jonathan Cape. Gant then worked briefly at Secker & Warburg before rejoining Heinemann, where he spent his most effective years as an Editorial Director.
He championed for many years and saw through the press Paul Scott's epic Raj Quartet. He edited much of Anthony Powell's great roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, and Powell's subsequent work.
Other authors who benefited from his shrewd and always gentle guidance included Peter Ustinov, Alan Bullock, Violet Powell, Monica Dickens, Frank Muir, Colin Thubron, Paul Gallico, Lancelot Hogben, James Leasor, Olivia Manning and Nicholas Freeling, a list which amply demonstrates the catholicity of his taste and the breadth of his interests.
During the four decades of full-time publishing before he retired he was also a part-time author. His books ranged from novels to rigorously researched guide-books, to poetry, to an edition of the prose and poetry of his hero Edward Thomas. He had a scrupulous and scholarly bent, and produced the first edition of DH Lawrence's John Thomas and Lady Jane, the previously unknown version of Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Lawrentians are relatively thin on the ground these days, and our shared enthusiasm for the writer he always referred to as 'our Bert' was one of our many bonds of friendship. For my 50th birthday he gave me an inscribed copy of John Thomas, and assisted my own collecting zeal for DHL by passing on to me, when he had decided that his own collecting days were over, his much-used copy of the Lawrence bibliography by Warren Roberts, another of his authors and friends.
While always a complete professional who knew every aspect of the making and publishing of books, Gant made friendship the real key to his success as an editor. His authors loved him and he loved them. He and his French wife Nadia would spend Christmas with the Ustinovs. When work was to be done on a Powell manuscript he would crank up, all too often literally, the old banger he so enjoyed driving, and set off for the Powell house, bringing his gaiety and wit with his blue pencil.
Gant was a great traveller, and no author whom he looked after was too distant to be visited for perfect editing. John le Carre in Bonn or Richard Condon in the United States would inevitably justify a journey.
When on his regular trips to New York with Nadia his love and deep knowledge of jazz would emerge. When not reading manuscripts in their hotel room the Gants would spend their evenings in the jazz clubs, and his gift for friendship extended to Louis Armstrong in his prime. As late as the Seventies Gant could be spotted passionately singing the blues with Yank Lawson's World's Greatest Jazz Band in the 100 Club.
Some of the travel was merely domestic, and weekends would propel him to a rented cottage in Dorset, from which would emerge, on Monday mornings, to the disgust of any of our colleagues unfortunate enough to be down wind, carelessly wrapped but magnificent chunks of that sublime but evil cheese Blue Vinny. No more pungent smell had surrounded Gant since the days when he edited the verse of Leonard Cohen in the Sixties, when publisher and poet would work in a small back room at Secker & Warburg, smoking serious quantities of pot.
Roland Gant was slightly built and of barely average height, and always wore, even in the hottest weather, thick Viyella shirts, to give (as he put it) some slight measure of protection to his weakened chest. He had a magnificent head of elaborately coiffed hair, and this, together with his immense liveliness and extraordinary energy, made him seem much larger than he was. He was certainly not a man to be overlooked in the bar of his beloved Garrick Club, to which we so often went together at lunchtime, and which, for reasons I could never establish, he always referred to as the 'Old Red Barn'.
Many other publishers have been more influential, more famous, and certainly richer, but few have rivalled Roland Gant in the love and affection of so many writers and so many friends.
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