Scott Grønmark: 20 November 1952 - 29 June 2020
Eulogy: St. Michael and All Angels Church, Chiswick on 9 July 2021 ‘The Director’s Cut’
by Roderick Conway Morris
I always looked up to Scott. I have hazy memories of him at Wimbledon Common Preparatory School, better known as Squirrels on account of the badges on our diminutive (in Scott’s case not quite so diminutive) caps and blazers. That must have been in around 1959.
A couple of years later, I followed in his footsteps to King’s College Junior School across the road, by which time he had become even taller. And, in due course to KCS Senior and to Cambridge.
In a recent interview with Grady Hendrix, author of Paperpacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction (of which more ‘coming soon’) Scott summed up his early childhood like this:
‘I was born in Oslo in 1952. My father was an officer in the Norwegian Air Force, and my mother was a former fashion model from Glasgow. They’d met and married in England during the war, when he was a bomber pilot with the RAF, and she was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Glamorous-looking couple. He bequeathed me his height and his burliness, but I didn’t inherit either of their looks. My dad was posted to the Norwegian Embassy in London when I was six, and I’ve lived here ever since.’
Even when still at the KCS Junior, Scott was precocious in his literary and artistic tastes. His fellow Squirrels and King’s College contemporary Pete Sharman remembers: ‘Scott was without a doubt a bright guiding light in my life, especially in matters of taste in literature and painting. In my last term in the Junior School almost every Saturday afternoon we would do our best (pocket money permitting) to visit as many of the wonderful galleries and museums that London has to offer.’
I’m grateful to Pete for unearthing possibly Scott’s first published writing: in the King’s College School magazine, an account of a school trip to Dinard in the spring of 1968, an early example of Scott’s wry view of the world. The excursion included a visit to a hydro-electric dam, the workings of which, to quote Scott, ‘were explained to us in broken English by a man whom even the linguists in the party could not understand’. The article concludes: ‘The journey back was also successful. No one was, or indeed had the right to be, sick on the crossing, and we were all glad to see England again.’ Sentiments that will be familiar to anyone who met Scott later in life.
Scott was fortunate to find himself in the class of the KCS Senior’s brilliant Head of English. As he recalled on the Grønmark blog: ‘I entered Frank Miles’s English class at 13, and he remained my main English teacher until the end of Scholarship term four and a half years later, by which stage I’d managed – quite miraculously – to get a place at Cambridge. We had a long discussion about my choices.
Well, no, actually, the whole discussion consisted of the following exchange: “No, you will not do Art – you will do French.” “But I’m not very good at French.” “You will do French.” “Why?” “Because in order to go to Cambridge, you must have a language. You will do French.”’
Scott added: ‘I learned how to drink in a civilised fashion at gatherings in Frank’s flat. I was taught to maintain academic standards (“Grønmark, that was the worst essay I have ever read by a Sixth Former”).’
To be fair, Frank told most of us that at one time or another.
Scott had the advantage of living next door to the School in a flat in a wing of Gothic Lodge, an architectural curiosity styled on Hugh Walpole’s famous house at Strawberry Hill. This allowed him to rise – he was always a nighthawk – just a few minutes before morning assembly.
By nature, Scott was rather retiring, rather farouche, as Frank Miles might have put it. Indeed, he once described Scott in a melancholy mood as ‘sitting at the back of the class like a morose fur-trapper’. But the proximity of Scott’s lodgings to the School in time persuaded him to offer coffee during the mid- morning school break to his closest mates, which eventually turned into a kind of informal Salon.
As Pete Sharman records: ‘It's difficult to recall any one of my friends being so universally respected as Scott. At King’s in the sixth form listening to Scott “holding court” nearby in Gothic Lodge during “elevenses” was a privilege to many – even for boys who were older than himself. Mature beyond his years, he could express himself with knowledge and humour on almost every subject imaginable from politics, religion, popular culture to the beaux arts.’
Other friends, including Pete Brady, Margy Cockburn, Spud Murphy and Martin Riley, also sent me fond memories of the Gothic Lodge Grønmark Salon, which was eventually to morph in the technological age into the magnificent Grønmark Blog.
As Cambridge beckoned, Scott recalled: ‘About three months before I was due to go up, I panicked about my choice of subject. I think I had an inkling that studying literature without Frank just wouldn’t be the same.’
Scott switched to Philosophy, a very wise choice as the Supervisor at Christ’s was another notable teacher, Roger Scruton, who (amazingly) shared many of Scott’s determinedly independent-minded and deeply unfashionable views on a number of subjects.
