Russell Twisk RIP

I’ve just learned that Russell Twisk, an old friend and my first editor, has died. He’d had a stroke a while back, and was struggling, so maybe his death came as a merciful release.

I have nothing but fond memories of him. I knew him first when he became Editor of The Listener, a sadly-defunct weekly owned and published by the BBC, on which I was a fiction reviewer and, later, its TV Critic. (Following in the footsteps of more eminent writers like Raymond Williams and Clive James, I might add.)

Russell was an unexpected choice for Editor, possibly because some people suspected that he hadn’t been the BBC’s first choice for the post. At any rate, it was claimed that the supposed favourite, Richard Gott, had been rejected at the last minute because MI5 complained to the BBC Governors that Gott was, er, very left-wing and therefore not the kind of chap one wanted running a major weekly magazine. I have no idea whether this was true, but the Fleet Street crowd believed it and so Russell’s appointment was viewed by them with a degree of patronising disdain.

If he was dismayed or irritated by this he never showed it. And in fact it may have played to his advantage, because he came to the Editorship with low external expectations. In person he was astonishingly modest and understated. But he turned out to be a brilliant editor, possibly because — unlike many editors — he did not believe that he could write better than any of the half-wits he employed (though actually he was a rather good writer, as he showed during his time as the Radio Critic of the Observer). He saw his role as part-conductor and part-impresario, and he was terrific at coaxing the best out of his contributors.

I loved his company. He and I shared an interest in slow horses, and went to many a race meeting together — at which, almost without exception, we lost money and drank champagne to console ourselves. When he eventually retired, he moved to Petersfield in West Sussex, a location he extolled on account of its proximity to Goodwood. I left the Listener to become the Observer‘s TV Critic in 1987, and Russell was headhunted to become Editor-in-Chief of the Reader’s Digest, then still in its heyday. As a grandee of the magazine publishing world (the Digest had a huge circulation then) he often used to invite me to the monthly dinners of the Magazine Publishers Association in Claridges or the Savoy (where I once asked a very rude question of the then US Ambassador). Being his guest gave me a fascinating insight into the world of fashion magazines and the glossy end of the print media.

Apart from his generosity, what I remember most about Russell is his wry, understated humour. Once, when we were standing in Claridges drinking champagne and watching the great and the good of the magazine business roll up for lunch, he suddenly leaned over and whispered into my ear. “This is weird”, he said. “Chaps are beginning to take their own wives to lunch.”

May he rest in peace. There’s a memorial service for him on September 10. And the National Portrait gallery has a lovely portrait of him by Michael Bennett.