OBITUARY : Edmund Fisher

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The Independent Online
The news of Edmund Fisher's death reached me just before lunch. As I walked into Soho, the evening paper placards bore the legend "High Street Book Giant Collapses". It was only Dillons, owing all of Edmund's fellow publishers lots of money, but the double-take was as real as it was poignant since, in his own inimitable way, Edmund Fisher was a giant of the book trade. His professional life was probably pre-ordained, as he was one of the sons of two of its doyens; his father, James, was the leading naturalist writer and editor of his day; his mother, Margery, one of the most influential figures in children's literature and publishing.

Thus, after Eton, where he was a Scholar, and Magdalen College, Oxford, a life in print seemed inevitable. Literally print to begin with, as his first job was with the British Printing Corporation, as it then was, at Paulton, in Somerset, under the redoubtable Wilfred Harvey, under whom BPC suffered massive financial irregularities.

Having got his thorough knowledge of book production in the west of England, Fisher went more significantly west to do a traineeship at the great American publishing house of Doubleday in New York. While he was there he met and married his first wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of Irving Berlin.

On completing his apprenticeship he came back to England and worked for W.H. Allen. Then he was spotted by George Rainbird, that astute inventor of the "book packaging" principle, whereby he created beautiful picture- books and pre-sold them to publishers around the world, including England, thus entirely obviating any risk. Fisher, sharing George Rainbird's taste for good food and wine, as well as being a first-rate young publisher, did well at Rainbird, master-minding co-editions. So, when George Rainbird sold his house, as one of several independent firms bought by Roy Thomson, it seemed natural that on his retirement Fisher should, while still in his late twenties, succeed him.

When Michael Joseph, also by then a Thomson company, needed a new managing director it was for once an inspired corporate move to give Fisher lateral promotion and put him in charge. He was, still under 30, probably the youngest chief executive of a significant publishing house in Britain - a house whose principal authors included Dick Francis and James Herriot. Fisher was very much strengthened during this period by his second marriage to Anne-Louise Harder, herself an experienced publisher and agent, who eventually became the most important literary "scout" in London, working for a galaxy of overseas publishers. Despite her own formidable workload, she gave him two splendid sons and a calm and loving domestic environment to complement the occasionally rumbustious aspects of Edmund's sometimes volatile career.

Edmund Fisher was never conventional in his approach to either work or life. Seeing, with much prescience, that the paperback tail would shortly wag the hard-cover dog, he made another lateral move within the Thomson group, to become managing director of their paperback company Sphere.

There he realised, equally far-sightedly, that the future of general publishing, particularly for top authors, lay in a vertical process, in which both hard- cover and paperback publications were in the hands of the same house, or at least the same group. His masters did not agree, so that he felt forced to leave over what corporate managers call policy differences.

He then spent time as head of the books division of what Robert Maxwell had made out of BPC Paulton. It is much to Fisher's credit that he and Maxwell did not get on for long and Fisher made his excuses and left. He subsequently, with others in partnership, built up Godfrey Cave into a leading publisher of remainders and promotional books and enjoyed a curious sense of vindication when the firm was successfully sold to the Penguin Group, which had, soon after Fisher's departure from Sphere, bought all the Thomson Organisation's general publishing companies.

Thereafter Fisher dabbled, but always as a real professional, in various other book-trade activities, ranging from consultant to packager, to editor and inventor of projects, and even being a partner in an English- language bookshop in Hungary.

Fisher, in a trade not short of larger-than-life characters, was one of the most endearingly flamboyant. One day in 1978, he invited me to lunch at the Etoile. We had a modest piece of business to transact, as always much to talk about, and a spectacularly immodest meal. It being the Queen's Silver Jubilee year he ordered a bottle of Chteau Beychevelle 1961, the sort of claret whose absence (today) at less than £100 a go Alan Clark so loudly bemoans.

As we were halfway through this feast, in walked Gordon Brunton, then head of the Thomson Organisation (which owned Sphere Books, of which Fisher was managing director) and Denis Hamilton, editor-in-chief of the still Thomson-owned Times Newspapers. Sir Gordon and Sir Denis proceeded to have a frugal, one-course meal. They could hardly fail to observe the champagne in its bucket and the claret, proclaiming its seniority, next to the decanter on our table. Fisher, who should have been embarrassed, was as resourceful as ever. He slipped his credit card to me and told me to make flamboyant bill-demanding gestures so that his masters would assume that their junior colleague was in fact my guest.

He was also a man of wide cultural interests. Passionate about music, he was an erudite opera buff who also played the organ at his local parish church; indeed he was a devoted church organist for 46 years. He had a great gift for friendship. His circle included restaurateurs, journalists, politicians and musicians. The tiny hospital room in which his cancer had incarcerated him, was, until the last days, when he was too ill to cope, crowded with an astonishing array of people whom Edmund kept amused until even his considerable strength failed.

He was a large man, well over six feet tall, with a handsome Roman profile and huge eyes, topped by a great head of dark hair, and with a peculiar, powerful, loping gait, and the characteristic stoop of the very tall, which made him instantly recognisable, even from a distance. In a trade where bitchery is more common than charity, I never, in over 30 years, heard a bad word about him, a rare but entirely deserved achievement.

Edmund Fisher often proudly claimed to have a strong streak of Jewish blood in him. This was apt, since in all things, not least his courage at the end, he was a mensch.

Edmund Boyd Fisher, publisher: born 23 February 1939; married first Elizabeth Berlin (one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved), Anne-Louise Harder (two sons); died London 1 March 1995.