Martyn Goff: Obituary

Martyn Goff: Obituary

The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Goff rose to become one of the most prominent members of the British book trade. By the late Ian Norrie

The dowdy Sussex watering place of St Leonards-on-Sea was, in 1948, not the obvious choice of venue for a brash, energetic, intellectual young man’s first bookshop, nor was the unfashionable, drearily suburban Surrey high street of Banstead. 

Goff (1923–2015) had been born in Finchley, north London, in 1923, the son of a Jewish immigrant family from Russia. Jacob, his father, was in the fur trade; his parents parted while he was a boy and he was left in the custody of his mother Janey. His father had him educated at Clifton where he enjoyed public school life, shone academically and also on the tennis court. 

The Second World War kept him from going on to university. The opportunity was there but he felt strongly motivated to oppose Hitler and joined the RAF, becoming commissioned as a non-flying officer (he was always short-sighted) and serving in North Africa.

After demobilisation, Martyn’s bright new bookshop in drab St Leonards, was a major attraction. At his shop I spent most of my demob pay; for my 21st birthday he held my gift list, contriving to sell to relatives and friends items he held in stock. (An early lesson, for me, in good bookselling.) The stock at the bookshop was kept in pristine condition. The one teenage assistant was expected to dust and sweep. 

Martyn himself served most customers, displaying a dazzling technique of flattery, literary knowledge and insight into customer needs. Before his first year at Marine Court was up, Martyn had found new premises in the even more unsophisticated coastal resort of Seaford, just east of Newhaven.

Book trade notoriety

The Sussex coast did not prove to be ideal for trading and, in the early 1950s, the shops were disposed of and Martyn, with his partner Don Berry, bought the Ibis Bookshop & Library at Banstead on the Surrey Downs. Martyn made a name for himself in the trade by writing frequent letters to The Bookseller complaining about publishers’ service. This brought him both friends and enemies.

Martyn wished to reform the book trade and irritated countless numbers of booksellers and publishers by airing his views on how they should conduct their business. This made him unpopular in many quarters because he was seen by established booksellers as a newcomer and by publishers as an account of no financial consequence. Fifty years on they were to flock to his 80th birthday dinner at a City company hall and pay handsomely for the privilege.

Those close to Martyn understood there was much more substance to the man than was apparent in his smart alec contributions to the trade press. Through his contacts Martyn met many publishers but he was not taken seriously as a bookseller. His ambitions lay primarily in his writing until he was in his late forties. He made a small dent in the literary world with his novels, some of which were published by André Deutsch.

To my knowledge Martyn had been an enthusiast for the National Book League as long as I had known him. He sang its praises to his staff and customers and gave it modest support through the Ibis Bookshop, even though its fortunes in the 1960s were flagging. By then I was on the league’s executive council and fully aware of its dire financial situation. When the league was unable to find a director, Martyn was invited to apply for the job. In January 1970, I received a letter at home from Martyn informing me that he was to become the next director of the NBL.

One of Martyn’s first ventures as director was to launch the Bedford Square Book Bang, a celebration of literature mounted in the private gardens of a Bloomsbury estate where many publishers and also the Publishers Association and The Bookseller then had offices. It was an imaginative enterprise which quickly came under fire from the establishment. 

The Book Bang was officially opened by Coco the Clown on a fine June morning after which the weather deteriorated into a usual English summer for that time, with whole days of rain. Despite this, hundreds of schoolchildren attended, some publishers held signing sessions and numerous booksellers volunteered to man the temporary bookshop set up in a tent. 

The Bang was not an overwhelming success, due more to indifference shown by many publishers than to the bad weather. Martyn, typically, refused to be discouraged and, the following June, wrote to The Bookseller to observe: “What is missing in central London this summer? The Bedford Square Book Bang.” His unsuppressed exuberance eventually gained him the backing of many of those who were initially hostile. 

An established figure

Gradually Martyn was absorbed into the book trade establishment. He worked indefatigably on all fronts to focus attention on the NBL. Martyn particularly concentrated on extending work with children which had been pioneered by his predecessor, Jack Morpurgo, and in fostering both literary prizes and the publication of bestseller lists. 

In 1971 he became administrator of the recently inaugurated Booker Prize for Fiction, financed by a multinational company which had given ear to Tom Maschler (at Cape) for a British prize which would rank beside the Goncourt. The trade reacted at first with a typically sluggish response. The press was only marginally interested. The £5,000 prize, tax-free, was attractive to most authors and made a story for the media on a day when there weren’t more important or scandalous events.