As King’s College schoolfriend and fellow philosophy student Dave Moss writes: ‘There was Scott again, this time at Christ's, Cambridge, studying philosophy under Roger Scruton, and me lagging again, following a year behind him. Scott very soon learnt what a gift it was to be taught by Scruton, a case of winning the lottery of life for a second time, having already been taught by Frank Miles in the senior school at King's. The lessons learnt were crystallised in endless post-prandial alcohol-fuelled, raucous and hilarious sessions involving a dozen of us talking day after day philosophically and historically and politically, taking in films as well, and rock 'n' roll too, in what was a proper education with not a trigger warning in sight, an extended symposium, in which Scott was always one of the leading lights.’
Someone once said that the great advantage of reading Philosophy at University is that it reconciles you to never being able to find a job afterwards But Scott certainly broke that rule.
He landed, in his own words, ‘my first grown-up, salaried job in the publicity department of a very profitable but immensely dull academic publishing house in Camden.’
‘I’d bought a new suit (actually, my first suit) for the occasion: grey, a bit shiny, and entirely composed of quite possibly carcinogenic man-made fibres, it made the wearer sweat copiously in hot weather, yet afforded no protection against cold in winter. (I'm pretty sure it was the only suit I've ever owned.)’
After about six months at the Academic Press a more exciting prospect presented itself: PR officer at the buccaneering New English Library. As Scott recalled in one of his blogs – the wide-ranging references are typical: ‘NEL was a Wild West Saloon, a Damon Runyon story, a Thirties Hollywood madcap farce and a psychedelic happening all rolled into one and housed in an office in Barnard’s Inn – where Pip first rooms after arriving in London in Great Expectations. In my four years there, it published achingly tasteful contemporary hardcover literary novels as well as sleazy American blockbusters’, not to mention ‘fantastically expensive Abrams art books’.
NEL’s mega best-selling author at that time was Harold Robbins. I highly recommend Scott’s lurid account on his Blog of one the publicity tours he had to arrange, entitled: ‘How Harold Robbins convinced me I wasn’t cut out for PR’.
On this nightmarish jaunt, as Scott relates: ‘I got to ride for hundreds of miles scrunched up in the front passenger seat of a Daimler limousine while my two vertically-challenged charges (Harold and his agent) wallowed grumpily in a swimming-pool’s worth of space in the back. Life can be very unfair.’
On another occasion – and he had the photograph to prove it – he found himself ‘on a podium trying to control a mob of drunk journalists hurling questions at the Brazilian footballer Pelé, whose autobiography we were publishing (I’d ordered too much hard liquor and scheduled the event too late in the day).’
However, some experiences as a PR man were more rewarding. As Scott also recorded: ‘Irwin Shaw (another American bestseller, but more literary than Robbins) was wonderful company – a big beefy New Yorker with a fund of anecdotes and opinions.’
While travelling in a black cab from one interview to another, Shaw bestowed on Scott his formula for bestsellerdom: ‘Short, declarative sentences – that’s the secret!’
In fact, Scott was already thinking of trying his hand at writing something suitably saleable himself. He had an idea for a sure-fire winner: a series of historical adventure stories to be called Highland Rebel, about a clan chieftain at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie, written under the pseudonym Alexander Scott (Scott’s Christian names reversed). NEL published two books in the series, but they bombed: partly, Scott admitted, ‘because I’d never been to the Highlands and was entirely ignorant of Scottish history’. But the covers were an even bigger problem. Scott had expected ‘a big, hairy snarling Highlander stepping out of the cover brandishing a claymore, about to decapitate the reader’, but he ended up with ‘a tasteful picture more suited to a shortbread tin’.
Nothing daunted, Scott came up with another idea, a horror novel called The Cats. Scott intended to do this one his own name, until somebody pointed out that, as the head of PR at NEL, he could hardly send out publicity material for ‘a great new talent called Scott Grønmark’ with a note saying ‘For further information: please contact Scott Grønmark’. Given five minutes to find another pen name, he plumped for Nick Sharman (a combination of the names of his two school friends Pete Sharman and Nick Jones). Even today the menacing cover of The Cats is seriously disturbing. NEL’s sales manager described it as ‘Purrfect!’
The book sold 100,000 copies in the UK alone, and together with the money for the American rights allowed Scott ‘to desert NEL, step off the merry-go- round and become a full-time writer’. Scott eventually went on to publish eight more successful horror and supernatural novels. His third,The Surrogate, appeared with a cover endorsement by Steven King: ‘It scared me… A winner!’. Scott dedicated the book to our revered KCS English master Frank Miles, who, by a strange twist of fate, had by then moved into the former Grønmark flat in Gothic Lodge. Frank was delighted and invited Scott round for a celebratory dinner. Frank would no doubt have been equally impressed that The Surrogate has recently be re-issued as a hardback and all of Scott’s other thrilling chillers have now been re-published on-line.
