February 9, 2010

Peter Calvocoressi: writer, publisher and lawyer

Calvocoressi: he was an intellectual with a wide knowledge of international affairs and a hatred of injustice

Calvocoressi: he was an intellectual with a wide knowledge of international affairs and a hatred of injustice

Few men can claim to have been more naturally or compellingly cultivated than Peter Calvocoressi or to have embraced so wide a variety of interests and careers. By nature a scholar, by training a lawyer, latterly perhaps best known as a publisher, he was a man in whom impeccable, distinctly old-fashioned good manners were natural complements to an immense erudition, above all a love of books. As important, he was a man of the highest principle, unbendingly committed to the exposure and ending of injustice and inhumanity, above all torture, wherever it occurred. It was entirely in keeping that he was able to play a key role in the formative years of Amnesty International, established in 1961, and a member of whose executive board he was between 1969 and 1971.

He brought to this work not just an instinctive sympathy for the weak and the oppressed but also an unusually wide-ranging knowledge and understanding of international affairs. If this was first honed by his experiences at the Nuremberg war trials, where he principally worked as an adviser to the US prosecuting team, they were immeasurably enhanced by his work at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, where he was a member of the staff between 1949 and 1954 and a member of its council between 1955 and 1970.

It was a natural extension of this work that in 1963 he should have been asked by David Astor to become chairman of the Africa Bureau, an organisation designed to promote greater understanding of African affairs at a time when rapid decolonisation was profoundly altering the character of the continent.

In much the same spirit Calvocoressi began and largely financed a dining club, informally known as the Speakeasy, whose purpose was the airing and better understanding of international affairs. Over the 16 years of its life, the monthly meetings of the Speakeasy attracted a vast array of scholars, journalists, civil servants and others professionally involved in foreign affairs. Its influence, if necessarily intangible, was wide. Fittingly, in 1965, Calvocoressi was appointed Reader in International Relations at the University of Sussex, a position he held for six years.

Among other public appointments, Calvocoressi was a member of the UN Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities; of the Council of the Institute for Strategic Studies; and of the Institute of Race Relations. He also served as chairman of the London Library between 1970 and 1973.

His war record was hardly less distinguished. Calvocoressi was at Bletchley Park almost throughout the war as an intelligence officer, latterly as head of the Air Section, his responsibility the assessing and prioritising of decrypted Luftwaffe signals.

However demanding, the experience proved exhilarating. His time at Bletchley Park had one unlooked-for benefit. Tired of subsisting in a series of dingy lodgings, in 1944 he and his wife bought a house, a minor 18thcentury jewel called Guise House. They intended to remain there until the end of the war. In the event they stayed for 36 years.

His time as a publisher, squeezed into an exceptionally productive life, was similarly noteworthy. Between 1954 and 1965 he was a director of Chatto & Windus, then among the most prestigious publishing firms in the country. It was an enormously satisfying period in Calvocoressi’s life. In 1972 he was appointed editorial director of Penguin, by some way the UK’s best-known publisher. The following year he was promoted to publisher and chief executive. Whatever the prestige, he rapidly found himself confronting the realities of modern corporate publishing as the company’s new owner, the financial conglomerate Pearson, increasingly sought to dictate how the business should be run. It proved a doleful experience, and left Calvocoressi pessimistic for the future of a business in which the accountants and marketeers were ever more obviously taking over from those who, for Calvocoressi and other traditionalists, should always be at its heart: the editors.

In conventional terms, Calvocoressi’s career might have said to have ended when he left Penguin in 1976. Yet he remained as active as ever. He was already the author of 11 books, all dealing with a variety of aspects of international affairs. A further eight followed, among them, in 1980, perhaps the best-informed book, certainly the most elegantly written, on Bletchley Park, Top Secret Ultra; and, in 1994, a characteristically precise, if discreet, memoir, Threading My Way. He published World Politics 1945-2000, in his tenth decade; World Politics Since 1945 was published in paperback, in its ninth edition, in 2008. If this prodigious output was in part the result of an unusually long life — itself evidently genetic: his grandmother lived until she was 97, his grandfather and father into their 90s — there is no doubt that it also owed much to a notably happy marriage.

