"I've just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra- sensory perception," Rex Collings wrote to me many years ago. "Do you think I'm mad?"
Certainly it was a mad risk for a one-man publishing firm working on a shoestring to accept a book as bizarre by an unknown writer which had been turned down by the major London publishers; but it was also dazzlingly brave and intuitive. Today, Japanese tourists are said to crawl about the Berkshire countryside in the wake of those world-famous rabbits and Rex Collings is remembered as the discoverer and first promoter of Watership Down.
Publishing was not his only activity, though, and Richard Adams's 1972 book, though Collings's most spectacular success, was not his only one. After working at Penguin and Oxford University Press he set up his own publishing firm, specialising in African, reference and children's books. His experience of Africa was wide, deep and long-standing: family connections from the 1850s began it, travels for OUP, political, philanthropic and business trips followed, and he published some distinguished writers including Wole Soyinka, the first African Nobel prizewinner, Seretse Khama, and white writers in Africa such as Margery Perham and Breyten Breytenbach. In South Africa, after linking up with a Cape Town publisher, he was able to publish books which were banned locally. Brazil was another country he visited several times and he was awarded the Machado Assis medal for services to Brazilian literature.
He was active in politics. Twice he stood for Parliament as Liberal candidate (at the general elections of 1965 and 1978), impressing friends when he won 16,000 votes in Plymouth. He was chairman of the Liberal Party's committee on Africa, a founder member of the Middle East Committee, a trustee and vice-chairman of the Africa Educational Trust, which has given students and refugees millions of pounds in grants and scholarships; and a member of missions, trusts and international bodies of all sorts. A practising Anglican, he was involved with African churches, knew Archbishop Tutu and other churchmen; he was "green" before the term was used, a nature- lover and traveller around Britain, as well as Africa.
Collings's last years were dogged by money worries after disastrous losses in African publishing and he became reclusive. Friends found it hard to know whether he was waiting to be contacted or wanted to be alone. He had always been something of a loner (even close friends knew little about his family or background); he kept his activities and friends in separate compartments, so that he had little general social life and no circle of people who overlapped.
His personality was like no one else's - sometimes sharp, sometimes formal, often charming - its main characteristic an unswerving integrity that refused to budge. This uncomfortable quality might have made him seem priggish but it was balanced and sweetened (though not softened) by humour and a kind of oblique view of things. Contradictions abounded; for all his tough liberalism, his support for the right causes, a total unworldliness which made him, despite brilliant choices and editorship, liable to lose money whenever possible - despite all his credentials as a man on the side of the angels, he disliked political correctness, again before the term was invented. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he disliked hypocrisy and liked to puncture the accepted respectibilities and startle the trendies.
His irony and dryness were salutary and likeable: they seemed to be trying to veil the fact that he was straighforwardly honest and honourable, an immensely kind man who loved the old virtues and tried to live by unfashionable standards of decency. He seemed born out of his time, into an age where ideas of loyalty and trust in publishing, as in everything else, were not those he tried to live by, and the rather anachronistic personality, the sense of displacement, the lonely dignity with which he faced troubles and let-downs, were a result.
Gustav Rex Collings, publisher: born 18 June 1925; died Hitchin, Hertfordshire 23 May 1996.
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