John Gross, last year
“THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY”
I hesitated to post a third batch of articles about my father. (The first two are here and here, and a fourth one now here.) Many of you read this website only for Middle East-related items, and don’t know me personally. Also, my father himself was so modest that he would feel almost embarrassed by all the praise.
All week, however, people have been writing to say they would be interested in seeing more pieces, so I attach a selection below. The tributes to him have been wonderful. I almost can’t recall anyone being so affectionately treated in the columns of British and American newspapers.
Among the articles about John Gross below are ones by Jay Nordlinger who says “London is barely imaginable without him,” a piece titled “The Pleasure of His Company” by John O’Sullivan, and one by Theodore Dalrymple, who noted that “Though John Gross wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, he proved by his life that the man of letters had not yet quite fallen.”
Also included are a column by Charles Spencer explaining how Philip Larkin sent his last great poem to John Gross to publish, and a column from the Irish Independent which ends with a traditional Gaelic blessing on the soul of the dead for my father (“Ar dheis de go raibh a anam uasal”) which translates as “May his noble soul stand at the right hand of God”.
John Gross, in 2009
There are also a number of amusing letters below about John Gross published this week in The Times, Guardian and Spectator, and a reprinting in this week’s TLS of a piece he originally wrote for the paper as long ago as 1960, about J. D. Salinger.
On the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph this week, Charles Moore generously re-reviewed my father’s childhood memoir (A Double Thread) about growing up Jewish in England, noting that “What made Gross’s imagination, and what makes this book so subtle, was the Englishness and the Jewishness double-threaded, neither vanquishing the other.” As a result of this and other press citations of the book in recent days, the publishers say that tomorrow they will print more paperback copies, since the book is sold out.
As the third item below, I include remarks made by myself at my father’s funeral.
-- Tom Gross
Cover of the British edition of A Double Thread
1. “London is barely imaginable without him” (by Jay Nordlinger, National Review, Jan. 18, 2011)
2. “A civilized man: John Gross, R.I.P.” (by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, Jan. 21, 2011)
3. Remarks by Tom Gross at the funeral of John Gross (Jan. 14, 2011)
4. “A Jewish boy’s profound faith in England” (by Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 17, 2011)
5. “The Pleasure of His Company” (By John O’Sullivan, National Review, edition of Feb. 7, 2011)
6. “When a masterpiece arrives in the post” (by Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 17, 2011)
7. Extract from weekly column by Eoghan Harris (The Sunday Independent, Ireland, Jan. 16 2011)
8. A third batch of letters on John Gross in The Times (Jan. 18, 2011)
9. Letters on John Gross in The Guardian (Jan. 17, 2011)
10. “A little light reading” (Letter in The Spectator, Jan. 22, 2011)
11. Russell Davies pays tribute to John Gross on BBC Radio 2 (Jan. 16, 2011)
12. BBC Radio 4’s The Last Word discussed John Gross (Jan. 21 & 23, 2011)
13. “Gregarious, astonishingly well-read literary critic, editor and author” (By Anthony Bailey, The Independent, Jan. 21, 2011)
14. “Erudite literary critic who grew up in the East End and loved gossip” (The Sunday Times, Jan. 16, 2011)
15. “John Gross, critic, editor and ‘best-read man in Britain,’ dies at 75” (Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2011)
16. “John Gross in the TLS on J. D. Salinger from 1960” (Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 14, 2011)
ARTICLES AND LETTERS
JAY NORDLINGER IN THE NATIONAL REVIEW
London is barely imaginable without him
By Jay Nordlinger
The National Review
January 18, 2011
John Gross – the superlative English writer passed away last week. You can read a great many articles about him, in publications both British and American. (In publications originating in other places too, I imagine.) I will say just a little about him.
I loved him. He was one of the most delightful friends I had, or anyone could have. He was learned, witty, humane – totally civilized. I’m not sure I ever knew a more civilized man. David Pryce-Jones, Tony Daniels – they are in the same league. But the league has very few players.
London, for me, was barely imaginable without him. We would meet for lunch or pastries, to catch up on the latest, to range over the world. When he was up to it, he’d give you a tour, of some London neighborhood. He would point out who had lived there and why the neighborhood was important. I doubt there was ever a better London tour guide, or a more devoted lover of London.
John knew everything – essentially everything – and it was said that he was “the best-read man in Britain.” But, as others have observed, he wore his learning lightly – very lightly. There were no airs about the man, at least that I could detect. He was humble and courteous, big-hearted and amusing. A lover of life, a drinker-in of life: of literature, of course, and art, and music, and theater, and politics, and history, and jokes, and everything. A couple of hours with him went by like a breeze.
On the very weekend I heard that John was in the hospital – “in hospital,” he would say, like all Brits – I was intending to e-mail him. The reason? Kind of an odd one. More than once, John told me that, when he read my “New York Chronicle” in The New Criterion, he was amazed that I would seldom use the word “performance,” “perform,” or “performer.” How could I do that? How could I write about performers and performances, while using those words so sparingly?
When I was writing this particular chronicle, two weekends ago, I kept saying “perform,” “performance,” etc. I was conscious of it. I wanted to tell him so!
His son Tom and I once had a discussion of him – how John was a little of everything: a great Englishman, a great Londoner, a great Jew (secular division, maybe), a great American (after a fashion – he spent a lot of time here), a great critic, a great anthologist – hell, a great man. I wish I had known him a little longer. But I’m glad I knew him at all. And he is unforgettable.
There is a further item by Jay Nordlinger about John Gross, here:
THEODORE DALRYMPLE IN CITY JOURNAL
A Civilized Man: John Gross, R.I.P.
By Theodore Dalrymple
City Journal (New York)
January 21, 2011
To be in the company of John Gross, who died on January 10 at 75, was to experience a unique kind of pleasure, as well as a relief from the woes of the world. No man ever shared his erudition more delightfully, with less thought of imposing himself on others or of discomfiting the ignorant – as almost everyone was by comparison with him.
