Some time in the early 1990s, the writer Willie Donaldson devoted his weekly column in the Independent to an account of how the editor who had commissioned him to write his memoirs was so desperate to get the book delivered that he had committed him to an addiction clinic run by mad Christians:
‘Paul Sidey of Random Century – one of the many publishers who have been hounding me in Ibiza – isn’t as silly as he looks. Not that he looks particularly silly; indeed he doesn’t look silly at all. A little too well-preserved, perhaps, for a literary man of a certain age, a little too crisp in the step and upper head; more like an old-time actor – even, in a certain light, like a retired soloist with the Ballet Rambert – but he’ll know his business best.’
I’ve been thinking about silliness and courage since Paul, who was a good and close friend, died last week. For Willie – dangerously funny and original as a writer, morally unreliable as a man – the world was divided into the silly (Peter Cook, himself, any woman with whom he fell in love) and the serious (FR Leavis, Jonathan Miller, his sister Bobo), and I suspect that Paul stumped him.
Attributes of silliness in Willie’s eyes would include a love of laughter, a capacity for gossip and fun, an instinctive distrust of the self-consciously serious, and here at least Paul fitted the bill. Yet, beyond the gaiety and general appearance of an old-style editor – that is, one who puts lunch before literature – there was, under deep cover, a grown-up.
The publishing firm for which he worked for over 30 years changed every decade or so, with takeovers, mergers, expansions, meltdowns, and shiny-faced executives announcing yet another bright new dawn (or, as Willie put it with characteristic tact, ‘your fine old imprint has recently been gobbled up by men in suits and barmy jumped-up women with names like Ros’).
Throughout it all, Paul continued not only to find the authors in which he believed – many of whom did not fit the corporate, marketing-first template of the times – and, just as important, got them through meetings and commissioned. He was much tougher, and a wilier player of the system, than many imagined.
Nothing is more revealing of a life than the way it ends. Paul had been living with cancer for several years, without ever allowing it to get in the way of living. After he retired, he began to write fiction – fast and with a fine eye for detail – and his last and most autobiographical novel The Book of Wag has some brilliant, heartfelt and perceptive moments.
The moment came when his illness was inescapable, and the end inevitable. Paul responded with a grace, dignity and courage which few of us could muster under such circumstances. Every day was a daily miracle, he said. One email to me opened with the words ‘Still alive!’ He had had a wonderful, blessed life, he said,and now he was ready to go. During those last weeks, at the worst of times, he allowed his friends to see and remember the best of him, and that was a characteristically generous gift.
A good man – funny, life-enhancing and brave – Paul was definitely a grown-up of the very best kind.