SEXTON BLAKE SAVED MY TURKEY
From Letters to an Intimate Stranger, 1972
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.
happened if you got engine trouble?” Richard said, with relevant
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
dear neighbours, thinking I was out of work, started sending us parcels
of old clothes.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
and shake hands with the managing director....”
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
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.
factory must have fallen to pieces when I left.
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
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
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
is a great part,” Richard Attenborough told me when he was preparing
to play it for Basil Dearden and Michael Relph.
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.
writer who waits for inspiration to produce the great novel runs the
risk of drying up before his fountains are working properly.
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....
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.
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.”
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,
don’t appear to be on this plane,” cabled Bob on the day I was
expected, having mailed me a first-class ticket.
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.
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.
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.