William Miller

The news that William Miller died in Tokyo on 5th November has sent a shock wave of sorrow through Quartet Books and all those who have been associated with them over the years.   

Alongside John Boothe, he was one of the founding fathers of Quartet, the other two being Brian Thompson and the late Ken Banerji. He and his three partners were instrumental in establishing a foundation for the company that was innovative and radical in many respects, and which still has its influence in the list today.

The ancestral hometown of the Millers was Wick in the far north of Scotland, but William was born on 4 May 1934 at Gravesend in Kent. At the start of the Second World War he had the experience of being sent as an evacuee to a house near Long Melford in Suffolk. He was later educated at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, read history at Oxford and went to work on the Financial Times before going into publishing at the paperback imprint, Four Square.  In 1962 he joined John Boothe as joint managing editor of Panther Books, which became part of Granada Publishing in 1965, though John and William retained total editorial freedom. There they acquired such authors as Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, Len Deighton, Fay Weldon, Beryl Bainbridge and John Fowles among many others, besides publishing Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the Kama Sutra and the socialist classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel. Together they built Panther into one of the most distinctive paperback lists in London.

In 1972 they embarked on a fresh venture and raised the funding to found Quartet. William lived by his humane radical convictions, which were by no means narrow. He believed it was as important to entertain and enjoy as it was to instruct. For him a dose of libertarian anarchism could be as good for society as a digression on Marxist ethics. The Quartet list came to contain such titles as E. J. Hobsbawm’s The Revolutionaries, Marx’s Sociology and Social Change, edited by Donald McQuarie, Stuart Holland’s The Socialist Challenge and Philip Corrigan’s Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory. Alongside these were May Hobbs’s recollections of an East End childhood, Born to Struggle, Max Wall’s autobiography, The Fool on the Hill, and My Queen and I  by Willie Hamilton, the republican MP for West Fife, who was a gadfly on the rump of the British royalist establishment.  William was convinced Her Majesty was missing a trick in refusing ever to meet Willie face to face.  

And then there was Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, originated by Mitchell Beazley, who got cold feet about publishing it themselves before Quartet took it over.  There was still a real risk of police prosecution for this book at that time, and indeed on more than one occasion consignments from the printers abroad were seized as containing sexually explicit material.

Thus Quartet set out in the early 1970s, often going where many other established firms still feared to tread, and William was the hero of what was then the Hampstead intelligentsia. Alas, by 1976 Quartet’s original capital was sadly depleted and the company was experiencing serious difficulties in trying to keep its head above water.  

The ambitious publishing programme had to be curtailed, as was clear to me when I took over the company that July. So far as publishing was concerned, I was a complete novice, but I balanced my lack of knowledge with a steely determination to rescue this individual and worthwhile imprint and give it a new lease of life. A more realistic capital structure was put in place and fresh human resources were mustered to achieve an even more vigorous and varied list of titles to expand its readership potential. In achieving this aim, William took on the role of my publishing godfather. The original thrust of Quartet was maintained in establishing it as a champion of the underdog and that section of the community that craves for recognition in its plight of suffering from unemployment and poverty.

The fun was by no means over.   Quartet’s launch parties grew to be glittering, publicity-raising events in the publishing calendar. Mrs Thatcher, who had become leader of the Conservative party and whose sights were set on soon being Prime Minister, was the antithesis of everything the boys at Quartet, and William in particular, stood for. To put a shot across her bows, they dreamed up the concept of Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag, a folder of cardboard cutouts and satirical artefacts, with contributions from John Wells and George Melly, and published it in 1978. It fulfilled one objective in that it came to the Iron Lady’s attention and she was livid with fury. She still, however, became Prime Minister in 1979 and set about making her long-term mark on the political landscape of Britain.

Although William and I were both Tauruses, we were dissimilar in many ways. Our sexual orientation was different, and so were our modes of life. He was more unconventional than I have ever been; he smoked heavily and, where I was abstemious, had a capacity to consume quantities of alcohol in those days when so much publishing business in London seemed to be done in pubs over liquid lunches. 

Yet there developed between us a warm and affective relationship that was to remain after he left our shores in 1984 to reside in Japan. I have already told the story of Quartet Books from its beginnings in my volume of memoirs, Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975­-1995, which remains available.

It was William’s way to raise a glass to celebrate life at every opportunity, but more seriously he had great courage in everything he did. He was remarkable as a friend, always helpful, tolerant of others, a bon viveur, an innovator and, above all else, a person to think of with great affection.

In Japan he began a new career as a literary agent, founding and becoming managing director of the English Agency (Japan) Ltd., which is today a leading international literary agency. Though he had stepped down as managing director, he was still working with authors up until the short illness that led to his death. 

In hospital in Tokyo for treatment for a leg infection, he then contracted blood poisoning. As he lay in intensive care full of tubes, he sang Scottish songs, complained about the lack of entertainment on the unit and negotiated with the doctors for a daily quota of wine.  He was a rare person, knowledgeable about books, writers, music, and one of the best paperback publishers of his time.  

As the English Agency (Japan)’s announcement of his death urges us to do, we must remember ‘his passion for life, his love of books and publishing, his dedication to fun, his fondness of friends, his laughter and his optimism in the fundamental goodness of people and our ability to make the world better’.

There is a sadness in William’s going, but a joyfulness in having known him. I am sure the heavenly spheres will be all the more congenial for his arrival among them. A celebration of his life has already been held in Tokyo. Another will follow in London in the week before the London Book Fair in 2010.

He will be sorely missed.

2 responses to “William Miller

  1. I was saddened to learn of the death of William in the Guardian today. I came into contact with him and John when I joined Hart-Davis McGibbon around the same time they were planning to leave to form Quartet. At about the same time Carmen left to set up Virago, and I think the last to leave was Reg Davis-Poynter to continue his own list. What little I remember of William was his warm personality, and that has to be enough. But who can forget Mike Dempsey? Or even Alwyn Birch, who dragged me in front of Sidney Bernstein when we went on strike? That old lefty made it known in no uncertain terms that there was no career for me at Granada, or elsewhere if he had the chance! I still have McGibbon and Kee’s original leather-topped desk, smuggled out of Granada at Frogmore drawer by drawer on top of my car and put back together again for Journeyman. For the brave new world of accounts-driven publishing it was “out with the old and in with the new” – furniture as well editors. Ah, fond memories…

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