Born 1948, WGS: c1959-c1968 died on 31
The Michael Cox Page
Michael Cox was born
He was educated at Wellingborough Grammar School
and St Catharine's College, Cambridge. After graduating from Cambridge in 1971,
Michael went into the rock music business as a songwriter and recording artist.
Working under the name Matthew Ellis, he released his first album and was
described as 'one of the most successful in the field'. He went on to perform
under the name Obie Clayton until 1977 when he left the music business.
became an editor with the Thorsons Publishing Group, eventually becoming
Editorial Director of their Aquarian Press imprint. In 1989, he joined OUP.
Michael's first book, a study of the Christian mystical tradition, was published
in 1983. This was followed by M.R. James: An Informal Portrait.
Having contracted a rare form of
cancer in 1992, Michael took early retirement from OUP in 2002. In April 2004,
he began to lose his sight as a result of the cancer. In preparation for
surgery, he underwent treatment that initiated a temporary burst of mental and
physical energy. Ironically, if it hadn’t been for the disease and the
threat it posed to his eyesight, he may never have realised his ambition to
write a novel. He explained, “Subconsciously I felt, 'I may go blind - if I
don't do this now, I'll never do it.’” This spurred Michael finally to begin writing in earnest the
novel that he had been contemplating for over thirty years. Following surgery,
work continued on what is now The Meaning of Night, and in January 2005
it was sold to John Murray, and then to W.W. Norton.
His debut novel, The Meaning of
Night (2006), prompted a furious bidding war which resulted in a
£500,000 advance from the John Murray publishing house. The book, a
sophisticated 600-page Victorian crime thriller, went on to reach the shortlist
of the Costa Book Awards ‘First Novel’ prize. He followed it up in 2008 with
The Glass of Time which was also set in Victorian England, one of Mr
Cox’s areas of interest.
Michael Cox, who died on 31 March,
2009, aged 60, was a British biographer and editor turned novelist.
Michael Cox died after a five-year
battle with cancer.
Roland Philipps at John Murray paid
tribute to him: “In spite of blindness and increasing physical disability, up
until days before his death Michael was talking with great excitement about the
new novel he was planning.
"He will be very much missed ...
It is a terrible irony that the cancer that brought about his untimely death was
also the trigger that made him write The Meaning of Night, the novel that he had
been writing in his head for 30 years; he and the reading public were then
blessed that he wrote (to his mind and that of many critics) the even stronger
The Glass of Time and saw it published in 2008.”
Obituary The Times
As Michael Cox was wheeled into the operating theatre
in 2004 to undergo a life-threatening operation on his brain, he took a
decision. If his life and his sight were spared, he would finally start writing
in earnest the novel he had been planning and tinkering with since he was a
student at Cambridge 30 years before.
Emerging from the operation with his sight intact, Cox
committed an opening sentence to paper: “After killing the red-haired man, I
took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” He then began to write at
a furious pace, fuelled in part by dexamethasone, a powerful steroid which gave
him formidable energy and quelled his creative doubts.
The following year Cox’s novel, The Meaning of
Night, provoked a frenzied auction among British publishers. It achieved
a record advance for a first novel, and went on to sell in 26 countries and be
nominated for numerous prizes.
Reflecting Cox’s lifelong enthusiasm for Victorian
literature, the novel told the story of Edward Glyver, a mid-19th-century
bibliophile, scholar and murderer, who would stop at nothing to regain his
rightful inheritance, the glorious estate of Evenwood. The book’s success was to
fulfil Cox’s long-cherished dream of publication as a novelist and “make
sense of my life”.
Born in 1948 in a small town in Northamptonshire, Cox
was the only son of Gordon and Eileen Cox who worked in the regional business of
A chronic childhood ear infection was to have two
long-term consequences. Bedridden and restless, he was taught to read by his
mother at the age of 3 and began precociously to work his way through the
Victorian literary cannon with a passion which was never to desert him. The
prescribed 1950s treatment for his illness was the insertion of radium rods into
his ears, and this was the probable cause of the very rare brain cancer which
was to emerge in mid-life.
