Obituary: Ion Trewin, author and publisher

Ion Trewin: Publisher and writer who headed the Man Booker Prize and wrote Alan Clark's biographies
Ion Trewin: Publisher and writer who headed the Man Booker Prize and wrote Alan Clark's biographies
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Born: 13 July, 1943, in London. Died: 8 April, 2015, in Dersingham, Norfolk, aged 71

ION Trewin was an author, biographer, journalist, editor and publisher, perhaps best known in recent years as the man behind the Booker Prize for literature, now known as the Man Booker after its investment management sponsor. As the prize’s administrator and later its literary director, he helped select the “long list” of novels for consideration, choose the jurors and ensure publicity for the prize before, during and after, the annual award ceremony.

By chance, Trewin’s predecessor as “Mr Booker”, Martyn Goff, a bookseller who first launched the prize in 1969, died two weeks before him.

On Goff’s retirement, Trewin took over the organisation of the Booker and helped bolster its somewhat Anglophile claim to be “the world’s most important literary award, with the power to transform the fortunes of authors and publishers”.

Nobel literature laureates may dispute that claim. Trewin presided over the Booker’s evolution in 2002 into the Man Booker, now something of a household name well beyond the literary world.

Trewin, however, was more than a publisher. He was a journalist, editor and author of some note. When the Australian writer Thomas Keneally came to him with a proposed biography of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved around 1,200 Jews from Nazi death camps, it was Trewin who suggested he write it as a novel, Schindler’s Ark.

The book went on to win the Booker prize in 1982, sell more than a million copies and become Schindler’s List in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film that won seven Oscars including Best Picture.

Trewin edited and/or published the works of many famous authors, including Edna O’Brien, Julian Fellowes and Antony Beevor, as well as celebrities such as his friend Michael Palin. He made his own name as an author with his brilliant 2009 authorised biography of the maverick conservative politician Alan Clark, the only MP ever to have been accused of being drunk at the dispatch box in the Commons. Emphasis on the words “accused of”.

Alan Clark: the Biography was described by fellow conservative MP Edwina Currie as “an engaging book about an absolute bastard”. Trewin followed up with Alan Clark: A Life in His Own Words, based on Clark’s diaries over 27 years. Trewin had already had success as an editor with the Hugo Young Papers (2008), based on a labyrinth of notes left by The Guardian’s famous political commentator over 30 years of his career. The book was named Channel 4’s political book of the year in 2009.

Ion Courtenay Gill Trewin was born in Highgate, north London, in 1943 in the midst of the Second World War. His parents, JC Trewin and Wendy Trewin (née Monk), both from the West Country, were both among the most respected journalists and theatre critics of the 20th century and lived in Scotland for a time before settling in Hampstead, north London.

Young Ion attended Highgate School before following his parents into journalism, starting as a 17-year-old cub reporter on the Plymouth-based South Devon Times. It was there that he first learned a major foundation for a journalist – contacts – cultivating the police and local pub drinkers who appeared to know everything about everybody.

In 1963, aged 20, he joined the Sunday Telegraph in its art deco offices on Fleet Street, at the time the hub of UK, even world journalism. He moved from the street to London’s Printing House Square after the renowned editor of the Times, William Rees-Mogg hired him. He went on to edit the Times’ Diary, a readers’ favourite, before becoming the paper’s literary editor in 1972, in charge of book reviews and features about authors.

With that grounding, and an enviable contacts book, against the backdrop of union strikes in the newspapers, he went into publishing in 1979 with Hodder & Stoughton, trusting his own judgment and experience to find and promote works in a wide range of fields.

He served as senior editor, editorial director and finally publishing editor, his highlight being luring Keneally away from the old Scottish publishing company Collins (founded in Glasgow) and convincing him to turn Schindler’s Ark into a novel. Keneally said Trewin’s influence was key to the success of the work.

With Hodder & Stoughton struggling financially, Trewin was hired in 1992 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, later part of the Orion Publishing Group, where he served as managing director and later editor-in-chief until his retirement in 2006.

He then became administrator of the Man Booker prize, taking over from Martyn Goff. He had already been on the prize’s management committee since 1989.

In fact, as far back as 1974, while Trewin was a young literary editor at the Times, he had been chosen by Martyn Goff to chair the panel of Booker judges for that year.

To both men’s mischievous delight, it proved a controversial year for the prize – excellent publicity. The smart money had been on literary establishment favourite Kingsley Amis for his novel Ending Up but instead the panel split the prize between the South African Nadine Gordimer (for her novel The Conservationist) and the Englishman Stanley Middleton (for Holiday). The fact that Amis’s wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, was a rather forthright member of the judging panel ended up doing her husband no favours.

Until his death, Trewin remained literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, although he slowed down after being diagnosed with cancer last October.

In recent years, he defended the prize from critics who said it had dumbed down towards “readability”, and others who attacked him for opening up to American novelists in 2013. With a twinkle in his eye, he told journalists they could consider the prize “Richard and Judy for grown-ups”.

Throughout his career, Trewin gave his time and support to numerous literary bodies including the Society of Bookmen, the Cheltenham literature festival and the Arts Council of Great Britain. He taught as a special professor at the University of Nottingham, running political biography classes along with the writer Alex Danchev, who is also a professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews.

Among Trewin’s own written works were Journalism (1974) and Norfolk Cottage (1975), in which he described cottage restoration and living in the area he considered his other home, besides London.

All of those Trewin worked with, from writers and publishers to literary journalists he wooed, spoke highly of his judgment, dedication, infectious enthusiasm and genial nature.

Enjoying his latter years either in London or Norfolk, he listed his pastimes in his Who’s Who entry as “indulging grandchildren, gardening, watching cricket, gossip”.

Ion Trewin died in his beloved Norfolk cottage with his family by his side. He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Sue (née Merry), children Simon and Maria and four grandchildren.