For The Guardian

 

JOHN BISHOP, 1931-2000

 

To list the achievements of John Bishop, who has died aged 69, is a comparatively simple task; to put a finger on the essence of his character and personality is considerably more difficult. That there were 250 people at his funeral and more than four times that number of letters and cards were received by his widow is tangible proof of his influence in the world of British music, the esteem and affection in which he was held, and the shock and sheer disbelief that he should die seemingly at the height of his powers.

John Bishop was born at Norbury, south London, on June 4 1931, the son of a tax inspector and a mother who was a creditable amateur pianist but somewhat overshadowed by her husband. He attended Whitgift Middle School, Croydon, leaving in 1947 after one year in the sixth form where his subjects were English and economics subjects which were to prove valuable in his future career. He also took part in revues with a group called the Mitre Players, and here met his future wife, a young cellist and composer called Betty Roe, who had been invited to write music for the group's resident lyricist. After a walk to the bus-stop in the rain, sharing an umbrella, the relationship grew and, nine months later, they were married, even though Betty thought of John at that initial meeting as 'a typical example of the sort of man I wanted to know nothing about'. John actually wrote very good revue songs of his own, but it was a struggle and he gave up on seeing Betty's much more natural grasp of the medium. On leaving school he immediately went to work with the Shell International Petroleum Company, and stayed there until 1973, first on the editorial staff of the company's international magazine, then as founding editor of the fortnightly London staff and sports newspaper London Shell and in the Employee Information Division. In 1963 he moved to the Publicity Media Services Division, with responsibility for the design and production of a wide variety of sales and other literature, and a further move, in 1967, to the Advertising and Sales Promotion Division, saw his involvement with all aspects of advertising, including film-making, copy-writing, media selection and direct mail, as well as training course administration. At the same time he edited the division's publications, including a quarterly magazine and a monthly newsletter. He had, incidentally, been elected a full member of the British Association of Industrial Editors in 1959.

In 1973 he moved to Pearl Assurance as the founding editor of that company's house journal and subsequently became manager of the Information Unit, responsible for four newspapers and magazines and a wide range of staff publications generally.

All this time he was also active as a freelance journalist, lecturer and broadcaster (for the BBC Overseas Service), particularly on musical, literary and dramatic subjects, writing for specialist magazines and local newspapers, editing such diverse publications as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award journal, Sir Robert Mayer's Youth and Music magazine, and the London Philharmonic Choir's newsletter. He was newsletter editor and acted in other essential roles (including, variously, secretary and publicity officer) for the Peter Warlock Society, and was a pro-active chairman of the Kensington Music Society for three years. His involvement with the recording industry began in 1970 when for three years he worked freelance for the Unicorn Record Company, responsible for the design and production of sleeves, advertising, writing sleeve-notes, etc.

In 1970 he founded Thames Publishing, initially to publish the music of Betty Roe, who had been dissatisfied with the long-winded and lethargic handling of her work by several of the larger, established music publishers. The rest, as they say, is history: the music publishing side of Thames expanded to include a wide range of British composers' work, mainly from the turn of the century to the present day, particularly vocal music, with comprehensive series of the songs of Frank Bridge, John Ireland and Peter Warlock; lesser-known composers deserving recognition, such as Denis Browne and Robin Milford, and anthologies including the ongoing series, A Century of English Song, published in collaboration with the Association of English Singers and Speakers. Eventually, books were added, and here John found a niche market that had not previously been satisfied, if indeed anybody realized it actually existed. John Bishop was convinced that there was an appetite (actual or potential) for books about British music and musicians, too small to interest the established book publishers, but large enough to justify a toe in the water by a smaller company. Today, Thames has a catalogue (including backlist) of 74 published titles in print, with many more waiting in the wings or at various stages of conception at the time of John's death. Their future is at present uncertain.

