Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ion Trewin : An Anecdotal Memoir by John Lawton

There’s more to books than writers. However much we might try to pretend otherwise everyone who’s ever written for this page knows damn well that a good editor, publisher can make a difference – Edward Garnett, Max Perkins … Ion Trewin. Ion died on April 8th after a lifetime in newspapers and books. It’s not a cliché to talk of publishing greats. He was one.

His reputation ran ahead of him. I’d heard of Ion Trewin long before I met him. He’d worked for the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s, and was literary editor of The Times until the strike (or was it a lock-out?) of the early eighties, at which point he moved into publishing at Hodder & Stoughton, at a time when publishing and Bedford Square were all but synonymous.

A couple of years later I landed back in England after a spell in Spain and hit the moment of realisation that awaits all us old hippies – ‘1967 ain’t coming back. Bin the tie-dye and get a job.’ This was 1984 and proved every bit as grim as predicted.

I wanted not to do any of things I’d been doing any longer. I did what any educated fool would do – I started putting rings around job adverts in The Grauniad, expecting not much.

I answered this one, a paraphrase you will understand: ‘Wanted young literary agent with interest in American fiction to build up list of new writers for major London agency.’

I applied, expecting not much.

They replied.

Oh fuck … it was Curtis Brown. My heart sank, I’d bummed around the edges of London publishing for a couple of years before the Spanish expedition and the joke about Curtis Brown had been, ‘Give them a shirt and they’ll stuff it.’

I thought about withdrawing. Didn’t do it, and went to the interview expecting … not much.

After an interview of startling incompetence (on their part, not mine) I left expecting … not much. But this was 1984, Big Brother was watching over me. I was called in a second time, to find myself magisterially grilled by another London Lit legend, George Greenfield (John le Carré’s agent and the model, if such there be, for the Hon. Syd in my story Bentinck’s Agent) after which I knew damn well I’d got the job.

Fate, as often, intervened in the shape of a twat in a yellow Cortina who ran over me and my motorbike. Laid up for six weeks I was able to mull over the job on offer. I took it. Started with a walking stick, and limped onward.

By Christmas that year I was enjoying Lit London, pleased to be living above the breadline and more than a bit baffled by it all. Perhaps I was out of my depth? In the New Year, the stuffed shirt joke came back to bite.

Frank Delaney presented Radio 4’s Bookshelf, far and away the best book programme the BBC ever had. Frank wrote non-fiction at that time … books on Betjeman and Joyce for Hodder & Stoughton. He came in one day after lunch with Ion, quoting Ion as saying ‘There’s no agent at Curtis Brown I’d recommend to any of my writers.’


But … it was my moment to test the depth of which I might be out. I asked no one’s permission, rang Hodders and left a message inviting him to lunch.

Does all publishing revolve around lunch? Probably.

Ion accepted. I met a big bear of a man, with a beard that was already turning white.

“You’ve been an agent for how long?”

“Four months.”

“Learnt anything?”

“Such as?”

“What are we, the publishers, doing wrong? What would make the writers happier?”

Easy peasy.

“Communicate between books, drop this attitude that you are their publishers only when they have a book ready. Consult about things that will cost you little … covers, author blurbs … they want a say in all of that. And pay up. I don’t mean pay more. I mean pay what you have agreed to pay, whether measly or generous, on the agreed date. Late payment annoys writers more than anything.”

It was the start of a long relationship.

I found myself drawn to publishing’s rogues. They were more interesting than all the others … the gentle roguery of André Deutsch, the not so gentle roguery of Colin Haycraft (Duckworth) and the twinkling mischief of Ion Trewin. Asked by the Booker Committee if he was ‘devious’ Ion replied that he was. Perhaps it’s the same thing. I was always drawn to the mixture or humour and mischief in the man.

Over the next year I sold him three or four books. We never discussed what he thought of the company. Just the books.

And over that year it became obvious I was never going to make the grade as an agent. I was a northern hick from the hills. I did not know London. And of the handful of universities I’d been to only one was on the map that counted. I was an outsider and I had come to see that that was a killer disadvantage.

But … what next? To quit was financial suicide. The only out was to get paid to bugger off. Not that hard. Let it be known you’re looking elsewhere, throw in a bit of bad behaviour and you can get yourself canned.

I did good deals for my writers, but the best I ever did was turning a tin handshake into a brass one.

I have declared a principle in this. Getting fired means simply that you are letting others make the decisions you will not make for yourself. In the days when I had a CV (gave up such nonsense years ago ... ‘if you need to see my CV you can just fuck off!’) I had no hesitation in putting ‘fired’ on it.

But … what next?

Four publishers phoned me in my last week.

A nice woman at Collins (before they had a Harper): “Don’t stay as an agent. It’s so obvious you don’t like it.”

A nice man at Constable: “Don’t even think of setting up on your own, it will kill you.”

André Deutsch: “We should meet, my boy.”

“How about lunch, André? I have the use of the company credit card till next week.”

I took him to Le Caprice off Piccadilly. A stinger.

Does all publishing revolve around lunch? Probably.

Two bottles of wine, and when the meal ended I scored him a hundred fags on the company card.

“I’d like to offer a job but I’m over-edited to death. But on Fridays, around five, the cap comes off the whisky bottle. Join me.”

I did. On several occasions

And … Ion Trewin phoned:

“Come over. I’ve a job for you. Not much, but it will keep the wolf from the door.”

I became his chief reader, and over the next couple of years I read more books than I can count for Ion, for Eric Major and for Nick Sayers (who is still at Hodders.)

