Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 3

Reading & Writing


Every book lover has a favourite forgotten author. But for everyone who loves an Agatha Christie, there’s another who adores a good Margaret Millar. For every Sherlock Holmes, there was another great detective. I decided to investigate further and was deluged with suggestions from readers.

I uncovered a wealth of stories about why writers vanished. Sometimes brilliant writers were too shy to attend their own launch parties. It feels as if many didn’t think through the risks of becoming famous. They switched genders, adopted false identities, became alcoholics, lost fortunes, discovered new careers, were banned, married millionaires, died of shame, reinvented themselves, and sometimes they lived happily ever after in blissful obscurity. Some of the most famous authors stopped writing in their prime because they became alcoholic, drug addicted or mentally disturbed. I discovered that one dated a porn star, one accidentally inspired a serial killer, one was caught up in a sex scandal and one vanished on the very island where she had set her disturbing story.

Some authors had their careers killed by sheer rotten luck. The war took its toll on many, and so did AIDS. Great writers seemed prone to financial destitution. The average annual income nowadays of a British writer is £7,000; many stopped because they needed better paying jobs to provide for their children. Others have the misfortune to be published just as another writer had the same idea. Before JK Rowling there were many tales of magical schoolboys, but hers was the one that clicked.

Among the authors I wanted to put into the Unforgotten category were a group that emerged in the 1970s – Northern humorous writers. A mate of mine called Porl Cooper works for the innovative theatre company Slung Low in Leeds and regularly bombards me with examples of bleak Northern humour, from the Manchester Evening News headline ‘Man’s legs stolen – wedding dream shattered’ to the York Evening Press competition to ‘Win a trip out with the city’s road gritting team!’ Northern journalists soon started writing novels with such a dark sense of humour that they got banned from libraries.

Porl invited me up to his story festival, a beautifully staged event in an area of derelict warehouses which blurred the lines between audiences and artists, getting people to participate. It was shamefully under-attended. Just around the corner, shoppers were happy to drift aimlessly around M&S gawking at pants but would never consider doing something interesting. After, we held a Q&A, and a young woman raised her hand with a question. ‘Can I ask – have you ever had a proper job?’

I explained that I’d been a journalist and had run a film company before becoming a writer, and she cut me off. ‘No, a proper job.’

‘Like what?’ I asked.

‘You know,’ she replied. ‘Lifting.’

True, I had never lifted anything heavy except at the gym, but I knew a lot about heavy reading. I fell in love with Beryl Bainbridge. Her novels, like ‘Young Adolf’, based on the myth that Hitler once worked at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, brought hilarity to death and darkness, and were hard to find, but I couldn’t put her in ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ because she wasn’t exactly forgotten.

And this was the problem. When does a writer go from being hugely loved to utterly neglected? How do you go from being a household name to non-existent? How could you write a hundred books in your lifetime (not an unrealistic number, it turns out) and leave no trace behind? Research proved inconclusive and evidence was hard to come by. I appealed to friends and fellow authors. Strangers wrote in with clues, and eventually the families of writers started to get in touch with their stories.

Many people helped to fill in the blanks about authors I was looking for. The widow of the author Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote to me, confirming some of the more eccentric rumours I’d heard about him, including his ability to remove someone’s shirt buttons with the flick of a rapier when he was drunk. Tanya Rose wrote to explain how the writing of a famous film destroyed her marriage when her husband took all the credit for it, and one author, Graham Joyce, came to a very raucous dinner, but died too young before the book’s publication, which was heartbreaking. The most elusive novelist of them all, Polly Hope, eventually tracked me down and asked me to dinner – her extraordinary story is in the book. More and more it seemed obvious that whether an author survived or not was largely down to luck and timing.

So, who should go into the book? I had a group of 20 friends on whom I could test names. Often they’d shake their heads and give blank looks until I held up a tattered paperback. Then they’d remember having once seen the cover everywhere.

