Doctor of Letters
Friday 20 July 2012 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Cllr Simon Cook
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,
It is with great pleasure that I present to you Alastair Sawday, whom we honour today.
Maverick, enterprising and slightly 'unusual' – and that’s just the judgment of his wife – Alastair has become a leading figure in Bristol, well known for his extensive work around environmentalism, sustainability and the green agenda – but most famously perhaps for his publishing company and the travel books they produce, featuring delightful and unusual places to stay in many wonderful parts of the world.
That he inspires so many to enjoy the joys of travelling is perhaps not so surprising. Alastair was born in a wooden shack 9,000’ up in the mountains in Kashmir in India. His father had joined the Indian Army during the war and then become a lawyer in Calcutta, and it was always assumed that Alastair would follow in his footsteps. So on the family’s return to England in 1946 he was sent to Charterhouse School, where the effortless progress towards his taking silk was to begin.
The only reminiscence I could get out of him about his school days was that he was a keen boy scout, and spent a lot of his time chasing girl guides.
Alastair won a place at Trinity College Oxford to read law, where he began to suspect that becoming a lawyer might not hold the fascination for him that he had originally anticipated. He diverted himself therefore by becoming President of the JCR and learning to fly light aircraft.
On leaving Oxford, needing a good wheeze to avoid becoming a lawyer, he decided to become a VSO volunteer – and it was on the training course for this that he first met with his wife Em in Cardiff. They remained in touch - she went out to Guyana, and Alastair headed to St. Lucia to teach French and Spanish. There he learnt how to sail and ended up representing St. Lucia in the Caribbean Flying Dutchman Championships.
When he finally returned to the UK, Alastair took up a teaching post at the RC Secondary Modern in Harlesden. He found he quite enjoyed teaching – well, it was better than being a lawyer – although he was becoming increasingly convinced that his real calling in life was to be a flamenco guitarist.
Around this time, Alastair’s father sadly died – and needing to earn money he returned to Charterhouse and taught French and Spanish for two years. Later, his mother re-married, and his new step-father, Sir George Sinclair, encouraged Alastair to look at working in the charitable sector. So he came to the West Country, working in a resettlement camp for the expelled Ugandan Asian community in Somerset. From there he made an increasing number of forays to Bristol working with some Asian families who had settled here. He did some supply teaching to keep the wolf from the door – and his love for the city began.
His wanderlust however, was never far away. So in 1972, he went back to London to work for VSO as a desk officer for Papua New Guinea, where he also spent three months. Working on establishing low impact agriculture, his green instincts were stimulated by also learning about the high impact on developing countries of multi national companies. His keen interest in the green and sustainable agenda was kindled.
After being sent by VSO to Turkey – which he describes as a disaster – Alastair came back to Bristol. Now married to Em, they bought a house in Clifton. He spent his time restoring the house and also working for Bristol Friends of the Earth. Later he helped set up Avon Friends of the Earth, and started a business recycling paper.
Environmental concerns were in their infancy at that time, and he needed to raise the PR profile of recycling generally. So, he determined to introduce a horse and cart collection - against the advice of everybody. He advertised publicly for the job and finally chose a man who fortuitously came with his own horse and cart. The scheme was a great success, with people queuing up to help look after the horse and muck out the stables. The economics of the paper-collection weren't bad either, for the driver could run alongside the horse and collect the paper - cutting the need for extra collectors.
All went well until the law of unintended consequences took over: the driver ran away with the project supervisor - and the horse.
The reputation of the recycling work grew, however – and in time Alastair set up a new company, Resourcesaver and eventually, the Children’s Scrapstore, a fantastic idea that is still inspiring kids in schools all over the city.
Bristol’s green consciousness was gathering pace. Soon came ACORN, Avon Conservation of Resources Network – and then Sustrans, of which he was a founder member - which has preserved and mapped quiet and largely traffic free routes for cyclists across the country. What you may not know is that he also set up CYCLEBAG – Conserve Your Calf and Leg Energy Bristol Action Group, distinguished only for being the most ridiculous acronym in the English Language.
Inspired by the success of his green projects, Alastair’s political ambition flared. He stood for Bristol City Council, the County of Avon and the parliamentary seat of Bristol West for the Green Party, but after repeated failures, rather like his recycled glass bottles, he ended up feeling a bit empty and broken. However, undaunted, he renewed his battling for the environment by trying to stop quarrying at Ashton Court Estate. He failed.
Unabashed, and fortunately for the world, he set up Journeys, selling travel that in his words, ‘leaves the faintest footprint’. He had an innate loathing of tourism, but organised walking and cycling tours using only local resources and local people. ‘I am driven to do my publishing work by a deep dislike of conventional forms of tourism,’ he said, ‘such as package tours to foreigner-owned resorts in far-away places. We tend to take the worst of our culture with us when we travel. So I want to enable people to travel sensitively and to meet local people, to stay in small communities where they can spend their money and do no harm.’
This formula was an instant success. The books sold phenomenally well – and the Sawday brand became instantly famous. From would be flamenco guitarist to internationally famous publisher, by a strangely circuitous route. Typically, he used the travel success to continue with his environmental work. After all, travel and sustainability for him were inseparable. The Big Earth Book, The Book of Rubbish Ideas, and Ban the Plastic Bag to name but a few, poured out of the Sawday publishing house.
Sawday’s now employs 47 people and has an enviable reputation. Alastair has won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development for the offices they occupy, and has been the IPA Environmental Publisher of the year twice. He is the founder director of Bower Houses, a company that builds tree houses, Vice-Chair of the Soil Association and a past Chair of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.
Our bid to be European Green Capital this year – which so nearly achieved success, shortlisted, as we were, to the last three – was grounded on the hard work of Alastair and all the other green warriors that this city attracts.
Alastair is an inspiration to many, a hero to some – but above all, he is a thoroughly nice man. He loves this city and wants the best for it. As Leader of the City Council, as well a member of the University’s Council, I can say that we, in turn are proud of him, and of what he has achieved.
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you George Alastair Ronald Sawday as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.