Doctor of Letters
Friday 22 July 2011 - Orator: Michael Liversidge
Publishers bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the well-being of our universities. The books and articles in the journals they produce are one of the indicators that assessors use every few years to calibrate the quality of scholarship and research generated by our colleagues (and competitors) across the United Kingdom, university by university, subject by subject, and without those results there could be no league tables to tell us what we already know, and where we rank. A decent score from the commissars brings money in its wake, and so the wheels of academic fortune keep on turning. To play the game the world of learning needs good publishers. John Sansom is one of them. He has been in the business for thirty-five years since he founded his Redcliffe Press, then started a second imprint specialising in the fine arts, Sansom & Company, in 1995, and in 1998 launched a third, Art Dictionaries. In that time he has worked indefatigably with scores of authors and produced several hundred books, involving himself creatively in every part of what can be a long and sometimes harrowing process, one which may start out from something only just beginning to germinate in the author’s mind, or from a completed manuscript desperately in need of intensive care before it can be safely released into the community. He does not do this alone, of course – his wife Angela and their daughters, whom we also welcome here today, play their part, as do others on the production side – but John Sansom is the driving force behind a business that brings out around two dozen new titles every year, and which has done more than a little to put Bristol on the national publishing map.
The Redcliffe Press rose to local prominence principally, but not exclusively, as a publisher of books about Bristol, its region and the West Country. By making accessible to a wide reading public books about the history and culture of Bristol and Bristolians it has done much to awaken interest in the city and its heritage. John Sansom can also claim his own place in Bristol’s history as one of a small select company of publishers who have started up and stayed on here. Nothing at all of any consequence was printed in Bristol until two hundred years after the printing press was invented, and it was only in 1695 when the law controlling provincial presses was relaxed that the first Bristol-printed and published book appeared. All that can be said of that one is that it was mercifully brief, setting a precedent for dullness that Bristol publishers carried on with distressingly few exceptions until the Redcliffe Press came on the scene in 1976. His success has encouraged others to follow his example, and now Bristol has an established reputation for the vitality of its publishing scene.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, John Sansom had at least two previous successful careers before he reinvented himself as a publisher. It is very far from where he started out when he left school at eighteen in 1955. He was born in Reading, the son of a toolmaker who became a highly skilled engineer working on aircraft in the Second World War. From primary school he won a place at Reading Grammar School, but from there he did not go on to university – although this does not seem to have disadvantaged him unduly. In those days far fewer school-leavers went to university, and his teachers were firmly of the view that their Reading Grammar School boys should go only to Oxford and rather disapproved of applying to anywhere else. So he did his National Service with the Royal Air Force as a clerk, learning short-hand and typing while he thought about becoming a journalist or writer later in life. Then in 1957 he got a job in local government with the Royal Berkshire County Council which led eventually into its audit department where he acquired some highly useful accounting and business skills, and also a personal commendation from the County Treasurer for spotting expenses irregularities which, as he recalls his time there, “bagged quite a lot of people”. But while exceptional administrative skills came naturally someone who had missed passing the ferociously difficult Civil Service Executive Grade entry examination by the narrowest of margins, one mark in a thousand, a career in local government was not altogether an appealing prospect. Instead, he joined the Bristol and West Building Society and was quickly recognised as a future star, becoming a branch manager in Swindon in the mid-1960s. He did not have too much to do: in his own words a branch manager’s time then was largely taken up with “getting on good terms with local bank managers, solicitors, accountants and…estate agents…It was agreeably undemanding…So my job was to wear a nice tie, be pleasant for a quarter of an hour or so, ask after the manager’s children, grumble about the weather and talk knowledgeably about the current Test Match, politics or world affairs, with the occasional lunch at the local George Hotel thrown in for good measure – all of which was designed to make the professional community feel good about me, and therefore about Bristol & West…” He did it very well, displayed a notable taste in ties (he still does), and was duly translated back to Bristol Head Office. Here he changed direction – the diplomatic skills he had honed to a fine art as a branch manager equipped him ideally to set up a press office, and that in turn led him into occasional freelance financial journalism writing for various national newspapers which he did using different pseudonyms – but never for News International, and long before there were mobile phones. He also immersed himself in Bristol’s cultural life, which gave him the opportunity to write about the arts and to develop what has ever since been an abiding passion for modern British art.
John Sansom did so well at Bristol and West that he was singled out by management and looked in grave danger of rising all the way to the top. This he concluded required urgent action to avoid, so he left to start his own independent public relations company which also led him to branch out into the risky business of publishing books. What really launched him was the runaway success of his very first title, a book he co-wrote entitled Children’s Bristol which appeared in 1976, had to be reprinted within days of going on sale, and went through several editions over the ensuing years. Oddly enough its success was almost his undoing: the formula of a best-selling family guide to an interesting place seemed an obvious recipe for a whole series to follow, but the next ones did badly. Something went wrong with the market research: basically, there wasn’t any. If there had been, he would have known that Manchester wasn’t yet ready for him, Bath was too small, and Bournemouth was relatively child-free. But from that a simple business lesson was learned, and the rest is history. Redcliffe Press went on to expand into academic as well as popular history, books about art and architecture, its own poetry imprint, cricket and cuisine, football and trams, theatre, archaeology, garden history and many other subjects. While Bristol remains an important focus for what it does, it and John Sansom’s other two imprints have cast their nets far wider than the West Country and acquired a national, and indeed international, profile. What has always made it distinctive has been the way it reflects its creator’s personal passions, and his extraordinary commitment to, and belief in, the books and authors he publishes.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, John Sansom has done much over the years to enrich Bristol’s appreciation and understanding of itself. His contribution to its cultural life goes well beyond what he has achieved as a publisher. He has always had a deep interest in art and artists, supporting local institutions and making them better known to their own communities as well as further afield. While he claims to avoid committees, he has nonetheless been an active supporter in various capacities of The Royal West of England Academy, the Bristol Short Story Competition, the Bristol Civic Society, and The Friends of Bristol Art Gallery. All these have required time and commitment, and the part he has played in Bristol life over several decades has been recognised by the Bristol Evening Post with its Lifetime Achievement Award, and by the City and County of Bristol with the rare civic distinction of a Lord Mayor’s Medal. Now it is the University’s turn to add its own tribute to a remarkable and distinguished citizen for what he has contributed to learning, the arts and the community.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you John Sansom as eminently worthy of the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.