John was brilliant at spotting gaps, finding the right authors to fill them, and producing increasingly attractive books, most of them being the only substantial sources of information on their subjects. If he had an Achilles' heel (surprising in view of his past history) it was in the marketing: for example, only recently have titles going back several years begun to be listed (as the result of copyright deposit) in the British National Bibliography, that vital source of current awareness for librarians and booksellers. We must hope that this, and the handing over of distribution to William Elkin Music Services, will make up for lost time and see these publications disseminated more widely, as they richly deserve to be.

In 1971, John founded another imprint, Autolycus Press, as an outlet for poetry. He had already compiled and had published (by John Baker) three anthologies, reflecting three of his particular enthusiasms: women (Wise, wanton, womanly, 1967), music (Music and sweet poetry, 1968), and London (London between the lines, 1973), and had an enviable flair for finding good material that had eluded previous collections on these subjects. One of the earliest publications from Autolycus was a slim volume of his own poems I from my small corner which graphically, and often touchingly, evoke such topics as the anxieties of adolescence or London life in the 1960s and 70s. One of them, 'Harrow Road, Sunday, 10.00 a.m.', was updated in the 1998 reissue (with additional poems), replacing references to the Sunday Pictorial and Green Shield stamps with more up-to-date images, and unfortunately depriving it of much of its 1960s atmosphere. The original version deserves to be restored whenever this poem is printed in future.

He took early retirement from Pearl in 1988, following a stroke and the news that the office was to be relocated to Peterborough; but it gave him the opportunity to devote himself full-time to existing and new projects, and to other interests. He believed that music was for the people, and he involved himself in many local projects with amateur choirs, churches, community groups and children, in most of which were performed works written for such occasions by Betty Roe.

He was writing poetry right up until his death, much of it reflecting his feelings on being gravely ill and reflecting on life from that standpoint. Some of it is unbearably moving, but says much about the man. If indeed (as the refrain of one of these poems relates) he was 'Always on the outside looking in', I believe that this sharpened his perceptions of others and the world around him, and earned him, with Thomas Hardy (his favourite author), a reputation as 'a man who used to notice such things'. Unlike Hardy (most of the time) he did so with a slow, dry sense of humour. He professed no religious faith (but once described himself as 'a god-fearing atheist') and no politics. He could barely hammer a nail into a wall but had an unerring knack of knowing what would work in any sort of presentation, on a printed page or on a theatre stage. He was besotted with cats and found them much more acceptable than human beings. He was perhaps too ready to undertake tasks for other people, whatever commitments he already had: nothing was too much trouble; he had a knowledge of and interest in many things and he became indispensable but, perhaps, easily taken for granted. For Thames Publishing for years he did everything, including the accounts and tying-up parcels, but in 1998 decided to secure the future of the company for when he and Betty 'were no longer around'. Did he have some premonition that this would not be very far ahead? Not unconnected may have been his concern about the dehumanizing of so much of present-day life. With the coming of 2000 he wrote that 'somehow the stuffing went out of me. I don't want to be in this dot.com world of energetic trivia'. To him, the slow movement of Frank Bridge's Suite for Strings was more to his taste, and he found it 'heart-rending and very much my music/world'.

He was a much-loved father of twin daughters, Lesley and Susan (both professional musicians), and a son Simon. He was surprised to learn that they thought him eccentric, for such habits as finding hats (and on one occasion a tea-cosy) and wearing them all day in the house; or changing from trousers to shorts on arriving home in the evening and ending up with no trousers at all if he were interrupted by a telephone call (on one such occasion he opened the door to a young instrumentalist friend of one of his daughters, whose reaction was to say 'I didn't know it was going to be that sort of party' and then to remove his own trousers)!

When he knew he was dying, he wrote a farewell message to his friends, which was printed in the order of service for his funeral. He spoke of 'a life rich in fulfilment [which] has brought me many wonderful experiences. Life for me has been one huge Enigma Variation and I cannot adequately express the richness there has been'. Of his marriage to Betty, he speaks of 'so much laughter over the years'. To his friends, he says: 'I was the better for knowing you' a sentiment that will be reciprocated by all who knew him.

© Garry Humphreys, 2000

John Bishop, publisher, born June 4 1931; died September 5 2000