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.