After seven years of solitary days at his typewriter in Bayswater, Scott began to feel his inspiration flagging, the popular fiction market was in a downturn, and he was ready to enjoy more company. He applied for a two-day a week PR job at Crafts Magazine.
After a couple of years at Crafts, during which time he managed significantly to up the magazine’s circulation, he found an alternative, doing shifts as a researcher arranging interviews and writing scripts for the BBC Radio Two weekday evening show, presented by John Dunn. I’d been working there myself for a while and, when a colleague went off to have a baby, I was surprised at the alacrity with which my best-selling author chum took up the opportunity to fill in.
Scott’s departure from Crafts turned out to mark another major turning-point in his life. As he recalls in his blog entitled How Crafts Magazine introduced me to my future wife: ‘One of the people at my leaving do gave me a hand- made present – an extremely clever and delightful mock-up of a book (Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That), which is impossible to describe, but which tickled me pink.
The maker was a very pretty silversmith who was running the gallery’s bookshop and café – I’d fallen for her the first time we met. The leaving present was a bit of a hint that my feelings might not be entirely unreciprocated.’ Scott and Sara married in 1987 in the lovely setting of Padstow in Sara’s home county of Cornwall, and a marriage made in heaven it proved to be.
Scott soon distinguished himself on the John Dunn Show, not least in his organization of outside broadcasts, from China and from Portugal – for which he secured an interview with one of his musical heroines, the veteran Fado singer Amalia Rodriguez. The China broadcasts were also a great success and one of Scott’s souvenirs of this adventure were, in Sara’s words, ‘photos showing him standing on the Great Wall of China bursting out of a thin plastic waterproof in the pouring rain, towering over their tiny and very pretty female interpreter.’
Before long, Scott moved on to a research job with BBC TV’s Nine O’Clock News, where he became a producer. He spent a decade with BBC News & Current Affairs, finishing up as editor of the live BBC2 political talk show The Midnight Hour.
While working as a producer on the BBC’s main evening TV News, Scott had an idea for a new novel and ‘wrote the whole synopsis during one 13-hour shift on a painfully slow news day.’ He began writing the book the next day, which was entitled Steel Gods and published in 1990 under his own name, with a ringing cover endorsement from the doyen of British horror writers James Herbert: ‘Terrific… Fast, furious and absorbing. Highly recommended.’ But writing fiction while working long and stressful hours as a BBC news producer proved an impossible combination and this was to be Scott’s last novel.
In 1997, Scott became Homepage Editor at BBC Online. At last captain of his own ship in the BBC fleet, Scott made a phenomenal success of this. As Dave Moss, himself an expert in the field, wrote to me: ‘The BBC website www.bbc.co.uk no doubt has many parents now but it was ultimately Scott's baby – he's the one who had to give the one-on-one demonstration of the infant site he had designed to John Birt to get the final go-ahead. It was the early days of the web and for years it had the most hits of any website in the world.’
This was followed by an even greater challenge: to create the technology and systems for the BBC’s Interactive TV, or ‘Red Button’ service. Since Scott never, ever, blew his own trumpet about his achievements, here are the reminiscences of some friends and colleagues at the BBC.
This is an extract from Nick Wyse’s account of the ‘Red Button’ adventure: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that without Scott's unique leadership BBC Red Button may well never have happened. There was a good deal of scepticism at that time about Red Button because it used broadcast (and not broadband / internet) technology. But under Scott's leadership, the team designed, built and launched BBC Red Button on multiple platforms and fully defied the sceptics.
‘The day we launched Red Button Wimbledon – where viewers could choose the court they would like to watch – the doubters were confounded. BBC Red Button proved its potential and is now an established BBC service. Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Google, Apple – any of them would die for what the BBC has – a one button press which directly links from live TV into an On-Demand Television environment.
‘“Red Button” is now a part of the nation's lexicon, and the foundations for this were laid by Scott. Scott was a key leader in taking the R&D group of about 14 people, to building the department into a world-class 80-strong team of producers, designers, engineers and project managers. We engendered a culture of “verve” (Scott liked this term) where staff worked very hard, but they also enjoyed themselves. It was Scott's style of leadership that made this happen. Many of those who worked in the team at that time reflect that it was a golden time in their careers.’
Aidan Stowe, another colleague from those times recalls:
‘He was his own man, knew his own mind, didn't care what people thought of him (in the best sense), didn't kow-tow to fashionable nostrums and was a gentle giant, despite his sometimes gruff exterior. He had oodles of drive and creativity in equal measure, and knew how to inspire creative people to do their best work. I doubt I shall meet his like again. The world is a poorer and duller place without him.’
