Douglas Matthews

Douglas Matthews was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998.

Douglas Matthews remembered – by Richard Davenport-Hines

I received hundreds of letters of condolence when my son killed himself at the age of 21. The most memorable was from Douglas Matthews. He wrote of the effect on his parents of his sister’s suicide. Young people, he continued, do not understand finality. They cannot imagine when they set out to destroy themselves that the act will be decisive, enduring, irrecuperable. They can’t grasp that Time does halt.

Douglas Matthews might seem stolid or undemonstrative to those who knew him slightly. But his friends knew him to be, as his letter showed, humane and shrewd and worldly.

He was not elected, though, as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998 (and presented with the Benson Medal in 2008) because of his personal virtues or capacity for friendship. It was a reward for his threefold services to authors and books: he was a doyen of indexers; he was a member of the staff of the London Library for 28 years, and its chief librarian from 1980 to 1993; and he was a long-serving trustee and registrar of the Royal Literary Fund.

One can spot indexes compiled by Douglas Matthews as readily as the director’s silhouette in a Hitchcock film. They had panache. He read the proofs for sense, and spotted errors or ambiguities that copy editors had missed. His indexing work broadened his knowledge and outlook, as this most sober and reliable of men told me after making the index for my book on drug users entitled The Pursuit of Oblivion.

As Librarian of the London Library, Douglas had his ideal Chairman in another FRSL, John Grigg. They both avowed their belief in noblesse oblige. They were personally attentive to members and staff, and valued by them. Douglas stood every afternoon in the Issue Hall of the Library watching the va-et-vient of members, welcoming them with smiles, exuding beneficence, always unruffled, and contributing to an atmosphere of timeless placability.

Like many people who reached positions of responsibility in the 1970s, he erred in thinking that many faults were beyond mending. He despaired of getting the library buildings into tip-top condition, and left accumulated structural troubles for his successors. He never dreamt of sidelining or dispensing with staff who were inert, ill-qualified or otherwise egregious. He had a Panglossian view of appointing people to jobs, and took on some obviously rebarbative types in the sunny hope that they might turn out well, which they seldom did.

When the London Library celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1991, he and John Grigg agreed an act that was characteristically both generous but indiscriminate. They granted 5 per cent above the university of London pay scale to all staff members, regardless of whether they were duffers or high achievers, and thus offended the former group and gave a disincentive to the latter.

Douglas revelled in his work for the Royal Literary Fund. He was one of a set of trustees, including Ronald Harwood, Simon Brett and John Tydeman, who lunched together at the Garrick Club before meetings. The generosity of spirit of Ronnie and Simon brought out the best in him. He found in their company an altruism that became an animating force in his later years. It is not a stretch to say that in the RLF of Ronnie’s day Douglas found solace and affection that he had lost after his divorce in 1991.

Douglas stinted himself. I remember him reeling shock when Andrew Roberts dined at his Lewes home, drank two glasses of red wine from a half-empty bottle that had been opened days earlier, and then asked firmly for a new bottle to be opened and for more glasses to be poured. I remember, myself, longing to wear a winter overcoat while sitting in the dining room of the Lewes house.

But Douglas was generous with money when he was in eleemosynary mode. As the RLF trustees were on the point of agreeing the sum to grant an applicant, Douglas would often intervene in his mild voice and propose an extra £500 or £1,000.

He liked to give donations to deserving people. He liked to think well of them, and to wish them well. In assessing merits he was never gullible, never moralistic, never sarcastic. His fellow trustees knew him to be balanced and fair-minded: his views were weighty.

He retired in 2014 after 21 years as a trustee. By his RLF colleagues he is remembered with tenderness as a discreet, sage and good man.