Like a surprising number of literary figures – one thinks of Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Proust, and Auden – Gross was the son of a doctor, in his case a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe to the East End of London. He described his Anglo-Jewish upbringing in a delightful memoir, A Double Thread, published in 2001. He won a scholarship to Oxford and thereafter entered literary circles that he never left. He became without doubt the best anthologist of his time and also among the foremost literary scholars and critics. He was successively editor of the Times Literary Supplement, chief book reviewer for the New York Times, and theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph, all positions that he filled with distinction.
Without any display of pedantry, he gave the impression of having read, and remembered, everything. His New Oxford Book of English Prose, published in 1998, was evidence enough of his prodigious knowledge, his broad sympathies, and his excellent judgment. Who but he would quote with equal facility and felicity from Richard Knolles’s The General History of the Turks of 1603 and Dwight Macdonald’s “The Bible in Modern Undress” of 1953? Letters, diaries, sermons, speeches political and forensic, short stories, novels, critical essays, works of philosophy, science, and travel: all are included in his anthology, and all aptly.
But he was not made priggish by his learning. Once, when I relayed to him a remark by a second-hand bookseller of my acquaintance – that the authors of the popular novels of the 1920s and 1930s wrote very well – he brought up Edgar Wallace, about whom he was surprisingly knowledgeable (though I should not have been surprised). He even quoted from Margaret Lane’s biography of Wallace. Further, though few people could have read more books than he had, he was not bookish. He was genuinely interested in the human race, of and upon which literature was a reflection; he had the power of inspiring immediate confidence in his interlocutor. He loved gossip (one of his anthologies was of literary anecdotes), and though he was clear-sighted, he was without malice, which he could safely leave to others to supply.
The excellence of his critical judgment derived from the free play of an intelligence and sensibility that refused to be constrained by fashionable theories. Literary excellence could not, for him, be reduced to any one aspect of a work. Two works could have equal but opposite virtues, and it would be our loss if we refused to acknowledge both. Writing of our current aversion to purple prose in the preface to his anthology, he wrote:
“We should be . . . on guard, however, against a provincialism which estranges us from some of the great achievements of the past. If we don’t distinguish between true eloquence and fake eloquence, if we allow our fear of pretentious or precious ‘fine writing’ to frighten us off the real thing, the loss will be ours; and it will be a large one.”
There is a provincialism of time as well as of place, perhaps the more dangerous to civilization because it is less obvious. John Gross – incomparably learned, modest, tolerant, and humorous – was a civilized man. Though he wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, he proved by his life that the man of letters had not yet quite fallen.
(Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.)
REMARKS AT THE FUNERAL OF JOHN GROSS
By Tom Gross
January 14, 2011
My father was an exceptional person. I have known that all my life, of course, but nevertheless I have been taken aback by the outpouring of grief and admiration for him in the last three days, including wonderful letters and emails from all over the world and magnificent tributes in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, and in continental Europe too.
My father had an outstanding intellect. But because of his modesty I hadn’t quite realized to what extent his intellectual prowess went back to his earliest days, until reading some of the tributes this week.
On Wednesday, in The Times, a Mr Derek Taylor wrote a letter to say that he had been at the Perse school in Cambridge with my father. Mr Taylor wrote: “There was a school debate one day in 1946. The speakers were always sixth-formers. But John was 11 at the time and astonished the audience by standing up to make his point, quoting for his purpose the Russian Foreign Minister of 1927. It was a moment not to be forgotten.”
And yesterday in The Times, Gillian Tunkel wrote: “I have never forgotten the comment that John’s English teacher wrote to John’s parents at the end of one of John’s essays when John was 14: ‘I am not sufficiently equipped to mark this!’”
People who didn’t know my father, might have assumed that someone as erudite and bookish as he was, might somehow be deficient in common sense or worldly wisdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had unerring judgment and good sense in matters great and small.
He was unfailingly kind and sensitive too. He was always courteous and patient. I’ve never heard him be rude to anyone. He was immensely generous in every way, especially with his time and with his knowledge and advice. He would spend hours on the phone with people he hardly knew who had rung to pick his brain. And, as one of the many friends who have written to me said, he never looked over anyone’s shoulder at a party.
He remained friendly and totally unpompous to the end. Two days before he died, when I was urging the staff at St Mary’s, Paddington to do all they could to comfort him, a West Indian nurse said to me “Oh we all know about Mr Gross. He is the best conversationalist we’ve ever had here”.
My father’s intellect was also in tact until his final days. When he was almost unconscious, one of the doctors said to him: “Mr Gross we are moving you now, from the Samuel Lane ward to the Zachary Cope ward”. And my father, with his eyes still shut, suddenly mumbled “Ahh, Dr Zachary Cope – the famous abdominal expert who wrote an article about Jane Austen’s last illness.”
My father loved London. He delighted in taking visitors round tours of the East End, and literary and other places of interest elsewhere. As one American friend, Roger Kimball, wrote to me yesterday “John knew the city as well as any London taxi-driver – better in fact, because he could not only take you to any address you named but he also knew what had happened there from the time of Julius Caesar until the day before yesterday.”
My father loved literature and theatre, and all things English, but – without being religious – he had an intense sense of Jewishness too, hence his childhood memoir A Double Thread, and his groundbreaking study on the uses and misuses of the character Shylock over the last 400 years.
He also had a very happy temperament and a great zest for life. And because of this, after my sister has spoken and after the rabbi has offered the final prayers in Hebrew and said kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead -- as we say goodbye to my father, we will conclude with an uplifting song (Tumbalaika) that my father liked in Yiddish -- the other ancient language spoken by Jews of east European origin, the culture, literature and theatre of which my father adored almost as much as he did English literature.
One of the last lively conversations he had just before Christmas, when he was rushed to hospital by my mother, was to show visitors, with the greatest of pleasure, a rare Yiddish edition of Oscar Wilde.
Everything will be duller, and sadder without him.
He was also, of course, a fantastic father. I couldn’t have asked for a better father, and I feel privileged to be his son.
(Several people have reproduced this, for example, here on the website of former American presidential speechwriter David Frum: FrumForum.)
CHARLES MOORE IN THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
A Jewish boy’s profound faith in England
By Charles Moore
The Daily Telegraph
January 17, 2011
John Gross’s childhood memoir “A Double Thread,” re-reviewed on the comment page of The Daily Telegraph.
