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From Letters to an Intimate Stranger, 1972

Christmas is a hard time for the man with more than one family. When Richard Harris wrote that “Public Eye” [TV series – GL] about the multi-bigamist he came round to me for his fine detail and went away practically in tears. Though it was firework night that really got him. Firework night, because of the age differences between the different families (one hopes), poor daddy is forced to run this dreadful relay race getting bonfires started in staggered order.

“What happened if you got engine trouble?” Richard said, with relevant professional expertise.

Jacqueline Lang, my absolutely eldest daughter, would get the hot potatoes going, is what happened. Children are marvellous conspirators when their parents have taken on a bit more than they can chew. In those early fifties, having left my job, cashed in my superannuation on the strength of two books published, often there wasn’t anything to chew. Tom Boardman sen. had advanced £35 for The Trouble With Harry and he never got it back. My principal income was from short stories. If you’d looked inside the Evening News the day they splashed the giant headlines about winning the Ashes — I bought twelve copies at Charing Cross — you’d have found one of my neatly turned short-shorts. They paid nine guineas, the Star twelve guineas, and the Standard fifteen guineas. To sell one I had to write eight or nine — that was the reject ratio. There wasn’t enough money coming in to support even one family, but I was a professional author.

My dear neighbours, thinking I was out of work, started sending us parcels of old clothes.

“Your job’s still open if you want it,” the chief accountant at Marconi’s told me when I’d dropped in to browse over my past triumphs. These well meant bits of security are always a danger to the artist.

Instead I discovered various potato-picking jobs you could do and still remain a writer, still hang on to your free-lance status. Reading and synopsising novels for Paramount at 30 shillings a time, re-dialoguing The Return of Robin Hood for Hammer for twenty guineas, writing Hereward the Wake and The Zulu War for one of Tom Boardman’s annuals, editing Love Letter for The Mile­stone Press, reading fiction for John Bull. One day in the High Holborn office Lionel Davidson (Smith’s Gazelle), who was fiction editor at that time, told me that he was going to give up his job and do what I was doing; I thought he must be mad, I’d just walked from King’s Cross station to save threepence.

“With the difference,” he went on, sprawling all over his chair with his legs on the desk (as I expect he still does in his beautiful home overlooking the Sea of Galilee), “that I’m going to write nothing but best-sellers.”

    Q.E.D. …

But Christmas is the real testing time for multiple providers. For three days all the luxuries you can do without become essentials. Talk about roller skates, dolls, cameras, clothes, wine, cake, crackers and Christmas trees exerts the kind of pressures that produce blank sheets of paper or one reject after another. Writing (and perhaps all creative work) comes from a kind of exuberance; it’s the bit of life you’ve got left over from your everyday needs. People who make the mistake of thinking that writers are ordinary are in for a bad time for we’re always on the boil.

When we’re not suiciding, depressed or sleeping, or taking our own pulse rate, we’re whistling, singing, pulling faces in the mirror, walking like a cripple, trying dialogue in fierce whispers, delivering speeches in the H of C, rehearsing revolutions.

Urgent letters to Daddy Christmas brings all this to a screaming halt. And while I still remembered Ohm’s Law December always brought the danger of retreat perilously close. For a job is much more than a job, as our million unemployed are going to discover now. A steady job is a big umbrella that covers all contingencies, pays all the clubs, enables you to rub shoulders, gives you something to grumble about, gets you out of bed, takes care of Christmas. At Watford Town Hall, 8 till 1, two bands, chaps you’ve worked with all the year sprout new dimensions with unlikely wives and new conversation.

“Come and shake hands with the managing director....”

Captain Furnival of the RFC, the elevated and dignified, to whom you’ve given you reverent or shifty little forelock tugs during the working year, now sitting with his gracious lady and smiling at you as if he’s spotted you each time you crept in late and ducked your head past his door. Old Jack Goldring drunk again and falling on top of Miss Allen from the typing pool.

Years went past, as they say, and we meet this very sweet little old lady while weekending at a country hotel; she is a permanent resident and dines alone. “What a pretty child,” she said. Well, I’ll skip that. And she said: “You may remember my husband —Captain Furnival?” There I was talking to the managing director’s widow and buying her a brandy. You have to work twenty years in factories to appreciate my proud glow; mingled with something sadder.

The factory must have fallen to pieces when I left.

