19 August 2014
Literary editor and publisher who rescued a biography of Boris Johnson and as a young man escaped from an Italian PoW camp
A self-effacing man who lived for books, Rivers Scott enjoyed three careers — as a literary editor, as a publisher, and as a literary agent. He combined sound editorial advice with the character of a convivial host, often at his beloved Garrick Club.
The political commentator Andrew Gimson recalled that the first draft of his biography of Boris Johnson had failed to tell the story properly, but that with a few deft touches Scott had rescued the situation. “As an editor, he had a good ear and sense of humour,” Gimson said. “He also had beautiful manners, not in a prissy way, but in the sense of being considerate.”
Scott helped John Major with the early chapters of his autobiography until Major chose to go it alone, and friends were amused when the chapters for which Scott had been responsible were singled out for praise by reviewers. However, Scott was always too modest to beat his own drum very loudly.
Rivers Scott was born in 1921 near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and was brought up in a large house outside Speldhurst. His father, Francis Winstone Scott, was a stockbroker and had been married to Ernestine Bowes-Lyon before she left him for another man. Francis continued to bring up their two sons, and soon afterwards met Hazel Pease, a nurse in France, whom he married. Rivers had a happy childhood with a nanny and cook. At Eton he discovered a keen interest in history. Around the age of 19 he decided to convert to Catholicism and his faith remained a profoundly held conviction throughout his life.
He read history at Trinity College, Cambridge until he was old enough to join the army as an officer cadet at which point he was posted to Tunisia with the 17th/21st Lancers, a “posh” tank regiment that had been recommended by his father. He saw action at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943, in which he displayed unusual strength in rescuing the driver from his tank before it was burnt. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he was sent to Italy, where he improved his French and learnt some Italian while most of his fellow prisoners played bridge.
When Italy surrendered in September 1943, the camp’s pro-British commandant told the prisoners to leave. Scott walked out of the camp with 600 other prisoners shortly before the Germans arrived to take charge. He travelled north — hidden in haylofts and fed by Italian farmers — and eventually made it over the Alps into Switzerland, where he was first interned but subsequently worked as an interpreter.
After the war he went to live in Paris for a year. He had intended to live in a garret but was invited to lodge with the mother of a friend in her apartment in the grand 16th arrondissement. Having returned to London, he saw an advertisement in the Spectator offering a magazine for sale called the Young Briton for £900. He persuaded his father to back him in the venture, bought the magazine, changed it into an Anglo-French magazine, and marketed it to schools. After three years he sold it to a publishing group. He then found work as a freelancer on the Times Educational Supplement and before long he joined the staff at Printing House Square.
In 1955 he married Christina Dawson, the daughter of the eminent Catholic historian and amateur scholar Christopher Dawson. They went on to have five sons: Hugh, a software developer; Julian, a translator; Antony, a stud manager; Christopher, director of music at a London prep school; and Dominic, a professor of Philosophy.
After a spell on The Daily Telegraph he was appointed as literary editor on The Sunday Telegraph and found his métier. He took a break from literary journalism when he joined Hodder & Stoughton — still then privately owned — as an editor specialising in non-fiction. “He was an admired and imaginative editor, and a scrupulous grammarian, beloved of the authors with whom he worked,” recalled one colleague.
He also agreed to become literary editor of Now!, Sir James Goldsmith’s short-lived and much-mocked weekly news magazine. When it closed after two years he received a year’s salary as a pay-off and decided to switch careers again. This time he established a literary agency called Scott Ferris Associates. Over the ensuing years he cultivated the quaint habit of attending the health farm Shrubland Hall to detox before, not after, his annual trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“He was a marvellous editor as he had such an unobtrusive and lucid style,” said Julia Jones, his niece and an author. Although he never wrote a book of his own, he wrote introductions for reprints, reviewed crime fiction, ran a newsletter about new books translated from German, and contributed reviews to the Catholic press.
Following the death of his wife, and after a reasonable gap, he moved in with his business partner Gloria Ferris, the ex-wife of the writer Paul Ferris. They retired to south Wales but continued to spend time in London. “My career has always been a matter of pure chance,” he once said. “I fell into jobs. I was offered jobs and I took them.”
Rivers Scott, literary editor and publisher, was born on December 11, 1921. He died on May 22, 2014, aged 92
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