May was a remarkable self-made man, and an extraordinarily self- effacing one, whose belief in public service was evident in his many voluntary activities in music and elsewhere. His politics focused on free speech and fair play; he was an active member of Amnesty International and Index on Censorship.
He was born in Croydon (the family home was in Thornton Heath), his father a company secretary, with a passion for books which John inherited. A grammar-school education led, despite a teenage flirtation with pacifism, to a war spent in the RAF. In later life, he never referred to his war service. In fact, he enlisted in June 1941 and trained in South Africa from May 1942 to May 1943, being commissioned in April 1943 as Flight Lieutenant. Posted to Bomber Command, with 619 Squadron from August 1944 to January 1945, he flew Lancasters from Dulholme Lodge and Strubby in Lincolnshire.
On a mission to target Wurzburg, one of his engines failed over enemy territory, but he successfully pressed home his attack, and was awarded the DFC. The citation highlighted his "gallantry in the face of the enemy" which had been "a source of inspiration to all the crews of his squadron". May participated in the Dresden raid, whose horror was not lost on him, and he later developed a wide interest in German history.
During 1947 he was posted to India, where he was involved in the closure and transference of RAF stations in the face of independence, with the acting rank of Wing Commander. Returning to England in a non-flying role, he resigned his commission in 1950 to join BOAC, working in the charter division. Later experience, first in Rickards, a coach hire company, and then with Initial Towel Services, gave him a varied background in business practice which proved invaluable.
While with BOAC he was involved in trade union development, taking pride in ensuring that members were able to exercise their right to opt out of the Labour Party levy. This first-hand union experience would provide him with the stepping stone to another strand of his work for music, as Secretary of the Association of British Orchestras.
After his first marriage ended in divorce, in 1957 he married Laurie Lyons, whom he had met when they were both Labour councillors. Though without formal training he acquired a wide practical knowledge of languages; French, German, Russian, Czech, Hungarian. He built an unrivalled international knowledge of music and the literature of music through handling and cataloguing it over half a lifetime.
When I first knew him May & May operated from their Putney home, shelving covering every wall. Later, seeking more space, they moved to Tisbury, and then Semley near Shaftesbury. Seeking a job which would also enable them to develop their music business, he took the part-time post of Secretary of the Orchestral Employers Association, which he developed from a narrow 1950s organisation for negotiating with the Musicians' Union into today's Association of British Orchestras. He put the ABO on a sound footing as an employer's trade association, and finally left in 1985.
May was widely known in the musical world, and influential in the formation of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies and the National Campaign for the Arts. He was a board member of the Western Orchestral Society (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra), becoming Vice-Chairman. It was his personal vision that established the Ermuli Trust, now the Music Libraries Trust, in 1982, to fund impecunious music librarians and researchers to attend conferences and meetings and carry out research.
While working in Westminster he took an interest in the courts and was appointed to the magistracy in 1972, serving in the Inner London area on the South Westminster Bench until 1985. He was characteristically proud of this service, and his lifelong sympathy with the underdog meant that he was not always inclined to believe police statements if not adequately corroborated.
As May & May's catalogues developed, he took a growing interest in the work of music librarians. Becoming a member of the UK branch of the International Association of Music Libraries (IAML(UK)), he became a committee member, 1973-79, and President, 1980-82. Lacking academic qualifications, at first he felt himself insufficiently qualified to accept the presidency, but once persuaded, as in the ABO, he transformed the organisation, introducing a business-like committee structure, making it outward- rather than inward- looking, and tried to ensure that the most junior were given a voice. IAML(UK)'s organisation and activity today is in no small part a legacy of John May.
May & May had a particular role. Models of their kind, John May's catalogues had a consistent range, depth and frequency that was quite amazing. But it did not end there, for customers became friends and May increasingly found himself an irreplaceable institution in bringing together scholars working in many fields, and successfully searching for "wants" no matter how obscure. Notable collections dispersed through the catalogues included those of Anna Instone and Julian Herbage, Trevor Harvey and Christopher Palmer. Fully referenced and extensively annotated, the catalogues provided something for every taste, and reading them was an education, as well as a pleasure. A set constitutes an enduring scholarly memorial.
John William May, bookseller and administrator: born Croydon, Surrey 8 July 1922; DFC 1945; married 1948 Doreen Hutchinson (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1957 Laurie Lyons (one son); died Bristol 28 December 1998.Reuse content