After attending Wellingborough Grammar School, Cox went
up to read English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, in the late 1960s.
There he attracted the attention of the notable Yeats scholar, Tom Henn, and
seemed destined for a career in academia. The long-haired youth with soulful
eyes and a voice to match also epitomised early 1970s cool. Asked to write and
perform the music for a student art movie — “it was all men in tights on
tombstones” — in collaboration with Chris Walker (now the respected
orchestrator for West End musicals such as Me and My Girl) Cox came to the
attention of a record producer in the audience.
A two-album record deal with EMI followed under the
stage name Matthew Ellis. Cox/Ellis supported Barclay James Harvest, performed
with Helen Shapiro, and his single, Avalon, which was a rock anthem to
Glastonbury, brought particular success. His fans also detected the influence of
Procol Harum in his music, and rumours continue to circulate to this day that
Cox’s second musical incarnation as Obie Clayton was a pseudonym for the Procol
Harum lead man, Matthew Fisher. By this time, Cox had not only fallen, coup de
foudre, for the love of his life — Dizzy Crockett — after seeing her across a
crowded room at a party; he had also married her, and taken on her two young
children as his own.
Never one for the rock and’n’roll lifestyle of sex,
drugs and alcohol, and tired of lurching from one financial crisis to another,
he abandoned the music business in 1977 and joined Thorsons, a publishing house
specialising in health books and all things homespun and organic. He was
immediately set to work editing such classic texts as Hanssen’s Complete Cider
Vinegar before writing his first book, The Subversive Vegetarian,
in collaboration with his wife.
Though he took to vegetarianism with gusto, the murky
world of Victorian literature still exerted a powerful influence over Cox’s
imagination. In 1983 he was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write a
biography of the Victorian ghost-story writer M. R. James, and he proved himself
to be both a compelling writer and an academic manqué, able effortlessly “to
recreate the sense of a vanished world”, in the words of the critic John
Bayley. Cox subsequently co-edited (with R. A. Gilbert) the Oxford Book of
English Ghost Stories and Victorian Ghost Stories and in 1989 he joined OUP as a
commissioning editor in the reference division where he was able to indulge his
interests more comprehensively by editing books such as A Dictionary of Writers
and their Works and The Oxford Chronology of English Literature. He set literary
questions for Mastermind and, though he wore his learning lightly, there was now
little about English literature which he did not know.
By 1992, after years of undiagnosed ill-health, it
became clear that Cox was suffering from an unutterable kind of cancer,
haemangiopericytoma, and five years later he took early retirement.
He might have contented himself with a quiet life in
rural Northamptonshire surrounded by his loving family and enlivened by the odd
jamming session with musical friends, but all the while The Meaning of
Night was brewing in his head. Effortlessly immersed in the 19th
century, he instinctively knew the topography of Victorian London, the cadences
of the speech patterns and could draw on authentic place and character names.
All this instinctive knowledge was to give The
Meaning of Night its rich sense of atmosphere and place and to lift it
well above the level of pastiche. Cox followed the novel in 2008 with a dazzling
sequel, The Glass of Time, in which Emily, Lady Tansor, the
glamorous protagonist was made to pay for the wickedness of her former ways.
Bedridden and near-blind in his final year, Cox never
lost his sense of humour or his will to write. Halfway through a ghost story
about a writer losing his sight, he would answer inquiries about his state of
health with the catchphrase “I’m still buggering on”.
He is survived by his wife, Dizzy, a daughter and two
Michael Cox, musician, editor and writer, was born on
October 25, 1948. He died on March 31, 2009, aged 60
* Have your say
I still listen to his two albums:
he touched my life and the lives of so many others with his books and his music.
He will be sadly missed. My condolences and all best wishes to his widow, his
children and his parents, who are in my thoughts today.
Bernard Webber, Santa Barbara, USA
As a copy-editor, he was somebody
whom writers cherish. Never snide, he encouraged, drawing out exactly what was
meant without imposing himself upon the prose in question.
