Tribute to Francis Wyndham

Francis Wyndham 1924-2017

Above my writing desk at Tweed Heads on the New South Wales-Queensland border is a photograph of writer, editor and literary mentor Francis Wyndham who has died in London aged 93.

The colour photo depicts Wyndham in front of a portrait of himself painted by the late Lucian Freud, another of Wyndham’s wide-ranging social network. In both the photograph and painting, he is wearing the same expression which gives an unnerving doppelgänger effect.

An unsmiling Wyndham looks his lugubrious self which annoys some of his friends who prefer to remember his jollity, venomous wit and infectious horse laugh.

The picture was taken by Wyndham’s Sunday Times colleague, the late David King, whose personal collection of Soviet memorabilia is currently at Tate Modern to mark the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Wyndham and King, who co-wrote Trotsky: A Documentary in 1972, were lifelong friends who shared an absorbing interest in art, books and gardens.

I hung the photo over my work desk as a reminder of Wyndham, his loyalty, inspiration and friendship. To gauge Wyndham’s influence on literature, it is best to check out award-winning novels written over the past 30 years and see how many the Acknowledgements contain the name of Francis Wyndham, or else the book is dedicated to Francis Wyndham, or FW or simply Francis.

You will find such inscriptions in the works of Jean Rhys, whom Wyndham rediscovered and resurrected, Edward St Aubyn, Alan Hollinghurst, Julian Barnes, George Melly, Susannah Clapp, James Fox, me and my partner Judith White. He was also an honorary literary executor for the works of Jean Rhys and Bruce Chatwin. For both of them it was his labour of love.

In 1987 Wyndham was awarded the Whitbread First Novel Prize for The Other Garden which was later translated into Italian which brought him much joy.

All those who worshipped his exceptional writing talent were disappointed that he did not write more fiction. He had a wonderful flair for dialogue and exquisitely observed the manners and mannerisms of his subjects.

But Francis would dismiss our mildly critical observation, with the languid but persuasive remark: “Oh, but it is so-o-o much hard work.” And no one wanted Wyndham to work too hard; he was much too precious. We all wanted him to live forever. Now I’ll have to settle for the photo over my work desk.

  • * Alex Mitchell is an Australian-born journalist who worked on the London Sunday Times with Francis Wyndham between 1967 and 1971. They have remained close friends ever since. In 2011 Mitchell wrote Come The Revolution: A Memoir, published by University of NSW Books.

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