Obituary by Colin Webb in BookBrunch, July 2010
In a career as publisher, packager and writer spanning 30 years Russell Ash achieved an astonishing output of bestselling titles from collections of bizarre facts, bizarre book titles, howlers, epitaphs, silly names and double entendres, to distinguished art monographs. In each and everything he applied a perfectionist’s touch. His encyclopedic knowledge of the arcane, obscure, and very often wicked informed his factual compilations that included the annuals Top 10 of Everything and Whitaker’s World of Facts. It also formed the basis of much repartee in his communications and conversations. He was always good company, nothing was too serious for too long.
His publishing career started soon after he graduated from Durham when following work on partworks he formed Ash and Grant with Ian Grant and published over a six year period many distinguished titles. In 1980 he took over my role at Weidenfeld & Nicolson as publisher of art and illustrated where he published Dame Edna Everage amongst others and then joined me in my start up of Pavilion Books where he contributed many successful titles. He went on to form the packaging company Ash & Higton with designer Bernard Higton to produce beautiful international co-editions before making the full commitment to being a freelance writer.
More recently, I acted as Russell’s agent and packager on his monumental annual the Top 10 of Everything now published by Hamlyn but which first appeared in 1989. The achievement of this annual consistently published over the last 22 years will, I feel, secure his legacy.
Starting every August the yearly quest for facts that would support his 700 remarkable lists each year was always intense in order to meet tight deadlines. Alongside the expected subjects such as the 10 Highest Mountains and 10 Longest Rivers there were always the completely unexpected - added to delight and enthuse his global audience.
Some that appealed to me were for example:
* The Top 10 Celebrity Pet Names (Tyson, as in Mike, was number 1)
* The Top 10 Countries Consuming Most Ice Cream (Australia, at 18 litres/ 31.7 pints per capita in 2008)
(and perhaps linked to that one)
* The Top 10 Heaviest People (Carol Yager, 1960"64, who weighed 726 kg)
* The Top 10 Most Common Phobias (Agoraphobia - fear of open spaces)
And perhaps skating on rather thin ice:
* The Top 10 Oldest Pillarboxes in Daily Use (Union Street, St Peter Port, Guernsey, 1853)
Russell had the unique gift of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. He always managed to convey such astonishing information in entertaining terms; both wry and meticulously relevant. As one of his contributors said to me ‘he was a one off. There will never be another quite like him.’
Such was his workload that we always forgave him for being consistently a little behind schedule in delivering his books. I find it much harder to forgive him for being ahead of schedule in this, his far too early departure.
Russell wrote his own biography for his website which reads as follows:
My family were craftsmen, goldsmiths and silversmiths in London since the 18th century. They include Claudius Ash, who in the 1820s was one of the pioneering inventors of false teeth.
My father was a bookbinder who worked in the British Museum Library before serving in the RAF in World War II.
I was born in Surrey, part of the post-war baby boom. We moved to Bedford where I went to primary school and Bedford Modern School, played with Bayko and Meccano and watched cowboy films at the Bedford Granada Saturday matine (where I also saw the Beatles live on 6 February 1963) and then to Durham University where I studied Anthropology and Geography.
I started in publishing in 1967, as a picture researcher on the partwork Man Myth & Magic, worked for Reader's Digest, and for Newsweek Books on their Wonders of Man series. With Ian Grant, I established the publishing company Ash & Grant (1973-78), and was a director of Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1980-83) - where I published a range of books and worked with authors including Dame Edna Everage - and Pavilion Books (1984-88), where I published Hockney Posters and numerous other books, but I have primarily been a freelance writer of and contributor to over 100 non-fiction books.
Top 10 of Everything has been published annually since 1989 and appears in numerous languages around the world. Its content is widely quoted in the national press, and it has attracted extensive publicity, resulting in my appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and numerous other US and UK television and radio programmes. It also inspired a weekly peak-time ITV children's television series which ran from 1998 to 2001, in which I appeared.
I have written for adults and children in subjects ranging across reference, art, history, biography and humour. I have not previously written fiction, but I am currently working on several novels for children.
I am a Director and Management Committee member of The Society of Authors and member of the Biographers' Club, and was Chairman of the South Coast Publishers Group (latterly the Sussex Book Group). I am married to Caroline Ash, until recently the Director of the Rockinghorse Appeal, a children's medical charity, and have a daughter and two sons. I have lived in Lewes, East Sussex, since 1991.
[Not to be confused with Russell (Harvey) Ash (born Ohio, USA, 12 December 1910, died Los Angeles 4 June 1974, buried Forest Lawn), a bit-part Hollywood actor who appeared as one of the 68,894 uncredited extras in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).