A few stops with Richard Brain
By MICHAEL CAINES
Good proofreaders and sub-editors, we are told from time to time, are in short supply; but for many years the TLS was lucky to have what its former Editor, Ferdinand Mount, described as the Rolls-Royce service of two superbly tenacious correctors of grammar and spelling, pursuers of stray facts and upholders of consistency in house style. One of this team was the late Keith Walker – "a tall, elegant figure in a grey suit, with a packet of Gitanes perpetually to hand", as our diarist recalled. Those were the days, I remember, when you could still smoke in an office.
The other, Richard Brain (above), has just died at the age of eighty-five. One of John Gross's last appointments to the staff of the TLS, he worked on the paper, a retirement or two aside, for over a quarter of a century, after a notable career at Oxford University Press. There, as Literary Editor of OUP's General Division, he helped, among other things, to secure Athol Fugard's reputation on this side of the world and co-edited a new and greatly expanded edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
These achievements equipped him, like Keith, to write authoritative reviews on unfortunate attempts to occupy the same territory (he gave the Times Book of Quotations magnificently short shrift) and the occasional book or film. His first piece, for example, on the Uncollected Poems of John Betjeman, begins by suggesting that it's the kind of book that might be, as it were, "good for a few stops", "like a 104 bus when you're waiting at the Archway for a 43 or a 134 to take you to Muswell Hill", but ends with a warning about the "gushing, derivative foreword by Bevis Hillier which fills one with foreboding about the forthcoming multi-volume biography". And there's an enviable side-swipe towards the end of his piece on Dead Poets Society, that "romance of adolescent hopes and supposings", about the cast of "barely professional actors (Robin Williams not excluded)".
There were enthusiasms, too, though, to counter the barbs, as well as the anecdotes and benefits of his experiences in the publishing world – translating Georges Simenon, having dinner (mainly rice pudding, apparently) with Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, corresponding with Nancy Mitford. How many tyros and their typos he must have put right over the years.