Tributes to ‘brilliantly barmy’ Sunderland author Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson, founder and managing director of the Diagram Group ' sponsor and creator of the Diagram Group Prize for the Oddest Book Title
Bruce Robertson, founder and managing director of the Diagram Group ' sponsor and creator of the Diagram Group Prize for the Oddest Book Title
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Tributes were today paid following the death of a Wearside author. Sarah Stoner takes a look at the life of Bruce Robertson.

A WEARSIDE man who launched one of the world’s most bizarre literary contests – championing “brilliantly barmy” book names – has passed away at the age of 79.

Bruce Robertson, managing director of book design and artwork partnership Diagram and founder of the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title, died on March 21.

“He was highly regarded by those who got to know him,” said son Michael. “He will be missed by many in the publishing trade, both in the UK and across the world.”

Bruce, the son of Co-op store manager Fred Robertson and his wife Ivy, was born in Sunderland in 1934 – just as the storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe.

But, despite his early education at Hylton Road School being frequently interrupted by air raids, Bruce won a coveted place at Villiers Street Junior Technical College.

“My education to 15 was entirely concerned with industrial crafts. I could join lead pipes, cut a dovetail joint from wood and build a brick arch,” he told the Echo in 2012.

“I had no learning in English, a foreign language, history or arts. I learnt to be a craftsman in an industrial town, in a school for which I have great pride.”

Bruce supplemented his technical education, however, with classes at Sunderland School of Arts and Crafts -– paving the way for a career as an artist and publisher.

And, as he entered his teenage years, he spent much of his time exploring the old shops, factories and buildings of Sunderland - drawing the views in pencil and ink.

“Much of the landscape of the North East has drastically changed since my youth,” he recalled back in 2012. “Views, sounds, smells and tastes are now different.

“No longer are there coal mines and huge waste tips. No sound of clanking trams and workers’ boots on cobbled streets. No smell of burning coal or taste of fresh kippers.”

Bruce found work as an apprentice at a Wearside architectural practice after leaving school, where he proved so good at drawing that the owner suggested he attend art school.

All ambitions had to be put on hold, however, until his National Service in the army was completed. Finally, in 1956, Bruce took up a scholarship at the Royal College of Art.

Jobs in the publishing world followed graduation, including graphic and book jacket design for Penguin and Aldus – as well as a teaching post at Chelsea School of Art.

Then in 1960, just four years after leaving college, he founded Diagram with business partner Bob Chapman. Over the next 50 years, the firm achieved global good fortune.

“It started from small beginnings in the 1960s, and grew to be a successful book packager with publishing clients in 207 countries around the world,” said Michael.

“My father was a striking presence at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs for years – a Union Jack tie, black beret and wild beard creating an unforgettable impression.

“He always claimed his proudest Diagram achievement was publishing a Japanese edition of Woman’s Body: An Owner’s Manual - in braille complete with charts.”

It was during a routine visit to Frankfurt Fair in 1978 that the idea for a prize for the year’s barmiest book title first struck Bruce and his business partner Trevor Bounford.

The pair dreamed up the contest in effort to avoid boredom - with the first prize awarded to Proceedings Of The Second International Workshop On Nude Mice.

Other winners over the years have included Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, the Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, Cooking with Poo and How to Avoid Huge Ships.

Today the contest remains hugely popular worldwide, with the most recent prize - coincidently presented on the day of Bruce’s death - given to How to Poo on a Date.

In recent years, Bruce also authored a series of books based on a vast repertoire of anecdotes gleaned from his life in publishing and his travels to far-flung places.

And he produced a pocket-sized book in 2012 too, called Up North – which included drawings, anecdotes, “accounts and happenings” from his childhood in industrial Sunderland.

“When I talk to my grandchildren, they have no idea what Sunderland was like just before and just after the war,” Bruce recalled following the publication of the book.

“But the character of the people was developed by this landscape in which they lived and worked, from the shipyards to the mines and factory sirens.”

Bruce, a father-of-four, died suddenly on March 21 in hospital, after collapsing at his London home. He had suffered poor health for a number of years.

“He was a creative inspiration and a man of great integrity - in his work and in his personal life. He will be greatly missed,” said Michael.

Bruce’s daughter Jane Johnson added: “One of the things I loved about dad was that, despite his humble upbringings in Sunderland, both he and my mother treated everyone equally, as a result, myself, my sister and my two brothers grew up respecting all people and all cultures.

“That’s a legacy you cannot buy.”

l Bruce is survived by his wife of 55 years, Patricia, two sons and two daughters. His family hope to hold a memorial for him in Sunderland later this year.

HITLER’S wartime bombing of Sunderland remained a vivid memory for Bruce Robertson throughout his life, as he revealed in a 2012 interview with the Echo.

Indeed, some of the artist and publisher’s earliest recollections revolved around preparations for war in the family home on Ford Estate.

“As a small boy, like my brother and parents, I had my own gas mask. I carried it in its cardboard box to school every day,” he said.

“My father dug a large hole in our garden and erected an air raid shelter. We would sit there in the dim light of an oil lamp awaiting the ‘all clear.’

“As my father smoked, I collected the cards included in the packs. Among them were ‘Air Raid Precautions’ cards, with advice on what to do in case of an attack.”

Bruce was just seven when the wartime black-out was imposed in 1939. His memories of dark houses, and even darker streets, always stayed with him.

“At sunset, the town shut down, for fear of offering a target for Hitler’s bombers. All street lights were switched off,” he said.

“At home, our windows had strong tape criss-crossed over them, to prevent the glass shattering. Every window was veiled by strong, thick, heavy curtains.”

The outbreak of war left Sunderland’s beaches a no-go area, due to the threat of attack, but Wearside youngsters such as Bruce still had much to fill their time.

“As a small boy, I collected small objects. They were objects with no value, but all were treasures to me and my friends,” he recalled.

“We made our own bent copper pennies – obtained at risk of death or serious injury by placing a penny in the hollow of a tram track and waiting for a tram to run over it.

“We also collected shrapnel - small pieces of exploded metal casements of bombs or shells - which we kept wrapped in cheap, rough toilet paper.”

Bruce often played among the propellers of ships being fitted out on the Wear too, and spent many an hour listening to brass band music in local parks as well.

“My rainy days were spent in libraries, museums and factories. One building always available to an enquiring youth was the Central Reading Room,” he said.

“In my youth, the town seemed full of people. All the streets were covered with cobble stones, tram tracks and deep gutters – a nightmare for cyclists.

“I loved the narrow alleys, soot-covered brickwork, dim street lights and worn stone steps, but very few of the narrow pedestrian alleys survived past the 1960s.”

Bruce recalled his childhood as one filled with noise - from the factory sirens which woke him up each day, to the sound of shunting engines which lulled him to sleep.

“When coal was delivered to the ships, the noise of rattling, squeaking conveyor belt wheels and trucks shunting formed the music of industrial activity,” he said.

“Everything trembled, and everywhere was constantly covered in black dust. Always accompanied by the thump, thump, thump of rail trucks bumping into one another.”