Obituary: Sir John Verney Bt
Thursday 04 February 1993
JOHN VERNEY, painter and illustrator, film director's assistant and baronet, Yeomanry officer and parachutist, traveller and lover of most things British, especially Farnham, Surrey, was also wonderful company to his many friends, master of the ludicrous, inventor of the 'Dodo-Pad' and author of one of the best memoirs of the Second World War, Going to the Wars.
Nearly 40 years ago John Verney, then principally known outside a small family circle as an eccentric illustrator of children's books and of Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls, turned his mind to his war experiences. The result, after many months of painstaking effort, was a seemingly effortless, often hilarious narrative in which his brother officers, and in particular 'Amos' (never otherwise identified) loomed larger than he did. Going to the Wars (1955) was well received, chosen by the Book Society and later by World Books, published in American and European editions, and is still occasionally revived - most recently by Julian Critchley (for 'Heroes and Villains', Independent Magazine, 16 June 1990). It set its author off on an entirely new career as a writer, though previously he had published charming travel articles which were gathered together in 1954 as Verney Abroad.
'Abroad,' he wrote in the preface, 'came early to be identified in my mind as the place where an Englishman must go if he wanted, among other things, to draw. I have been going there at every possible opportunity ever since.'
He was published by Collins, who also published the magazine of the same name, and I was lucky enough to be his editor, and became a lifelong friend. He was a man of many friendships, for he was gregarious, funny, melancholy, disrespectful, more interested in others than himself. He had what he certainly would not have called 'a good war', won the MC after parachuting into Sardinia and taking an active part in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, was taken prisoner, attempting to bamboozle his Italian captors with his fluent German and French. He finished the war in a camp hospital where the ward sister kindly put medicinal brandy into his nightly Bourne Vita. He remembered her as 'the most beautiful girl in the world . . . except one'. The one was Lucinda, in real life Jan, whom he met and married in 1940. Returning to her and his infant son (who died at the age of eight) was what kept him going through the long and dangerous months of his fighting career.
His gentle, self-mocking style - echoes of Waugh - concealed the dangers if not the horrors of the Mediterranean campaign for the Sussex Yeomanry, into which he had been commissioned; his pen brought others to life - particularly the partisans and peasants encountered while on the run - rather than himself.
The war probably took a greater toll on his ambitions and energy than he realised. Certainly he might have developed into a significant abstract painter. But he preferred to tackle jobs that came to hand, and these tended to be commissions from publishers for illustrations somewhat in the manner of Edward Ardizzone, in which quizzical little people - often military - peered out of the busy hatching. His approach to Going to the Wars was much less apparently casual. He wrote slowly and carefully over many months and discussed the shape and purpose of each chapter, re-working often. The result delighted everyone.
Collins continued to publish a number of children's books he wrote and illustrated - the most famous being ismo (1964), in which President de Gaulle's trousers featured pivotally. Friday's Tunnel (1959) and The Mad King of Chichboo (1963) were also memorable. He wrote two semi-autobiographical books, Every Advantage (1961) and Fine Day for a Picnic (1968), as well as a further volume of memoirs, A Dinner of Herbs (published by Hodders, 1966). A selection of his occasional pieces for Collins and others, with illustrations by the author and an introduction by Craig Brown, appeared (from the Alastair Press) in 1989.
But his most abiding interest was in his annual Dodo-Pad, defined by him in his Who's Who entry as 'the amusing telephone diary', which Collins (later HarperCollins) published regularly from 1965 to the present day. The 1993 edition's prelims catch the special Verney flavour:
From time to time the mind of man takes a sudden leap forward and invents something which makes life so much better that people soon begin to wonder how they ever got on without it. The wheel, printing, electricity, self-adhesive tape, and now - the DODO-PAD.
The eponymous product of Lord Dodo of Doodle, who resembled his maker only in his compulsive doodling, the Dodo-Pad is far from being the only, or even the most significant, contribution John Verney made to his times. Apart from his publications, and his wonderful company and conversation, he became a key figure in the intelligent conversation of his beloved Farnham - and later Clare, in Suffolk - where he lived first at Runwick House and where many visitors came for Sunday lunch. Afterwards there would be tennis or croquet or Allen-scything the paddock or talking in his studio, a converted stable-loft where he drew and painted fantastic doppelgangers of his life and loves all over the walls and furniture. He loved painting on unusual surfaces, and his tabletop Rape of the Sabines memorably encapsulates his characteristic ironies. He was deeply and happily married to Jan for 53 years and will be missed by many friends of all ages and by his large, lovely and loving family.
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