Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 3
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…