Peter John Ambrose Calvocoressi was born in 1912, in Karachi, to Greek parents. Though brought to England, where he was raised and educated, at 3 months old, he was permanently conscious of these Greek roots, which go far to explain a consistently cosmopolitan note throughout his life. Both his mother and his father’s families were from Chios in the Aegean. It was a strikingly prosperous island, with favoured status within the Ottoman empire. A rising against the Turks in 1822 brought an abrupt end to this idyll. Almost all of those Chiots who were not massacred were forced to flee abroad.

But if their home had been lost, the prosperity remained. Both sides of his family were cotton merchants, and Calvocoressi’s childhood was spent in considerable if understated luxury in a substantial house in the leafy suburbs of Liverpool. In England or not, the Calvocoressis were an emphatically Greek family. As a child, he “saw little beyond other Greek homes”.

This changed dramatically went he went to Eton, as a scholar, in 1926. For the first time, the young Calvocoressi found himself in an exclusively English world. It was one in which he thrived. He said himself that his was probably the last generation to be subjected to what was still an essentially unchanged 19th-century Classical education. The school’s influence was crucial in another area, too: daily visits to chapel acted on him, as he said, as “a kind of homoeopathy: with recurrent small doses it cured me of religion”. No less than a passion for music, also discovered at Eton, atheism proved a central tenet of his life.

Oxford, where he read history at Balliol, proved similarly liberating. Given his unusual diligence and enormous reading, the subsequent first seems to have surprised only him. His Greek background disqualifying him from the diplomatic service, he took up law, being called to the Bar in 1935. Clearly able, he nonetheless made only faltering progress in the law, held back by the kind of natural reticence that also made him, however otherwise eligible, a marginal figure in society.

Of vastly greater significance, however, was his gradual realisation that he was not and never could be a Conservative. Though he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in the 1945 general election, he thereafter remained a stalwart socialist, albeit of the milder variety.

What prompted Carvocoressi’s leftward move was in part what he saw as the instinctive anti-Semitism of the Right. It was a conviction emphatically reinforced by his experiences at the Nuremberg war trials. At the same time, however aware of the shortcomings of the trials, he was passionately persuaded that war criminals should and must be prosecuted and that internationally sanctioned organisations, whatever their flaws, were the most effective means of doing so.

In London again, he abandoned the law and embarked on a career as one of the most prolific and best-informed commentators on world politics. He worked first as secretary to a somewhat nebulous pan-European organisation, Liberal International, its goal to act as a counterpart to the Socialist International. Little occurred. In 1949 he was taken on by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, better known as Chatham House. Here he oversaw, which in practice meant largely wrote, an annual 250,000-world volume on the previous year’s events, the Annual Survey of International Affairs.

A falling out with the director-general led to his move to Chatto & Windus. The 11 years he spent there confirmed his belief that publishing was a matter of passion and judgment driven by the determination to produce the best possible books. The pursuit of profit for its own sake he saw as fundamentally inimical to successful publishing, a guarantee that literary values would be distorted in a business where profits had never been more than marginal.

He was perhaps fortunate to work in what, in retrospect, was the last era of the gentleman publisher. It was an experience strikingly at odds with his later time with Penguin, where he consistently found himself at odds with a board driven by Pearson’s determination to maximise the bottom line.

Enforced departure from Penguin may have proved a rare sour experience in an otherwise well-ordered life, but it at least freed time for writing, for all that, as he said, writing had always “been going on in the background whatever else \[was\] occupying me”.

If at the end, the years took their inevitable toll, the death of his wife a particular blow, life in Bath, to which he and his wife had moved in 1983, provided consolations of its own.

Calvocoressi was married to the Hon Barbara Eden in 1938. She died in 2005, and the following year he was married to Rachel Scott. She survives him, along with his two sons from his first marriage and three stepchildren from his second.

Peter Calvocoressi, writer, publisher and lawyer, was born on November 17, 1912. He died on February 5, 2010, aged 97