Local Face: Bernard Roberts

  |  Published: May 1st 2008

Bernard Roberts spent the first eighteen years of his life in Essex. On his eighteenth birthday he joined the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, and was called up just before the outbreak of war four months later. His ambition was to be a pilot, but Their Airships had different ideas, and he spent the first five years of the war (four of them in the Middle East) as a radar operator, rising to the lofty rank of Flight Sergeant. He was eventually posted to Southern Rhodesia to train as a pilot. On his return to England early in 1945 he was told that he would never fly operationally as, with the end of the war in sight, the RAF had all the pilots it needed so he spent a few months piloting pupil navigators about the East Anglian skies in stick-and-wire biplanes, and then sank into pre-demobilisation torpitude.

However, he made good use of that period of inactivity. Throughout the war he had corresponded sporadically with Liz, whom he had met on a beach in 1938. They were married soon after they met again, and lived happily together for fifty-eight years, until Liz's death in 2003.

He would have liked to remain in the RAF, but the only occupation on offer was that of Flying Control Officer, which did not appeal, so rather unenthusiastically he took the line of least resistance. Having a wife (and soon they hoped, children) to support he joined the family printing business. He walked one morning into the John Roberts Press in London's Clerkenwell Green.
Within half an hour he wished that could walk out again. It was a second or third rate printing shop working for third or fourth rate customers. In those days, when printing was still a craft rather than a technology, printers varied from those producing impeccable and elegant work to those (known as winkle-bag printers) whose output was ugly and badly executed. The John Roberts Press was barely above the latter category. Bernard decided that the only appropriate course of action was to find some customers who would demand the best sort of work and thus force up the Press's standards will-nilly. Fortunately, although his father (and boss) was suspicious of all this artistic rubbish, the staff were enthusiastic and proved themselves fully capable of working to the required standard.
The Press (despite being so small - never more than twelve people) was soon numbered among the best printing firms in the country, and was working for customers as far afield as the United States and Venezuela. Unfortunately the demand for high quality and expensive craft based printing survived only in a very small way the technological revolution of the 1970's and the John Roberts Press closed its doors in 1982. Bernard then spent the next six years as typographical advisor to a large printers in South London, and then working part-time to help a friend set up a successful press. He retired to work from home around 1990 and continued as a freelance book designer until he was in his early eighties.
As a result of the John Roberts Press's reputation he came to be regarded as something of an authority on typographical matters, contributing articles and book reviews to various journals, and lecturing at universities, art colleges and bibliophile groups in England and in the United States (where he was briefly a Vanderbilt lecturer and was profiled in the New Yorker).
He and Liz lived in their early married life at several rural addresses near Maidenhead, including a large and dilapidated Queen Anne farmhouse which they rented for £8 per month. They moved into Maidenhead in the mid fifties. In 1972 their children having left home, they came to live in Wendover. This choice of location was something of a compromise; Liz wanted to move to the Vale of the White Horse, Bernard fancied North Essex, but they never regretted coming, almost by chance, to Wendover.
Liz qualified as a State Registered Nurse in 1945, then worked part-time at Maidenhead Hospital as a Casualty Sister and, on coming to Wendover, as a Theatre Staff Nurse at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. On her retirement in 1982 she looked for something useful to do. She helped old and ill people, delivered Meals on Wheels, served in the Visitors' Canteen at Aylesbury Prison and immersed herself in Women's Institute activities at local and county level. She also wrote six books for ramblers in the Chilterns and the Thames Valley. Unfortunately all these activities came to a sudden halt in 1995 when she had a severe stroke which condemned her to life in a wheelchair until her death in 2003.
Liz and Bernard moved to Wendover on a Friday and on the following Sunday they attended Parish Communion at St Mary's Church. They received there a stunning welcome, even to the extent of being invited to a party at the house of one of the churchwardens, where they met a lot more splendid people and drank some rather good wine. The then vicar, Geoffrey Milroy who (with his wife Anne) soon became a close friend, believed that the best way to cement people to the church is to give them a job. Hence Liz soon found herself being St Mary's first female sidesperson, while Bernard became a reader of the lessons, popular perhaps because (he says) like the 1812 Overture, he was 'not good, but loud'.
He was involved in various tasks in the church during the next few years. In 1978 the vicar persuaded him to offer for training as a non-stipendiary minister. Bernard thought this a crazy idea, but dutifully went through the selection process, to emerge as an ordinand. There followed three years of attending a weekly three-hour evening session at Oxford, a dozen or so weekend training sessions each year and an annual ten-day summer residence, plus a lot of spare time study while still running the Press in London.
Ordained in 1982, he served mainly at Sunday services at St Mary's and St Michael's Halton, until he became semi-retired when he undertook all the duties of a curate and also helped out by taking services at other churches including all but two of the seventeen churches in the Wendover Deanery, and several further afield.
In 1995 when Liz was condemned by her stroke to life in a wheelchair, he became nurse, cook, household manager, chauffeur etc., until her death eight years later. He continued in a limited way to design the occasional book and to serve at St Mary's.
As his 87th birthday approaches he is still sometimes asked to review a book, and he still preaches at the parish church from time to time.
Coming to Wendover, he says, was the best day's work he and Liz ever did.

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