Obituary: Timothy O'Keeffe
Saturday 22 January 1994
TIMOTHY O'KEEFFE's death closes a chapter on the London publishing scene.
After National Service when he spent some time in Egypt, then Oxford, O'Keeffe started his publishing career at Hutchinson in the heyday of Robert Lusty, when their New Authors list launched a number of notable careers.
He was taken on at MacGibbon & Kee as chief editor when Reg Davis- Poynter had taken over the reins under the proprietorship of the socialist property millionaire Howard Samuel. The firm had been founded by James MacGibbon and Robert Kee and the list boasted the early work of Doris Lessing and Colin MacInnes. It was at this time that O'Keeffe brought back into print Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two- Birds, published abortively in 1939 by Longman's. Though it had praise from Graham Greene and James Joyce it was swept into limbo by the outbreak of war.
The book's relaunch, in 1959, encouraged the Irish author back into print with further novels but it was not until after his death in 1966 that O'Keeffe recovered from his widow the typescript, long conjectured lost, of The Third Policeman, which had been declined by Longman's because of the war and buried in disgust by the author. O'Keeffe later garnered together much of the Irish Times column O'Brien wrote under the name of Myles na Gopaleen, as The Best of Myles (1968), and published a translation of his 1941 comic Irish masterpiece An Beal Bocht - The Poor Mouth (1973). There were many other Irish writers associated with his publishing activity, among them Maurice Leitch, John Montague, Francis Stuart and the poet Patrick Kavanagh; though his scope was not confined to Irish writers and fiction.
The major upset in O'Keeffe's career happened late in the Sixties after the death of Howard Samuel, when death duties forced his widow to put MacGibbon & Kee on to the market. The conglomerate takeovers had begun in publishing, echoing those lines in Shakespeare's Pericles: ' 'How do fish live in the sea, master?' 'Why, same as man does upon the land, the big ones eat up the little ones.' '
Granada took over MacGibbon & Kee, Rupert Hart-Davis and a number of associated imprints and the one demand made of the editors was that they produce 12 best-sellers a year. This was not the kind of publishing that O'Keeffe wanted to be associated with and his services were politely terminated.
Along with myself who had worked as an associated editor with Tim O'Keeffe for 10 years, and another colleague, Brian Rooney, a new company, Martin Brian and O'Keeffe, was formed in 1971, at the worst of all possible times - coinciding with the imposition of VAT, the three-day week and astronomically high interest rates. Neither of the associates could face the rigours of the small, underfunded and unsalaried publishing house, leaving O'Keeffe to soldier on until ill- health finally caught up with him and put a stop; though even in the last weeks he brought one of his back-list titles back into print.
Salient memories are the fresh buttonhole offering worn every day on his dapper person and his dry sense of humour; this prompted the remark when I paid tribute to the passing of a mutual friend that 'Having an obituary in the Times by Martin Green is like buying a suit from 50-shilling tailors.'
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