Obituary: Peter Cochrane, war hero, publisher, printer
If ever a man epitomised the description “he had a long life, well lived”, it was Peter Cochrane, who among many achievements was the literary executor of his great friend, the late Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis.
A decorated war hero at the age of just 21, Cochrane later became a publisher before moving into the printing trade and then “retiring” to play a full part in the literary life of Edinburgh, serving on the literary committee of the Scottish Arts Council alongside the likes of Ian Crichton-Smith and Stewart Conn.
Born in Glasgow, he was the son of a war hero, Major James Aikman Cochrane, winner of the Military Cross and the Belgian Croix de Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopole and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. To distinguish him from his father, Cochrane was always known as Peter, though his own war records show him as James Aikman Cochrane.
Peter Cochrane and his younger sister Marigold had a far-flung childhood as their father was a civil engineer who worked in China and Java. Eventually Cochrane was sent to Loretto School at Musselburgh, before studying at Oxford University’s Wadham College.
He had been there just a year when the Second World War broke out and Cochrane enlisted in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. At the Battle of Sidi Barrani in late 1940, his gallantry and leadership of his men earned him a Military Cross, as had been won by his father.
Early the following year, Second Lieutenant Cochrane was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the medal which, for junior officers, means they have only just missed a Victoria Cross.
His citation for bravery at the battle of Keren in Eritrea on 3 February, 1941, stated that he and his platoon had been ordered to take a hill known as Cameron Ridge that was “very strongly held” by Italian grenadiers and native troops.
Despite being outnumbered, he and his men took their objective – “Second Lieutenant Cochrane personally attacked and destroyed two machine gun posts single-handedly,” according to the citation.
The platoon then held the position against counter-attacks, and Cochrane “displayed courage, leadership and powers of endurance of a high order”.
Cochrane was badly wounded in the legs during the battle and was captured by the Italians though he was freed from their hospital when it was taken by the British some weeks later – all this before his 22nd birthday.
He was declared unfit for active service at that point, but that brought a blessing in disguise in 1942 as Cochrane was sent to represent the British Army in the USA on a two-month propaganda tour of colleges to tell the young people of America about the need to oppose the Axis forces. During that trip, Cochrane slept in the White House, and became a great admirer of the Roosevelts. He also found New York to be the “most beautiful city in the world, as well as the friendliest.”’
The visit organiser was Louise Booth Morley of the International Student Service. The handsome Scottish officer and the daughter of author Christopher Morley duly fell completely in love. She moved to London to work at the American Embassy and they were married on 14 September, 1943, at St Mark’s Church in London. As Louise Cochrane, she went to work for the BBC and would find fame in the 1950s as the creator of the Rag Tag and Bobtail stories, as well as writing A Digest of British History with Peter in 1954.
After that idyllic wartime interlude, Cochrane then rejoined his regiment for the Italian campaign, leading ‘C’ Company through such horrors as Hill 593 at Monte Cassino, which he described as proof that “war wasn’t merely idiotic, it was wicked and cruel”.
On demob, Cochrane went to work for the publisher Chatto & Windus, principally as a reader and talent-spotter, where he was soon sharing an office with the Irish-born poet Cecil Day-Lewis, a fellow Wadhamite, whose fame was already established but who needed a job.
The affable Scot and the charming Irishman hit it off and became lifelong friends, with the poet dedicating some of his works to Cochrane.
“He was good fun,” Cochrane later said of the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, “I don’t know what sort of person would not have liked him straightaway.”
Day-Lewis’s time as Poet Laureate was tragically cut short by his death from cancer in 1972, after which Cochrane became his literary executor.
In 1952, Cochrane, who by then had acquired two young daughters, decided there were more profitable means of making a living and he made a sideways shift in the book trade, taking a course in printing and joining the Somerset firm of book printers Butler & Tanner.
He would stay with the firm until his retirement at the age of 60, and while there, he published his first solo book, Dr Johnson’s Printer, The Life of William Strahan, in 1964.
As if to prove his literary talents, in 1977 Cochrane published his wartime memoir Charlie Company, a superb account of his time with the Cameron Highlanders that was re-issued in 2007, again to critical acclaim.
Like the man himself, Charlie Company is at times serious and thoughtful, yet also has great humour and insight into the human condition.
Cochrane showed all those qualities in his time with the literary committee of the Scottish Arts Council in the 1980s when he championed the cause of Scottish publishing and particularly young companies such as Canongate.
Cochrane and his wife had a cottage at Tighnabruaich where they spent each summer and became members of the community. It remains in the family today.
A lifelong Episcopalian and a devout man, he displayed qualities of tolerance and understanding that made him at once approachable.
His enthusiasm for literature and printing continued until his very late age.
Louise died in 2012, and his sister Marigold also predeceased him.
Cochrane latterly resided at Cluny Lodge in Edinburgh where he passed away peacefully at the weekend.
He is survived by his daughters Alison Barry and Dr Janet Sidaway, his sons-in-law and grandchildren Rachael and Matthew and great-grandchildren Isabel, Emily, Sophie and Ben.
Peter Cochrane’s funeral will take place in St Michael and All Saints Church in Edinburgh on Wednesday, 16 December, at noon.