Former Folio Editorial Director Sue Bradbury remembers Bob Gavron
When Lord Gavron, known to everyone at The Folio Society, from top to bottom, as Bob, died so suddenly on 7 February, there was a palpable sense of shock and loss. He had been a part of our lives for over 30 years and we admired, loved and (sometimes) feared him. Because he shared his office with us at Eagle Street, we saw a great deal of him, and were probably not as aware as we should have been of his immense reach in the wider world of the arts, politics and business. He was ours.
Bob was born in North London in 1930 to Russian and Lithuanian parents. After National Service, he read law at Oxford (he was called to the bar in 1955 but was destined never to practise). He also played Buttons to Ned Sherrin’s Fairy Queen in a production of Cinderella, and though this appears to have been the beginning and end of his theatrical career, his passion for performance – especially for ballet and the opera – defined him for the rest of his life. He was a director at the Royal Opera House from 1992 to 1998, and his love of the arts in general was reflected in his trusteeships of the National Gallery (1994-01) and the Open College of the Arts (1991-96).
It was a job with a printer in Soho that laid the foundation stone of his future career. The printing industry fascinated him: it had long been in decline, but it had potential. In 1964 he borrowed £5,000 and took over an ailing company which he called St Ives. Further acquisitions followed, including the firm of Clay’s, in Bungay in Suffolk, Britain’s foremost book publisher. Bob’s entrepreneurial gifts, his emphasis on quality and building a loyal workforce, paid off. By the time the company was floated in 1985, Bob was a multi-millionaire, and so were a number of his colleagues. He remained modest about his fortune – not least, he said, because he ‘never wanted to become well-known for making money’. At a retirement party at The Folio Society, one member of staff was emboldened to ask him what it felt like to be ‘that rich’. I have never forgotten the answer: ‘When I made my first million I did two things: I bought a Rolls Royce and I sold it. I realised that whatever I wanted it was not a Rolls Royce. The thing about having a lot of money is that you can do what you want, but you may discover that what you want is relatively modest, and then you have to decide what to do with the rest of it.’
Bob’s answer was to give a lot of it away. His philanthropy and generosity defined him as surely as did his politics, though in neither case was that definition straightforward. He owned two publishing companies – both of them in their way eccentric choices: Carcanet Press, a small poetry publisher based in Manchester and partly supported by the Arts Council, and The Folio Society, which, though it had a certain cachet, was never going to be mainstream. Yet when he died in February this year, he had steered both companies through choppy seas for more than 30 years, had seen them prosper, and was still very firmly in charge. As Michael Schmidt, Managing Director of Carcanet, said: ‘The issue of survival never arose: he was there for the long haul.’
Bob loved books – his support for the Royal Society of Literature, typically practical, was one small contribution among many to the world of literature. He backed the founding of Virago, was vice-president of The Poetry Society, sat on the board of his fellow publisher and close friend, Paul Hamlyn, and, most recently, underwrote the The Folio Prize. He was formidably well-read and, as I learned only recently, had a particular penchant for children’s books. He used to maintain that the characters in Winnie the Pooh covered most of the people one was likely to meet in life. One of my colleagues said mournfully: ‘Apparently I’m an Eeyore.’
His achievements were legion: the Robert Gavron Charitable Trust helps to support a wide range of causes – in health and welfare, prisons and prison reform, art and education, social policy and research. As Chairman of Guardian News and Media, he impressed Alan Rusbridger with his ‘wisdom, tenacity, intelligence and good humour’. He became active in politics. Though not a tribal political animal, he held strong views on social justice and found himself attracted by New Labour’s brand of socialism, which recognised the importance of business and private enterprise. In 1999 he was appointed a life peer, and was an assiduous attendee at the House of Lords, speaking on a variety of subjects, including libraries and, most recently, the matter of executive pay: ‘Have they suddenly become 50 times more intelligent or 50 times more effective?’ he demanded. ‘No – they get so much more because they help themselves.’
All this makes him sound like a man with not enough hours in the day. Yet perhaps Bob’s greatest talent was for embracing his leisure as hard as his work: he devoured books, he swam and played tennis, he enjoyed his friends, he loved his children and grandchildren and he relished every moment spent with his beloved wife Kate. One of my favourite photographs shows him relaxing in a chair, simply roaring with laughter. He might, on occasion, be volatile and demanding; far more often he was warm, generous and wise. With his shock of curly white hair, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Harpo Marx, and perhaps because of this he never who never took himself too seriously. He once sponsored Michael Tippett’s opera ‘The Midsummer Marriage’ at the ROH and was introduced to the great man. ‘Oh we know each other already,’ Tippett said, waving an airy hand. ‘We met in Hollywood.’
Former Editorial Director at The Folio Society