This column reserves the right occasionally to review something which is not new. I exercise it today because of the death last week of John Gross. Gross was known to readers of our sister paper, The Sunday Telegraph, because he was, for 15 years, its distinguished theatre critic. His brilliant book, Shylock, about the history of Shakespeare’s most controversial creation, was published during the period when he held the post.
Shylock benefited from the fact that Gross had both a literary sensibility and a Jewish one. A Double Thread explains why. First published 10 years ago, it is John Gross’s account of his boyhood, based chiefly in the East End of London. The title refers to Jewishness and Englishness. The book traces the connection and the difference between the two, as the author experienced them. In his synagogue, the foreign rabbi said prayers for the royal family, pronouncing “our sovereign lord King George” as “her suffering lots Kins Odds”.
It is a book in which nothing much happens, unless you count a world war. Gross’s father was a refugee from Eastern Europe who arrived in Britain in 1914. He became an able and conscientious GP in the East End. John was born there in 1935. Because of the Second World War, the family moved to Egham in Surrey. John, who was always bookish, was educated there, and, briefly, at the Perse in Cambridge, then at the City of London School. He won a scholarship to Oxford. There the story ends.
Gross says that he experienced no anti-semitism in Egham, and very little anywhere else. For a short time, he was evacuated to a farm in Shropshire. With deft economy, he sets out what it meant to him: “My first real experience of life away from home, it must have helped lay down a substratum of trust, an expectation that the world would prove friendly rather than not.” In matters of race and nationality, that substratum of trust is the most important thing. John Gross believes that the England that he knew (he prefers the word “England” to the more political word “Britain”) provided it. His book gives thanks.
So, large parts of his memoir concentrate on the English culture of the 1940s and 1950s, as encountered by a boy whose reading was both omnivorous and discriminating. His observation of comics like the Dandy or the Hotspur is as attentive as his early reading of W H Auden. I was delighted to discover from this book that one of the scriptwriters for Children’s Hour was called L du Garde Peach. Being 20 years younger than Gross, I did not listen to the programme, but I noticed this curious name when, as a boy, I bought all the Ladybird history books, of which he (she?) was the author. My private theory is that a funny name like that must have been an anagram, but I have never been able to prove it.
Anyway, rather like George Orwell, but less politically motivated, Gross captures that era of writing and entertainment. He celebrates early Penguins: “In those days the imprint seemed rather like the BBC: not so much a publisher as an estate of the realm”.
The prevailing educational culture offered “a certain idea of England” – “Hymns Ancient and Modern…fair play, the King’s English, the Mother of Parliaments, trial by jury, Hearts of Oak, the bulldog breed, the Lady with the Lamp, the Workshop of the World, the RSPCA [not now!], Magna Carta “‘What say the reeds at Runnymede?’)”. As national ideas go – and they often go terribly – it wasn’t a bad one.
Gross also captures how children come to appreciate writing even before they understand it – “pictures formed with very little to go on”. The young John was entranced by God’s promise to Abraham that He would multiply his seed “as the stars of the heaven, and the sand which is upon the sea-shore”. This “summoned up a persistent image not only of sea and stars, but also of clumps of grass in the foreground, ruffled by the breeze. Perhaps I had been wondering exactly what ‘seed’ was, and got it mixed up with the idea of grass-seed.” Of his first excited encounter with a poem by Rimbaud, he writes: “It plainly meant something. Exactly what could wait.” Thus does imagination work.
What made Gross’s imagination, and what makes this book so subtle, was the Englishness and the Jewishness double-threaded, neither vanquishing the other.
He gives an exquisitely delicate account, for example, of his admiration for T S Eliot – the “sense of authority” about his writing, “the glow of interest to everything about him”. And yet he confronted clear examples, in Eliot’s poetry, of anti-semitism. This did not lead him to reject Eliot, but neither did he excuse him.
Gross’ father, with whom John discussed the matter, said, “T S Eliot may be a great poet, but he isn’t greater than the Jewish people.” “I was very struck by this,” records Gross, “Not so much by the sentiment as by the manner in which it was expressed, which was very different from his normally low-key, non-rhetorical style. He was perfectly calm, but it was obvious he had been upset.”
Touchingly, Gross senior said that Eliot should meet a Talmudic scholar called Abramsky whom, above all, he admired, as if a conversation between these sages would solve matters. Even at moments of pain and unease, the substratum of trust.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN IN THE NATIONAL REVIEW
The Pleasure of His Company
By John O’Sullivan
Reviews of The Oxford Book of Parodies, edited by John Gross
The National Review
Edition of February 7, 2011
[For space reasons, I attach only the end of what is quite a long review of John Gross’s last and widely praised book, The Oxford Book of Parodies.]
John Gross died on the 10th of January in London. His death was mourned with unusual unanimity across the spectrum of literary opinion. It was marked by obituaries that combined great respect for his scholarship with enormous affection for the man. He was “the best-read man in England.” He was also someone whom every woman hoped to find next to her at a dinner party and whom every man hoped to run into at the bar. His eventual reputation will doubtless rest over time on such important books as “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,” “After Shakespeare” and “Shylock.” He was nonetheless an anthologist of genius because, as several tributes have stressed, his interests ranged outwards from the great books into the furthermost nooks and crannies of popular literature, journalism, vaudeville, Broadway song lyrics, anecdote, limericks, and literary gossip where angels fear to tread. This magpie sensibility produced a series of Oxford anthologies which, because of their range, variety and freshness, it is not at all illogical to call original.
Reading the Oxford Book of Parodies is a little like meeting John at a party when he had just run across some new and unexpected item of amusement. He would have been reading old copies of Punch or listening to songs from forgotten musicals when some minor gem suddenly glistened and caught his attention. A year ago he delightedly produced this couplet from an ancient theatrical revue:
“He’s Hengist, I’m Horsa
We’re mentioned in Chaucer.”
We both chuckled, in my case for the umpteenth such time.
His friends can no longer enjoy the incomparable pleasure of John’s company. Nothing else can really substitute for it. But to pick up his anthologies, of which this one particularly reflects his genial but learned temperament, is for a few hours to fall under at least the shadow of his company.
