Desmond Clarke dies

Desmond Clarke dies

Former publisher and committed library campaigner Desmond Clarke has died at the age of 72.

Clarke died on Friday (9th June) after a long illness.

Clarke joined publishing after an early career in the military, training at Sandhurst and serving in the Royal Artillery. As sales and marketing director at Faber & Faber in the 1980s, he is remembered especially for his promotion of the Faber poetry list, including devising a much talked-of "helicopter reading tour" for poets Seamus Heaney and Craig Raine, and persuading poets to read their work aloud to commuters at Waterloo railway station. He became a friend to several Faber authors, with Wendy Cope writing "The Desmond Clarke Poem", while P D James is said to have based a minor character on Clarke in her 1989 novel Devices and Desires. Poet Craig Raine invited him to join the advisory board of his literary magazine, Arête.

In 1983, as director of the Book Marketing Council, he conceived the original Best of Young British Novelists campaign, persuading 2,000 bookshops, including all the branches of WH Smith, and several hundred libraries, to stock and display the then largely unknown novelists’ books. The idea, and a striking group photograph taken by Lord Snowdon, grabbed media attention, and Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, seized the opportunity to publish a special issue introducing each of the authors’ work. Granta has made further high-profile selections of the best young novelists every decade thereafter.

Meanwhile in 1979, Clarke also led the Lost Book Sales research study, the first ever industry-wide research project, which was supported by both the Publishers and the Booksellers Associations and by leading retailers. This study highlighted the importance of impulse purchasing and was to influence the development of book retailing in the 1980s.

Clarke worked for The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), across two periods, for a total of 17 years, retiring as president and c.e.o. of its publishing services businesses in North America and Europe.

Thereafter he became a non-executive director of three book trade businesses and an active campaigner for public libraries, including many contributions to The Bookseller. He twice chaired the Poetry Book Society and he was a trustee of the Stephen Spender Trust.

Clarke was awarded the MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to British Public Libraries and to Literature.

Robert McCrum, who was editor-in-chief at Faber between 1980-1996, commented: "I'm very sad to hear this news, coming as it does so soon after the passing of Ed Victor, another great publishing buccaneer from the 1980s. At Faber, Desmond was one of Matthew Evans' most inspired appointments, a brilliantly unconventional salesman who aimed to reinvent the wheel on a weekly basis.  Our authors loved his infectious energy, and he put rocket fuel into our efforts to reshape the Faber list. After Desmond, nothing was ever quite the same again."

Meanwhile Christopher MacLehose of MacLehose Press commented: "I hope they remember him as the man who changed the way Faber published and sold poetry. He deserves a Poets’ Corner of his own.”

Poet Wendy Cope remembered Clarke selling books "with missionary zeal." She told The Bookseller: "In his time at Faber he was especially keen to prove that poetry sales could be improved. When my first book was published in 1986 I was a beneficiary of this project, finding myself on the bestseller lists for several weeks. Desmond’s best-known wheeze was the helicopter tour with Seamus Heaney and Craig Raine. There was massive publicity before Seamus pulled out and the tour was cancelled. It didn’t matter because the publicity had achieved its aim."

She added: "Desmond was a devout Roman Catholic and a kind man, who tried not to say anything bad about anyone. I often noticed him checking himself when he was tempted."

Fellow library campaigner Tim Coates described Clarke as "one of the greatest heroes of the book trade in the last 50 years - and like a big brother to me." He said: "In all matters the book trade is confused and conflicted about whether its role is 'intellectual', 'educational', 'popular' or for 'the gain of money' - Desmond was one of those who understood, in the nicest possible way, how to make it all of those at once."

Laura Swaffield of The Library Campaign responded: "This is sad news indeed. Desmond has been an untiring campaigner for decades, always coming up with a new idea or initiative even when others felt like flagging. He leaves a large gap to fill. Our sympathies to his family."

Stephen Spender Trust committee member Jonathan Barker, formerly deputy director of the British Council's Literature department, said: "Of course I have known that Desmond has not been well but it was not expected and the news comes as a shock and a sadness. Desmond contributed a great deal to many organisations in addition to the Stephen Spender Trust - these include Faber & Faber, the Poetry Book Society, the Public Library network.  We are all especially aware of Desmond as a key figure - an essential voice - in our work. A gentleman and a friend.”

Former Poetry Book Society director Chris Holifield said: "Desmond had been Chair of the Poetry Book Society in the late 1980s, after Philip Larkin, when the older part of the Archive was sold to the British Library. With the board's support I persuaded him to rejoin in 2011 and he became Vice-chair again in time to offer sterling support when the PBS lost its Arts Council funding, master-minding a campaign which had support from Carol Ann Duffy and a very large number of poets and publishers. Desmond took the Chair again after Mary Tapissier, helping to guide the PBS through two difficult years with his experience, determination and tenacity. We shall all miss him greatly."

Clarke leaves a widow, Fiona, three children and five grandchildren.

Desmond Walter Robert Clarke: born 8th January 1945, died 9th June 2017.