Big Turn Out for GrossDate: 18 March 2011
The memorial for the former Sunday Telegraph critic John "Box Office" Gross at the Royal Institute of British Architects, RIBA, in Portland Place yesterday evening was a very classy affair, with Robert Lloyd singing Schubert, Claire Tomalin reading Auden and Barry Humphries reciting Stevie Smith.
The programme for the event had been chosen by Gross himself, his son Tom revealed, and Humphries, for one, was stumped, well stymied.
After spouting Smith's four brief lines on the death of a German philosopher, he said that he'd give a box of Black Magic to anyone who could explain it to him. He glanced down at the front row, where sat Tomalin, Anthony Thwaite, Martin Amis and Christopher Ricks. Answer came there none.
Humphries then said that the critics had, quite rightly, given his last London show at the Haymarket, bad reviews. "Every critic gave me a stinker. John, too, gave me a stinker. But in a nice way."
A few actors joined the throng: Angharad Rees, Louise Gold (his niece), Peter Eyre, Nickolas Grace, joined by opera singer Jill Gomez and theatre critics Susannah Clapp, Georgina Brown, Charles Spencer, Patrick Carnegy, Robert Butler and Benedict Nightingale.
But theatre was a relatively small part of the Gross product: "the best read man in London" was a supreme man of letters on every serious publication going, including the Times Literary Supplement, which he edited.
Amis languidly evoked Gross's diffidence and discretion and said that he'd never, before working with him on the New Statesman, encountered someone in whom brain power and self-effacement were so simultaneously apparent. He represented, he said, a pocket of discernment in the city, and gave some hilarious examples of his coaxing brilliance as an editor.
"Everything I write," concluded Amis, "I send by John's desk. I still do, and I always will."
Other recordings Gross had ordered up were Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love"; Kathleen Ferrier singing "The Keel Row"; "Oft in the Stilly Night" sung by the peerless Irish tenor Count John McCormack; and "Shenandoah" sung by Paul Robeson.
The absolute highlight, though, may have been Christopher Ricks reading a Robert Frost poem, "Provide, Provide" and giving a short masterclass in comic tone, gravity and phrasing all at once:
"No memory of having starred
Better to go down dignified
John Gross had provided all right, but the friendship that flooded the RIBA had cost him nothing; everyone there just dug him in spades.