Tuesday 21 November 2017

Obituary: Graham Lord

Journalist and biographer who took on the 'intellectual ­literati' with a lucrative prize for 'readable' fiction

Prolific: Graham Lord
Prolific: Graham Lord

Graham Lord, who has died aged 72, was a prolific novelist, biographer and journalist, and as literary editor of the Sunday Express in the UK challenged the publishing establishment over the "precious, pretentious, unreadable" novels that so often won the Booker Prize.

In 1987, exasperated by what he considered to be the absurd misjudgments of the "intellectual literati", he persuaded his editor, Robin Esser, to launch an annual, anti-Booker award of £25,000 to the author of a new novel that was not only well-written, but - unlike many Booker contenders - readable too.

Remarkably, given the scale of what was proposed, the Express management gave him a free hand in setting up the project, allowing him to frame the rules, chair the judging panel and select his fellow judges, who over the years included such luminaries as Kingsley Amis, Roald Dahl, Ruth Rendell, John Mortimer and Auberon Waugh.

What emerged was a Sunday Express Book of the Year Award that demanded to be taken seriously, not only because of the calibre of the judging panel, but also because it was at the time the most lucrative of British fiction awards. The list of winners testifies to its quality: Brian Moore, David Lodge, Rose Tremain, J M Coetzee, Michael Frayn, Hilary Mantel and William Boyd.

There was widespread dismay when a subsequent editor of the Express, beset by ever-tighter budgets, abandoned the award in 1994.

Graham John Lord was born on January 16, 1943, in what was then Rhodesia, the son of an Essex expatriate who ran shipping agencies across southern Africa. The family home was in Beira, Mozambique, and it was there, when his father gave him an old typewriter, that the young Graham revealed a precocious passion for the written word. At his prep school, the Eagle school in the Vumba mountains, he published his own daily newspaper; and almost his first action when he arrived in England at 18 to read history at Churchill College, Cambridge was to join the student newspaper, Varsity.

When he became Varsity's editor in 1964, he increased circulation by deliberately courting controversy - to the extent that the university proctors twice threatened to close the paper down. Meanwhile, he ensured that a copy was sent each week to the home of every national newspaper editor.

Such tactics brought him to the notice of John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express, then one of the most powerful newspapers in Britain, with a circulation of more than four million. In 1965, Junor offered him a six-month trial and Lord was to become a mainstay for 27 years, most of them as literary editor, a post to which he was appointed in 1969 on the death of the previous incumbent, Robert Pitman. It was, he said, "a dream of a job", allowing him to review whatever books he chose. Such freedom gave him considerable influence.

On one trip, in 1988, when in Antibes to interview Graham Greene, he experienced a life-changing coup de foudre when he met the painter Juliet Lewis. Such was their irresistible mutual attraction that within weeks they had ended their (unhappy) marriages and set up home together. Greene later told Lord that he was "delighted to have been of service".

By this stage Lord was an established author with a string of novels to his credit, beginning with Marshmallow Pie, in 1970. Over the next 22 years he published another eight books, including his first biography, Just The One - The Wives and Times of Jeffrey Bernard (1992).

Back in Fleet Street, meanwhile, he promoted the work of new writers such as George MacDonald Fraser, James Herriot and P D James.

The Express was changing, however, and in 1992, Lord left the paper. After four years as a freelance journalist, he floated the idea of writing the biography of James Herriot, the much-loved vet whose stories of life in the Yorkshire Dales inspired the TV series All Creatures Great and Small.

It proved an inspired suggestion. Headline Books paid him such a generous advance that he was able to fulfil his dream of living in the south of France and becoming a full-time author. He and Juliet sold everything and flew to Nice with just three suitcases, a laptop and a contract to write the Herriot biography. The book was to earn him "more money than I had ever seen".

He went on to write two more novels, five biographies (of Dick Francis, Arthur Lowe, David Niven, John Mortimer and Joan Collins) plus two anthologies. The books sold so well that he and Juliet could divide their time between the South of France, London and the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, where they built their own house and spent the best part of each year.

"I've been incredibly lucky," Lord wrote to the novelist Joseph Connolly after being diagnosed with liver cancer. "I'm 71 and have never had a day's real illness. I've had a great life and I've had 26 years with a wonderfully luminous woman, so what do I have to complain about?"

Graham Lord, who died on June 13, is survived by his wife Juliet and by two daughters of his first marriage.


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