A Sheffield Talk
Some while back I gave a talk about forgotten authors in Sheffield. I’m not sure I’ve published it before, probably not in this form. It may be of passing interest only, but here it is;
Once there were popular novels almost everyone owned. Mum had Georgette Heyer, Dad had Eric Ambler, kids had Billy Bunter and Malory Towers and the Borrowers. They were the books that shaped imaginations and became touchstones in our lives. They weren’t always very good but they were often hugely successful. And at some point many of their authors vanished from family bookshelves. What happened to them? If these books were any good at all, why were these authors forgotten?
I decided to find out, and embarked on a task that took ten years to complete. During that time the fates of some of the authors I looked into underwent significant changes. Some authors were rediscovered, others reappeared directly because I wrote about them. Many more vanished. A few of the living ones didn’t want to be found. The saddest lost books were those from writers whose publishers decided they were no longer fashionable. Some lacked confidence to begin with, and lost heart when their latest works were rejected. Certain problems kept reappearing; addiction, madness, poverty, sickness – and sudden wealth – all played their part.
Some authors wrote under pseudonyms, or wrote for publishing houses that went bust. If you want to find your own forgotten authors, first ask your family about their favourite novels and short stories. Everyone who reads has a favourite author, and a great many of them have vanished, even very recent ones.
The modern popular paperback has an average life of six years. They’re cheaply printed on poor quality paper which fades and falls apart in strong sunlight. Especially the ones which were printed after the war, when paper was scarce and expensive. That’s why novels were shorter then.
Books need love. They fall to bits unless they’re cared for, and e-books are even more ephemeral; they just get deleted. Also, there are too many bad novels published. It would be better if publishers produced fewer of higher quality. And I think we all know by now that the majority of self-published books are not very good. Nobody writes a great first novel without a fine editor.
I started to make more discoveries about writers and writing. Authors think when they get a book published it will live forever, but only a tiny fraction manage to survive. The journey of a novel doesn’t end with its publication. It’s where the story of its life really begins.
Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead. Changing tastes, shrinking budgets, fads, fashions and poor cataloguing all conspire against the budding author. Authors often kill their own careers by refusing to do publicity, getting bored, being difficult or getting fed up with punishing delivery schedules.
The more original and outrageous are an author’s talents, the less likely they are to survive. Writers with the simplest vocabularies become the biggest stars because their works can be globally translated. Agatha Christie’s novels stay in printed because they’re greatly enjoyed, but also because they have a surprisingly limited range of words. She rarely describes. Her characters get on and do things.
Which other ones survived? The writers whose work came straight from the heart and reflected their personalities lasted better than those who churned out books hoping to make money. Georgette Heyer was accused of writing trash, but she had a highly personal style of her own. The ones who lasted, then, were the ones who were true to themselves.
Books are usually doomed when they’re about technology or fads rather than people. Hard science fiction, fantasy and self-consciously hip books can suffer from this. Tales of the internet feel dated before they even hit the stands. Stories with a timeless emo-core last longer because readers can see themselves reflected. Having said that, I respect and admire anyone who tries brave experiments with the form, like BS Johnson and Brigid Brophy.
Books don’t have to be great to be memorable. Some are flawed but still worth reading. The best ones give you a window into another world. I don’t believe writers should write what they know. They should write what they dream, hope, dread and are moved by.
Even superstar authors can vanish completely. Their print-runs can be pulped, copies misfiled, manuscripts lost, banned and burned. A phenomenal number of authors produced over 100 books in their careers, only to completely vanish from shelves. One of my novels failed because the Borders bookstore chain had misfiled it in their computer system and nobody knew how to change the file path back at head office.
Is It On The Telly?
It helps enormously to have your book (or author) on TV. British television is still very slow to react. Whenever it comes down to choosing a new series featuring either Sherlock Holmes or his contemporary, Dr Thorndyke, a marvellously quirky character created by R Austin Freeman, commissioning editors go for the safer option. I know West Riding is Brönte country but how many more adaptations of ‘Jane Eyre’ do we need? Television shamelessly steals ideas from novelists without crediting them. ‘Coronation Street’ was stolen from Bill Naughton, and the author never earned a penny from it. American TV has changed dramatically and we’re trying to follow suit, but it’s too expensive to take risks.
Soon I found I had written about the lives and books of 450 authors. It was almost impossible to cut the number down. My editor and I argued over so many names; who should be in or out? I regret losing many, especially the poets and many of the science fiction writers. Most of all I missed Bradford-born JB Priestley, who is now out of fashion but deserves rediscovery. People only seem to remember his plays. His books – especially ‘Angel Pavement’ – are better.
I uncovered a wealth of stories. Apart from being too shy to attend their own launch parties, brilliant writers 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 an outrageous 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 were prone to financial destitution. The average annual income of a British writer remains around £7,000, so 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 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. Afterwards, 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 a 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 at my place but died 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 in? 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.
David Nobbs was born in London but went 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 died not long ago and already his books have disappeared.
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.
The comedy writers Galton & Simpson once told me, ‘happiness is boring. It’s tragedy that’s funny.’ Forget about the Brontës; I admired David Nobbs, John Braine, Winifred Holtby, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and Keith Waterhouse, Northern writers who mixed dark and light together almost without thinking.
Their lessons were well learned and I find myself peppering my Bryant & May novels with their mentality. ‘I’ve been invited to a screening,’ says my elderly detective Arthur Bryant. ‘Oh, not the new Alien film?’ asks his partner. ‘No,’ Bryant replies, ‘bowel cancer.’
Tinniswood created a strange, poetic masterpiece called ‘The Stirk of Stirk’, a story about Robin Hood as an old man, and it could only have been written by someone who saw the cruel humour in his situation as, freezing to death, his hero wanders the woods with his dwindling crew, wondering how much longer the old ways will survive.
The book is suffused with melancholy chill, but even in the blackest moments Tinniswood lights candles of hope. A laugh is described as ‘a sound that would curdle the eggs in a goldcrest’s womb’ and ‘saliva makes bitter fountains in the mouth’ as the starving Hood staggers on into history – and out of the bestsellers’ list.
This kind of heightened stylisation has fallen from popularity. Tinniswood reminds you that reading should always be a pleasure, never a chore. ‘A Touch Of Daniel’ was reissued in 2001, two years before he died, killed by his pipe, which is how he would probably have reported his throat cancer.
When I was writing ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I set about unearthing as many of these writers as I could find, and was surprised to discover that they had often sold in their millions. Did they retire to the South of France, having made fortunes? Well, a couple did but many underwent stranger fates.
Concluding part to follow