Judith Ann Fisher 1946 – 2003
Sometimes when I think of people they present themselves in my mind in an unmistakable presence that is somehow almost like a musical note. When I think of Judith Fisher, it is a very sweet note indeed.
Many customers at the James Thin branch on Edinburgh’s South Bridge will have encountered Judith in the antiquarian department on the top floor. The department was previously run by Eileen Crerar-Gilbert and it was once Jimmy Thin’s favourite province. Both set high standards in terms of endearing personal idiosyncrasy. Judith Fisher did nothing to lower that standard. Personally, I always found it a pleasure to encounter her there – our conversations were full of unlikely connections and tangents. Although we weren’t close friends and only met when our paths crossed in bookshops, I liked Judith very much.
After the antiquarian department at James Thin closed, Judith set up her own booksearch service, Ferrial Books. The fact that she had been suffering from cancer for many years and was losing the use of her right arm didn’t stop her. I often wondered how she kept going. I think they call it quiet courage. Yes, and a very funny sense of the absurd.
I asked her husband Ian for the meaning of ‘Ferrial’. Apparently, when she had been casting around, she had been keen to find a name that suggested ‘ferreting’; ferrial is an obscure nonce word that somehow arrived on the printed page through some failure of verbal communication with the printer, who should have put ‘very old.’ This captures something of Judith’s style.
Judith grew up in the Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe. Her receptive and strongly engaged intelligence must have been a joy to her family and schoolteachers. She went on to Somerville College Oxford. In her tribute to Judith, Dr Margaret Mackay said:
Her academic focus in the Oxford years was literature, with the medieval options pre-eminent… It was on an expedition to Wells and Glastonbury in 1965 that she met Ian, then in his final year at Christ Church. A combination of shared interests and in this case inclement weather – as they found themselves sheltering under the same umbrella – was to blossom into a relationship which saw them marry in 1968.
They shared a love of folk music and dance and had two sons, Gavin and Malcolm. Through a variety of organisations, including Amnesty and Action Aid, Judith practised her forthright belief that a society that nurtured peace and justice could not hold with the corruption of weapons of mass civilian destruction at its heart:she was an active member of PANG, the Portobello Anti Nuclear Group.
She wore her erudition lightly, but intensely. Margaret Mackay commented:
Boris Pasternak once asked his mother Rosa … what the term intelligentsia meant. Her reply was, ‘It has nothing to do with social or economic standing; the intelligentsia are people for whom poetry has real meaning.’ Judith was a member of that band:for her, poetry had real meaning. She read it, she wrote it and she allowed it to inform her life. She was greatly moved by the poetry of Somhairle Maclean, and determined that she would come to know it in the original Gaelic. She embarked on the study of Scottish Gaelic [in a class taught by Donald Meek], gaining her Gaelic Higher and, some years after, realising her skills were getting rusty, sitting it again and getting an A!
As we left after the service, I noticed a black and white picture propped against the dais. A young woman dressed in her graduation robes… that radiant smile, that openness to whatever life might hold.
Copyright Jennie Renton 2005.