Obituary: Russell Ash

Book publisher who had a passion for compiling best-selling top ten lists of trivia

Born: 18 June, 1946, in Carshalton, Surrey.

Died: 21 June, 2010, in Lewes, East Sussex, aged 63.

Russell Ash was the ultimate trivia compiler, and his Top Ten of Everything has been published in a new edition every year since 1989.

Since the 18th century Ash's family had been skilled London craftsmen, working particularly with precious metals such as gold and silver. One notable ancestor, Claudius Ash, had broken away from the traditional production of Ash & Sons and was a pioneer of metal dentures, mounting porcelain on gold plates rather than use the more orthodox hippopotamus or walrus ivory.

However by the time Ash was born in 1946 Ash & Sons had gone in to full-time dental production and been swallowed up by a multinational company.

Ash's father, instead of following the time-honoured family tradition of metal craft was instead a bookbinder at the British museum library.

The family then moved from Surrey to Bedford, and Ash's most prominent early childhood memories were of playing with Meccano and watching cowboy films at the local cinema. He was educated at Bedford Modern School before enrolling at Durham University to read anthropology and geography.

Following graduation Ash moved in to the world of insurance, which he did not take to. A quick rethink led to a job in at the magazine Man, Myth & Magic as a picture researcher in 1967, and a career was born.

From then on Ash worked as either a writer or a publisher, and after Man, Myth & Magic had a stint at Readers Digest as a writer/researcher before moving on to Newsweek Books as its European correspondent.

Despite a period of three years when he took on the role of director at Weidenfield & Nicholson from 1980 to 1983 - which he described in an interview as his only "proper job" - Ash operated predominantly as a writer from 1970, the year he published his first book, a small volume called Highwaymen.

In 1973 he founded Ash & Grant with his friend Ian Grant, and the publishing company lasted until 1979 and partly folded due to Ash's correct self-diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma.

He recovered but turned to corporate work which began his tenure at Weidenfield & Nicholson. There he was responsible for publishing a wide range of books, including Britain From the Air, which became a bestseller. He also worked with Barry Humphreys - AKA Dame Edna Everage - and other high profile authors, but his passion was writing. Another brief spell as director of Pavilion Books from 1984 to 1988 finally persuaded him that his place was at the keyboard or buried in books researching.

As an author Ash was fairly prolific, and as a solo writer and collaborative scribe his name can be found on more than 100 publications.

However, he will forever be remembered as a compiler of the Top Ten, such was his boyish fascination with lists. The male desire for bite-sized knowledge, an all-consuming need for competitive facts, is a social and cultural phenomenon, no doubt catalysed by the advent of the pub quiz.

While Ash loved the challenge of setting the record straight for some of the more common questions, such as the top ten tallest buildings (and therefore the definition of "building") he was also very keen on the more obscure, such as top ten dullest place (which featured the summit of Ben Nevis, because of a lack of sunshine).

In order to become the world's authority on trivia you must be pretty thorough in your research. Ash had many sources, including a personal library that totalled some 10,000 books. In fact, when it reached that golden number he had an extension built on to his house in which he commissioned a purpose-built library. Other sources included collaborators with whom he had struck up a working relationship over many years, but he could still be caught out.

"I once included Loren Acton in First Ten Female Astronauts," he recalls. "Later on I discovered he was a big, bearded bloke living in Vermont. Entirely his fault for having such a girlish name!"

As the sole contributor and writer of the Top Ten series (which included The Top 10 of Sport, The Top 10 of Music, The Top 10 of Film, Top 10 for Men and Top 10 of Britain) Ash was rightly fiercely protective over its legacy. He ensured he kept the rights to the titles, and The Top Ten of Everything was by far his most successful endeavour. First published in 1989, it has never been out of print, has been translated into a number of languages and spawned a children's television show in the late 1990s.

As a former publisher Ash also knew what to expect and how important and commercially viable his product was, which led to the volume being produced by several publishers over the years. To protect the integrity of the book Ash would move on if he felt the publishing house in question wasn't up to scratch.

In 2005 he published the Whitakers World of Facts, which, while not being a radical departure from his staple fare, was more serious in tone than the more jocular Top Ten series, including Biggest Rubbish Producers, Worst Polluters and Countries that Use the Most Water.

His writing talents were far-reaching and he wrote books for all ages in all styles. He produced several illustrated books as learning tools, at least 16 art volumes and, most recently, books on strange-but-true names.

His hobbies outside of writing included scouring second-hand book stalls for research material, and the family heritage of silversmithing which he took up in the mid-1990ss.

Russell Ash died of a heart attack. He is survived by his second wife, Caroline, their two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

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