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Obituary: Peter Carson

Peter Carson found himself thrust into the limelight of British publishing soon after Peter Mayer arrived from New York in the late ’70s to revive that ailing British institution, Penguin. Until then he’d probably foreseen—and looked forward to—a satisfying career as a history publisher, trawling the campuses for young historians, suggesting books, editing quietly in the corner. But Mayer saw something steelier and more expansive behind the diffident academic exterior, and he eventually appointed Carson to be editor-in-chief of Penguin’s adult publishing. Together they were to transform the fortunes of the company.

Peter retained his particular interest in Penguin’s history publishing, and built it up to be the formidable list it remains to this day. He flourished and grew in his new role, becoming a revered figure for a generation of young Penguin editors who went on to occupy major positions in British publishing—Andrew Franklin, Jon Riley, Clare Alexander, Fanny Blake, Paul Keegan, Stefan McGrath, Andrew Kidd and Ravi Mirchandani among them. He oversaw the setting up of the Viking imprint in 1982; helped acquire and integrate the Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton imprints when they were bought two years later; manfully played his part during the Satanic Verses furore; and had the original idea of splitting Penguin’s adult publishing into the General and Press divisions which exist today.
He could be infuriatingly lofty and of course his erudition was formidable: shortly before his death he’d completed some new translations of Tolstoy for Norton. But he was also kindly, extremely generous to younger colleagues, playful and totally straight . . . and God, he could be funny!

He seemed to have read everything already published, and he devoured new stuff at an incredible rate. I remember him ringing me after reading the entire manuscript of The Secret History in his hotel room while on a trip to New York: “We must have this book!” He loved American thrillers, young British novelists (famously his parting gift to Penguin was to acquire Zadie Smith), Scandinavian crime, obscure east European novels, erudite travel books, dense histories, literary biographies—everything, in fact, except sport, which he loathed, and rock music, which baffled him.

This extraordinary openness to the world never left him: we had dinner with him and his wife Eleo four weeks before he died. The machinery of illness was horribly present: oxygen canisters, a zimmer frame, and the rest of the ghastly paraphernalia. But he enjoyed showing us how he watched “Borgen” on his iPad, he enquired whether I’d read the most recent Jo Nesbø, and he immediately recommended two arcane books about Romania when I told him I was planning a trip. It was a poignant moment: in the previous four years he and Eleo had enthusiastically led a small group of us on trips around Libya and Syria.

I said earlier that he could be steely. At the retirement party organised by Profile in March last year, half of the people in the room had been fired at some point in their careers by Peter. It was a badge of honour. Yet what was remarkable was that they all forgave him: there they were toasting his future. Such was the power and charm of this extraordinary man.

He would have hated this piece of course. Not only did he loathe all forms of gush, but he believed anything worth saying could be said in less than 50 words.

By: Tony Lacey, Viking publishing director