I can imagine no higher recommendation for any book.
(The full book review can be read here:
(There is also a further tribute to John Gross by the editors of the magazine, which appears in the introductory section at the start of this week’s National Review, and is available online to subscribers only.)
CHARLES SPENCER IN THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
When a masterpiece arrives in the post [Print version headline]
John Gross will be sorely missed [Online version headline]
By Charles Spencer (from his weekly column)
The Daily Telegraph
January 17, 2011
One of the happiest consequences of my job was getting to know John Gross, who died last week. He was once described as the best-read man in Britain, and he was a critic, anthologist, editor and writer of great distinction.
Many distinguished men and women prove a disappointment when you meet them. John didn’t. When I first encountered him, he was the theatre critic of The Sunday Telegraph and I was then a newly arrived third-string reviewer on the Daily Telegraph. John couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming.
Though he was undoubtedly a great man of letters, he was never grand. His conversation was full of anecdotes, about both the living and the dead, and they were always entertaining and superbly told. Only rarely, however, were they touched with anything approaching malice. There was a warmth and a wise sense of proportion about John that I valued greatly and will miss sorely.
One of the great days of his life, he once told me, was when he arrived for work as editor of the Times Literary Supplement and discovered an unsolicited poem from Philip Larkin for him in the post. It was Aubade, that terrifying, deeply felt poem about the fear of death that was the poet’s last great work.
It would be unusually bleak fare for a memorial service, but, since John was the first to publish it, perhaps Aubade might just fit the bill on this occasion.
EOGHAN HARRIS IN THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT (Ireland)
Extract from weekly column by Eoghan Harris
The Sunday Independent (Ireland)
January 16, 2011
Let me finish with a brief tribute to John Gross, the literary critic, who died last week. Although I do not normally collect books or authors’ signatures, in 1998 on a short trip to London I rang him up and asked him if he would sign his New Oxford Book of English Prose because he, Gross, would have included a piece by William Carleton, the protean Tyrone man who straddled the Protestant-Catholic divide.
Gross said he would meet me in a coffee shop in Westbourne Grove called Byzantium but could only give me 10 minutes. When he arrived he checked that I knew Yeats’s Byzantium by heart, as he did, then gave me three hours of laugh-a-line literary gossip studded with gems like “Tom Stoppard is a middlebrow’s idea of a highbrow”.
And I still cherish his reply when I provocatively asked him how he could reject post-modernism without studying it: “Look, I don’t have to study alchemy to know you can’t turn base metal into gold.”
Ar dheis de go raibh a anam uasal.
[Tom Gross adds: The last line by Eoghan Harris means is a traditional Gaelic blessing on the soul of the dead which translates as “May his noble soul stand at the right hand of God”]
A THIRD BATCH OF LETTERS TO THE TIMES
Letters published in The Times (of London) on Jan. 18, 2011
Lord Donoughue writes:
Your excellent obituary of John Gross (Jan 11) covered thoroughly his remarkable career, intellect and literary output. He was the cleverest man I ever knew. However, I most remember his warm friendship and hilarious wit. We first met in 1954 on a staircase at a student party in north Oxford. With a few funny words behind his quiet smile, he engaged me for life. I visited his father, a gentle old-style family doctor in Mile End; met his mother, much stronger and with her son’s steely clarity of mind; and bought spectacles from his able optician brother.
Our careers diverged, but whenever we met his warmth was immediate. His humorous dissection of the British chattering classes, with their self-righteous moralising humbug, was penetratingly exact but never malicious as he also appreciated their liberal values. At lunch in Normandy last summer he was sadly frail but his mind glittered as brightly as ever. He was a wonderful example of the great contribution of our Jewish community to British society and culture.
Jeremy Rosenblatt writes:
I first became acquainted with John Gross in the Nineties in one of the few vanishing coffee shops still prevalent in Moscow Road, Bayswater. In La Vie en Rose, the sister owners prepared his suppers with care and respect and he was sometimes joined by his beautiful daughter with her long reddish hair. For my 40th birthday he signed A Double Thread, his memoir that was published at the same time and stated with a terrible poignancy that he so wished to be 40 again.
My mother, Ruth, relied upon his book Shylock both as a lecturer and for her thesis. He was the cleverest, the politest and kindest of men.
LETTERS PUBLISHED IN THE GUARDIAN
Letters published in The Guardian on January 17, 2011
Martin Dodsworth writes: In his most sympathetic obituary of John Gross (12 January), Ion Trewin mentions John’s brief time as an academic at London University. It was spent not at University College, however, but Queen Mary – significant because it was just round the corner from where his parents lived and where he had been brought up.
The example of his father, a doctor in the Mile End Road, was probably in his mind, for John was a man of great loyalties, to place as well as family. He was a devoted Londoner, for example; his love of Dickens and his membership of the English Heritage blue plaque committee both reflect this. Queen Mary used the old People’s Palace building, and this too would have appealed to him, for his love of popular culture ran deep.
He had an amazing ability to quote from old music-hall songs, as well as those of the Cole Porter generation. He loved the old Players’ theatre under the arches of Charing Cross. In his marvellous book Joyce (1971), he observes that to his most extreme admirers James Joyce “is rather like the girl in the Marie Lloyd song: ‘Every little movement has a meaning of its own, every little motion tells a tale.’” Who else would have said that? His friends will remember him for that breadth of sympathy and the wit that went with it.
Peter Baker writes: John Gross was my tutor at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1964. I was studying for one of Cambridge’s literary marathons, the Dickens paper, for which reading all the novels, associated works and criticism was a given. At our first tutorial, John’s room was knee high in Dandys and Beanos – he was writing an article on comics. We had a conversation about the connections between the novels and across Victorian literature. He was able to quote great chunks of texts from memory while pacing the room and smoking. John clearly had expectations that not only should I have read the novels but I should be able to remember them all in detail and was slightly irritated that I couldn’t keep up. His depth of knowledge, range of reading and erudition was immense. To find out that he was only eight years older than me makes me feel even more inadequate than I felt on that day in 1964.
