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Ross, Alan John (1922–2001), writer and editor, was born in Calcutta, India, on 6 May 1922, the only son of John Brackenridge Ross, businessman, and his wife, Clare, daughter of Captain Patrick Fitzpatrick, an officer in the Indian Army. His father was originally from Clydeside. His mother's family had associations with the subcontinent stretching back centuries, and her forebears included an Armenian rich in indigo estates married to an East India Company merchant of extravagant habits. From infancy speaking better Hindustani than English, Ross spent his first seven years happily in the care of ayahs, within the sounds and sight of cricket at Eden Gardens. He grew up a contented child of the raj, always returning to India, and never eluding its pull.

In 1929 Ross was sent to England to be educated, first in Falmouth, then three years later at a preparatory school in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he lodged with the vicar of Ardingly. At Haileybury from 1934 he pursued a course more competitive than cultured, learning to play games from cricket and squash to billiards with an insouciance that masked his considerable skills. In 1940 he went to St John's College, Oxford, to read modern languages. At Oxford he played cricket and squash for the university but, although such aesthetes as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis took a sporty view of him, he unobtrusively preferred poems to games. A volume of Louis MacNeice was in his pocket when in 1941 he joined the Royal Navy.

Reporting from icy seas in lyrics hauntingly sidelong—his Second World War poems were collected in Open Sea (1975)—Ross spent two years in destroyers, escorting supply ships to Arctic Russia. Trapped under fire on HMS Onslow in a hold awash with bodies, and rescued in the nick of time, he wrote seventeen pages of staccato narrative, ‘J.W.51B a Convoy’, later considered as sinewy a dispatch on war's all too human impact as any poetry to emerge from that conflict. After training at Hove for a commission in 1943, his post-war duties in intelligence included handing over a U-boat to the Russians and winning the argument that spared the German crew. With precision—photography was an admired art nonchalantly practised from boyhood—his shorter poems caught in snapshots the very grain of war. Throughout his life, his best art was verse documentary, life caught on the hop, tersely expressed.

Following demobilization in 1946, peace left Ross restless; he chose not to return to Oxford to complete his degree. However, having spent his shore leaves in Soho's pub culture, he was soon at home, if not always at ease, in literary London. For a while, though never a natural employee, he worked for the British Council and on George Weidenfeld's short-lived magazine, Contact. John Lehmann funded him and the painter John Minton to explore Corsica. His first travel book, Time Was Away (1948), was unique in omitting the word ‘I’. Ross claimed never to look at his face in a mirror, even when shaving.

On 6 October 1949 Ross married (Ann) Jennifer Evelyn Elizabeth Heber-Percy, née Fry (1916–2003). She was the divorced wife of Robert Heber-Percy (with whom she had one daughter, Victoria, b. 1943), and the only child of Sir Geoffrey Storrs Fry, first baronet, private secretary to Stanley Baldwin. Through her father she was heiress to the chocolate fortune founded by the Quaker magnate Joseph Fry. After their marriage the Rosses settled to a harmonious routine divided between South Kensington and Clayton Manor, below the downs north of Brighton. Their son, Jonathan, was born in 1953, the year Ross was appointed cricket correspondent of The Observer in succession to Raymond Charles (Crusoe) Robertson-Glasgow: ‘I did my best to seem not too much of a let-down’, Ross said with the modesty that marked his every achievement (The Independent, 19 Feb 2001). In twenty years he never missed a deadline or indeed a turn of phrase. His journalism, like his verse, was as much image as report. Yet at the ground he watched the cricket with half an eye, a model of indolence, throughout the day developing a piece in a hand as casually graceful as his garb, then with the speed of a good newsman snapping up a phone-box and rounding out the prose as he dictated.

