"I've just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra- sensory perception," Rex Collings wrote to me many years ago. "Do you think I'm mad?"
Certainly it was a mad risk for a one-man publishing firm working on a shoestring to accept a book as bizarre by an unknown writer which had been turned down by the major London publishers; but it was also dazzlingly brave and intuitive. Today, Japanese tourists are said to crawl about the Berkshire countryside in the wake of those world-famous rabbits and Rex Collings is remembered as the discoverer and first promoter of Watership Down.
Publishing was not his only activity, though, and Richard Adams's 1972 book, though Collings's most spectacular success, was not his only one. After working at Penguin and Oxford University Press he set up his own publishing firm, specialising in African, reference and children's books. His experience of Africa was wide, deep and long-standing: family connections from the 1850s began it, travels for OUP, political, philanthropic and business trips followed, and he published some distinguished writers including Wole Soyinka, the first African Nobel prizewinner, Seretse Khama, and white writers in Africa such as Margery Perham and Breyten Breytenbach. In South Africa, after linking up with a Cape Town publisher, he was able to publish books which were banned locally. Brazil was another country he visited several times and he was awarded the Machado Assis medal for services to Brazilian literature.
He was active in politics. Twice he stood for Parliament as Liberal candidate (at the general elections of 1965 and 1978), impressing friends when he won 16,000 votes in Plymouth. He was chairman of the Liberal Party's committee on Africa, a founder member of the Middle East Committee, a trustee and vice-chairman of the Africa Educational Trust, which has given students and refugees millions of pounds in grants and scholarships; and a member of missions, trusts and international bodies of all sorts. A practising Anglican, he was involved with African churches, knew Archbishop Tutu and other churchmen; he was "green" before the term was used, a nature- lover and traveller around Britain, as well as Africa. …