LETTER IN THE SPECTATOR
Letter published in The Spectator on Jan. 22, 2011
From Martin McKeand
A Little Light Reading
Sir: John Gross (Your article “The man who read everything,” 15 January) started early. I remember, at the City of London School when we were both 15, telling him about a memoir I had discovered by one Marcel ‘Prowst’ who spent the first 40 pages describing his difficulty in getting to sleep at night.
John gently corrected my mispronunciation and told me what pleasures lay in store with another 11 volumes (in the old Scott Montcrieff translation) to come. He had read them all.
He also suggested I might enjoy the first volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – only recently published – Angus Wilson, and The Charterhouse of Parma, all of which he had read during the holidays. It was rumoured he did all his homework and much extra reading on his way home on the tube from Blackfriars to Mile End, seven stops away.
RUSSELL DAVIES PAYS TRIBUTE TO JOHN GROSS ON BBC RADIO 2
Russell Davies pays tribute to John Gross on BBC Radio 2. among other things he discusses John Gross’s love for American music and then he dedicates a song to him.
It starts at 53 minutes, 20 seconds into the recording:
JOHN GROSS DISCUSSED ON BBC RADIO 4’S THE LAST WORD PROGRAM
BBC Radio 4 Documentaries
January 21, 2011 (repeated 8.30 pm today, Sunday January 23, 2011)
It can also be heard here:
OBITUARY IN THE INDEPENDENT (London)
John Gross: Gregarious, astonishingly well-read literary critic, editor and author
January 21, 2011
By Anthony Bailey
The Independent (London)
Many child prodigies burn out. Some grow into narrowly smart adults. John Gross remained a wide-ranging prodigy to the last. Rosy-cheeked, twinkly-eyed, schoolboy-faced, the writer and editor with most claim to be Britain’s foremost man of letters was, despite years of ill-health, still enriching and astonishing friends with his conversational prowess, springing on them obscure but absolutely relevant references and quotations which (he proffered gently) “you might find useful or – possibly – be amused by.” In his twenties his talkativeness was observed by Michael Frayn and his then wife, Gill, who, driving to Venice, were asked by Gross for a lift to Dover. (Gross said he was going to Boulogne for a few days, “to bring his address book up to date.”) But Gross was still in their car at Ostend, and also at Strasbourg, where he got out, still talking.
Gross was born in the East End of London in 1935, his parents of East European Jewish descent. The family moved out of Mile End at the start of the Second World War, first to Bracklesham Bay, Sussex, then to Egham, Surrey, where the turreted towers of Royal Holloway College later formed a Guermantes chateau-like image in young Gross’s memory. At war’s end, the Grosses returned to Tredegar Square, E1. Gross’s father was a local GP, remarkably like the genial Dr Dreyfuss who revives a suicidal Shirley Maclaine in Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment. At home, Dr Gross let his son John take centre stage, proudly prompting him to provide digested passages of Bleak House or Hard Times. A walk around the neighbourhood accompanied visits to Tredegar Square for Gross’s school and college friends: Mile End and Whitechapel Roads; Petticoat and Brick Lanes; many a verdant bomb site. Gross would point out Black Lion Yard, where a dairy sported wooden doors and the painted sign of Evans & Son, “Cowkeepers – Milk fresh from the cow”, a faded slogan both in English and Yiddish. Bevis Marks synagogue and the Jewish cemetery next to Queen Mary College could be on the route, together with Blooms eatery, Whitechapel bell foundry, Toynbee Hall and Spratts dog-biscuit factory. He led the way down a dreary street off Commercial Road full of Jewish liturgical bookshops – “More bookshops here than in Golders Green,” said Gross.
However, the aftermath of war was finishing off the old Jewish East End, with the spread of GLC council estates and a rising Jewish middle-class decamping to Hampstead Garden Suburb. Gross’s education engendered a lasting restlessness. He moved from school to school, his parents concerned to cherish his Jewish roots while nurturing his obvious brightness. Egham Grammar was followed by a period boarding at the Perse School in Cambridge. There he was a pupil in Hillel House, in its last year as a haven solely for Jewish boys. The house magazine, The Orient, published in 1948 a piece by the 13-year-old Gross, “The Cinema as a Living Art”. In this, Gross mentioned “the booksie boys”, a term borrowed from Timothy Shy, the penname of D B Wyndham Lewis and Ronald Searle for their St Trinian’s stories, and was followed by allusions to the Andrews Sisters, Milton, Tchaikovsky, Harry James, Malvolio, Chaplin, Frank Capra, Al Jolson, Jean Kent, Jean Gabin, and Jean Sablon, among others. Stanley Price, also a Perse pupil and later a writer, recalls using his prefectorial status to request from a several-years-younger Gross advice for an essay about Keats.
“Have a look at Hyperion,” opined Gross.
“Isn’t it rather long?” Price said.
“Yes,” Gross replied, “but you’ll find you only need quote a stanza,” – which he then proceeded to recite, text unseen.
Such prowess bowled over those who examined him for entrance to the City of London School and then Wadham College, Oxford. He arrived at the university in the autumn of 1952, at 17 one of the youngest among an entry of older youth, many of them National Service veterans. (Gross had been turned down for flat feet, among other things.) His contemporaries included George Macbeth, Anthony Thwaite, Adrian Mitchell, Gordon Snell, Gabriel Pearson, Philip French, Eddie Mirzoeff and Christopher Ricks. Among the young women, Anne Harrop (later Thwaite), Gill Palmer (later Frayn), Sarah Rothschild, Carol Goodman, and Susan Loewenthal. He served on the staff of Isis, the weekly in which he was later featured as an “Idol”, hailed for having read all of Proust by 14 but now catching up with back copies of Hotspur. A memorable issue of Isis carried a riskily irreverent parody of the New Statesman, assembled in part by Gross. He was by no means a swot; he could be seen talking in La Roma, the Kemp, and the Kardomah cafés more often than researching in the Radcliffe Camera or Bodleian. Despite this, he won a seemingly effortless First, and a fourth year in which to do a never-completed B Litt.