Christopher Hawtree, Hove,
Obituary The Guardian
Michael Cox, the publisher turned novelist who netted a
record-breaking advance for his debut, has died aged 60. The author had battled
a rare form of cancer for some years, and passed away earlier this week.
Cox's first novel The Meaning of Night, a highbrow
Victorian thriller which commanded an advance of almost £500,000 after a
frenzied bidding war from publishers, was three decades in the planning. He was
eventually moved to write it after learning that cancer threatened his eyesight.
"Subconsciously I felt, 'I may go blind - if I don't do this now, I'll never do
it'", he told the Bookseller in an interview at the time.
Inspired by Cox's love of the Victorian period, The
Meaning of Night is told by a murderer, Edward Glyver, starting with the
evocative line: "After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's
for an oyster supper." It was published to critical acclaim and a Costa prize
shortlisting in 2006, and followed up with a sequel, The Glass of Time, in 2008.
He was described today as "a wonderful man and a gifted
and totally professional author" by his publisher, Roland Philipps at John
Murray. "In spite of blindness and increasing physical disability, up until days
before his death Michael was talking with great excitement about the new novel
he was planning," he said. "He will be very much missed ... It is a terrible
irony that the cancer that brought about his untimely death was also the trigger
that made him write The Meaning of Night, the novel that he had been writing in
his head for 30 years; he and the reading public were then blessed that he wrote
(to his mind and that of many critics) the even stronger The Glass of Time and
saw it published in 2008."
Cox, who lived in rural Northamptonshire with his wife
Dizzy, was a former Oxford University Press editor, and author of a biography of
MR James. Before he entered publishing, he was a singer/songwriter, releasing
two albums and a number of singles for EMI under the name Matthew Ellis.
Daily Telegraph Obituary
supplied by Chris Clucas of the same period:
In 1992 Cox had been diagnosed with a very rare form of
cancer – haemangiopericytoma, a slow-growing but aggressive vascular tumour.
He took early retirement from his job as an editor at the Oxford University
Press in 2002, and underwent surgery to remove a tumour on his spine. But 18
months later a tumour under his brain began to put pressure on his optic
nerve, gradually reducing his ability to see.
In the novel's epigraph he wrote: "For Death is the
meaning of night; the eternal shadow into which all lives must fall, all hopes
expire." It expressed, he explained, something of his fear of not seeing the
In 2004 Cox underwent a second operation, to remove the
tumour and restore most of his sight. A few months later, however, his sight
again began to deteriorate, and this time he was treated with gamma knife
therapy, a process that uses focused radiation beams to treat brain tumours.
Prior to this he was prescribed a corticosteroid which had the effect not only
of releasing the pressure on his optic nerve to make surgery easier, but also
of releasing "a furious and unstoppable surge of creative energy".
Having lost his sight once, Cox was determined not to
waste a minute: unable to sleep, and wandering the house in the early hours,
he dug out one of the many first chapters he had written. Reading the first
line, "After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an
oyster supper", he felt suddenly inspired, and sat down to write. He wrote
non-stop for more than a month, day after day, and well into the night. After
about six weeks he had written more than 30,000 words which he sent to a
As an ex-publisher, Cox thought that he might, if he was
lucky, get an advance of £10,000. The bidding began at £150,000 "and then the
world went crazy", he recalled: "The needle started to spin towards the
After a week of frenzied bids and counter bids, a final
offer came from John Murray for £430,000. The deal dwarfed even that for Zadie
Smith's first novel.
In the era of postmodern literature, Cox's advance
provided refreshing evidence of the popular appetite for the old-fashioned
narrative. "What I really wanted to do was replicate what I, as a reader,
value most: the unravelling of a well-crafted story," Cox explained.
Written in a pastiche of high Victorian prose, The Meaning
of Night was inspired by Cox's lifelong love of the literature of the period.
The plot and page-turning pace owed much to Wilkie Collins. Edward Glyver, the
narrator, discovers that he has been cheated of his rightful inheritance. The
woman he has always assumed was his mother is not his mother at all. His real
mother, Lady Tansor, gave him away as a baby, thus doing him out of Evenwood,
a great country estate.
