Obituary: Alan Hill
Wednesday 22 December 1993
ALAN HILL was the most imaginative educational publisher of his time. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, described him as 'a visionary who with a small band of colleagues built from scratch the biggest educational publishing company in the Commonwealth'.
He was born into the world of education, the son of William Hill, the schoolmaster in the industrial village of Barwell, in Leicestershire. On the day before he died he attended the Christmas lunch of a group of educational publishers in London. As ever he was the star, the life and soul of the proceedings. Afterwards he went to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, of which he had just been elected a Fellow at the age of 81.
His father's world had much in common with that of DH Lawrence - indeed amongst William Hill's friends was Louie Burrows, said to be the original of Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow. It was a world of self-improvement rooted in the Nonconformist tradition, then being influenced by the impact of the Fabian Society and Labour Party. William Hill was active in politics and become president of the National Union of Teachers. Alan Hill always retained something of the Puritan work ethic and was a lifelong Labour supporter.
After Wigston Grammar School, Leicester, and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read history, he joined in 1936 the educational department of William Heinemann, then a tiny part of the most successful British fiction publisher - so small that at the outbreak of war school publishing was left in abeyance until Hill returned from the RAF in 1946.
Progress was slow. When I joined him in 1949 his staff consisted of a part-time secretary and office boy. We looked with awe at the enormous publishing lists of our competitors. But a new world had been opened up by the 1944 Education Act - new exams and secondary education for all, and here we were on level ground.
Hill had an enormous interest in people. He had the gift of immediate rapport with total strangers. He would draw them out, persuade them to reveal their ideas and help them with encouragement and support. He had faith in them, and they had faith in him. The publishing programme grew as the word spread that here was a firm that believed strongly in good personal relations, both with its authors and amongst its own staff.
Gradually new people were recruited and in 1956 Hill felt the business was sufficiently established for him to start making the overseas trips that were to occupy a great deal of his publishing life. He was determined to see for himself what the market was like for our books, then to see if they could be adapted for other countries, and finally to set up a train of offices, each with its own publishing programme.
In 1956 Achebe sent his first novel, Things Fall Apart, to William Heinemann, who published it on the basis of a glowing report from their chief fiction reader. Unfortunately there was virtually no market for hardback novels in tropical Africa, so gradually the idea was born that we should publish it and other titles in a new paperback series - the African Writers Series. It fell to me to carry advance copies of the first three titles round Nigeria and Ghana in 1962, showing them to schools, colleges and bookshops. They created enormous excitement. Here were their own countrymen's books in attractive but cheap paperbacks, accessible to all. At last there was an opportunity for budding authors to submit their work in the knowledge that they would be judged on their suitability for their own countries, not by the criteria of UK hardbacks.
Hill became known as an authority on British publishing overseas. In 1962 the Government asked for a book publisher to join the Second Commonwealth Education Conference in Delhi; along with ministers, senior civil servants, vice-chancellors and chief education officers.
Hill was chosen and played a leading role in seeing through schemes for subsidised textbooks and providing training for overseas authors in the UK. He attended two further conferences and when he was appointed CBE in 1972 the citation was 'for services to overseas education'.
Hill officially 'retired' on his 67th birthday in 1979. He viewed the prospect with dismay, but immediately busied himself with new projects - Computers in Education, the Nuffield Curriculum Trust, the Prehistoric Society, constant contact with his old Heinemann colleagues and a very busy social life.
Education and publishing owe an enormous amount to his vision and dedication. Above all he will be remembered as a marvellous human being.
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