Neil Middleton, who has died aged 83, was one of the best and the brightest of a vanishing breed in publishing: a man who believed in the power of the written word in the global struggle for social justice and emancipation, from apartheid South Africa to Ireland, from the early beginnings of second-wave feminism to liberation struggles in Latin America.
Despite a cut-glass accent and a well-informed palate for good food and the best possible wine, Neil’s origins were modest. He was born in the East End of London, to parents who were members of the Communist Party. Graduating from UCL in the 1950s, his first publishing job was with Catholic publisher Sheed & Ward, which began a lifelong association with progressive Catholic intellectuals such as Terry Eagleton. Joining Penguin in the 1970s, he established a reputation for an unashamedly progressive political list, establishing inter alia the Penguin Marx Library, a landmark in serious political publishing to this day. He published the early work of authors who are now part of the progressive canon, including Sheila Rowbotham, Tariq Ali, R D Laing and countless others.
To many of his authors, and to his editorial colleagues at Penguin, he was an inspiration for his uncompromising editorial stand, a mentor and a man of immense kindness—he threatened to resign from Penguin at least twice because of what he perceived to be the unfair treatment of his then secretary.
It was inevitable that he would eventually clash with a rapidly changing (“restructuring”) Penguin, and in the early 1980s he left, joining Pluto Press as editorial director. Here, he continued to publish groundbreaking work: many of the titles he contracted then are still very much alive on the Pluto backlist.
As his interest in development and ecology deepened, it was inevitable that he would move on. He established a new, independent publishing imprint, Earthscan, in 1987, focusing entirely on issues around sustainable development. The new venture foundered. Neil may not have been as attentive to balance sheets as he should have been, and the complications of the recession of the early ‘80s were unhelpful. The imprint found a temporary safe haven with Kogan Page, later to be acquired by James & James, and has now been subsumed into Taylor & Francis.
Neil, who had by now moved permanently to his beloved Ireland, turned poacher, authoring books in his own right on development and sustainability around the world. I was privileged to commission several of his books and was enormously proud that Pluto was able to provide a platform for a man who had done so much to promote the work of so many distinguished authors.
Neil’s scholarly antennae were second to none. His humanity, commitment, passion and joie de vivre were legendary. He will be sadly missed and exuberantly remembered by his many friends in what, with hindsight, seems a very different publishing world, one in which ideas and ideals were central—and made a difference.
Anne Beech is m.d. of Pluto Press.