Obituary: P. H. Newby

Anthony Thwaite
Monday 08 September 1997 23:02 BST

P. H. Newby was one of those rare writers (like C.P. Snow, Wallace Stevens and Roy Fuller) who managed to combine a demanding life as an administrator with a prolific output of creative work, and who, like them, rigorously kept apart the two strands.

Over 50 years, beginning in 1945, he published 20 novels, a book of short stories, two short fictions for children, critical work (including his British Council pamphlet The Novel, 1945-50, and much reviewing of fiction for the Listener in the late 1940s), and three books on Middle and Near Eastern history. Some of the novels were very highly praised, Something to Answer For winning the first Booker Prize in 1969.

For almost 30 years, 1949-78, he was employed by the BBC, beginning as a talks producer, going on to become successively Controller of the Third Programme and Radio Three, Director of Programmes (Radio), and finally Managing Director, BBC Radio. He once said that he devoted nine-tenths of his energy to the BBC, but made sure that he got away from London to his home in Garsington, Oxfordshire, as soon as that work was over, giving his evenings and weekends to his own writing.

Percy Howard Newby was born in 1918 in Crowborough, Sussex: he was amused to recall that the nursing home in which he was born had once been Conan Doyle's house. His father was a baker. He went to Hanley Castle Grammar School, Worcester, and would liked to have gone on to university; but (as he put it of his character Oliver Knight, in A Step to Silence),

Once it was plain that he lacked the few hundred pounds necessary to put him even through a provincial university then it seemed quite natural for him to apply for admission to a training college which charged no more than pounds 50 a year for both tuition

and residence. It was little enough but

all he could afford.

Newby went to St Paul's College, Cheltenham. After a brief period schoolteaching, he was called up into the RAMC, served with the BEF in France, 1939-40, and was then sent to Egypt, where he was a corporal stretcher-bearer with the Eighth Army until just before El Alamein.

Nineteen forty-two was a turning-point in Newby's life. He was seconded by the Army to be a lecturer in English literature at Fuad 1st University, and remained there until 1946. His experience of Egypt was crucial to him, and he drew on that experience intermittently for the rest of his life.

It made, he said, "a determinate impression": living in Cairo was like living in a human laboratory, in which there were no inhibitions. Strangers asked who his parents were and how much he earned. Students asked him why he was not married, whether he was homosexual. (He said he was not homosexual and was engaged to a girl in England. He married in 1945.) The extravagances of Arabic-English, in which volatile feelings and a relish for rhetoric combine, fascinated him. The range of his Egyptian acquaintances, from members of the corrupt royal family to denizens of the pullulating slums, was wide. Everything was extreme, and he quietly revelled in the extremities.

Newby's first two novels, Journey to the Interior (1945) and Agents and Witnesses (1947), drew on these experiences, though both have imaginary settings: the Sultanate of Rasuka in the first, a Mediterranean island in the second. Both are interesting and skilful books, and they quickly established Newby as a novelist: he was given an Atlantic Award in 1946 and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1948. But it was not until his ninth novel, The Picnic at Sakkara in 1955, that he managed fully to bring his observation of Egypt into focus, in a book which is Newby's most successful and memorable achievement.

In it, Edgar Perry, a lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at Gizeh, is a decent but ingenuous man, drawn without quite knowing how into the ambit of one of his students, Muawiya Khaslat, who admires Perry with an often embarrassing devotion, and who at the same time becomes the agent of the Muslim Brotherhood engaged to kill him. Tragedy and farce perform an intricate minuet. Delicately, comically, Newby plots through this wonderful fiction, set in the Egypt of Farouk's monstrous regime, with a charm that is hypnotic.

By the time Newby published The Picnic at Sakkara, he was not only an established novelist but had been for several years an established radio producer. On leaving Egypt in 1946, he had worked as a freelance writer for a few years. Then, in 1949, not so much for greater financial security but with the thought that he should enlarge his human contacts (being simply a writer can be a lonely trade) and learn new skills, he joined the BBC as a talks producer.

Newby credited Geoffrey Grigson with initiating the move: "He'd read a novel I'd written, thought well of it, and dropped a note to Talks Department with the consequence that I was invited to write and read at the microphone a short story. Which I did and this led to other broadcasting, book reviewing in the Home Service, for example, and then regular talks broadcasting on the Third Programme." On joining the staff of the BBC he was made "the short-story expert" in Talks Department.

By the time I first met him, in December 1954, Newby had extended his range beyond that. He was responsible, among other things, for First Reading, a "literary magazine of the air" which gave an airing to several novelists and poets who have since become well known; and also for Literary Opinion ("a monthly programme of comment and observation"). It was for Literary Opinion, that Newby invited me - then an undergraduate at Oxford - to contribute a brief talk on "The Young Writer in the University".