And finally, Ian Hunter, also from the ‘Red Button’ development days:
‘He was an outsize presence behind his desk, with the air of a volcano that might go off at any moment. His glasses alone suggested he was not to be trifled with and of course his voice was always commanding. As a dedicated newsman he had that single-minded focus and unwillingness to compromise which made him so respected. When you did get to know him, you heard the volcanic laugh and saw the permanent glint of mischief behind the glasses. You found that he was generous with advice, advice which was always pertinent but rarely ambiguous.
‘You came to understand that for Scott seriousness of purpose was combined with an unshakeable conviction that all working lives are absurd, and the further up the managerial tree you go, the more absurd they get. Although he could have led many different lives – novelist, film critic, lead guitarist – no- one I've known was more consistently and completely himself.’
Having become, as he described it, ‘a suit’ Scott took early retirement at 51. He set up a new media consultancy, Scott Grønmark Associates, which he ran for the next seven years. He worked for commercial firms, such as Honda, but the projects of which he was most proud from this period were the creation of two live interactive talk shows for the BBC Arabic and Persian TV Channels.
Kevin Geary worked alongside Scott on the Persian talk show Nowbat-e Shoma (Your Turn), a single topic phone-in show, which was, in Scott’s words, ‘seemingly unique in offering members of the public an opportunity to speak freely on sometimes risky subjects in a politically unbiased forum’. The programme was inundated with calls not only from the Iranian diaspora around the world but even from within the country itself ‘despite the Iranian government declaring the channel “illegal’’.’
As Kevin recalls: ‘He made that programme, Nowbat-e-Shoma, sing. His sound ideas and mellow-voiced mentoring sessions brought a disparate band of Iranians together to make both news and art.’
Lorraine Jackson,who had worked with Scott in Portugal, teamed up again with him on the Persian service. ‘Under Scott’s leadership we were a crack team on Shoma, the Interactive programme. He understood the format so well, knew exactly what was needed and was able to bring a very inexperienced team along with him. The launch of that programme was one of the highlights of my career.’
I know that Scott’s work on the Farsi programme was of enormous importance to him. As a lover of liberty and free speech, he felt that here at last was a chance for him to make a personal contribution to challenging political oppression.
The birth of Sara and Scott’s son Alex in 1993, was not only a great joy to them, but also opened up new worlds, leading to new friendships with other parents. One of the activities that Scott and Alex regularly attended was a Saturday morning football club, organized in the gardens of Chiswick House by his schoolfriend Josh’s parents, Libby and Neil Pratt. Libby wrote to Sara, on the sad news of Scott’s departure from among us last year:
‘Scott was an essential part of our Saturday mornings at Chiswick House Café, and in more recent years at our New Year celebrations. He enlivened every conversation with his irreverent wit, sharp intelligence and tremendous warmth.’
Scott’s short autobiography on his blog (written in the third person) ends like this: ‘Now retired, Scott spends his time writing this blog, attending book groups and poetry reading sessions (not his own!), playing electric and acoustic guitars (badly), creating and recording music on his iMac, enjoying nature, going to church every few weeks, riding his bike, watching tennis on TV, reading a lot, and still trying to figure out “what the hell it’s all about”.’
Scott remained a voracious reader to the last and, while constantly adding to his encyclopaedic knowledge of multiple genres, he continued to keep abreast with developments in philosophy. He was delighted to be invited in 2013 to contribute to the Salisbury Review. As one of his editors there, Merrie Cave, noted in her obituary of Scott in the magazine: ‘It is difficult to find writers of sufficient intellectual calibre to tackle books on philosophical themes, so when Scott appeared my life became much easier because he could easily handle Scruton, Pinker, Peterson et al in a way that would be intelligible to a general reader. His range was also versatile because he would review films, too.’
Even as ill-health began to limit his activities, Scott found the energy to keep posting on his blog, delighting old friends and winning new ones around the world. His knowledge of literature and music, classical and popular, film and many other fields was encyclopaedic. Very few of us have yet fully plundered the riches of the Grønmark Blog - http://scottgronmark.blogspot.com - and it remains (and will be maintained) as a memorial to him.
I was very privileged to be able to see Scott quite often even when it was an enormous effort for him to receive visitors. Scott was the funniest person I ever knew and a superb mimic. Every time, I came away, as in days of old, with my sides aching from laughing so much.
I’d like to conclude with some words of Sina Motalebi, who worked with Scott on the Farsi programme Nowbat-e Shoma, written to Sara and Alex on hearing the news of Scott’s passing just over a year ago:
‘Scott was a huge inspiration and a great influence not only in my work and career but in my life, and in shaping who I have become. He was not just a mentor, but a father figure guiding me as a rather young man to adapt not only to the new challenges in work, but also to living in a new society with a new culture. I share your pain and grief but I only can take solace in his own words: “Don’t be sad, Sina, it’s been a hugely satisfying life and I feel nothing but gratitude for it.”’