Obituary – Martyn Goff

A Life in Books

Martyn Goff, a former Chair of this Society and President from 1998 until his death on 25 March 2015, was the personification of the now-outmoded term “bookman”: not only an industry figure but also a man of letters, a sitter on committees, and someone whose influence on behalf of books extended into many spheres. He was best known as Director of the National Book League (later Book Trust, and later still Booktrust), and above all as Administrator of the Booker Prize (later the Man Booker Prize), in which capacity he may be regarded as among the most significant figures in literary publishing of the past 40 years. Thanks in great part to his canny stewardship (of course, one must acknowledge that the shortlisted and winning authors have had something to do with it as well), the Booker is the pre-eminent literary award in the English-speaking world.

Goff was born in 1923, the youngest of three children in a Jewish family in Hampstead. The Goffs were well-to-do, thanks to Jacob Goff’s status as the largest manufacturer of fur coats in Britain, and could send their son to school each day in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. (The detail, and many others in this obituary, come from Liz Thomson’s 2003 interview with Goff in Publishing News.) After Jacob had run off with another woman, Goff and his mother settled in a flat in Hove, and Goff went to Clifton College. On the outbreak of war, he deferred a place at Oxford University in order to join the RAF. He spent a large part of the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.

Goff turned down his Oxford place after being demobbed, and declined too his father’s offer to join the family firm. While visiting St Leonard’s on the south coast, he spotted a vacant building in a parade of shops. He told Liz Thomson: “I can’t tell you what made me do this but I said to myself it would make a wonderful bookshop, so I went straight to the agent and asked how much it was. He said it was £250 a year and I said I’d take it. He must have thought I was mad.”

Having worked at Zwemmers for three months to give himself an induction period, Goff opened for business in 1946. His second employee, and later manager of a new branch in Seaford, was Ian Norrie, who was also to chair the Society of Bookmen. The two were close friends until Norrie’s death in 2009. Goff went on to become the proprietor of the Ibis Bookshop, which still trades under that name in Banstead.

He became a vocal industry figure, and a regular in the Bookseller’s letters column, developing the skill at generating publicity that was to serve the Booker so well. He also began reviewing novels, and writing his own. The Youngest Director, written in 1950 and notably candid even when published in 1961 – six years before homosexual acts between consenting adults were to become legal in the UK – was about a young man facing pressure to give up the man he loves.

At the instigation of yet another former Society of Bookmen Chair, Methuen MD Michael Turner, Goff applied for and got the job of Director of the National Book League (NBL). Only a year after he joined, he staged the Bedford Square Book Bang, a weekend of literary events in Bloomsbury. Literary festivals in Britain were not new – Cheltenham had been going since 1949. But this exuberantly publicised event became, despite the rain that beat down on it throughout, the model for Edinburgh and hundreds of imitators that have sprung up since.

The National Book League job involved running the Booker Prize, which the NBL had taken over from the Publishers Association. The Booker soon established itself as the most prestigious literary award in the UK, and in 1980 it won the widespread public recognition to match, as a result of the rivalry – which Goff happily exploited – between Anthony Burgess and the winner, William Golding. The following year, with Malcolm Bradbury chairing the judges, the leading contenders Salman Rushdie and DM Thomas were comparatively unknown, but generated similar excitement, and won huge sales. The 1982 winner, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, sold better still.

Goff proved to be the ideal Booker administrator. He cared deeply about the prestige of the Prize, but he was also mischievous, delighting in the tactical indiscretions that would win publicity. He relished the machinations and jostlings among the judges. But all the while, he managed the process courteously and impeccably. In person, he could appear stiff to the superficial observer; but one could tell from his range of ties that he was someone with a flamboyant streak. He had a winning twinkle. He was also extremely kind and generous.

There were many other interests. From 1988, he was Chairman of antiquarian bookseller Henry Sotheran; he was Chair of the Wingate Scholarships, the Poetry Book Society, and the National Life Story Collection. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Society. In addition to novels, he wrote books about music and art. He was appointed OBE in 1977, and CBE in 2005.

Goff’s partner for more than 40 years was the Finnish-born poet and bookseller Rubio Lindroos, who had written to him from Finland after reading The Youngest Director. The younger man (born 1949), Lindroos looked after Goff with great care and love after Goff suffered a stroke some years ago, but was to die first, in 2014.

Nicholas Clee

With acknowledgements to Liz Thomson and Publishing News (2003)