Tall and handsome of bearing, keen and benign of expression, never short of a joke or a prejudice, Giles Gordon as a literary agent struck a nice balance between the old-fashioned adviser and the hip version of the profession in which only the deals and not the chaps mattered.
Giles poured a lavish quantity of gossip into the telephone during office hours. He shared in abundant measure with his friends and clients – and few of the latter failed to graduate to the former – his hospitality and hilarity and affection. He never allowed his cub clients to suppose for a moment that he was making less effort for them than for the kings and queens of his pride, putting the same care into a minute negotiation for a minor book as into obtaining – his last triumph – £1.3 million sight unseen for Vikram Seth’s forthcoming family memoir, on the basis of an eight-page outline penned in the office by Giles himself. Among the many legends that grew was how much hard work he was able to conceal behind a demeanour so debonair as to be almost casual. Yet his criticism was acute and his enthusiasm infectious.
One of the secrets behind Gordon’s success was his unique ability to identify, through his own adjacent career as a writer, with a wide range of the creative and critical work he represented. Among his half-dozen novels (he slyly boasted of having written one more than Auberon Waugh) 100 Scenes from Married Life (1976) amply qualified him to represent Fay Weldon, while Ambrose’s Vision (1980) keyed in to a historical context much in tune with such earlier Peter Ackroyd as Hawksmoor andChatterton; his deal in the later Eighties, staggering for its time, earned that author £650,000 for biographies of Dickens and Blake.
Giles strode into hot water in 1993 for a book which came into existence only by default. Commissioned by Carmen Callil on challenge to write a novel with a working title of The Obituarist for a rumoured £60,000, his muse failed every deadline and as a substitute he hustled off to a borrowed flat in Brighton to drum up his memoirs at speed. Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? was a phrase uttered by his client the Prince of Wales at one of the royal functions he delighted in attending with a self-amused snobbery rich in tale-telling opportunities. But Giles was much castigated for its tone, which the coarser judgment (Julie Burchill) thought facetious to the point of excruciation and the more refined (Patricia Beer) a Pooterish spoof.
Meanwhile, he kept the fires stoked beneath up-and-coming writers when from 1986 to 1995 he and I edited an annual volume of Best Short Stories
, a task he felt a service to the future and a pleasure in the present.
Edinburgh was to bring Giles’s life full circle. Educated at the Edinburgh Academy, son of an architect, he never found any city so beautiful or open-spaced, or so good for his second family of three (two girls and a boy by the publisher Maggie McKernan) to be educated. In 1994, after an explosive quarrel with his former agency Sheil Land, who took out a court order forbidding him any contact with his clients (Giles had to ring off when I called to wish him well in that futile fight) lest he poach them, he joined Curtis Brown and opened their Scotland office.His first family with Margaret Eastoe, who illustrated children’s books including the Wombles, had suffered a double loss. After many attempts in adolescence their second son Gareth died by his own hand, while Margaret contracted a rare terminal disease. Their daughter Hattie has recently written a book on how the family coped.
Among Gordon’s recreations in the current Who’s Who
, ‘theatre’ began as a passion when at school he played a fairy opposite Gordon Honeycombe in Iolanthe
, and bore fruit that gave him a deeper satisfaction in short spells as theatre critic of the Spectator
and of Maxwell’s ill-fated London Evening News
. ‘Walking’ in Who’s Who
led to the family’s recent purchase of an old croft house on the Isle of Mull, ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ to brief periods as a restaurant critic for Caledonia
. His ‘book collecting’ built up fine if not complete assemblies of Oscar Wilde and – that subtler taste for us Celts – David Jones.
Professional to the core, Giles had a talent for comic self-projection, an almost theatrical sense of self which suggested he was adlibbing life as he went along. At social levels situations played into his hands, while slipping through his fingers, as in the brief interlude on the dark steps of the Garrick when his hero John Gielgud, whom he thought too lofty to be aware of his existence, boomed ‘Goodnight, Giles.’ Only in the nick of time did Giles realise that the farewell was addressed to another. Meanwhile Giles Gordon passes into final legend, as his friends (and clients) move to other advisers who are unlikely to compare in sheer goodness of heart and hardiness of loyalty.