I attended the splendid memorial service for my great friend, Russell Ash, last Wednesday, and there was a good write up on it that appeared in online publishing magazine BookBrunch. Many thanks for their permission to reproduce it here.

Russell Ash – finding the fun in everything
Sunday, 26 September 2010 15:16

Friends from across the book industry paid tribute to the humour and erudition of Russell Ash at a memorial service in London. Ruth Edwards reports

Russell Ash had so many good friends in the book world that it cannot have been easy whittling the number of speakers to the few who would represent his life and work at the Wellcome Collection auditorium on Wednesday evening, 22 September. Recognisable figures from all parts of the industry and beyond attended, despite the imminence of Frankfurt, and paid fine tribute to him. Contributions included those by an award-winning novelist, a world renowned musician, and publishing heads.

Russell’s friend, bestselling novelist and film producer Peter James, opened with his beautifully written tribute to Russell from The Bookseller, covering “his career as a publisher and then prolific international bestselling non-fiction author, with over 100 titles, published in 25 languages, 33 publishers, and hardback volume sales of many millions”. Peter said that: “all who were lucky enough to know the man, found a profound intellectual with a brilliant, subversive wit, who mined seams of humour from almost everything he encountered in life… In his company, and with his quietly infectious humour, even the most mundane of objects could suddenly become absurdly funny. To me that was the true mark of his genius.”

Mike Edwards, a close friend of 35 years and Russell’s publisher at DK, was reminded of the multi-talented natural philosophers of the 17th century. Not only did Russell write successful titles in history, art, science, humour and popular lists, he also “had a lifelong interest in the visual arts; his magnificent galleried library won an architectural award and he displayed a craftsman’s skill in making a superb scale model of his library and exquisite silver-smithing work. Russell enhanced any group of which he was a part and excelled in everything he took on. If you knew him he made your world brighter, more interesting and much funnier. We’ve got to crack on without him but it’s a damn shame.”

An early friend who published several of his bestsellers, Orion publisher Alan Samson, said that he adored Russell’s Englishness: Russell knew an awful lot about Victorian painting, not just the perenially fashionable Pre Raphaelites but Alma Tadema and Lord Leighton, and produced fine, elegantly written books about them as well as about beloved children’s book characters Alice in Wonderland and Paddington. He knew more than most of us forget about Edward Lear, and collected English risque names in his compendium Potty, Fartwell and Knob.

Over lunch at Joe Allens in 1989, Alan and Russell had discussed an idea for an annual compendium of lists called Top 10 of Everything. “Russell came from a line of craftsmen, particularly silver and goldsmiths, and his ability to craft publishing gold was never better demonstrated than by Top 10. Positive, enthusiastic, exceptionally intelligent and funny. Russell compiled and wrote many successful books, many involving comparisons, but when I think of Russell as I often do, I cannot think of a comparison.”

Television writer Barry Simner had enjoyed an amazing email correspondence with Russell over many years, and he read several examples. “Dear Barry, As revealed by the Rochester Yellow pages: Miss Havisham’s Wedding Dress Emporium; Hard Times Massage Parlour (formerly Master Humphrey’s Cock); Goblers’ (a snack bar – a bit obscure, but a character in Boz); Grate Expectations Fireplace Shop (actually I think I’ve seen this somewhere); The Dothehall Boys (carpet layers specializing in halls and staircases); Our Mutual Friend (paraphernalia for Satanists); Dedlocks (locksmiths); Barnaby Fudge (a sweetshop); Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Solicitors (‘Cases settled in 100 years or your money back’). Enough of this… Russell.”

Colin Webb of Palazzo worked closely with Russell for over 30 years and in the last six acted as Russell’s agent and packager on Top 10 of Everything, of which the 22nd annual edition was published only last week. “I’m so pleased to know that his children Felicity, Alex and Nick, together with his wife Caroline, are all working flat out to secure the future of Top 10. There will be a 23rd edition! The massive achievement of this annual consistently published over the last 22 years will, I feel, secure his legacy. Russell had the unique gift of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. As one of his contributors said to me, “He was a one off. There will never be another quite like him.”

A recent discoverer of the joys of working with Russell, his agent of four years John Saddler gave a deliciously wicked foretaste of Russell’s certain Christmas bestseller It Just Slipped Out: A Bulging Encyclopaedia of Double Entendres (Headline, November). A further Russell treat to come next summer from Random House Children’s Books will be Boring, Botty & Spong, a book of names to make you wonder, think and certainly laugh out loud.

Antiquarian bookseller Brian Lake wrote the bestselling Bizarre Books with Russell, a project that began more than 20 years ago when antiquarian booksellers were encouraged to display their “Dud Books of All Time” at a book fair in York. Some were indeed unsaleable, but others were very funny: The Common Teasle as a Carnivorous Plant (1922), The Big Problem of Small Organs (1966), and The Romance of Leprosy (1949).

In an exceptional tribute to his long term friend, legendary virtuoso recorder player Piers Adams beguiled us with a haunting performance of The English Nightingale. The complexity of the playing was thrilling, and the delivery, beginning quietly in his audience seat and then progressing through the auditorium, made one feel a magician was among us.

Russell’s classic Yuppie version of English history in The Official British Yuppie Handbook  (“Seventeenth Century: French designer clothes appear. Eighteenth Century: Vivaldi pioneers background music for dinner parties”) was read by son in law Ben Lucas, while photographer friend Sue Greenhill read her own moving poem to Russell. It was impressive and moving to hear Felicity and Alex Ash reading from his work.

Finally, Caroline Ash thanked everyone, saying: “Although Russell was essentially a very modest man and would not have expected a memorial, I am confident that he would have really loved it.”