Oliver Knox

b. 1923 – d. 2002

Oliver Knox began his career as a copy-writer and was, in part, responsible for making the post-war advertising industry attractive to some of the country’s best and brightest graduates. When Knox retired from advertising he wrote four novels and travel books, published by Collins, which led Auberon Waugh to acclaim him as ‘the comic voice of his generation’. He was later an important figure at the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank which articulated the intellectual case for Thatcherism.


Oliver Knox remembered – by Richard Ollard

Oliver Knox was the author of four novels which had a notable reception from leading critics, including such diverse writers as Auberon Waugh and Lorna Sage, but which never secured him the reputation with the common reader which might have prompted him to develop his gifts in this medium. Elegance, finish and subtlety of characterisation were the qualities the critics agreed in admiring. Not less striking was his originality. They do not derive from, or remind one of the work of other writers. Besides these four books,  An Italian Delusion (1975),  A Family Failing (1976),  Asylum (1979) and Brothers at War (1979), his only substantial work was an acute and magnanimous study of the leading figures in the movement for Irish Independence that culminated in the revolution of 1798, Rebels and Informers (1997).

Everything he published was extremely well written. His sensibility to language was the key to his understanding of life and the mainspring of the wit and humour which delighted so wide a circle of friends. It was perhaps, as far as authorship goes, an exemplification of the maxim le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. The breadth of his reading, the freshness, the spontaneity of his conversation are more easily recalled than his literary achievement. It was not that he lacked the self-discipline, the concentration that a writer needs. On the contrary, his critical standards were perhaps too exacting when applied to his own work, though always stimulating and encouraging when applied to other people’s.

His outstanding success as an advertising copy-writer provided him with a ready livelihood. Bringing up a large and happy family and entertaining his many friends naturally took precedence over the precarious literary career on which he eventually embarked in his early fifties. His occasional journalism was always distinguished by wit, style and originality. But like many writers who have been criticised for not writing enough, he was probably the best judge of what he had it in him to produce.

His gifts as an editor eventually found scope in his work for the Centre of Policy Studies, the conservative think-tank founded by Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph. Its high seriousness was lightened and enhanced by his intelligent scepticism and his instant perception of pretentiousness. His own contributions were marked by his cheerfulness and irreverence, qualities not often to be found in blueprints for political and social improvement. Perhaps here again his virtues were their own enemy. So much of the work he commissioned did not make the impact of duller productions. Nothing better has been written on education in our time than the late Elie Kedourie’s Diamonds into Glass, which certainly would not have appeared without Oliver Knox’s inspiration. Yet in the mass of verbiage on the subject it seems to have sunk without trace.

His love of literature was founded on his familiarity with the ancient authors, perhaps inherited from his father Dillwyn Knox, who sacrificed his scholarly career to the service of his country in breaking enemy ciphers in both world wars. His writing exemplified the classical virtues of economy and strength. But it was in his awareness and in his response that his friends will remember a valuable Fellow of our society.