A few months into my life as a publisher I received a letter from Warwick Collins along with a copy of a novel of his which was languishing out of print. I had never heard of the chap but the letter informed me a) that the novel, Gents, was a lost classic, b) that he was a writer of great talent and c) that I should re-publish it if I knew what was good for me.
Thankfully the book was quite short so I thought it wouldn't do any harm to give it a read on the train home but must confess I was already composing a sarcastic response to this rather jumped up submission.
I finished the book later that evening. I came to the conclusion that a) it was a lost classic, b) Collins was a writer of great talent and c) I should re-publish it as soon as possible.
Some months later I did indeed publish a tenth anniversary edition of Gents. The Times reviewed it and called it 'a classic moral fable about understanding and respect.' It sold modestly but did get some nice coverage on a number of blogs, including this from John Self.
I went on to publish another novel by Warwick, The Sonnets, in which he imagined the circumstances surrounding the composition of Shakespeare's most famous poems, seamlessly weaving a dozen or so sonnets into the narrative, including one of his own making. It too sold modestly but was well received by those who bothered to read it.
Today I received the news that Warwick had died at the weekend. He was just 64 years old. The same age as my parents.
A great unsung literary talent is no longer with us, and he remains unsung.
This would have made him furious as he was never in doubt of his own talent, just of the ability of critics and publishers to recognise it. The bastards. In this country, at least.
Gents was a bestseller across Europe, top ten in France, and he regularly received letters from all four corners of the globe from readers who had been profoundly moved by this book in particular, including one from a US senator.
The novel tells the tale of three West Indian immigrants who work as attendants in a London lavatory. Their particular convenience is a favourite location for gay men who like to indulge in some recreational exploits in the cubicles. This disgusts the attendants who stage an enthusiastic campaign to rid their toilet of the 'lizards' as they call them. And their efforts are successful. So successful that their takings go down. So 'successful' that one of them is made redundant by their council bosses. This prompts a rethink and the novel ends with a scene which is as amusing as it as moving. It is a remarkable book.
In the late 90s a group of black actors tried to buy the film rights from Warwick. When they met him they were stunned to discover a skinny, posh white man. They simply could not believe that he had written the book which they were convinced was the work of a West Indian writer. It was the highest compliment they could have paid him.
Warwick Collins was born in South Africa. His father was a novelist whose work was frowned upon by the apartheid regime and the Collins family moved to England when Warwick was eleven. As a young man his poetry was championed by Stephen Spender who published some of his work in Encounter magazine. He loved sailing and had a successful career as a designer of yachts. He invented and patented the tandem keel (which boat people tell me was a big deal) and more recently was working on a new type of hull for small boats which would radically reduce wash and fuel comsumption. I don't understand any of that stuff, to be honest, but it sounds impressive.
His first two novels, published in the early 90s, were set around the America's Cup but he went on to write historical fiction, science fiction and also a novel called Fuckwoman, about a superhero who fucked her enemies to death, which was very popular in Germany but only published over here years later. Oh, and that's without mentioning a non-fiction book, A Silent Gene Theory of Evolution, in which he set out a radical new theory to rival Darwin's.
The Sonnets was his last conventionally published novel but he did self-publish a range of mini-novels. He came up with the idea years before ebooks kicked off but they remained in manuscript form only until technology caught up with him. There are loads of the blighters but if you wanted to try one out I think the best is The Jeweller's Wife.
As well as being a talented novelist, screenwriter, poet and evolutionary theorist, Warwick Collins was a cantankerous bugger. He was so sure of his own talent that he pretty much refused to be edited. This was not a problem when it came to Gents (previously published by someone else) or The Sonnets (it really didn't need very much work) but it did mean that we disagreed about a fair bit of his remaining unpublished work. I was keen to publish some of the mini-novels but not all of them. I was very interested in his book about evolution but wanted it written in a more accessible style. I did not think his epic poem, Tony Blair: The Accidental Fascist, would be overly popular and told him so. We didn't speak much after that.
I regret that a great deal (the loss of contact, not my rejection of the Blair poem). We used to have lengthy discussions on the telephone about literature and movies and sport and we would argue for hours about the merits of one author or another, or the movies of Quentin Tarantino. I remember him getting very excited about Danny Cipriani's debut for England but I knew nothing about rugby so was unable to contribute much to the conversation. That didn't stop him going on for several minutes about him though.
He was a frustrating man but a fascinating one. He would write long letters to publishers and newspaper editors explaining to them why they should print or review his work. He would spend hours hitting a sponge tennis ball up against a wall to relax. He cared for his elderly mother in their Lymington home. He both pestered and entertained my good friend Norman Thomas di Giovanni and vocally championed Norman's case to have his wonderful translations of Borges back in print. He wrote a new national anthem. He considered Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time to be 'a lightweight concoction.' He couldn't stand the fact that Amis, Rushdie and McEwan were bestsellers when he was not. He was, after all, a better writer than the three of them, in his opinion.
He was a lot of things, this Warwick chap. As he once said himself, 'I seem to be a master in the art of annoying people.' He certainly was that. He was also a remarkable writer. I just wish he had found more readers during his lifetime. I'll miss the old bugger.