Obituary: John Calder, publisher, co-founder of the Traverse Theatre, champion of literature, theatre and art that was new, controversial and international

John Calder (Picture: Neil Hanna)
John Calder (Picture: Neil Hanna)
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John Mackenzie Calder, publisher. Born in Montreal, Canada, 25 January 1927. Died in Edinburgh, 13 August 2018

John Calder, who has died in Edinburgh aged 91 after a short illness, was one of the most remarkable Scottish and European cultural figures of the last 70 years, the legendary publisher who dared to bring the works of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras and Alexander Trocchi – among dozens of others – to postwar British readers, and one of the remarkable group of people who came together in Edinburgh in the winter of 1962-63 to launch the Traverse Theatre, designed to capture the radical spirit of the early Festival Fringe, and keep it alive in Edinburgh all year round.

It was Calder who published much of the new European drama that was the lifeblood of the early Traverse repertoire; and his long publishing life continued from the foundation of his first publishing imprint in London in 1949, until 2007, when he sold the business to Alma Classics, who are currently planning the republication, under the Calder imprint, of a major series of works originally published by Calder, a project which gave him much satisfaction in the last year of his life.

As a publisher, Calder always championed work that was new, controversial, and international; and far from avoiding conflict, he positively relished controversy, fighting a famous legal battle in the 1966 over his publication in Britain of Hubert Selby Jnr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn. Calder eventually won the case on appeal, in a judgment that was seen as effectively ending literary censorship in the UK; and he remained a passionate advocate of freedom of speech throughout his life. He made and lost substantial fortunes; and in his life as a cultural patron and entrepreneur, he not only played a key role in the early years of the Traverse, but ran his own legendary Ledlanet Nights at his house in Kinross-shire in the 1960s, was a major investor in the Partisan Coffee House in Soho, launched the Godot Theatre Company which toured Beckett’s works in Ireland and internationally, and in 2001 opened the Calder Bookshop Theatre near the Old Vic in London, which remains in operation today.

John Mackenzie Calder was born in Montreal in 1927, to a father who was a member of a wealthy Scottish brewing family based in Alloa, and a mother who was one of the heirs of a large Canadian industrial empire. Calder was brought up mainly in Kinross; but following his father’s death in 1944, he accepted his new stepfather’s dictum that he should study economics in Zurich, then said to offer the best business education in the world.

In postwar Zurich between 1946 and 1949, though, Calder’s life took a dramatic turn, as he mixed with a fiercely cosmopolitan crowd, developed a passion for theatre and opera, and met his first wife, an actress called Christya Myling, with whom he had a daughter, Jamie. Back in London in 1949, he launched his first publishing venture, sharing an office with Andre Deutsch; and within a decade, Calder had become something of a legend in the publishing world, dividing his time between Scotland, London and Paris. It was in the late 1950s, in Paris, that he met and became a close friend of Samuel Beckett, implicitly trusted by him as the English-language publisher of his prose work; and in 1963, Calder went into a partnership with fellow-publisher Marion Boyars that lasted until 1975.

In the meantime, though, he maintained his links with Scotland. In 1959, as his first marriage ended, he inherited from an uncle the beautiful 19th century baronial house of Ledlanet, in Kinross-shire, and began to use it as a centre for the arts, staging Ledlanet Nights which featured poetry, play-readings, and every kind of music. In 1961, Calder married the singer and theatre artist Bettina Jonic, with whom he had a second daughter, Anastasia, although that marriage, too, eventually ended in divorce.

In 1962, he and Jim Haynes – whose Paperback Bookshop in Edinburgh Calder had been supplying with books – co-organised the famous and sensational Edinburgh Writers’ Conference at the McEwan Hall, which featured a dazzling range of literary stars from Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid to William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy and Marguerite Duras, followed by the equally controversial 1963 Drama Conference. And in January 1963, Calder was in Edinburgh for the opening of the Traverse Theatre, becoming a member of the committee, and meeting his lifelong Edinburgh friend and partner in the arts, Sheila Colvin, who was the first Traverse Theatre Club secretary. When actress Colette O’Neil was accidentally stabbed during a performance of Sartre’s Huis Clos, on the Traverse’s second night, Colvin remembers that it was Calder who rushed into the office crying “Never mind the ambulance, call the press! This will make our name!” – a prediction which proved entirely accurate.

In 1970, John Calder even stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in Kinross and West Perthshire; but in the early 1980s, financial difficulties forced him to sell Ledlanet. As a brilliant, impatient, and charismatic intellectual, though, who lived for the cut and thrust of new ideas, Calder always valued new creative work, and his involvement with it, more highly than wealth and property. He remained a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh Festivals and to Edinburgh, to which Sheila Colvin had returned after a long and successful career in the arts. The couple were married in 2011, and continued to divide their time between Edinburgh and Paris, until Calder’s brief last illness.

“John Calder was a brave, pugnacious, committed publisher, who made it his life’s mission to find new voices and publish them in post-war Britain,” freelance editor and literary consultant Bill Swainson told the Bookseller magazine this week. “He was the right publisher at the right time, who introduced international post-war literature music and theatre to a country not always sure it wanted to make those discoveries.” Bill Webb, former literary editor of The Guardian, remembers him as “innovative and determined, and probably best known for his promotion of the works of his great friend, Samuel Beckett.”

And for his wife Sheila Colvin, the greatest blessing of John Calder’s later life was that for all the physical infirmities of old age – which he cordially detested - he retained to the last that razor-sharp intellect, brilliant aesthetic judgment, and boundless curiosity. “John always saw himself as a citizen of Europe and the world, rather than as a Scot, or a Canadian,” she said this week. “He was appalled by Brexit, thought it was mad. And even when I visited him in hospital during his last days, his first question was always ‘What’s going on in the world?’. That curiosity, that wanting to know what came next, was absolutely typical of John.”

John Calder is survived by his wife Sheila, his two daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, his younger sister and brother Elizabeth and Jimmy, and his niece Maria; and leaves behind a legacy of passion for the arts and literature that will continue to open minds and change lives for many decades to come, and to serve the cause of intellectual and creative freedom to which John Calder remained dedicated, throughout his long and remarkable life.

A funeral service for John Calder will be held at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh, at 2pm on Friday 31 August.

JOYCE McMILLAN