Bob James: journalist, raconteur, author and master typographer

“To watch Bob James dilating on the characteristics of Bodoni, or explaining the ocular laws to an audience of aspiring sub-editors, has been one of life’s particular pleasures. At such times his eyes sparkle just a little more brightly and his puckish smile glows a trifle more warmly, for he is a natural teacher with a real love of both typography and journalism.”

Nicholas Herbert’s retirement tribute to Bob James, who died at the age of 72 at his Sussex home on 8 December, will resonate with thousands of journalists who had the privilege to be taught by one of the newspaper world’s truly great characters.

Bob will be remembered for many things. He was a journalist, a designer, a raconteur, a prolific gardening columnist (he was working on his final column the day before he died), an enthusiast for newspapers and one of the most likeable men you could ever wish to meet. But it is as a trainer and an authority on typography that he made his mark.

His knowledge of typefaces was legendary. Once, when working away with him, I was dispatched to buy two tubes of toothpaste. On my return Bob studied his tube and then handed it back saying: “I’m not using that.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Look at the way they have misused Optima,” was his reply.

Others have similar memories.Mel Vasey, editor of the Wharfedale Observer , recalls that when Bob went for an eye test, he struggled to read the chart. “When he reached the bottom line he told the optician ‘I can’t read it, but I can tell you it is in Gill Sans Bold’.” As anyone taught by Bob will know, Gill was chosen for its legibility rather than its readability.

Malcolm Starbrook, former editor of the Croydon Advertiser, remembers the James formula for casting off: column width multiplied by 12 multiplied by two and divided by point size, the result multiplied by 72 divided by the body size, and finally divide the whole thing by six … and then deduct 10 per cent.

Starbrook recalls: “We were in a café and he was studying a bottle of HP sauce. ‘Are you going to use that?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I am just trying to work out how many lines of 7pt I can get on the label’.”

It was all part of Bob’s mischievous sense of humour. He always had a cherubic face, a cheery smile, and took such enjoyment in the world around him. His success as a trainer was not just that he had great knowledge but that he imparted it so generously and genuinely enjoyed the company of those he taught.

He would often begin a course with a stern warning: “While you are here never forget you are an ambassador for your newspaper. We have a huge amount of work to get through. So make sure you are on time first thing in the morning. And woe betide anyone who drinks at the bar until three in the morning … without inviting me too.” And he would always be there-organising card games, playing table tennis or singing the Lambton Worm, a ditty from his native north-east, to bemused southern colleagues.

Although he made Sussex his home, Bob never forgot his north-east roots. It was at The Northern Echo, where the rule was that all headlines must be in Bodoni, that his obsession with that typeface began. He would tell us: “A study of the typefaces of Giambattista Bodoni, the Parmesan printer, teaches us a lot about readability and legibility, and it is for this reason that I tend to talk quite a lot about Bodoni although I don’t actually rate his typefaces for newspapers as their use is so limited.”

Bob had a diverse journalistic career. While on National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, after training as a medical secretary, he became editor, advertisement manager, and sales rep of the Catterick Express (circulation 2,000) – “the Army’s only newspaper”.

He joined The Northern Echo in Darlington in 1949 and became sports editor of its sister paper the Evening Despatch . In the mid-1960s he headed south and worked at Harlow College, where he met his wife Sally, and with the NCTJ, before becoming group editorial development manager with Westminster Press in 1974.

It was a position he held until his semi-retirement in 1993.

Bob was also chairman of the judges for the British Press Awards, played a leading role in the Commonwealth Press Union and was co-author of The Compleat Sub-Editor and author of Newspaper Design Today .

There are few people you meet in a lifetime who leave a mark as deep as Bob James. I am hugely indebted to him. He was the king-maker who helped land me my first editorship and it was his vision that founded the training centre that I now run. But much more than that he just inspired me, like countless others, to be passionate about journalism. He leaves a huge hole … but he also leaves a raft of journalists who understand that making newspapers can be a great joy.

Bob also leaves a widow, Sally, and two grown-up children, David and Eliza. A funeral service was held in Brighton on Thursday.

By Peter Sands, WP trainee, ex-editor of The Northern Echo and director of the Editorial Centre.

 

THE NEWSPAPER WORLD PAYS TRIBUTE TO A GREAT PRACTITIONER

Since his death many eminent former pupils have paid tribute to Bob. Here is a selection: “Bob James was one of the great newspaper practitioners and thinkers of the post-war years. He could tell you with mathematical certainty which typefaces were best for a racing card, or a multi-column headline, or for a motorway services sign.” – ALLAN PROSSER

“I have never met anyone who loved newspapers as much. He literally filled his house with them. Incredible.” – GEOFF ELLIOTT

“When Bob taught sub-editing and headline writing, it was as it should be, a real craft, interlaced with wit, guile, art and humour.

He imparted, brilliantly, the discipline of writing good headlines in the unforgiving medium of hot metal. And it is that very discipline that has served so many of Bob’s ‘graduates’ so well over the years.” – DAVID NICHOLSON

“His passion for newspapers, and the fine detail of their design and content, was legendary. This passion was transmitted to the thousands of journalists who benefited from his training skills.

He was also a very nice man and entertaining drinking partner, often deep into the small hours.” – MIKE GLOVER

 “Bob has forgotten more about newspaper design and the use of type than I could ever know. Now he can argue with Allen Hutt.”

– RON HUNT

“I have shared in the fascination of typography but I could never reach the incredible knowledge Bob had.” – CHRIS COWLEY

“He was an old-fashioned man who embraced new technology eagerly. I shall always remember his expertise as a journalist who, like a few of us, turned to design consultancy and teaching.” – MICHAEL CROZIER

 “I’ll remember Bob sharing his love of clean design, great headlines, tight subbing, well-cropped pictures and suitable type dress. I can picture him now, em rule in hand, enthusing a room full of young hacks: his eyes twinkling, that beguiling northern lilt to his voice. We were Bob’s apprentices. He was the master.” – PAUL DEAL

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