Obituary: Bob Forster

Vladimir Voronin (Walter Forster), bookseller: born Moscow 16 August 1914; married 1950 Eileen Tombs; died London 16 December 1997.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
house + home
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Life and Style
Bats detect and react to wind speed and direction through sensors on their wings
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living