To anyone who ever knew him, one of the great sadnesses about Tim Cornwell’s life is that, when his first book is published in October, he will not be around to see it. He had been working hard on A Private Spy, a collection of letters from his father, John Le Carré, since September last year, and the few who have seen it – including his father’s agent, publisher and three sons – are unanimous in their praise.
Tim loved his father’s novels – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a few others were up there with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and a huge chunk of PG Wodehouse’s work among the books he often reread – and was fiercely proud of him. Yet his father’s fame cast a shadow on his own mental health. In 2005, a combination of overwork, travel and difficult times at The Scotsman brought about a psychotic breakdown, when he was sectioned for his own safety and diagnosed as bipolar. Given his complicated relationship with his father, the fact that Edinburgh buses were then advertising the film of his father’s book, The Constant Gardener – featuring his name prominently – might also have been a factor.
Editing his father’s letters, however, seemed to help Tim find reconciliation. Although he still worried that publication of the book would be a disaster, those who loved him thought the opposite: that the delicacy and empathy shown in its editing would be praised and the whole process would anchor in him a greater sense of self-worth.
For the last six years, Tim had the love and support of his partner, Anna Arthur, a London-based public relations specialist and consultant in the arts world. They were contemplating buying his father’s house in Cornwall, partly lured by the strong local visual arts community. His two beloved daughters were at last living in the UK, and he was devoted to his grandson Noah, who celebrates his first birthday on 8 June. Tim and Anna were returning to London from visiting Noah and his parents, Annie and Paul, when he died suddenly.
Although in his later years Tim wrestled with the realities of bipolar life, he never let this define him. The many friends he made in the US as a foreign correspondent, and from 2001-12 as deputy foreign editor and then arts correspondent of The Scotsman, instead have memories of a gently mischievous, intelligent and amiable journalist always searching for an angle for a news story. That’s exactly what he was doing the first time he met Anna, in 2004, when she was promoting a Fringe production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Christian Slater, whose cancelled performances were supposedly due to chicken pox. Refusing to believe the story, Tim gatecrashed rehearsals and Anna had to order him out of the Assembly Rooms.
He met his wife, Alice Greenway, before either of them were in their teens. In December 1974 he was 12 and she was ten and Iiving in Hong Kong, where her father, an acclaimed American foreign correspondent, was based between assignments covering the Vietnam war. He was also le Carré’s “fixer” on research trips to Cambodia and Laos for The Honourable Schoolboy. The two became lifelong friends, delighted when their children married in 1991.
By then, Tim had already taken a gap year in Zimbabwe after finishing Westminster School, studied PPE at Oxford, joined the Hull Daily Mail (one feature involved living undercover in a troubled housing estate) and become a freelance court reporter at the Old Bailey.
He and Alice started married life in Washington DC, where she worked for a news agency and he worked as a freelance. Their two daughters were born there, but in 1995 the family moved to Los Angeles, and Tim filed reports for publications including the Independent and The Scotsman, covering major stories such as the OJ Simpson trial, the Unabomber and the Columbine massacre.
After 12 years in the US Tim and Alice moved to Edinburgh after he was appointed deputy foreign editor on The Scotsman. However, he preferred being the newspaper’s arts correspondent, not least because it involved becoming friends with creative people like bibliophile Bill Zachs, Pleasance director Anthony Anderson, and James Knox, the Scottish Colourists expert. All knew of his struggles with mental health, all appreciated his many qualities: Zachs praises “the way in which he quickly grasped a concept, distilled its essentials and turned measured phrases with the appearance of effortlessness”; Anderson, whose wife is bipolar, recalls “his openness in talking about this, breaking down the stigma”, while to Knox he was “one of the most eagle-eyed arts journalists on the planet”. Tim and Alice, by then an award-winning novelist, divorced in 2017.
Tim left The Scotsman in 2012 but remained a valued freelance arts journalist and a regular reviewer on the Festival and the Fringe. He also had a deep knowledge of Middle Eastern art, further informed by undertaking a course in mosaic making, at which he excelled. He wrote fiction throughout his life, including a satirical novel, The Third Twin, a satire on the craziness of Edinburgh, its festivals and a pre-digital newspaper bearing a more than passing resemblance to The Scotsman which (for now) remains unpublished
The youngest son of his father’s marriage to his first wife, Ann Sharp (which ended in divorce in 1971), Tim is survived by his brothers Simon, Stephen, Nick, and Adam, partner Anna, ex-wife Alice, daughters Annie and Eliza and grandson Noah – who, although too young ever to remember his grandfather, will one day grow up to find that, back in 2022, he dedicated his one and only book to him.
If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
Subscribe at www.scotsman.com/subscriptions