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Gillon Aitken: A great literary agent we all looked up to

6 November 2016

9:00 AM

6 November 2016

9:00 AM

Gillon Aitken, the great literary agent, who has just died, was a reserved man. It is an admirable and brave thing to be in a culture which increasingly mistakes reserve for coldness. All Gillon’s communications, written or oral (I was one of his authors), were exact and economical. One could find this disconcerting, but what he said was what needed saying, and was conveyed with charm. He possessed no notebook, and would write minimal jottings on his cigarette packets. It used to puzzle me that such a literary man as Gillon was not a writer manqué sort of agent (though he translated Pushkin with great elegance): he dealt skilfully with money issues and never attempted to be ‘the midwife to genius’. (He did occasionally — rightly — become the abortionist of error, efficiently disposing of terrible, unprofitable ideas for books.) I also wondered why he wanted to spend his life dealing with writers’ money, since it is a painful subject, and we so often behave badly about it. But perhaps this was part of his reserve. He believed in authors and, as his business partner Clare Alexander puts it, ‘He liked to be a percentage of an author.’ I am glad to discover, however, that Gillon was not all self-effacement. He was proud of being six foot six inches, and decreed that no one he employed should be taller. The restriction was unnecessary, because Gillon stood uniquely tall. We all looked up to him, literally and metaphorically.

This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes, which first appeared in this week’s Spectator magazine


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