LJK Setright, who died on September 7 aged 74, was Britain's best-known and most eloquent motoring journalist and author, famous in an era before car experts could win easy notoriety on TV; he was "discovered" by a loyal readership within a year or two of taking up writing as a career in the mid-1960s, and maintained his reputation for erudition, mixed with an air of mystery, until he died.
Setright's fame stemmed primarily from his deep love for automobiles and engineering, about which he wrote most consistently and for longest in the monthly magazine Car. He was mostly self-taught on engineering subjects, but his erudition allowed him to meet the motor industry's best engineers on equal terms. It also enabled him to explain complicated concepts to his readers with a rare clarity. The same insights gave him the confidence to be a trenchant commentator who loved voicing provocative (but always elaborately argued) opinions - though nothing he ever wrote put his innate love for cars, motorcycles and their engineering in the slightest doubt.
Most of all, Setright was well-known for his lyrical, ornate and sometimes high-flown writing style, which bore no similarity to anything else written on such subjects. Readers loved or hated Setright's writing, but were rarely unmoved by it. Publishers became used to the fact that it was he who generated the most correspondence. Setright's editors generally loved his contributions, which were always delivered free of any kind of blemish, and written exactly to length. Much of the time, he even wrote copy in the measure of the publication for which it was intended, so that it arrived line-perfect as well.
Though fearless about voicing his frequently controversial opinions, at the core Setright was a private man who rarely volunteered much detail about his own life and activities. And although he greatly enjoyed communicating with readers en masse, he offered no one the slightest hope of individual contact. "It cannot be too widely known," he used to say, "that Setright does not indulge in correspondence." He was pleased to know that his opinions would be discussed, but was content that the discussion should proceed without him.
Leonard John Kensell Setright (friends called him Leonard, but he was always 'LJKS' in print) was born in London on August 10 1931, to Australian parents who had settled there. His father was an inventor and engineer, who eventually founded a family light engineering business that produced, among other things, the Setright ticket dispensing machine, famously used by British bus conductors until well into the 1970s.
Leonard went to grammar school at Palmer's Green, but lost his father at 11, perhaps one reason why he did not train in engineering, but read Law at London University instead.
He enjoyed his studies but hated practising law; so, after doing his national service in the RAF (when poor eyesight prevented his becoming a pilot, he became an air traffic controller instead), Setright turned to writing for a living. His first articles were on general engineering subjects and he was instantly successful, but his national notoriety began when he became a star writer at Car in the mid-1960s, and it never waned. Those who worked with Setright became used to answering the same question from readers: "What's LJK Setright really like?"
Setright's interests ranged far wider than automotive subjects and engineering. Having studied music as a child, he became expert on the clarinet as a band member in the RAF, and played it all his life. Fellow journalists remember him producing his instrument at the launch of a BMW model in France in the 1970s, and striking up with a jazz band. He was a fine singer, and a founder member of the Philharmonia Chorus (one treasured memory was a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, under Otto Klemperer).
He was a dedicated student of the Jewish religion, which he followed all his life. His wide residual knowledge of everything that moved - aeroplanes, locomotives, motorcycles - was used to produce several dozen books, all on technical subjects but packed with intriguing narrative and challenging opinion.
Those who knew Setright well enjoyed his eccentricities, such as his life-long love of Bristol cars, a rare and idiosyncratic marque which has its roots in the long-defunct British aircraft industry. He detested speed limits and drove notoriously fast, frightening his passengers, but seldom had accidents. He hated diesel trucks and cars, not least for the "filth" they dropped on the roads, endangering motorcyclists, and he also disliked environmental fads.
He enjoyed dressing well, and had a particular penchant for being photographed for some new column or feature. He was vocal on the advantages of old age and shamelessly enjoyed smoking, always Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes, taking a fatalistic stance about any effect they might have on his health.
He particularly loved the high engineering values of Honda, and drove a venerable Prelude Coupe until he died. He liked most motorcycles, too, going about on a large, six-cylinder Honda until severely injured in an accident (which was not his fault).
He peppered his writing with classical allusions, or quotations in Latin or Greek. He once wrote in blank verse about a Citroen. And when, quite recently, the editor of one of Britain's best-known magazines suggested he "tone down" these flights of fancy to suit a more modern audience, his response was to submit a column entirely in Latin (before offering a translation a day later). Blessed with a brilliant memory, Setright never needed to take notes.
LJK Setright's first marriage, which ended in the mid-1970s, produced two daughters. He is survived by his children and by Helen, his second wife, whom he married late in life.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Is it too late to say goodbye to LJK Setright?
From the Telegraph U.K.
Posted by s.a.