Gross moved on to a fellowship at King’s, Cambridge and posts with Queen Mary College, London, and Princeton in the US. But although he had a don’s skill of asking and provoking the right questions, he felt more at home on Grub Street than in the Groves of Academe. Even so, his publishing jobs didn’t always last: at Victor Gollancz, where an heir was needed, Gross fatally turned down as glib and meretricious several books which went on to be bestsellers; his career as literary editor of the New Statesman was shortened by colleagues who had political and artistic differences with him. His editorial life was capped by a seven-year spell at the helm of the TLS, which he rescued from moribundity, naming the hitherto anonymous reviewers and bringing a knowledgeable sparkle to its grey pages.
As a writer and anthologist, Gross produced a number of good books. Among his own works were essays on Kipling, Dickens, and James Joyce, a study of Shylock, a memoir of his East End boyhood, A Double Thread, and a vivid and instructive survey of English literary life, The Rise & Fall of the Man of Letters (1969, reprinted 1991). This neatly gave F R Leavis his due as a critic, but also put him in his place as a would-be literary policeman. Gross never completed a long-considered work on the literature of Empire. Successful anthologies – of essays, parodies, aphorisms and comic verse – were put together every few years by him for OUP. All the while he served without self-interest on innumerable committees: for the National Portrait Gallery, for the Government’s honours advisors, and notably for three long spells at the London Library. Gross was an eloquent enthusiast for that institution’s quirks, and would delight in showing novice members such trophies then on the open shelves as a first edition of Moby Dick and the (also priceless) boxed scrolls which formed the catalogue of the Imperial Library in Peking. Douglas Matthews, a former librarian of the LL, says, “It was amazing at meetings how quiet he could be until near the end, when he’d turn the debate with a brilliant, thoughtfully worded summation.”
Although Gross’s own reading was voracious and wide-flung, from Chaucer to Saul Bellow, he was entertained by detective stories, from Agatha Christie to J.I.M. Stewart, from Simenon to Ed McBain. He enjoyed TV thrillers, particularly the CSI series. His love of games was expressed in party charades and as a judge of competitions: he was thrilled to give a New Statesman prize for a palindrome to “You look Welsh, look you.” The only sense in which he ducked Jewish “issues” was in disclaiming intimate involvement except by birth: regarding the Holocaust, his parents had managed to sidestep it and he had been “one of the lucky ones”. He thought he remained lucky in rarely having to confront hostility as a Jew. The threatened sacrifice of Isaac always raised his doubts about what kind of God the Jews worshipped. He observed generously on one occasion that “the history of non-anti-Semitism remains an unwritten subject.”
In later life he got closer to his Hebraic roots with lengthy periods in New York, that half-Jewish city. He worked as a daily book critic for The New York Times, a paper whose corporate culture he never warmed to, and later as a reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. In his passion for books and films he had what he called “the true addict’s thirst for detail”, but as a critic, though immensely perceptive, he sometimes let his generosity take the place of the brashly assertive judgements contemporary journalism favours. Clive James noted this tendency to fairness in his witty verse gazeteer to the London literary world, “Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage”:
And there was Big John Gross, the Man of Learning
Who kept his massive mental motor turning
By feeding it some colourless, Slavonic
Extractive lightly qualified with tonic.
To go away, or else to stay behind?
Big John could never quite make up his mind...
But wavering, Gross noted, went with the territory; from the start he felt he had had simultaneous roles in two different plays.
Gross’s even-handedness didn’t prevent him from being the most helpful person any questioner on literary matters could turn to. He had a taste for improbable connections and he knew nearly everything. (Such as the answers of 49 out of 50 of the questions he once overheard a television contestant on Mastermind being made to face.) An early enthusiast for the boys’ books of Herbert Strang, Gross delighted in revealing that a Mrs Herbert Strang also wrote books for girls, and that the name of both Mr and Mrs was actually a pseudonym for two middle-aged men who worked most of their lives for OUP. Hearing a friend mention a book about Sarah Bernhardt, Gross immediately listed other biographies of the actress that might be useful. A scathing reference to Peter Rachman would prompt from Gross the suggestion that one read a certain book about the notorious landlord that didn’t reveal quite as much evil as one had been led to expect. A conversation with him might touch in minutes on Virgil, Stendhal and the early Catherine Cookson. His good friend, the TV film-maker Eddie Mirzoeff, says (as do many) that he’d never have read half the books he did without Gross’s input.
His life was private but very social. Friends rarely saw the inside of his small flat in Bayswater, but for an essentially solitary man, who had never had a best friend as a child, he was relentlessly gregarious. He was to be met at local pubs to begin with and then at drinking clubs like Zanzibar and latterly, in his Sunday Telegraph drama critic days, at the Ivy and Wolsely, where the doormen and proprietors greeted him as an old friend. He repaid hospitality with an annual do at the Basil Street Hotel in Knightsbridge at which former college mates were seen and Nobel and Booker prize-winners encountered publishers’ secretaries and starlets Gross had run into a few days before. “Come and say hello to...” he’d say, as he led a bemused guest over to Claus von Bulow, Vidia Naipaul, Lady Lever or Lord Heseltine. He was married for 23 years to the beautiful Miriam May, also a redoubt-able literary editor, and after the marriage ended in 1988 they remained close friends, having long telephone conversations every day until Gross’s death. Their son, Tom, is a journalist, living in Israel, and their daughter, Susanna, is books editor of the Mail on Sunday.
Despite his air of practical incompetence, Gross mastered the communication skills of Skype – his love of conversation made it vital, though he always found it hard to close down. In his last years of serious illness his correspondence was largely e-generated. Old friends took him to concerts and Glyndebourne, and an affable Iranian chauffeured him on country visits. Heart problems didn’t stop him talking: the medical staff in his final days at St Mary’s in Paddington claimed he was their most loquacious patient ever. His son Tom and his daughter, Susanna, were with him at the end, Susanna reading aloud a Shakespeare sonnet to him as he died.
* John Jacob Gross, writer and editor: born London 12 March 1935; editor, Victor Gollancz 1956–58; assistant lecturer, Queen Mary College 1959–62; Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge 1962–65; literary editor, New Statesman 1973; editor, Times Literary Supplement 1974–81; editorial consultant, Weidenfeld 1982; writer, New York Times 1983–88; theatre critic, Sunday Telegraph 1989–2005; married 1965 Miriam May (marriage dissolved 1988; one son, one daughter); died London 10 January 2011.
