I didn't know anyone at the publishing house, so I arrived to a room filling up with strangers taking their seats round a big table.
Somebody said to me, "This is Tony Collins," and I turned my head to look into eyes full of kindness and sparkle. I immediately loved this man, my editor.
That was at the end of 1989 — exactly thirty years ago. So began a deeply satisfying professional partnership, from which friendship also grew.
I have loved and admired Tony's approach to his work. For one thing, he is always willing to go the second mile. In any situation where things have gone wrong or someone is struggling, his first thought, every time, is to ask, "How can I help?"
The journey of a book from initial idea to publication is often fraught with difficulties; there are many hurdles to get over. I, and his publishing colleagues, and every other writer who has been lucky enough to have Tony as their publisher, discovered that he would always have my back, always do his best, always carry more than his share of the burden. Everywhere I go with Tony, I hear the same opinion expressed — that he is a legend in the world of Christian publishing.
Tony has always taken the rare and blessed view that a book is primarily the author's work. He was clear and firm in advice and direction to ensure the book contained nothing libellous or injurious to success in the marketplace, that all permissions had been sought, that the prose was up to snuff — and his editorial suggestions were every time constructive, resulting in a better book. Tony asked the right questions. But he never, ever made it a vanity project, never tried to "put his own stamp" on someone else's work. His contribution was intelligent and authoritative, but also essentially humble. I have treasured that, not least because it was his input as a publisher over the last thirty years that cleared the way to publication for my writing as I wanted it to be, not turning it into some kind of dog's breakfast by regarding it as "product" or by over-intervention.
In the September of 2005, a year after my husband Bernard died, Tony told me that his marriage of nearly thirty years, to Jane, had sadly come to an end after a decade of the two of them doing their very best to hold it together — though after the deep pain of parting Tony and Jane have remained good friends, and still enjoy each other's company and conversation.
When I discovered that Tony was therefore once more unexpectedly single, it felt like finding the foot of the rainbow right there in my own back garden. Romance began, escalated swiftly, and we married each other the following September, thirteen years ago.
Tony semi-retired a few years back, and has been working "part-time" and mostly from home since then. "Part-time" means part-time pay. The work mysteriously expands to fill every hour God sends, just as it always did. Tony will be seventy next year, and decided this last summer that the time had at last come to stop working for a publishing house. So he will be retiring from his job at SPCK — which he has immensely enjoyed.
Tony still has more plans than most people would think it practical to try cramming into one life. His book Taking My God For A Walk, about his pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, was published in 2016, by Monarch books — the imprint Tony started and took with him to Lion Hudson.
"Monarch", incidentally, is not monarch as in "superior being lording it over everyone else", but as in the epic-traveller Monarch butterfly. Readers love this book, and Tony's plans for 2020 include working on another book he's had in mind for some time.
He will also continue his lifelong work of looking for new authors, or new books from established authors, to help birth new work about the Gospel into the world.
Just today, an email came in from his friend Roger Chouler, a colleague from Tony's Lion Hudson days, one of the cover designers.
Roger says this:
"I thought a visual would sum up my enduring thankful and appreciative thoughts of years spent working in the field with you. I always admired the way you handled people, situations and could always find a way through when things became testy.
You always encouraged me, even when a cover, graphic or design needed to be revisited, and were the first to commend the final result. You never laid blame on anyone. A true man of grace.
I hope this visual tribute brings you happy memories and sense of accomplishment. The Lord has kept His hand on you through the years."
He's called the image file of his picture, "Tony Collins — Friend."
I am so proud of this man, and so very glad I've had him as my publisher through thirty years of writing. It seems entirely right that as he steps down from his editor's desk, this is the moment for me to put down my pen. Because we always worked together.
I am so glad I married him; not least because he makes me a cup of tea, first thing every single morning. Which is biblical, isn't it? You know — He-brews.