To make matters worse, the man now likely to succeed to
the estate, thanks to dastardly double-crossing, is none other than his
arch-enemy Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, the rotter who had him expelled from Eton
and is now a rising poet. But the influence of Dickens is apparent in the
fruity cast of minor characters (Fordyce Jukes, Willoughby le Grice, etc), its
Machiavellian lawyers, its oyster suppers and its darkened alleys.
At OUP, Cox had edited such titles as The Oxford Book of
Victorian Detective Stories and The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, and
his scholarly familiarity with the 19th-century literary canon (complete with
Latin tags and copiously footnoted historical arcana) was impressive without
ever being heavy going. In fact, he inhabited the era so completely that
reviewers found that they could easily forget that Cox's Victorian novel was
not the real thing. It won a Costa prize shortlisting in 2006, and was
followed up with an equally gripping sequel, The Glass of Time, in 2008.
It is unusual for someone who is suffering from cancer to
describe himself as lucky, but that was how Cox saw it. "Through a unique set
of circumstances, I've been given the chance to write the book I'd always
wanted to write," he told an interviewer in 2006.
An only child, Michael Andrew Cox was born in
Northamptonshire on October 23 1948. His father manufactured machinery for the
shoe industry. His mother taught him to read when he was confined to bed, aged
three, with an illness, and he fell in love with Victorian fiction after
reading David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
From Wellingborough Grammar School, Cox went up to St
Catharine's College, Cambridge, to read English. He had intended to pursue an
academic career but, while still an undergraduate, he wrote some music for a
silent film being made by a friend and got a small band together to perform
it, playing live as the film was shown. A record producer in the audience
asked him if he wanted to sign for a deal as a singer-songwriter and, after
graduation, he went on to make two albums under the name Matthew Ellis.
He played a few gigs as a solo performer, supporting
Barclay James Harvest. Later he assembled a new band, which performed at one
point with Helen Shapiro, and released another album under the name Obie
In 1977 Cox left the music business and became an editor
with the Thorsons Publishing Group at Wellingborough, eventually becoming
editorial director of their Aquarian Press imprint. In 1989 he joined OUP,
where he became senior commissioning editor for reference books.
Cox began trying to write his novel in the early 1970s.
"I'd read Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, and I knew they always started at
the end of the puzzle and worked back. I wasn't confident that I could do it,
and I couldn't do it for 30 years. I wrote endless first chapters."
In the interim he published several other books. Handbook
of Christian Mysticism (1983) was followed by the acclaimed MR James: An
Informal Portrait (1983), an affectionate account in which Cox quoted with
amusement the "lady typist" who, after struggling with the transcription of
some of James's scrawl, said that "she wished these 'University Gentlemen'
could write better, and that she, at any rate, wouldn't send any son of hers
to the University – prize waste of money in her opinion!"
His biography of James was followed by a number of Oxford
anthologies of short fiction, including The Oxford Book of English Ghost
Stories (1986) and The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (1991), both
co-edited with RA Gilbert; The Oxford Book of Victorian Detective Stories
(1992); and The Oxford Book of Spy Stories (1997). In 1991 he compiled A
Dictionary of Writers and their Works for OUP, and in 2002 The Oxford
Chronology of English Literature, a major bibliographical reference work.
Cox's advance for The Meaning of Night was followed by
further deals for the publishing rights in America, Canada and elsewhere. As
he and his family had been struggling to live on a reduced income, the money
came as a welcome relief.
In the autumn of 2005 he found that his cancer had
returned and that his sight was fading. The money helped to fund a flat in
London for his regular hospital visits. At the time of his death he was
working on a third novel.
Michael Cox married, in 1973, Dizzy Crockett, with whom he
had a daughter. They survive him with two stepchildren.
