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Robin Denniston

Publisher and church minister;

Born: December 25, 1926; Died: April 6, 2012 .

Robin Denniston, who has died aged 85 after a long illness, was a distinguished publisher who helped transform the fortunes of four major publishing houses, commissioning a string of best-selling books, and promoting the careers of writers as diverse as Erich Segal, Anthony Sampson and John le Carre.

He was proud of his Scottish roots. His grandfather, a surgeon, was brought up in Argyll and treated soldiers in war-torn Turkey in the 1870s before returning to be a GP in Dunoon. His father, who pioneered code-breaking at Bletchley Park during the war, played hockey for Scotland in the 1908 Olympics and was a language teacher at Merchiston before going into intelligence. Mr Denniston himself began his publishing career at Collins in Glasgow. Many years later, he would return to Scotland to be a minister of the Episcopalian church at Burntisland, Fife.

Mr Denniston was the very opposite of the hard-bitten publisher – a devout and ordained minister of the church, softly-spoken, an intellectual, prone to introspection. Yet in a career spanning 50 years, at Collins, Hodder and Stoughton, Weidenfelds and Oxford University Press, he made an indelible mark, demonstrating an instinctive understanding of public taste, which often astonished those working with him.

John le Carre pays tribute to him for championing him when he was under attack from the critics. "It is easy to publish a successful writer," he said. "To stand by him in difficult times is a far greater strength."

Mr Denniston himself regarded the work he did in later life to resurrect the wartime reputation of his father, Alastair, as at least as important as his publishing achievements. AG Denniston, as he was known, was head of the British Government's cipher-breaking bureau in 1919, and went on to assemble the brilliant team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park in the early years of the Second World War.

Robin Denniston's book about him – Thirty Secret Years – credits him with bringing together the key figures behind Ultra, the intelligence system which cracked encrypted enemy communications and was acknowledged by Churchill as a crucial contributor to allied victory.

Robin Alastair Denniston was brought up in London, Bletchley and Worcestershire, where he was evacuated during the war. His mother, Dorothy Gilliatt, was a teacher. Educated at Westminster he was a scholar, captain of the school cricket XI and a promising pianist. He went on to read classics at Christ Church, Oxford, where he "scraped an indifferent second," in his own words, and did national service in the Airborne Artillery, becoming a second lieutenant.

He joined the Collins publishing house in Glasgow, as a trainee, taking with him his wife, Anne Evans, whom he had met at Oxford and married in 1950. Within 18 months he had been promoted to head office, and become a close friend of the Collins family, for whom he worked, as editor, for nine years, before leaving to head a small religious publishing house, Faith Press.

From there he was recruited by Hodder and Stoughton, where he was to build a formidable reputation, becoming successively editorial director and managing director. Amongst his successes was the phenomenal best-seller, Love Story by Erich Segal, and Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain, which he encouraged, helped develop and made one of the most influential political books of its time.

He also brought John Le Carre over from Gollancz, taking him on at a time when he had turned from spy fiction to write The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, which was greeted, as Le Carre himself comments, by "a storm of disapproval". Denniston backed the book and his author, and was rewarded by later best-sellers such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

From Hodders, in 1973, he joined George Weidenfeld as deputy chairman, and was then recruited by Thomson Publications to head a string of firms, including Michael Joseph, Thomas Nelson, George Rainbird and Sphere Books. It was not a job he enjoyed, and it was with some relief that he joined the academic division of the Oxford University Press, where he brought an acute business mind to bear on a department that was struggling, and succeeded in transforming its fortunes.

Mr Denniston's spiritual life was ultimately as important to him as his publishing career. Ordained first as a deacon, then as priest in the Anglican church, he became an honorary curate in the late 1970s, before taking on the assignment that he was to grow to love more than all others – as stipendiary minister at Great Tew in Oxfordshire. So loved was he by his parisioners that they persuaded him to return for an unprecedented second term of office after a five year break.

Before then, however, his wife Anne, mother of their three children, had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and died in 1985. Two years later he married Rosa Beddington, a brilliant scientist and embryologist, whose work on mammalian development was ground-breaking. Although 30 years his junior, their marriage was a success, and, when her work took her to Edinburgh, he followed her there, becoming a minister in Burntisland in Fife, and studying for an MSc. Their time in Edinburgh was difficult for both, and put strains on the marriage. But Mr Dennistion found much solace in his pastoral work in Burntisland, and was unstinting in his support for Rosa's scientific work.

A writer as well as a publisher, his early book The Young Musicians reflected the ambition he had once held to be a conductor. His interest in his father's intelligence career led him to write Churchill's Secret War, then Thirty Secret Years, and his work in re-establishing AG Denniston's reputation is acknowledged in the official history of GCHQ, where he was taken on a visit in the last years of his life.

A long friendship with the anti-apartheid bishop, Trevor Huddleston, led to a life of Huddleston, and his period in Scotland produced the Anatomy of Scotland, co-edited with Magnus Linklater.

A devoted father and husband, Robin Denniston had to draw deep on his faith when Rosa was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 45. He nursed her through her final illness as he had his first wife Anne. A private testament, written on the deaths of his two wives, is an intensely moving document.

He died after a long illness, leaving a son and two daughters.

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