OBITUARY IN THE SUNDAY TIMES (OF LONDON)
Writer John Gross: Erudite literary critic who grew up in the East End and loved gossip
The Sunday Times (of London)
January 16, 2011
[Sunday Times photo caption: Once described as ‘the best-read man in Britain’, Gross was one of the most enlightened and erudite figures in London literary life.
John Gross, who died on Monday aged 75, was one of the most enlightened and erudite figures in London literary life – a highly cultivated critic, exuberant talker, editor of The Times Literary Supplement and inveterate compiler of anthologies. The son of an immigrant Jewish doctor in the East End, he grew up with a love of that area and was educated at the City of London school. When barely 17, he astonished the examiners at Wadham College, Oxford, with his omniscience and was awarded an open scholarship.
Once described as “the best-read man in Britain”, he was probably best known among his literary peers for his first book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800, a racily entertaining romp through the history of literary criticism and its practitioners, which established his reputation as a man whose huge erudition was matched by a well-developed sense of humour and a Proustian love of gossip.
For a brief year in the early 1970s he was literary editor of the New Statesman. He was perhaps too aloof and unwilling to delegate, falling out with a feminine coven in the office. In 1974 he was appointed editor of The Times Literary Supplement. At the time the supplement could still be described by one magazine editor as “a purely academic periodical, run by Oxford dons and written by anonymous writers analysing learned books”.
Gross set out to broaden its appeal by expanding its coverage, increasing the number of poems and pictures and recruiting younger writers to contribute. Perhaps his most controversial decision was to insist on giving his reviewers bylines, on the grounds that anonymity had allowed “the worst critics, Mr Puff and Mr Sneer, to sound like impersonal oracles”. Gross felt it healthier for reviewers to take responsibility for what they wrote.
He was not always easy to work with. He was a perfectionist who might spend more than an hour discussing with his staff who might review a book on numismatics. But, as Craig Brown wrote in The Spectator, “Though he always read everything with a singular intensity, the moment he looked up he would start talking and smiling, his eyes a winning mixture of intensity and glee.”
Brown recalls giving him a copy of the 1968 Simon Dee Book to read while in hospital recovering from a heart attack some years ago. “There are not many former editors of the TLS who would welcome such a gift, but within minutes he seemed to know it off by heart.”
He had a good deal of illness in his last years. But he remained a keen diner-out, and for some years gave a large and jolly annual party for his friends in the Basil Street hotel, Knightsbridge. He is survived by a son, Tom, and a daughter, Susanna, who read Shakespeare’s sonnets at his bedside as he died.
THE WASHINGTON POST ON JOHN GROSS
John Gross, critic, editor and ‘best-read man in Britain,’ dies at 75’
By Matt Schudel
The Washington Post
January 22, 2011
John Gross, 75, a British literary critic and editor whose wide-ranging interests seemed to be a modern-day reflection of the learned writers he memorialized in his 1969 bestseller, “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,” died Jan. 10 in London. He had heart and kidney ailments.
A onetime academic who fled the cloistered life of the university for the hurried world of journalism, Mr. Gross was once called by the British Spectator magazine “the best-read man in Britain.” He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Shakespeare and was equally adept in politics, drama and history.
From 1974 to 1981, Mr. Gross was editor of the Times Literary Supplement, helping transform the review section of London’s Sunday Times newspaper into one of the pre-eminent literary journals in the world.
At the TLS, as it is generally known, Mr. Gross took the controversial step of including bylines on reviews that had traditionally been anonymous. The old practice, he said, permitted “the worst critics, Mr. Puff and Mr. Sneer, to sound like impersonal oracles.”
From 1983 to 1989, Mr. Gross was a book reviewer and cultural critic for the New York Times. After returning to England in 1989, he was the drama critic for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper until 2005.
Mr. Gross wrote or edited several books but remained best-known for “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters.” His book, he noted, was about a particular kind of British writer who “aimed higher than journalism but made no pretence of being primarily an artist.”
Noting that the term “man of letters” had the musty scent of the antique, Mr. Gross wrote, “nothing has really taken its place.”
His book revived the half-forgotten careers of such Victorian early 20th-century writers as Matthew Arnold, Edmund Gosse and John Middleton Murry, who toiled in the low-paying but combative literary world. Mr. Gross’s book became an unexpected bestseller.
John Jacob Gross was born March 12, 1935, in London’s East End. His father, a doctor, was an emigrant from Poland.
In a 2001 memoir, “The Double Thread,” Mr. Gross described his early life, in which his Jewish roots and his emerging identity as an English literary figure sometimes clashed.
He graduated from the University of Oxford in 1955 and worked in publishing and as a college professor early in his career.
Later in life, Mr. Gross drew on his vast knowledge of literature when he edited a series of books for the Oxford University Press, including anthologies of essays, English prose, literary anecdotes and parodies.
He served on many British cultural councils and was chairman of the judging committee of Britain’s prestigious Man Booker literary prize.
His marriage to Miriam May Gross ended in divorce. Survivors include two children.
JOHN GROSS IN THE TLS ON J. D. SALINGER FROM 1960
The current edition of the Times Literary Supplement has a wonderful tribute to John Gross, but that section of the magazine which is not available online. The TLS also noted that, in addition to editing the paper for seven years, he wrote for the paper for just over 50 years.
The TLS this week also reprints John Gross’s review for the paper, of J. D. Salinger from April 8, 1960.
Then and Now: John Gross on J. D. Salinger
From The Times Literary Supplement
January 14, 2011
The growth of Mr J. D. Salinger’s reputation in this country has been a curiously underground affair, depending more on word-of-mouth recommendation than on conventional critical esteem. His work has always been sympathetically reviewed, but where thousands of readers, particularly young readers, have been bowled over, established critics have tended to remain polite but basically unresponsive to all the fuss. There have been a few exceptions – Mr Salinger was one of the last of Middleton Murry’s many enthusiasms – but in general it is more characteristic that when The Catcher in the Rye first appeared it was dealt with briefly by a leading Sunday newspaper towards the end of a review in which pride of place had been given to Miss Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. So, too, the peculiar hatred which Mr Salinger’s work inspires among many American intellectuals seems to be in direct proportion to the hold which he has had over American undergraduates during the past decade: produce a style which it is disastrously easy for adolescents everywhere to parrot or parody, and it is only a matter of time before the tide begins to turn.
