Mark Boxer once drew a caricature of his friend John Gross half-buried beneath piles of hardback books while glancing up from a copy of Tatler. It’s a caricature that contains a nugget of truth — it is rare, these days, for anyone so bookish to keep such a close eye on the toings-and-froings of high society and showbiz — but there is still something not quite right about the rather severe, tight-lipped expression on John’s face. Though he always read everything with a singular intensity, the moment he looked up he would start talking and smiling, his eyes a winning mixture of benevolence and glee.
John had a startling breadth of knowledge, aided by what seemed to me an almost photographic memory: when he watched Mastermind on television, he was as swift with his answers in the specialist rounds as in the general. From time to time, he would join a team for a charity quiz; his team would always win. He was once stumped by a question about which school was attended by the hero of Lorna Doone. I remember the look of admiration in his face when he told me that his fellow team-member, the late Hugh Massingberd, had come up with the right answer in a flash: ‘Blundells’.
When he was recovering in hospital from a heart attack some years ago, I gave him a copy of the 1968 Simon Dee Annual: there are not many former editors of the TLS who would welcome such a gift, but within minutes, he seemed to know it off by heart. He loved improbable connections between people, particularly high and low. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Lucian Freud had once had a small part in a George Formby film, and, furthermore, that George Formby had, many years earlier, shared a music-hall bill with the wife of Dr Crippen. ‘I must tell John,’ I thought to myself. And now I never can.
He was interested in everything (except, perhaps, sport). This is what made him such a perfect person to invigorate the TLS as well as a brilliant anthologist. Though anthologies are, by their nature, devoted to the works of others, his anthologies also serve as a sort of silhouette of the sharp and capacious mind that edited them, and of his underlying humanity.
In his last but one, The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, he includes a story about the popular novelist Catherine Cookson, who was serving as a laundry girl in a workhouse when, in the South Shields library, she came across a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, written in 1737. Lord Chesterfield spoke directly to her: ‘If you improve and grow learned everyone will be fond of you, and desirous of your company.’ Cookson recalled falling asleep reading the letters and awaking ‘round three o’clock in the morning, my mind deep in the fascination of this new world, where people conversed, not just talked. Where the brilliance of words made your heart beat faster.’ Other anthologists might have rejected Catherine Cookson as too lowbrow, but John had not only read her biography (how many of us can claim that?) but had clearly been moved by this unlikely union of two quite different minds separated by two centuries.
John himself was a tireless anecdotalist; it is easy to transpose many of the literary anecdotes in his anthology into his own idiosyncratic delivery, rapid, but full of asides and qualifications. In one, Kingsley Amis is quoted by John Mortimer as admitting that he had ‘hit his son with a hammer’, when in fact he had said that he had hit his thumb with a hammer. In another, also involving a mishearing, Kenneth Tynan quotes Tom Stoppard as saying ‘I am a human nothing’ and then suggests that all his plays should be read as an attempt to come to terms with this bleak truth. Thirty years later, Stoppard writes a letter to the Guardian stating, with characteristic good humour, that what he in fact said was, ‘I am assuming nothing.’
He had a particular interest in the humour of social embarrassment. I remember him telling the tale of Mark Boxer at dinner with Noel Annan, getting carried away with listing all the people they knew who never lived up to their early promise. ‘Yes — and of course there’s Noel Annan!’ said Mark, forgetting for a fatal second that it was Annan to whom he was talking. While Mark collapsed on the ground, writhing in embarrassment, John remembered thinking to himself, ‘I may be able to get through the rest of my life, but how can I get through the next five minutes?’
As a critic, he never mistook the po-faced for the serious or the flashy for the innovative. He had a passion for comedy. He was a member of the committee that advises the government on the awarding of public honours, and remained cross and bemused that Ronald Searle had for some reason been denied a knighthood.
He was no cultural relativist. His literary and theatre criticism was always underpinned by sanity and sound judgment. He once wrote of another critic that ‘One major source of strength in his work is an exceptional breadth of culture. He doesn’t parade his knowledge; his cultural allusions are almost always casual and unforced. But you never doubt that the knowledge is there, or that it has a living value.’ Had he been less modest, he might have written this description, with equal accuracy, of himself.
He was a modest man, beady but unassuming, and by temperament understated. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis recalls bumping into him in a shopping centre, a month or two after he had suffered a major heart attack. ‘It wasn’t too bad. Bearable. I’ve had worse toothaches,’ reported John.
He remained friendly and unpompous to the end. A day or two ago, a West Indian nurse at St Mary’s, Paddington, told John’s son Tom that ‘Mr Gross was the best conversationalist we’ve ever had here.’ It can’t be said of many people, but I think John died in just the way he would have chosen: to the sound of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, read by his daughter Susanna.