Obituary: Bob Forster
Tuesday 27 January 1998
In its apogee in the 1960s D.H. Lawrence's reputation brought him many unexpected admirers, but none more improbable than Bob Forster.
To outward appearance, it was as if Lawrence's father, the miner, had developed a passion for his son's books. Nothing could have been more English than the powerful torso, thick shoulders and close-cropped hair, with a touch of the local dialect (Essex, in fact) of Forster's youth. But all these appearances were deceptive. The affinity with Lawrence was neither aboriginal nor acquired when Regina v Penguin Books turned Lady Chatterley's Lover into a best-seller beyond its author's wildest dreams.
Early on, not when it came out in 1937 but soon after the Second World War, Forster read Alec Craig's 1937 book The Banned Books of England. There he discovered that Lawrence's first novel, The White Peacock (1911), had been suppressed by order of the stipendiary magistrate who heard the case. This outraged Forster; it offended his sense of fair play (what right had a magistrate to judge a work of literature?), and it also roused a hatred of tyranny that reached atavistic roots of which he was hardly aware.
For he, that most English of men, had been born Vladimir Voronin in Moscow, just after the First World War broke out. His parents were reasonably prosperous, and it was not long after the revolution that the danger of their position became apparent. In 1921 they had to leave, and, uncertain of their own future, decided that their son would be better off with his maternal grandmother, who was English. He took his grandmother's surname, Forster; Vladimir became Walter in theory, but since the Cyrillic V looks like a B he became Bob, then and always thereafter.
They settled in Essex and there he went to school; it was the first time, he remembered later, that he had to speak English. It may have been hard going at first, but he was good at games, surest of all passports, and clever enough to earn a place at Maldon Grammar School four years later. Here he did well too, but not to get to university, something he regretted later.
Instead, he went to work, taking a series of office jobs without finding a vocation; he did find his wife Eileen, playing tennis, although they were not able to marry until 1950. War supervened, and Forster joined the RAF, as a mechanic. This he enjoyed, and he was doing well, when the past caught up with him again. Some of his family had escaped from the Bolsheviks, but only as far as Germany. This was considered to make Forster a security risk, and to his great indignation he was turned out of the service.
It was not easy to find any other employment but one of his uncles, Mischa Sinelnikoff, offered him a job. Orion Books, his uncle's firm, proved to be the basis of the education he had missed. He taught himself, using the books he found in the 10 years he spent in what was a good general second-hand bookshop.
Books about books interested him most, and when, later, he came to trade in them himself, he had the advantage of having read most of them. In 1952, after two years of uneasy married life, still with his uncle, Forster took the plunge and set up on his own at Stamford Hill, north London, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.
There was not then, or later, anything grand or pretentious about the business, although Forster bought and sold quite expensive books as well as the ordinary second-hand stock. Everything was simply but efficiently catalogued, in duplicated lists, which were themselves an education to read. He once paid me the unique compliment of devoting one of his lists to my writings, periodical publications as well as books; I was surprised how much he had discovered. It was then too that he began his D.H. Lawrence collection.
Characteristically, he did not just buy the main works (though he had them all, together with some interesting manuscripts); he concentrated on all the minor reprints and re-issues, every article by Lawrence, including ephemeral pieces dating from his journeys in Italy and America, reviews of his books and paintings, even the newspaper reports of the various prosecutions of his works. Nor did Forster keep it to himself. He corresponded with scholars and other enthusiasts all over the world; he would go wherever there was a D.H. Lawrence Society, from Nottingham to Montpellier to Santa Fe. These occasions added new material for the collection, and, always, new friends.
He made friends wherever he went. A bluff manner quite failed to conceal a very kindly heart. He had a natural sympathy for the underdog (knowing what it was to have been one), and he was ready to take on the unpopular but necessary tasks that other people did not want to do. He was a founder member of the Private Libraries Association, and its honorary secretary for 10 years. He did his bit for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association without aspiring to be its president.
Rather unexpectedly, he became a Special Constable in 1948, serving in several divisions (the joke was that he joined so that he, a passionate Chelsea supporter, could always be "on duty" at Stamford Bridge). He loved cricket as well as football, and kept wicket until he was past 60 for a variety of teams, many organised by himself. He continued to play tennis, and poker too, or any card game - he was a shrewd gambler and had an excellent memory.
Bob Forster brought a natural energy, an unforced gusto, to everything he did. Quick and decisive, he could seem rough or offhand, but it was impossible to be put off by his manner when his enthusiasm shone through so clearly. Cats and cards, games, good food and the best hotels, all delighted him, but, first and last, it was books of all sorts and periods on which he was never tired to talk. Fair play, in work as in games, was second nature to him. He was, in Horace's phrase, integer vitae - honest all the way through.
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