Martyn saw in it greater possibilities and became more identified with it than any other single person. The essential missing ingredient after several years was the Booker’s lack of newsworthiness. It had been the habit for many years for the name of the winning book to be leaked so that the publisher concerned had time to arrange a reprint and for those booksellers interested to be supplied with stock. 

This also meant that reporters stayed away from the actual event because it was not news. I suggested that if the final meeting of the judges was still going on while the guests were preparing to set out for the dinner, at which Michael Caine would be handed an envelope and advised of the winner, the press would have to attend, just as they must be on the spot at the climax of any great sporting event. 

The media did not like it—especially the BBC—but the Booker became news, and never, thereafter, looked back, although as the decades rolled on, with Martyn still administrator, as at 2003, he dropped judicious hints about what particular judges were thinking, thus creating controversy. Officially this was deeply deplored because judges were forbidden to reveal anything of what was said at meetings but one or other of them—not discouraged by Martyn—invariably did. 

Meanwhile, Martyn was collecting a whole portfolio of prizes for the NBL to administer. Nevertheless, the league was always desperately short of funds. It was against this background that Martyn fought to bring about a vital change in the league and to create Book Trust. 

In Rayner Unwin, he found a saviour. Sir Stanley Unwin had founded the charitable Unwin Trust for the benefit of books and the trade. Under Rayner, the trust was prepared to allocate one quarter of whatever freehold property was purchased for use as Book House, to the National Book League. Albemarle Street was sold and with part of the proceeds the NBL paid £62,500 for a quarter of the former Wandsworth Town Hall in south-west London. The name of the league was changed to Book Trust, Martyn slimmed down his staff and the whole operation, concentrated on book prizes, children’s books and information services, gaining instant relief from the chronic financial problems of the previous 20 years.

Not long after the move to Wandsworth, Martyn was unexpectedly opposed by some of his own officers bringing pressure on him to resign. Their reasoning was not clear. As literary agent, the late Giles Gordon commented: “Who on earth with contacts the equal of Martyn’s could be found to take on the job at his salary?” 

No one seems to have been in line to succeed him and the demand was dropped, and Martyn remained there until his 65th birthday in 1988. Then, ironically, the officers in charge tried to persuade him to stay on because they
couldn’t find a satisfactory replacement.

He, having accepted the chairmanship from Sir Evelyn Rothschild, of Henry Sotheran, antiquarian booksellers of Sackville Street, Piccadilly, declined. The Bookseller’s owner David Whitaker and I organised a huge “retirement lunch” for him at the Royal Over-Seas League. It was attended by publishers, booksellers, authors, colleagues and family.

Varied roles

Sixteen years on, although he had ceased to be director of Book Trust, Martyn remained administrator of the Booker Prize and was also a trustee of the former NBL. He added many chairmanships and voluntary roles to his portfolio, and became notorious for over-working and shedding one activity only to take on three more. He became president of the Society of Bookmen when John Boon died, enjoyed a wide social life, and helped his partner Rubio Lindroos on the admin side of the bookshop he had for a time in Belgravia. He wrote and broadcast, as a freelance commentator, but published very little in book form after his ninth novel, Tar and Cement (1988). One of Martyn’s many activities, outside of Sotheran’s, was as chairman of the National Life Story Collection, an oral history archive based at the British Library and through which Book Trade Lives was created with an an initial £50,000 put forward by the Unwin Trust. By 2004 nearly 100 lives had been put on tape.

Martyn also had a private life. His partner, from 1969, was the Finnish-born Rubio Lindroos, a librarian in his native country but a bookseller in the UK, both independently and latterly with the thriving small Chelsea independent bookshop John Sandoe whose policy, following the abandonment of the Net Book Agreement, was not to sell any book at a discount.

If ever there was a person who knew everyone, it was Martyn. He also remembered most of them, recalled their names even, and although he had been an outrageous name-dropper in his time, he was not a snob. His friendship was open to all; he was interested in everyone. If he hadn’t been so excessively occupied with other matters he might well have written greater novels. Martyn was a most forgiving man, extending that quality even to those who tried to oust him from the NBL. Life, he considered, was too short to pursue personal animosity. He kept up a wide range of interests by no means confined to just the arts. Always, after a lunch with him, I would receive a letter lamenting that we had forgotten to talk about this subject or that. I doubt if it was possible for anyone to have led a fuller life than Martyn.