Although some writers were forgotten they were actually still alive. I was anxious to include cartoonist / writer Bill Tidy. I remembered his drawing of people waiting outside the White Star Line for news of the Titanic. In the crowd, a polar bear was plaintively asking if there had been any news of the iceberg. But I was concerned about putting Bill in because I might offend him, as he was still working. It wasn’t just about finding great writers who had disappeared; I wanted to remind readers of their best works. All of Bill Tidy’s fourteen ‘Fosdyke Saga’ books are out of print, and some are changing hands for a fortune. I left him out because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

David Nobbs was born in London but came here to work for the Sheffield Star, becoming in his words ‘the world’s worst reporter’. He wrote the delightful Reginald Perrin books which became a TV series, plus a series of four thinly veiled comic biographies starting with ‘Second To Last In The Sack Race’. He only died a short while ago but already his books are disappearing.

His best friend was Mancunian Peter Tinniswood, who wrote the hit novel ‘A Touch of Daniel’ that begins like this; ‘When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.’ Uncle Mort admires his wife’s funeral plot because he knows the soil will be perfect for growing championship onions. The book spawned several sequels and a hit TV series, and are comic masterpieces, but they’re now hard to find.

Nobbs and Tinniswood’s honesty about love, illness and death reflected British life without the London varnish. The attitudes expressed in such books mirrored my father’s thought processes, which were practical to the point of insensitivity. To annoy his mother-in-law he would wait until she had covered the parrot’s cage, and would then blow the smoke from a cheap cigar beneath the cloth until the parrot got dizzy and fell off its perch…

10 comments on “Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 3”

  1. I hope you included Elizabeth Taylor.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Let’s hear it for R. F. Delderfield-Ronnie to his friends. He died at the relatively young age of 60 in 1972. It is arguable that he is forgotten as some of his books are back in print, mainly on Kindle, but some, including “The Dreaming Suburb” and its sequel, “The Avenue Goes to War” are available in book shops. These both read like a lower-middle class “Coronation Street”, being concerned with the lives of “everyday people in everyday situations” between the wars in a fictionalised Addiscombe, which is near Croydon, in South London. He spent a few years there as a child. “The Dreaming Suburb” was made into a TV series in the late 1970s under the title “People like Us”

    He concentrated on both plays and novels, and such was his success and “bankability” that more than half were filmed or televised.

    Plays include-
    “The Orchard Walls” filmed in the mid -fifties with Janette Scott, Kay Walsh, Jack Warner and Vernon Gray (who?) titled “Now and Forever”

    “Where There’s a Will”, also filmed in the mid-fifties-a comedy about a Cockney family inheriting a farm. This starred Kathleen Harrison, Dandy Nicholls, George Cole and Edward Woodward.

    “Glad Tidings”, a comedy-drama about a widower marrying an American woman, starring Raymond Huntley and Barbara Kelly.

    “Worm’s Eye View”, a very successful broad comedy of 1950 about RAF service life, which opened at the Whitehall Theatre and was a precursor of the “Whitehall Farces” which were later to star Brian Rix. This was filmed in 1951 starring Ronald Shiner and Diana Dors. This launched the former into a series of film comedies after being a character actor for more than 15 years. Shiner was a film presence who made up with enthusiasm what he lacked in ability.

    An early novel, “All Over the Town” was filmed in 1950 using the same title. It was a story of small town Devon life as seen through the staff of the local newspaper. Delderfield had trained as journalist for the local newspaper in Exmouth.

    He wrote two three volume novels: “God is an Englishman” -a saga about a removal firm and “A Horseman Riding By”. The first volume of this was televised with the same title, and starred Nigel Havers as “squire” of a small Devon village. Another of his epics is “To Serve Them all My Days”-a saga of a public school life based on his experiences as a pupil at a second-rate public school. Other novels turned into TV series are “Come Home Charlie Boy and Face Them”, “Diana” and “Stop at a Winner”- a wartime comedy filmed as “On the Fiddle” with Alfred Lynch and Sean Connery in an early starring role.