From the late 1950s Ross was a regular contributor to The London Magazine, founded by John Lehmann in 1954, and at one point he and Maurice Cranston edited the magazine in Lehmann's absence. In 1961 Jennifer Ross put up the money to save the ailing publication, which Lehmann handed over to the control of Ross with a hostility that induced in the latter one of the nervous breakdowns that punctuated his life, and which now and then left him suicidal. Soon, however, while never less than half lodged in that quiet self where poems were engineered, Ross brought the magazine sharply up to date in style, range, and content. His editorship lasted forty years, his aim not only to nurture new authors of scope but to ‘rescue good writers out of fashion, give space to minor writers, to re-examine movements of the past’ (The Independent, 19 Feb 2001). He was an editor of balance and intuition, disdaining the dryly academic or the briefly chic. He liked to be seen to be living on nothing much, if with elegance and a minimum of effort, while working hard. He paid for lunch with loose cheques; filling in counterfoils, like tax forms or summonses for libel, was beneath or beyond him. His London Magazine (Ross dropped the definite article in 1966) reflected with vigour late twentieth-century art, written, visual, aural, cinematic, and architectural. He simplified as well as unified contemporary culture by the clarity of his unique editorial taste. He also discovered many new talents. The magazine was a one-man band, with a little help from friends, and Ross stood with daily anonymity in the post-office queue at South Kensington. When some of his young finds wrote books, he started a publishing firm to see them on their way, first under his own name, which he judged too self-exposing, then from 1965 under the more secretive imprint of London Magazine Editions.

Ross was charming in a distinctive way: even in later life there was something of the little boy lost about him. He moved with an athletic absence of haste. Always elegant in dress, with a touch of the rakish, he often looked puzzled, giving the scene a quizzical stare from eyes that seemed to protrude, as if unable to comprehend other people's taste or behaviour. A stutter came and went, to add to the effect of faint outrage, but his voice had a baritone tenderness and warmth. He conveyed a sense that all was well as long as it was also easygoing. Yet his industry was impressive. Among his books in the 1980s were a survey of Second World War artists, an account of the Indian politician G. D. Birla, and a suave biography of the cricketing prince Ranji. From early on, he punctuated his many travel books with passages of verse, but in maturity the prose and the poems were so interwoven as to reflect Ross's interest as much in the narrative of daily life as in the constant nag of loss and change that underlay it.

During his first marriage Ross conducted without undue discord a number of liaisons with women of great beauty; he and Jennifer Ross separated in 1978 and were divorced in 1985. Elizabeth (Liz) Claridge was with him in America for the writing of his verse reportage on the United States, Death Valley (1980), interrelated poems of travel, by far his most telling volume. Ross's relationship with her ended in the late 1980s, but he found happiness in his final relationship, with Jane Colclough Langlands, née Rye (b. 1942), painter, and daughter of the poet Anthony Francis Rye.

Ross's poems were always news. Inventing an idiom a shade beyond occasional verse, he scribbled his metrical dispatches from any front line he chose—post-war Germany, Iraq in the 1950s, South Africa in ferment, Australia struggling for the Ashes, Stanley Matthews dribbling a football, David Gower in form at the crease—but most of all islands and love. He wrote two volumes of oblique memoirs, Blindfold Games (1986) and Coastwise Lights (1988), in which he concealed not only his privacy of spirit but also the trouble he took to write prose of immense ease. His last book, Reflections on Blue Water (2000), in his usual mood of leisure tinged with accidie, was set in Ischia, where he spent time in youth, and the Aeolian Islands, visited in old age. He married Jane Rye, his companion for a decade, on 12 October 2000, months before his death of a heart attack on 14 February 2001 at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London. He was survived by his wife Jane and the son of his first marriage, Jonathan.

David Hughes

Sources  

A. Ross, Blindfold games (1986) · A. Ross, Coastwise lights (1988) · Daily Telegraph (15 Feb 2001) · The Times (16 Feb 2001) · The Guardian (16 Feb 2001) · The Independent (19 Feb 2001) · WW (2001) · personal knowledge (2005) · private information (2005) · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

BL · U. Leeds

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recording


Likenesses  

J. Minton, pen-and-ink drawing, 1948, repro. in A. Ross and J. Minton, Time was away (1948), 140 · group photograph, 1952, Topham Picturepoint; repro. in The Independent · A. Daintrey, drawing, exh. Arthur Jeffress Gallery, London 1964 · photograph, 1980, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, London · L. Rosomon, pencil, chalk, and wash, 1983–4 (Alan Ross and his dog Boppa, startled), priv. coll. · T. Hyman, oil on board, 1986–8, priv. coll. · photograph, 1988, repro. in Daily Telegraph · J. Bown, photograph, 1999, Camera Press, London · R. Buhler, portrait, priv. coll. · G. Griffiths, photograph, repro. in The Independent (4 Feb 1993) · D. McNeelance, photograph, repro. in The Times (11 June 1988) · J. Waldorf, photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Times