Michael Cox is the author of “The Meaning of
Night”. Michael Cox was born in 1948 in Northamptonshire, where he still
lives. After attending Cambridge University, Michael worked as a songwriter and
recording artist. This career had its origins in Cambridge however, since
Michael wrote the music for an arty black and white student film. The film had
no soundtrack whatsoever, which meant that Michael and his band played the
music live at film showings. Record Producer Jerry Dane was in the audience,
and he asked whether Michael wanted to sign a recording deal. Michael went on
to make several records under the pseudonyms of “Matthew Ellis” and
“Obie Clayton” (which was the name of the band), since there was already
another recording star called Michael Cox, and besides, Michael wasn’t into
having a big rock ego. This degree of anonymity probably helped propel
unfounded rumours that the real identity of Matthew Ellis and Obie Clayton was
Fisher. At one point, Obie Clayton became
Helen Shapiro’s cabaret
band. After leaving the music business, Michael worked for the Thorsons
Publishing Group, before joining the Oxford University Press in 1989. For over
30 years, Michael had been mulling over the idea for a Victorian murder mystery
novel. However, it was only when his sight was threatened by a rare form of
cancer (haemangiopericytoma, diagnosed in 1992), that Michael Cox began writing
in earnest. Prior to the second and more successful treatment to save his
sight, Michael was prescribed the corticosteroid dexamethasone, which made
surgery easier by releasing the pressure on his optic nerve. Yet dexamethasone
had an interesting side effect, in that it released a huge amount of creative
energy, which Michael Cox poured into his writing (although his wife was
alarmed that he so hyperactive that it affected his sleep). The fact that
Michael Cox was threatened with losing sight has undoubtedly worked its way
into “The Meaning of Night”. Yet Michael Cox has always had an abiding interest
in Victorian fiction, and for many years, he was employed as Senior
Commissioning Editor for the Oxford University Press. It was in this capacity
that he became the editor of many anthologies, such as “The Oxford Book of
English Ghost Stories”, “The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories”,
“Victorian Detective Stories: An Oxford Anthology”, and “The Oxford Book of
Twentieth Century Ghost Stories”. He has also edited “A Dictionary of Writers
and Their Works”, and he is in the process of compiling “The Oxford Chronology
of English Literature”. Michael Cox is also the author of the biography “M. R.
James: An Informal Portrait”. British publishing firm John Murray (the
publishers of one of Michael Cox’s favourite authors, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle),
won the bid to publish “The Meaning of Night” as they were evacuating their HQ
due to a fire alarm, such was their desire to win the rights. The publishers
have also taken the unusual step of sending out proof copies of the novel to
over 600 “ordinary book buyers” (i.e. library users and reading group members).
If “The Meaning of Night” ever becomes a movie, then who better to write the soundtrack
than the author himself?
the Light of Day – an article in “The Telegraph” which relates how Michael
Cox’s cancer impelled him to write
‘overwhelmed’ as first book wins him £500k – a report in “The Daily Mail”
about the huge interest in “The Meaning of Night” from publishers, and possibly
the largest ever advance for a British author
Who does Obie Clayton
think he is? – a fabulous article by Claes Johansen about Michael Cox’s
previous career as a musician, featuring what looks to be some cover art from
this time. And then there’s
More on Obie Clayton, an
article that looks to have been written by Gordon Cox, Michael’s father, who
bought Michael his first guitar at the age of 14, while
Repent Mat Fisher, the
incorrect article concerning Obie Clayton’s identity, has some good images of
Obie Clayton’s album covers
Authortrek reader Stewart
Roberts writes “Having just read reviews for the book, The Meaning of Night I
realised that Michael Cox, aka Obie Clayton/Mathew Ellis is the Mick Cox I went
to school with in Wellingborough Grammar School in the 60's.
Mick formed a band called the
Fireflies which had a good local following and I was one of the guys who helped
carry their kit around so I could take advantage of the groupies who never got
as far as Mick (who was very good looking). Mick kinda 'owned' the group and
had more money than the other band members who were often offered his cast-off
clothes - but usually refused out of pride. He then went off to University, as
I did a year or two later, and I lost all track of his subsequent career.
Good luck Michael - you've had
a roller coaster ride but the best may be yet to come!”
Meet the Author –
watch Michael Cox talk about “The Meaning of Night” in this video
– their interview with Michael Cox