Nicholas Webb – Publisher and Author – 1949-2012
To know Nick Webb was to fall in love with his wit, intelligence, affability, generosity and self-deprecating charm (“No, no, too much, dear chap. No need to pile it on with a trowel,” I hear him say in his wonderful voice: a deep mix of fruit, honey and chocolate with an occasional distinctive stammer.) To meet him was to see a bearded gentle giant, beaming in a knowing way like the kindest of uncles, whose comforting presence made one wonder for a moment whether one’s parents had been too hasty in blowing the whistle on the old geezer and there was a Santa Claus after all.
Nicholas Webb, who died suddenly and unexpectedly on 10 April at the age of 63, was an important figure in English publishing for more than 20 years, not least because he was key to ensuring that the works of Douglas Adams were translated from radio into book form. Given that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and its companion works look set to be classics and that their author was famously reluctant to buckle to and actually write, Nick’s service to English literature was inestimable if only for this. As it happens, however, he was an author in his own right. He was entrusted with composing Adams’s official biography, Wish You Were Here; and he also penned The Dictionary of Bullshit and The Dictionary of Political Bullshit.
His background was unconventional. On his father’s side he was descended from a raffish strain of Irish gentry, and when in the mood (which was most of the time, since he was a brilliant raconteur) he would tell tales of his paternal grandmother, a critic for the Irish Times, and her many amours. Webb-père, was Bill Webb who, under the names Auger and Solon, was a racing tipster for the Sporting Life. “My dad was very knowledgeable about horses, but addicted to impossible accumulator bets,” Nick reported without rancour. In his youth he would go with his father to the races in some style, only to return penniless. His aunt was Kaye Webb, publisher of Puffin books, who was married to Ronald Searle and by Nick’s account a racy character in her own right.
Nick’s mother, Eve, came to England from Germany on a Kindertransport and was taken in by an academic family in Oxford. Her natural family was destroyed in the Holocaust. An effect of her marriage to an Irish racing tipster was that her son had no sense of a Jewish identity, a matter about which he mused occasionally though with no particular regret. Once, in New York, a publishing colleague tried to connect him with this element of his inheritance but failed. “There was simply nothing there – and I really couldn’t get used to gefilte fisch,” he said with a wry smile. In the end the ritualistic side of Jewishness was incompatible with his rationalist, atheist beliefs, though he had a soft spot for Unitarians “because whenever you mention any actual doctrines they start to look shifty.”
Nick was brought up in Kew and educated at Tiffins School, Kingston on Thames. He studied philosophy and English at Warwick University before entering publishing. He described his career thus: “For most of my professional life I was a publisher, but not the kind of publisher in a crumpled corduroy suit and a book-lined office. No, I worked for giant corporations with their octopoid fingers up many pies. Actually I preferred it that way; the besetting sin of the publishing business is snobbery, but the organizations for whom I toiled were preoccupied only with the “bottom line”. So I was a commercial publisher with a brow below the socks, and I believed in trustworthy information or a good story rather than smart reviews.” Nick also believed in the old-fashioned publishing virtues of commitment to authors and cultivating budding talent over the long haul, and he was a pleasure to deal with.
In the 1970s Nick became Senior Fiction Editor at Pan. “It was a bit of a fib inasmuch as there was no Junior Fiction Editor, but you know how organizations employ such subterfuges to massage the ego in lieu of wages.” Though not a scientist he had a lifelong passion for cosmology and it was this enthusiasm for science and dislike of humbug that underpinned his relationship with Douglas Adams. Their great height and liking for beer and lively conversation also seem to have helped. In 1979 Nick bought the rights and commissioned Adams to convert the radio script for the first series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy into a novel, and thereafter they remained friends until the latter’s death in 2001. He was modest about his role in the book’s success; as he put it, “We were all taken by surprise. I thought it would do well, but had no idea that it would go utterly bonkers (publishing techy term).”
Nick was to work for Penguin, Granada, Hodder & Stoughton, and Sphere where he was Managing Director when the company was acquired by Penguin and later when it was under Robert Maxwell, whom he disliked intensely but was able to handle by responding in tedious detail and at boring length to the latter’s memos. He was also Managing Director of Simon & Schuster UK between 1991 and 1999. Given his convivial nature he found the lifestyle at the top end of the business in this period congenial: “It was great fun, but alas it made my waistline bigger than my IQ.” Typically Nick took no credit for his own success, and, when he lost his job at Simon & Schuster in circumstance that many considered unfair, he commented simply that he had been “found out”, as if he had done nothing in particular for the previous twenty years and the fact had only now been spotted.
After Simon & Schuster, Nick found himself increasingly disillusioned by publishing and tired of the ruthlessness of large corporations. He involved himself in a start-up dotcom venture, but it failed after running through the seed money. He was also, for a spell, Editor-in-Chief at Duckworth. For most of the time however he was working on his own literary projects, studying for a Certificate in Astronomy at the University of London and making the occasional progress round the country and abroad to visit his pals. He was also very fond of Deal where he had a second home and yet another circle of friends.
It was natural that Nick should be approached to write Douglas Adams’s biography, Wish You Were Here, but he didn’t find it an easy task. “I felt uncomfortable, like some moist reptile from one of our many crap papers. All that private stuff, some of which I never mentioned in the bio, was not for the eyes of some biographer, even a pal.” He struggled with the inherent problem of writing about the recently dead, namely balancing the biographer’s duty to the reader with showing some decent feeling for those who would be affected by what he wrote. He was unconvinced that he had made the right call in deciding how much of the darker, more difficult side of Adams to reveal, and for this reason was frank in saying his book was not the last word on the subject. Perhaps, yet it remains a primary source about the life of a possible genius, and for that reason important.
Of The Dictionary of Bullshit (2006) and The Dictionary of Political Bullshit (2010) Nick said, I confess that in my time I have been responsible for disseminating a fair tonnage of BS and would like to make amends.” The books are funny, insightful, and informed by a serious purpose. Nick loved words and despised bullshit because it corrupts the integrity of language as a vehicle for expressing truth. Characteristically he regarded the task as a collaborative effort and invited contributions from anyone who wanted to stick the knife into purveyors of hypocrisy, meaningless blandness and cunningly disguised evil. His friends duly chipped in and this accounts for the uneven length and tone of the entries. However the overall effect is pure Nick Webb.
Nick was universally popular (or as near as makes no difference) because he liked people and was kind and encouraging to those who struggled in the difficult business of writing and publishing books. Even the most trivial encounters with him were fun. He was committed in his friendships and always open to new ones. Quoth Nick: “Gather ye sense data while ye may. I don’t hold with this Death malarkey.” How true.
Nick was devoted to his family and adored his wife and daughter. He married the author Susan Moore in 1979. Their daughter Catherine is the successful fantasy writer Kate Griffin. They and his mother, Eve, survive him.