Christopher Helm

Publisher and ornithologist


Christopher Alexander Roger Helm, publisher and ornithologist: born Dundee 1 February 1937; married 1967 Caroline Price (one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1976), 1979 Amanda Thomas (one son, one daughter); died Hastings 20 January 2007.

There can hardly be a birder's bookshelf in the land without at least one or two volumes bearing the distinctive logo and the name "Helm" on their spines - and quite probably a whole row of them. Such is the influence and reputation of Christopher Helm in the world of ornithological publishing.

The elder son of a Presbyterian minister, he moved with his family in 1939 from Forfar to Tunbridge Wells, where his father preached to the Scottish diaspora. After Harrow, Christopher was obliged to undergo National Service. He joined the Highland Light Infantry and was posted to Glasgow, where he obtained his commission. He endured a demanding time on active service in Cyprus, and looked back on it with a notable lack of nostalgia.

After Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and Law, Helm worked first in advertising, moving on to Penguin Books and Macmillan. While at Macmillan, he made friends with a dynamic young editor from Allen and Unwin - David Croom. The two realised that, in the expanding market for tertiary-level education, they could be fleeter of foot than the established monolithic publishers, and in 1972 Croom Helm Limited was incorporated.

The concept was to commission broadly scholarly works from young academics, publish them quickly, and market them on an international scale. Croom was the prolific editor and Helm the marketeer. The concept worked because of the short publication schedule and the wide export sales network that Helm set up. Thus, Croom filled the warehouse and Helm emptied it.

Helm always commissioned some books, and in the late 1970s this began to include some bird books. The turning point came with the publication in 1983 of Peter Harrison's Seabirds. This was the first bird book covering a specific group of birds to concentrate mainly on field identification and, most importantly, to illustrate them fully. Never before had there been such a useful book with which to identify such a challenging group of birds. It was followed in 1986 by Shorebirds and these two books became an instant success, remaining in print for the next 20 years and selling tens of thousands of copies.

They became the first of the "Helm Identification Guides", which developed into a long series of much-imitated guides to bird families of the world. Two other classic Helm titles, the Handbook of Bird Identification and Raptors of the World took nearly 20 years in preparation before publication in 1998 and 2001.

In 1986, Croom Helm was sold to ABP, and the two eponymous founders parted amicably. Helm went on to found Christopher Helm Publishers, where he concentrated on popular reference. Gradually, the bird books took over and the Christopher Helm name became synonymous with the genre. In 1990, the company was sold to A&C Black Publishers, where the Christopher Helm list remains one of the key divisions.

Not ready to retire, Helm began to develop new ideas for more books and in 1994 the first bird books appeared under the Pica Press imprint. Accolades continued to be won, and Helm or Pica Press books regularly were named as "Best Bird Book of the Year" by the ornithological press. In 2000, Pica Press was sold to A&C Black, and in retirement Helm was able to enjoy his many interests, especially bridge, cricket and opera. Birdwatching remained a passion and his regular census work at Brightling Park gave much pleasure.

Helm's service on the Council of the British Ornithologists' Union was of immense value, in particular in chairing the Publications Committee. He also held office at the Publishers Association. In the 1970s he served as a Labour councillor in Wandsworth, and stood as a parliamentary candidate for Wokingham.

At two metres in height Christopher Helm towered over most of his peers, and he was convivial company, a warm-hearted man with a sharp wit and the tongue that often goes with it.

Nigel Redman

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