Kipper ties, fast cars with vanity plates, fine wine and a weakness for scrambled eggs on toast with a mug of tea – Martyn Goff was a man of many passions and all were celebrated at London’s Athenaeum Club this week as family and friends gathered to remember a man who played a singular role in the 20th century book trade.
Goff’s was a career that began in a south-coast bookshop in 1948 and spanned more than half a century. “An extremely hard worker,” he could perhaps best be summed up as an advocate for books, a proselytiser for prose and “for the joy of fiction”. As well as being an extremely persuasive bookseller he was a writer of novels (The Youngest Director was regarded by Angus Wilson as a landmark in gay fiction) and non-fiction, a transformative director of the National Book League (which became Book Trust), creator of the Bedford Square Book Bang and, of course, the power behind the Booker Prize for Fiction, which is how younger members of the trade remember him.
Goff loved clubs, explained his nephew Anthony Goff, whose path into the book trade Uncle Martyn smoothed. The Athenaeum was the last one he joined - where better to celebrate? It was a pitch-perfect occasion, the five speakers – Rabbi Julia Neuberger, former Booker Chairman Jonathan Taylor, critic and author John Coldstream, David Whitaker, whose family once presided over The Bookseller, and Goff himself, an agent – each charged with conjuring up an aspect of a life that was never less than a perfect blend of the personal and the professional.
The Goff and Neuberger family histories have long been intertwined: her grandmother’s furs came from the Goff family furriers and her father and Martyn bonded over “the idiosyncrasies” of book plates”, while the Rabbi herself judged a Booker and disagreed profoundly with the choice of winner, James Kelman. All grist to the Administrator’s mill, for Goff was a consummate leaker able always to drip judicious (and occasionally injudicious) gossip into exactly the right ear. Tales of “rifts, tiffs and dissent, occasionally even a blazing row” would appear in this or that newspaper but Goff “denied the lot” – usually during a forensic discussion carried out over a good lunch, his solution to every problem.
Coldstream recalled the dedication he brought to the task of reviewing, his belief in a duty to “read every word” and the effect that could have on new writing: without Goff’s critical advocacy, Hodder would not have entered Keri Hulme’s The Bone People for the 1984 Booker – which it of course won, to no little controversy.
Anthony Goff recalled the family Christmases, some 30 of them, Martyn and Rubio Lindroos, his partner of 44 years, stepping out of their Daimler laden with presents (mostly perfectly chosen books) on the dot of noon and departing after the Queen’s speech, watched without discernible irony. Always there was good conversation, names dropped not out of one-upmanship but sheer enthusiasm. “He always had a twinkle in his eye – it was 25% mischief and 75% enthusiasm.”
Strokes having robbed Goff the great communicator of the power of speech, his last words to his nephew were gosh and yes!
“In my imaginary cabinet,” John Coldstream summed up, “Martyn would be secretary of state for enthusiasm and enjoyment.”