AESS Newsletter, December 2000


JOHN BISHOP, 1931-2000


I first met John Bishop in 1967 soon after I came to London as a student. Wishing to build up my vocal repertoire (primarily of English song) I advertised for an accompanist in the old 'Amateurs Exchange' column of the Musical Times, hopeful that by this means I might also meet some interesting young women. Among the respondents was John Bishop, who turned out to be married to the composer Betty Roe. Betty and I knew each other by sight because she was one of the regular professional singers engaged by Martindale Sidwell to stiffen the Hampstead Choral Society, which I had joined within a few days of my arrival from Nottingham. I was invited to their house in Barlby Road and we sang some of the songs I had taken and then ate a delicious meal (the first of so many!) and I remember that afterwards Betty and I watched Kenneth Williams on television and both laughed like drains. Suddenly, I felt at home in London! I'm not sure that I thought I had sung very well on that first occasion and must have written to John to say so because I remember that he wrote very generously, saying that 'there were some very good sounds and there will be more'. Since then John and Betty became two of my oldest and dearest friends in London, and there are few things that I have done in the musical world during the subsequent thirty-three years that cannot in some way be traced back to them: encouraging me, opening doors of opportunity for me, introducing me to people who have also become valued friends as well as colleagues, and continuing to be so generous and hospitable in their friendship. Not least, there have been very few situations in which there has not been laughter, in abundance – a tonic in so many circumstances – and I relished John's slow, dry sense of humour. When I remarried a few years ago and neither of us wanted the fuss of our first time round, Linda and I decided we would have just a handful of special friends, and apart from my sister and her husband, and my 'best mate' Robert Tucker and his wife, the only others I wanted were John and Betty, and I was delighted that they could come.

I tell this personal story, not only out of gratitude, but because I know that I am only one of scores of people in similar circumstances whom John and Betty have befriended, encouraged and brought together. (And not only in purely musical situations: they always took a great interest in my sex life and were quite concerned if I ever turned up anywhere without a girlfriend in attendance!) I saw John in the hospice two days before he died and was able to thank him and to say goodbye. But what an enormous gap he leaves in our lives! There were 250 people at his funeral (unfortunately I was stranded in South Wales and could not go) and Betty has received more than four times that number of letters and cards.

John is perhaps most widely known for his publishing activities under the imprints of Thames and Autolycus (the latter primarily for poetry), and these were only slightly more than a twinkle in his eye when I first knew him. Thames began as a music-publishing venture but later he expanded into books, believing that there was a significant market for books about British music and musicians, even if it was too small or specialized to interest the established publishers. John was marvellous at spotting the gaps and filling them with the right books written by the right authors. There are 74 titles (including backlist) currently in print in the latest Thames catalogue – quite an achievement! – and the music catalogue is too extensive to count, but includes comprehensive series of songs by such composers as Frank Bridge, John Ireland and Peter Warlock, and smaller collections of lesser lights such as Denis Browne and Robin Milford, as well as the anthologies, notably the AESS's own series, A Century of English song. As you know, six volumes of A Century have appeared, John compiled Volume 7 virtually single-handed earlier this year, and Michael Pilkington and I (as the remaining members of the editorial committee) are determined that the series will be completed, not least as a memorial to John, but this depends on finance continuing to be available to put our (voluntary) efforts into print. We hope that the Association's committee will give this some thought as a matter of urgency, and that members will continue to support the venture, at least by buying copies for themselves and by recommending them to their pupils and colleagues. Thames is of course also the current publisher of Michael Pilkington's 'English song: guides to the repertoire' series as well as the indispensable English solo song: a guide…, which should be a bible for every English singer and teacher, and Stephen Varcoe's recent book, Sing English song.

But John's activities went far beyond publishing, as Lewis Foreman's monumental obituary in The Independent on 29 September makes clear. He organized recitals and recordings, took on vital roles for such bodies as The Frank Bridge Trust, The John Ireland Trust and the Peter Warlock Society, and was a pro-active chairman of the Kensington Music Society. He organized many musical activities for the community in North Kensington, where he lived – and for which Betty Roe wrote music or acted as musical director – and often took the role of accompanist or organist. Like Betty, he believed that music was for the people, and the people thanked him for it. As an amateur he gained much pleasure from singing in choirs such as the Royal Choral Society, the London Philharmonic Choir, and many smaller groups. All this added to a rich experience of life.

When he first met Betty, he was actually composing songs of his own, not always without difficulty, for the revues in which he performed as a young man in Croydon, but stopped when he saw Betty's natural grasp of the medium. But he wrote much poetry throughout his life – including some very moving poems in the weeks leading up to his death – and also edited a number of published anthologies, on the subjects of women, music, London, and night.

It is difficult to do justice to such a man in a thousand words, but I hope that this gives a flavour of what he meant to me. Nothing was too much trouble for him; perhaps he was sometimes too willing to be imposed upon; undoubtedly many took him for granted, and he was extraordinarily self-effacing. But those of us who have a belief in the cause of British music (particularly English song) know that he was indispensable; his death aged 69 has created a gap which it will be very difficult to fill, but his inspiration will continue and we must not forget him.

© Garry Humphreys, Secretary of AESS 1988-95