Life of 'visionary' Peter Mayer celebrated at London memorial

Life of 'visionary' Peter Mayer celebrated at London memorial

The life of Peter Mayer was celebrated at a memorial service at Christ Church, Spitalfields, on Thursday (6th December), where the former Penguin c.e.o, a “giant of trade publishing”, was honoured with numerous tributes, music and readings.

Around 200 family, friends and colleagues filled the church to bursting for the service in honour of Mayer, who died in May this year, aged 82. Among attendees were PRH UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon and PRH chair Gail Rebuck, agents Gill Coleridge and Peter Straus of RCW and Jane Gregory of David Higham Associates, and a host of publishers including Virago's Lennie Goodings and John Murray's Mark Richards, to name but a few. Meanwhile Mayer's daughter, Liese, fiction director at Bloomsbury, Penguin's Tony Lacey, Profile's Andrew Franklin and former literary agent Deborah Owen were some of those who shared their memories of the late "raconteur", "risk taker" and "natural leader" whose impact on the trade was so profound.

Revisiting Mayer's time at Penguin, where he was its c.e.o. from 1978 until 1996, Lacey recounted his “breakneck speed of thought and process” exemplified by publication of the entire Booker shortlist in paperback within days of the shortlist being announced and insistence on Penguin's iconic orange spine, dubbed "a touching demonstration of Peter’s belief in the Penguin brand”. Publisher David Campbell commended his setting up of Penguin India and, despite a penchant for losing travel documents, his international mindset. And Franklin, while noting Mayer's achievements in creating vertical publishing in the UK and in making the B-format paperback ubiquitous, hailed the man a "visionary" for taking "a moribund, money-losing institution" and turning it into "the world's most admired and successful publishing company ... a global group that, as he made it, became both hugely profitable and a global cultural force for good with local publishing offices around the world". 

While receiving credit for turning Penguin around - having taken the reins at "a rather ropy moment" in the institution's history, in Lacey's words - Mayer also famously published Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, an achievement that was alluded to by a number of speakers during the service. "I have never known anyone so unafraid of others’ opinions. He taught me how not to be scared of things that are different or intimidating. He showed me how we must always stand up for ourselves and others in the face of tyrants, whether that tyrant is a schoolyard bully or the ayotollah of Iran,” said Mayer’s daughter, Liese.

Provoking both laughter and reflection in a moving tribute to her father, Liese offered an insight into family life too (“there was nothing in this world to my father that mattered more”) and shared entertaining anecdotes ("his fearlessness and unwillingness to compromise, his grand visions untroubled by finickety practicalities, have served him very well in his career - but they were also what had this time got us stranded on a deserted highway in the middle of the night”). She concluded: "He would always tell people that I thought he was crazy. And I did. And I still do. And he was. And yet, despite the millions of ways he frustrated or infuriated me over the years, it feels completely impossible to imagine a life without him."

More memories of what it was like to be a close friend of Mayer - noted for having "the largest contacts book in the world" - came from Kit van Tulleken, describing his attentiveness and great sense of fun, Marcia Blakeham, speaking playfully of his knack for getting others to do things for him, his "disaster-prone" nature and unwavering loyalty to his friends, and Deborah Owen, remembering his willingness to throw himself into all that he did, including into country life, best evidenced when he leapt into a pond while fully suited and booted to help a farmer extricate a struggling cow.

The well-attended service was punctuated by a string quartet and cello suite performance and a reading from Sophy Thompson ("Call it Sleep" by Henry Roth) and concluded with a tribute from Franklin, in praise of Mayer's "exuberant energy" and "magical charm", and "visionary" transformation of English language publishing.

"Few people ever transform an industry; Peter did," said Franklin. "He was a natural leader and all of us here remember the energy he exuded. If he was anywhere in the building, the atmosphere changed, becoming more exciting, more electric, more chaotic too. He was intensely courageous, a man of real bravery, and a risk taker ... He could be forceful but he was also an inspiration. He truly cared about books, ideas and doing the very best possible."