Obituary: Sylvia Clayton
Monday 08 August 1994
SYLVIA CLAYTON was the author of five wonderfully witty novels that were compared, by Anthony Burgess and others, to Evelyn Waugh's. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1975 for Friends and Romans, a satire on Britain in the Macmillan era.
The Guardian award came as a surprise to those who only knew Clayton as the Daily Telegraph's television critic. She had been hired by that paper in 1966 to review television drama and it was an amusing sight to see the tall, lady-like Clayton, a product of Pate's Grammar School in Cheltenham and Oxford, making her way first thing in the morning to a BBC preview theatre down a seedy Soho alley near to a sex shop.
She was a woman of much charm and wit and in 1982 she wrote a television play, The Preview, in which she immortalised the curious little world of odd men and women who were farmed out by their newspapers to review the world's most lively new art form. There was a memorable scene when a critic arrived with her arms loaded with shopping. This was a portrait of Clayton's good friend Nancy Banks Smith, of the Guardian.
Born in Cheltenham in 1926, Sylvia Dye was the daughter of a headmaster, Arthur Dye, who was also three times mayor of Cheltenham. She went on to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and read modern languages. When she worked for the British Council in Helsinki she learnt both Finnish and Swedish, and when her husband, Tom Clayton, an Express journalist, whom she married in 1950, was stationed in the Middle East, she learnt Arabic. She was also musical and had hoped to make a career of it but went into journalism, first at the Derby Evening Telegraph and then the Birmingham Gazette before coming to London where she worked on documentaries and current affairs for the BBC.
In 1961 she published her first novel, Crystal Gazers, about psychiatrists. Her other novels were The Peninsula (1964), Top C (1968) and Sabbatical (1973). In the early 1980s she bravely decided to give up television reviewing to concentrate on writing a novel. She moved with her husband from Kew to Batcombe, a quiet Somerset village near Shepton Mallet. But the novel failed to appear. She became instead a highly respected and very busy reviewer of books, writing for almost all the quality papers and magazines. She said she did not want to review novels because they might influence her own work, but she was so busy writing reviews that she did not have time for her own writing.
In Somerset she acquired the freelance's important talent of being good on the telephone when talking to literary editors. She would brighten their grey London lives with tales of country life where she played the piano for village shows. She wrote for Punch in the Eighties and at this time it was discovered that three Punch women, Clayton, Dilys Powell and Kay Dick, had in their youth dated Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett and George Orwell respectively, but while the irrepressible Dick would talk of Orwell's annoying habit of wanting to hold her hand in the street, Clayton and Powell were reluctant to write of these relationships.
Sylvia Clayton's reserve hid an amazingly varied talent. The slim and graceful lady in the Somerset village was at one and the same time providing jokes for Frankie Howerd, writing a monograph on the painter and photographer Edward Piper and translating Raisa Gorbachev's biography Raisa (1990). She had a happy life in the country until she was struck by cancer. She said her Anglican faith kept her in good stead. It is to be hoped that her novels will be rediscovered rather in the manner of Barbara Pym's.
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