Sexton Blake rescued me from going back to electronics and it was just before Christmas in 1953 or 1954, I was crossing Trafalgar Square, I don’t know why, and bumped into Bill Baker who I’d met twice when he was editor for Panther Books. I had written some bad thrillers under the name of Rex Riotti and some rather good Westerns about Pinetop Jones under the name of Brett Harding. Now Bill had been offered the post of editor to the Sexton Blake Library but knew nothing much about it. Our meeting was sheer luck. That’s the only time I’ve ever walked across Trafalgar Square.

“If you’ll help me write one I can get the job,” he said. We were sitting in a coffee bar called The Soup Kitchen which is probably still there — they should have a plaque. To Sexton Blake, I mean. It was the cup of coffee that saved my writing career. I had never read a Blake and all we had to go on was a story written by Rex Stout about these lads who’d been kidnapped by gipsies and smelt out by Pedro and Tinker. “You do the first chapter, I’ll do the second,” Bill said. “And so on. You do outdoor scenes, I’ll do indoor scenes. I’m better at indoor scenes.” [GL writes; David Redd has identified the Baker/Story collaboration; see here >> ]

We’re both better at indoor scenes, man. At a hundred and fifty pounds a time it not only got me over Christmas, it forced me to create characters and plots at a rate of knots at a time when I had difficulty writing anything longer than a thousand words. I wrote twenty Sexton Blakes over a period of several years, then went on cannibalising them into bound books and selling film rights. Without changing a word of dialogue I turned Sexton Blake into a lady psychiatrist for Mix Me A Person and into a Member of Parliament for Dishonourable Member and into —well, I’ve forgotten now — for Man Pinches Bottom.

“This is a great part,” Richard Attenborough told me when he was preparing to play it for Basil Dearden and Michael Relph.

Had they known they were buying Sexton Blake it would never have got past the first reading; nor would “The Season of the Skylark” ever have become a four-part BBC TV serial. It’s time somebody wrote a book called Pulp and Prejudice. After all Agatha Christie, Leslie Charteris, and Edgar Wallace wrote Sexton Blakes.

The writer who waits for inspiration to produce the great novel runs the risk of drying up before his fountains are working properly.

“Webster being in a rotten state of idleness,” writes Arnold Bennett in one of his lovely egocentric letters to George Sturt, “I had him staying here for a fortnight last November, and he had to work. It livened him up pretty considerably, and he has worked ever since. He has a surprising and genuine talent for fiction, and will inevitably do something fine. I only discovered this a few weeks ago....

Other Christmasses, other crises. I was talking about this last Thursday night in the White Bear with Tom Clark who wrote the award-winning TV documentary about First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon. Tom made the point that even in the insecure lonely life of a long-distance writer there is a benevolent brother­hood spirit. I thought at first he was about to ask me for a loan but he was in the Pat Hobby country of Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood of the thirties. Good, hard-working redskins were never allowed quite to bite the dust.

Neither was I. Larry Bachmann, for whom I worked on two Spike Milligan films at MGM (a ghost town now), regretted, when I approached him one Christmas for work, that there was nothing doing but gave me fifty quid “in case I think of something.”

    Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox sent me to Spain all expenses paid to research a story set in Liverpool. George Foster and Bob Booker, who produce those Yiddisher humour LPs, sent me to New York, Nassau and Rome to write two movies which I finally wrote in Hampstead; which they knew I would write in Hampstead. They didn’t have an easy time with me, either.

“You don’t appear to be on this plane,” cabled Bob on the day I was expected, having mailed me a first-class ticket.

I had been on the Air India flight but got off suffering from claustrophobia. My luggage went to New York and came back and I tried again, this time sitting next to Ernie Wise who made me laugh and forget it. He and Eric Morecambe were going to appear on the Ed Sullivan show. I asked him why they were travelling separately. "It’s not my idea,” he said. “ Eric thinks I’m a born loser.” We were over the Atlantic by that time.

“What are you doing for Christmas, Dad?” asks Caroline, who once let my tyres down in an effort to keep me around a little longer. Now she has her own Daddy Christmas.

The man with more than one family has more than one Christmas every year and I reckon I’m just coming up to my 150th. I’m spending it on the beach of a small sub-tropical island off the coast of Africa.


Copyright ©  the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2002. Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.

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