But meanwhile Mr Salinger’s popularity increases steadily and in a world in which most collections of short stories are notoriously difficult for a publisher to sell, Ace Books have just re-issued their paperback edition of For Esmé – with Love and Squalor. This is the author’s second book, a collection of nine stories, mostly reprinted from the New Yorker, which first appeared some seven years ago. At that time it served to confirm that The Catcher in the Rye had not been a mere flash in the pan, but in the light of Mr Salinger’s subsequent development it can now more easily be thought of as marking the transition from the schoolboy universe of the earlier book to the involuted chronicles of the Glass family, that outlandish tribe of superannuated child prodigies who have been perplexing readers of the New Yorker in recent years. It is not only that the family itself makes a characteristically zany début with the account of Seymour’s suicide in Miami, or that the author casually lets drop that Boo Boo Tannenbaum, the heroine of “Down at the Dinghy,” was born a Glass, but also that in several other stories Salinger’s preoccupation with mysticism and the eccentricities of his full-blown style first make themselves felt.
The best piece in the collection, however, the title-story, is in Mr Salinger’s earlier vein. “For Esmé” is a minor triumph, though one of a precarious nature. The G.I. and the solemn little girl in a tartan dress: at first sight the story seems to cry out for illustrations by Norman Rockwell. And indeed Esmé and Charles are dream children; for all the wit with which Salinger captures their conversation, they are essentially the fruits of a slightly morbid fantasy rather than of accurate observation. (It is interesting to note that they are orphans, which is what Holden and Phoebe of The Catcher in the Rye seem to be in all but name: parents, and particularly fathers, inhabit a twilight zone in the lives of Mr Salinger’s children.) But if the author, walking along an artistic knife-edge, never quite topples over into sentimentality, it is largely on account of the power with which he is able to evoke the “squalor “of his title: the requisitioned house in postwar war Germany where the soldier sits shielding has eyes from the harsh glare of a naked bulb, full of nausea, plagued by a boorish companion, very near the end of his tether. This kind of scene Mr Salinger can draw to perfection and the reader is readily persuaded that the wrist-watch which Esme sends to the soldier might very well act as a talisman giving him the strength to go on; though there is no suggestion that her gift can dispel his entire malaise and in the end the story remains only a fine fragment.
There is a considerable talent for mimicry on display throughout this collection; and no one would dispute Mr Salinger’s mastery of the wisecrack the idiom of the campus the endless jabbing and sparring of Manhattan cross-talk. But gradually one succumbs to a nagging sense of emptiness, of a writer trapped by his own cleverness and increasingly cut off from his true subject-matter. The baffling trick-endings add to this effect; here is a writer who talks in riddles without inspiring much confidence that he knows the answers. At one point in “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” he sinks to the level of slick commercialism and then immediately follows up with the first two stories in which his religious preoccupations come to the fore.
“Teddy” presents an alarmingly precocious schoolboy who is also a budding mystic; “Du Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is the story of a rather tiresome adolescent hoaxer who experiences a sudden sense of religious illumination while standing in front of a shop-window full of orthopaedic appliances. Both characters point forward to the more complex figure of Franny Glass the young girl for whom true religion has come to be symbolized by the legend of a peasant who trudged across Russia reciting over and over again a single prayer : “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”. Like Franny, Teddy and Du Daumier-Smith are both in different ways fascinated by the idea of total renunciation; and like her they never quite ring true.
It is partly a question of style. Already in For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, there are many traces of what is to come: “I’m not saying I will but I could go on for hours escorting the reader – forcibly if necessary – back and forth across the border. This is the kind of mannered and maddening self-consciousness which gains the upper hand throughout the Glass series until it culminates in “Seymour” that interminable exercise in evasion where parentheses enfold parentheses like the layers of an onion and a whole battery of footnotes, italics, adverbial clauses and throw-away lines are deployed to produce the effect of an infinite regress of self consciousness and self-mockery. Not for nothing has their creator christened this family “Glass”; at times the name suggests a miniature world of bright artificial creatures, at others the endlessly multiplying images of a hall of mirrors. The author has abandoned what he wryly refers to as “the heart-shaped prose” of his earlier manner, but the contortions of his recent style belie the seriousness of his subject.
The peasant chanting his prayer incessantly may or may not be an admirable figure, but the effect will certainly be ruined if one has him constantly glancing over his shoulder to make sure that he isn’t being laughed at by the readers of the New Yorker.
As this proliferation of defence mechanisms suggests, Mr Salinger’s later work has involved a flight from his creative origins. More and more his characters have come to inhabit a social void, where the crucial fact that they are predominantly half- assimilated middle-class Jews is almost entirely suppressed. And yet Salinger has a very precise sense of the world of Ginnie Graff, Lionel Tannenbaum, Sharon Lipschutz and the rest; as Mr Maxwell Geismar puts it in an extremely perceptive essay, if Salinger has primarily been concerned with the pure, the isolated, the causeless child, one sees that he can describe the milieu of their origin very well indeed when he chooses to, even under its pseudonymic and self-protective colouring.
But there is no counterpart to this kind of sociological insight in the hodge-podge of world-religions which the Glass clan have evolved, and as a result Salinger’s work has come to seem increasingly hollow.
Below: John Gross, in 2009
Below: John Gross in 1969, the year The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters was published.
Further tributes to John Gross can be read here:
* A wonderful father (Jan. 12, 2011)
* “The Gentleman of Letters” (Jan. 16, 2011)
* “The plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Tolstoy and the teeming streets of Dickens” (Jan. 28, 2011)
* “Remembering John Gross: friendship flooded the RIBA” (March 25, 2011)
* John Gross’s friends remember him in London and New York (Jan. 10, 2012)
* John Gross on the silver screen (Jan. 10, 2012)