Obituary: Wing Cdr Douglas Blackwood

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The Independent Online
Douglas Blackwood was the last member of his family to edit the distinguished Edinburgh-based magazine which bore his name. A great-great- grandson of the William Blackwood who founded Blackwood's Magazine in 1817, he was editor between 1948 and 1976 and was chairman of the publishing house until 1983. He was also a naturally gifted fighter pilot who commanded 310 Czech fighter squadron during the Battle of Britain.

In many ways Blackwood was a reluctant publisher. His name and his family relationship meant that he had little option but to follow in his father's foosteps but he always looked back with affection and pride to the short service commission he had held in the RAF between 1932 and 1938. Had it not been for the outbreak of war he would have returned to Edinburgh to work for his father and uncle who between them ran the family firm.

Blackwood rejoined the RAF in 1939 and ended the Second World War commanding the Czech Fighter Wing in the 2nd Tactical Air Force. He was decorated with the Czech War Cross and Czech Military Medal and it gave him considerable pleasure when he was presented with the Czech Medal of George of Podebrad in 1993.

At the height of the Battle of Britain Blackwood was on patrol over London after a German air-raid and remembered looking down from 25,000 feet to see the family firm's London office in Paternoster Row, beside St Paul's Cathedral, burning furiously. Millions of books were lost in the blaze. Although he did not realise it at the time, the destruction of Blackwood's base in the capital marked the beginning of a protracted decline in the firm's fortunes. Due to wartime paper rationing the firm lost many of its leading authors and the size of type and number of pages had to be reduced in the magazine. To the Blackwoods the system was unfair: the amount of paper allotted to them was based on their 1939 output which happened to be the lowest in the firm's history.

When Blackwood left the RAF in 1945 his introduction to the business of publishing was something of a short sharp shock. Before the outbreak of war Blackwoods was one of Britain's leading literary publishers. George Eliot, John Buchan, E.M. Forster and Joseph Conrad appeared under their imprint and Blackwood's Magazine - known as "Maga" to its readers - was widely respected for its good taste and sound critical judgements. It soon became clear, though, that name and literary reputation counted for little in the post-war world. Suddenly Blackwoods had to compete with a growing number of mass-production rivals and with a declining interest in monthly literary magazines. One by one, rivals such as John Murray's Cornhill and Chambers's Journal fell by the wayside and it was something of a triumph that "Maga" remained in production until 1980.

Although Blackwood was a kindly man who wore his learning lightly he was shy and could appear aloof or remote. Happiest in the company of military men, he never courted literary or political society and was quick to puncture any literary pretension. When asked by a reviewer if he had known George Orwell at Eton - he was six years his junior - Blackwood retorted, "Oh, Blair, yes I remember him, he had a motor-bicycle."

By the beginning of the 1970s Blackwoods and its magazine had a somewhat dated air and as a result it failed to attract a younger generation of writers and readers. Even its head office at 45 George Street, with its elegant oval saloon, was more redolent of the heady days of Walter Scott and James Hogg than of any contemporary literary vibrancy. Despite a number of design changes, "Maga" began losing readers and Blackwood retired from the editorship in 1976. He was succeeded by his assistant David Fletcher, the first and last editor not to be a member of the family.

None the less, under Douglas Blackwood's control "Maga" remained a haven of good, if old-fashioned, literary style and its political column, "The Looker-On", offered trenchant commentary from right of centre. Amongst the writers he encouraged was Leslie Gardiner, a former naval officer, who travelled extensively in the remoter parts of Eastern Europe. Nowadays his articles would be commonplace but at the height of the Cold War Gardiner was in a class of his own.

After Blackwood's retirement in 1983 he was succeeded by his son Michael, a former naval pilot, but by then the firm had amalgamated to concentrate on printing and one of the great names had disappeared from British publishing. In retirement Blackwood lived in the Scottish Borders, where he was able to indulge his love of field sports and country pursuits. His wife, Phyllis Caulcutt, whom he married in 1936 and who survives him, was a noted equestrian rider and an expert exponent of dressage.

Trevor Royle

George Douglas Blackwood, air force officer and publisher: born 11 October 1909; managing director, William Blackwood & Sons 1948-76, chairman 1948- 83; Editor, Blackwood's Magazine 1948-76; married 1936 Phyllis Caulcutt (one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 2 March 1997.