Successful publisher and left-wing campaigner

Neil Middleton: December 8th, 1931 - November 20th, 2015

Neil Middleton: publisher and left-wing activist

Neil Middleton: publisher and left-wing activist

 

Neil Middleton, who has died aged 83, was an influential publisher, writer and Catholic thinker who made a significant contribution to religious and political debates and played a key part in developing left-wing Catholicism in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

An editor at Penguin Books in the 1970s, he published many seminal authors on topics ranging from exposure of the activities of the CIA to significant feminist writings and anti-psychiatry. In later life he wrote on the politics of aid and sustainability.

The son of communists, he lived in London’s East End, but during the second World War was evacuated to a series of households where his experiences were broadly positive, notably contributing to his deep love of music. In his teens he also developed a lifelong passion for climbing.

As a young man, he converted to Catholicism and became involved with the Catholic Evidence Guild, through which he met, and in 1954 married, the translator Rosemary Sheed, daughter of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward of the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward.

He became managing editor of the English office and travelled regularly to Ireland, where he developed many connections, including a close friendship with the broadcaster Seán Mac Réamoinn.

Under his editorship, he increasingly took Sheed and Ward towards left-wing Catholicism, publishing radical theologians Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx. He was part of the December group of progressive thinkers, which included Dominicans Laurence Bright and Herbert McCabe and academics Terry Eagleton and Adrian and Angela Cunningham.

During each of the three years of Vatican II (1962-1965) he was in Rome for a period. It was at this time that the radical journal Slant emerged and was published by him at Sheed and Ward. Slant stirred up antipathy among more conservative Catholics and he was particularly pleased to be personally criticised by Cardinal John Heenan in Westminster Cathedral.

Anti-apartheid

In 1969 he became an editor at Penguin Books, where he published, among others, leading feminist Sheila Rowbotham, the left-wing intellectual Tariq Ali, art critic and novelist John Berger and the psychiatrist RD Laing.

He edited the first British collection of American political columnist IF Stone’s writings as well as commissioning the Penguin Marx Library, which was known for its innovative cover designs by David King.

He subsequently spent time in Northern Ireland and published several books, starting with Liam de Paor’s Divided Ulster (1970). An expose of the CIA, Inside the Company by Philip Agee, became an immediate bestseller.

During this period, Middleton moved further to the left and away from the church and his first marriage broke up. In 1982, following extensive restructuring at Penguin Books, he was fired and moved to work for the left-wing Pluto Press. He subsequently set up Earthscan publications.

Move to Ireland

This move coincided with the advent of the internet, which enabled him to work from the Mayo coast with a UK-based NGO researching and writing about development and the politics of aid.

In his 60s and 70s he made visits to Bosnia, Croatia, Somalia and Darfur and wrote reports for the Dutch and Danish governments and the United Nations. He also wrote several books.

His visits to Somalia and Sudan, while distressing, were also adventures and he loved adventures and the retelling of them afterwards – climbing, travelling, boats, political activism, publishing controversial books and leaping out of helicopters.

He loved being outdoors, and his life in Mayo, with sea and hills close at hand, was probably his happiest time, the more so because he returned to the Church and was deeply attached to his local church in Killeen.

He is survived by his wife, Geraldine, his first wife, Rosemary, his sister Renee, four children, two stepchildren and eight grandchildren.