I wrote my stipulated 900 words, and arrived at Broadcasting House in the usual student garb of the day: tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, cavalry twill trousers. I was much chagrined to see that all three fellow speakers on the programme (among them John Raymond, the rather louche deputy literary editor of the New Statesman at the time), as well as my hitherto unseen producer, Mr Newby, were dressed in almost identical dark suits.

Newby was short (shorter than me, which was a comfort), large-headed, and with something of the build of a well-turned-out jockey. He spoke quietly but firmly, and was kind in teaching me how to speak my script. (Years later, G.S. Fraser, an earlier novice, commented on the sort of advice he gave: "You must think in speech blocks, not in paragraphs or sentences", on how to modulate the voice, and how to address the microphone - as if it were an intimate friend not a public meeting.) The cup of tea afterwards, with my fellow speakers and Newby, marked my introduction to broadcasting, to a novelist I had not then read, and to a man who was, a few years later, to be one of my bosses.

By the time I began working as a trainee producer, late in 1957, Newby was about to become Controller of the Third Programme. In our professional dealings, I was always aware of two things: his quiet, precise defence of high standards, and his equally quiet, precise caution. Some of my colleagues put too much emphasis on the second of these in Newby, as if he were some sort of inhuman litmus placed between anything new and the noisy condemnatory world out there beyond the microphone. I never found this so. I found he was a man with whom one could equably discuss heterodox things; and he could give way.

Newby's long years in charge of the Third Programme, and then - with the change of name and emphasis - of Radio Three, must have been draining. Kate Whitehead's The Third Programme: a literary history (1989) and Humphrey Carpenter's history of the networks, The Envy of the World (1996), say a good deal about this. Some of the anecdotes and judgments by former colleagues in Carpenter's history make Newby, in these jobs and in his later ones as Director of Programmes and Managing Director, sometimes sound like a cipher. Since I had left the BBC in 1965, I can't properly judge; but I doubt these stories' bias, just as I challenge the remark of Philip French (a very distinguished radio producer) that Newby "lacked levity". Newby's gifts as a "comic" novelist could also appear in his conversations and in his acts.

I think Howard Newby was probably glad to retire from the BBC in 1978. During the years since he joined the corporation, he had certainly made his mark as a novelist, publishing 13 novels between 1950 and 1977. The first Booker Prize, given to Something To Answer For in 1969, brought him renewed attention - though the Booker was not, as it is now, a high media event: I remember the then sales director of Faber & Faber, the book's publisher, telling me that the prize probably resulted in no more than about 400 extra copies.

Among the later novels, two strike me as among Newby's best. Feelings Have Changed (1981) is the one work of his which drew on his broadcasting experience. Written after his retirement (though no doubt he had kept earlier notes), it includes authentic fictional portraits of Louis MacNeice and of Laurence Gilliam (Head of Radio Features Department until his death in 1964); and - though its Author's Note disclaims any intention to write "a novel about the politics of broadcasting" - it is a subtle analysis of the difficulties of a large cultural organisation.

His last published novel, Something About Women, came into my hands in typescript when I was working part-time editorially for Andre Deutsch. This was in 1994; and by then Newby's publishing fortunes had been through various vicissitudes. In turn, Cape (his first publisher), Faber & Faber, and then Hutchinson had dropped him. He seemed to be a faded forgotten name. But - not out of loyalty to his past work, or out of loyalty to him as my long-ago BBC boss - I recognised that this was a small masterpiece.

Something About Women is a wry, gentle, bemused, delightful novel, about affection, love, innocence, experience. By the time Newby's literary agent submitted it, Newby was tired and ill, not eager for face-to-face "hands- on" editing; but in fact the book required none of this, and our talks on the telephone and our correspondence were easy, firm and gentle as ever. The book's publication in 1995 was not spectacular: it had some warm and intelligent reviews, but it did not sell. This disappointed me.

Here, as Graham Greene had said many years earlier, was "A fine writer who has never had the full recognition that he deserves". I can only hope that - as so often happens - his death will soon bring him fresh recognition. P. H. Newby was one of the best English novelists of the second half of the century.

Anthony Thwaite

Percy Howard Newby, broadcasting administrator and novelist: born Crowborough, Sussex 25 June 1918; staff, BBC 1949-78, Controller, Third Programme 1958-69, Radio Three 1969-71, Director of Programmes, radio 1971-75, Managing Director, BBC Radio 1975-78; CBE 1972; Chairman, English Stage Company 1978-84; married 1945 Joan Thompson (two daughters); died Garsington, Oxfordshire 6 September 1997.

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