    Politically he was Liberal. His father had been a liberal councillor for Bermondsey. In “A Horsman Riding By” Delderfield’s portrayal of a Tory politician is little short of a hatchet job, and his portrayal of a corrupt town council (by inference, Tory) in “All Over the Town” is little better.

    He lived for many years in Sidmouth in his beloved Devon.

    I do apologise for having written such a long article, but as you can see R.F.Delderfield is one of my favourites! It would be good to give him a “bit of an article.”

    One last thing. His biggest lasting legacy happened quite accidentally. He was unwittingly responsible for 32 “Carry On” films. A flop play “The Bull Boys”-a drama about a young man being called up on his wedding day to do National Service in the Army-was bought on the cheap by film producer Peter Rogers. He thought it would make a good comedy. Although screenwriters Norman Hudis and John Antrobus get a big writing credit, at the film’s start you will see “Carry in Sergeant” by R.F. Delderfield. It was so successful that 31 more were to follow.

    Admin-I wouldn’t blame you if you edited this offering.

  3. Mike Campbell says:

    The concept of “forgotten” is a funny one. I haven’t forgotten the TV adaptations of “A Horseman Riding By” and “To Serve Them All My Days” at all – in the sense of not having forgotten they existed and that I watched them, even if I can’t remember the stories – but then it occurs to me that they were broadcast getting on for 40 years ago, and maybe I should have forgotten them, if only in order to find space in my memory for perhaps more important things! (Incidentally, “To Serve Them All My Days was one of Andrew Davies’s early TV adaptations, in 1980.)

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve mentioned Delderfield myself, a favourite novelist in this house. “Removal firm” to me means house removals, people’s goods moved to a new residence, which is scarcely fair to Swann-on-Wheels, as that part of the firm was only on the Isle of Wight. Anyone interested in company development should enjoy the Adam Swann saga. To Serve them All My Days was a lovely series and who could forget the etherial boys’ choir that themed it? The adaptation was faithful to the story as I remember it, too. It helps if the story is based on a field with which you have a familiarity because the parts that are specific to the geographical location can be better understood. I was a teacher and so was my husband as well as being involved in haulage (a better term for Swann’s enterprise).

  5. Roger says:

    Peter Tinniswood’s surrealist cricket fantasies, featuring monologues and reminiscences of “The Brigadier”, are still popular at Lord’s – a restricted audience, perhaps.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Thank you Helen-“Haulage” is a much better word. I’m about to re-read “The Spring Madness of Mr Sermon” after more than 30 years. It will be interesting to see if I still enjoy it.

    His autobiography, “For My Own Amusement” is still available on Amazon. It was published the year he died and I’ve not read it, so I will send off for that as well.

    You’re also right about geographical location, as when I read “The Dreaming Suburb” I was living near to the South London suburb in which it was set. My area was so like it-even the houses were similar, and the people. I think that was why I connected with it.

  7. Denise Treadwell says:

    Shirley Jackson, who wrote one of the scariest books I have ever read!

  8. Roger says:

    Shirley Jackson has bounced back: biographies, studies and reprints galore over the last couple of years, Denise Treadwell.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Peter Tinniswood still lives on, on radio. Happily a number of his shows appear on Radio 4 Extra, Uncle Mort is still very much around, plus there is the Peter Tinniswood prize for best original radio drama script. Although Wnston Comes to Town can be heard by ‘Listeners In’ on Mondays at 5, catch the first few episodes on the i-player.

    To serve Them All My Days still resonates, so he may not be quite forgotten enough.

    I wonder how much the 50 to 75 year copyright is keeping authors off the shelves and internet.


  10. Helen Martin says:

    The Spring Madness of Mr Sermon is the other Delderfield I wanted to recommend, but couldn’t remember the title. All I could think of was lilacs. Didn’t know there was an autobiography – must look it up.

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