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Remembering Ion Trewin

Remembering Ion Trewin

There was a poignant and telling moment at the beginning of the 2014 Man Booker Prize dinner where the literary world's great and good were gathered at Guildhall in London to await the announcement of the winner. There was an announcement of another sort first though: when Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, told the guests that Ion Trewin, the Foundation’s Literary Director, could not be present because he was in hospital due to a recently diagnosed illness. There was a collective gasp of surprise followed by a murmur of profound sadness that rippled round the Great Hall. It was the first that most people in hall knew of Ion's cancer. That expression of affection and sympathy was entirely spontaneous and would have gladdened his heart had he been able to hear it.


There are many revered and admired figures in the literary world but not all are viewed with the fondness elicited by Ion. His avuncular appearance – all beard and Harris Tweed – was a true reflection: he was, it always seemed, a man who had only friends. Anecdotally, those who knew him over many years will confirm that they have never heard a bad word said about him, the result no doubt of Ion never saying a bad word about anyone else.


If Ion were committed to friendships he was also committed to books. They had been and remained his life. As a journalist at the Sunday Telegraph and literary editor of the Times he gained a full and useful understanding of the fourth estate. In 1979 he crossed the divide and joined Hodder & Stoughton where he became editor-in-chief. He then moved to the Orion group where, after a series of senior editorial positions, he assumed the same role with Weidenfeld & Nicolson until retiring in 2006.


Among the authors who came to rely on his skills were Michael Palin, Julian Fellowes, Judi Dench, Richard Holmes, Andrew Roberts, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Antony Beevor, Edna O'Brien and Thomas Keneally. Ion was also the editor of Alan Clark's Diaries and the author of a much-praised biography of the louche politician (he took the job, he sometimes said, because he was the only person able to decipher Clark's illegible handwriting).


After Weidenfeld & Nicolson and following Martyn Goff's retirement as administrator, Ion took up the reins of the Man Booker Prize. His association with the prize though had deep roots. In 1974 he chaired the judging panel – the youngest judge in the prize's history – and went on to join the Booker (now Man Booker) Prize Advisory Committee. Other notable achievements on a dauntingly well-stocked CV included an honorary professorship at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham; the presidency of the National Academy of Writing; and membership of the Arts Council Literature Panel. There are plenty more.


This recitation of achievements says something of the regard with which Ion was held across the world of books. It makes him seem a daunting figure but anyone who had any dealings with him about the Man Booker will remember him in a different light. He was in his element there as the perfect overseer, ensuring the smooth running of the prize and every bit as importantly ensuring too that all those involved felt comfortable and appreciated.


Ion's hand could be so gentle and unobtrusive that it was easy not to see the guidance he gave. As a believer in conviviality and the civilising influence of books he would, at the start of the annual process, bring each year's new judges together for a dinner and make sure that before the business of literary discussion ever began that year's panel became friends first. He would arrange regular meetings throughout the judging process, usually at his beloved Garrick Club, and sit quietly taking notes as the discussions went on. He must at numerous times have been itching to interject – after all, he knew a thing or two about writing – but he never did, restricting himself to offering advice on rules and procedures. He would emerge from each meeting with the warmest of words for the application of the judges and full of pleasure at having witnessed the to-ing and fro-ing among the panel. It was instructive to see the eminent figures chosen to chair the panel – grandees from all fields – refer instinctively to Ion.


Ion's personableness, however, hid some firmly held beliefs, chief of which was his belief in literature. It was this that drove him to ensure that the Man Booker remained the pinnacle of the literary world. His tenure at the helm saw attacks on the prize, on the notion of prizes themselves, and the cyclical breast-beating of the literary world with its perennial groans about the ‘death of the novel’.  Ion had seen it all before and never believed a word of it.  Never one for flowery language, he would point out that there will always be a place and a readership for the very best novels. It is a simple creed but it is impossible to argue with. Under Ion’s guidance the prize not only held its place but expanded as its remit was broadened to allow writers from all over the world to participate too, as long as their book had been written originally in English.


Ion kept his faith in books and his interest in them to the very end: one reviewer (and there will have been others) woke one Sunday morning to find an email from Ion saying how much he had enjoyed a review on an obscure work on 18th-century French social history. It was not untypical of both Ion's intellectual curiosity and his kindness.


The Man Booker Prize and the wider world of letters mourns the loss of a good man and a firm friend.


 


Michael Prodger, 2015