If one of the measures of a person’s life is how many other lives they touch and change then Roger Phillips’ life was one of enormous influence, writes Geoffrey Kibby.
I first met Roger at a BMS Autumn Foray in Surrey in 1979. He was there to photograph fungi for a book he was working on and soon to be published. Like everyone there I was fascinated by this larger-than-life character and in particular by his technique of photography. Rather than shooting photos in the field, as we all mostly did, he would bring them back to the workroom and there place them inside a white, open-fronted box that had a sloping roof and with a flash bouncing off the back wall of the box. This produced an almost shadowless lighting allowing every aspect of the fungus to be seen clearly and evenly illuminated.
When the time came to finalise the book, Roger did all the layout himself with the assistance of long-time friend Jacqui Hurst. The book was published by Pan Books in 1981 and immediately became a huge success. Of large format (A4), 288 pages with many of the fungi reproduced at life size, there had been nothing like this available before.
Roger’s book was a revolution in how to present fungi and certainly the most complete photographic guide available at that point. Very soon it began to appear in every collector’s basket or backpack and today, 40 years later is still probably the commonest book that beginning mycologists purchase, now in its updated and expanded, slightly smaller page size, 2006 edition. There can be few such books that remain as a standard for 40 years, a testament to Roger’s dedication, hard work and knowledge of his subject.
Roger’s mushroom book went from success to success and was soon translated into numerous foreign languages and remains one of, if not THE best-selling books on the subject of all time. Ask almost anyone who looks at fungi what book they started with and indeed continue to use and the majority will name Roger’s book. Of course, mushrooms were not the only subject he covered. He went on to produce books on wild flowers, ferns, mosses, greenhouse plants, wild foods, even fishes. Roger is single-handedly responsible for encouraging thousands of people to pursue and love some branch of natural history.
With his effervescent character, trademark bright red glasses, ready wit and huge breadth of knowledge Roger was always a popular speaker, leader of forays, advocate for wild foods and beloved by everyone he met. The recent outpouring of affection on social media sites is a testament to the huge number of people whom he met, encouraged and influenced.