By 1987 I was where I’d been aiming for all along … in television, a business in which everyone was a rogue, at Channel 4 … a loose collective of indies where I think you probably could not get a job if you weren’t a rogue.

But there was downtime. I showed Ion the unnamed novel I’d started in Spain.

“So, this is chapter seventeen?”


“And the other one is chapter twenty-two?”


“I don’t mean to be awkward, if anything I mean to be traditional. Where’s chapter one?”

“Haven’t written that yet.”

It got thrown back at me. Instead he commissioned my one work (to date) of non-fiction: 1963: Five Hundred Days. By coincidence the year Ion had come up from Devon to join the Daily Telegraph: his year, his subject. I never did quite work out why he’d eschewed university. He seemed to have missed nothing.

By 1992 rumours were circulating that Ion was being headhunted by a new publishing house – Orion, being brick-built on Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s near fifty-year foundation. I asked. He denied. I did not believe him.

About the same time Channel 4 work took me to lunch at the House of Lords to meet George Weidenfeld.

Does all publishing revolve around lunch? Probably.

When we’d thrashed out a programme George asked if I’d bring my next book to him. I professed unwavering loyalty to Ion.

“Hire him, you get me.”

George did not take the bait, so I waited for, and attended, Ion’s leaving party at Hodders and duly followed him to Weidenfeld, where I set the finished novel in front of him – now named (by Ariana Franklin, not me) Black Out.

“Imagine the mess we’d be in if I’d bought it for Hodders,” he said.


After that he was my editor for another fifteen years. Can’t remember how many books, but most of them. A minimalist at editing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A superb communicator … I’d hear from him a couple of times a month in pre-e-mail days, more after. I never saw/heard him lose it. Ne’er a cross word. Not sure I even heard him say so much as an ‘oh fuck’. Given my propensity for bad behaviour (never, ever leave me alone in an office with Ikea shelving and a cricket bat), no small thing.

One, and one only example …

Orion were late with an advance. Not days or weeks, but fuckin’ months.

I worked out the interest on the sum so owed at Bank of England base rate, added two per cent and invoiced them. This resulted in an invitation to lunch from Ion.

Does all publishing revolve around lunch? Probably.

We met at Orso’s in Drury Lane.

The invoice was passed back to me across the table.

“I can’t possibly pay this.”

The invoice was passed back to him across the table.

“Why not?”

“Because no author has ever tried a stunt like this before, and I won’t be the one to set a precedent by paying.”

The invoice was passed back to me across the table.


“So this is what you do. Invent ten …” (could have been five or twenty, this was an age ago) “… manuscripts that you have read for me and re-invoice for the same sum. I put it through the books as reader services. But if you stick to this line of yours about charging interest on late advances … well … we’d be starting a revolution.”

That sounded so appealing, but … I pocketed the invoice and did as he said. Invented manuscripts and authors (who knows? The Brian Clough Book of Quick Desserts might have been a winner) and billed Orion with a phony invoice. I think he enjoyed the scam as much as I did.

Ion was the best company in London. Not above gossip, connoisseur of the craik, wholly devoid of malice.

We’d lunch at his club – the Garrick. If in New York at the Harvard … or was it Yale? (I always get ’em mixed up.)

Does all publishing revolve around lunch? Probably.

But, er … not always, as on occasion we’d breakfast at Simpson’s-in-the Strand. If he was watching his weight … and at peak Ion was a very big man … he’d have porridge or muesli and I’d get stuck into an Arbroath smokie. We had dinner at my house in Islington, but, and this marks a boundary of his sense of privacy, never at his in Highgate.

I’ve been widely reviewed in my time. I take no credit for that. It was all down to Ion, a man who, it seemed, was as far from the outsider as one can get. He knew … everybody. All I, the outsider, had to do was … hang on.

I never doubted Ion would retire rather than hang on, and publishing being ever in flux I could understand why he did retire. Nor did I think this would be the end … Lit London … no … Lit Britain would always find work for an idle Trewin … so he never was.

Ion Trewin picked me off the scrap heap.  I shall miss him more than words can tell.


  1. John Lawton is a producer/director in television who has spent much of his time interpreting the USA to the English, and occasionally vice versa. He has worked with Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Scott Turow, Noam Chomsky, Fay Weldon, Harold Pinter and Kathy Acker. He thinks he may well be the only TV director ever to be named in a Parliamentary Bill in the British House of Lords as an offender against taste and balance – he has also been denounced from the pulpit in Mississippi as a `Communist', but thinks that less remarkable.

    Though the gracious efforts of our own Zoë Sharp, we're privileged to have John post his memoir of his mentor and friend, editor, author, publisher and chief of the Man Booker Prize, Ion Trewin, who passed away April 8, 2015.

    I'm honored to relinquish my Saturday slot today to John for his tribute.

    1. Many thanks, Jeff.
      Ion was a gent ... so was Richie Benaud,
      and so are you.

  2. Thanks, John. Touching, and entertaining, memoir. I'd never heard of Ion before, but he sounds like he was quite the fellow!

  3. Welcome, John, and thank you for telling us about Ion Trewin--the kind of person so precious to writers--open-minded, and not wed to the ordinary.

    Regarding lunch: I scrounged around trying to find an agent for my first novel for eight years. When the agent who finally sold it asked me to lunch, I knew something important was about to happen!

  4. Thank you John, Ion sounds a right character... but then it takes one to know one!
    Hope to catch up with you soon,

  5. Thank you John, Ion sounds a right character... but then it takes one to know one!
    Hope to catch up with you soon,