My fascination with forgotten authors began back in the early eighties when I discovered a writer who was to become a major influence on my work.
I came across Rupert Croft-Cooke’s The Drums of Morning – the third volume of his twenty-seven book autobiographical sequence entitled The Sensual World – in a junk shop in the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Over the course of the next few years I began collecting Croft-Cooke’s books, and found the story of his life, its many vicissitudes and few triumphs, an inspiration.
Rupert Croft-Cooke is a sadly neglected writer who between around 1930 and his death in 1979 wrote more than a hundred and twenty books: thirty-odd mainstream novels, the same number of crime novels under the name of Leo Bruce, and books on such diverse subjects as darts, gypsies, the circus, wine, cooking, and biographies of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Kipling, as well as short stories and poetry. But The Sensual World is his lasting legacy to English letters, a brilliant evocation of his life and times, concentrating on the latter. The odd thing is that although he wrote so many volumes of autobiography, he never once mentioned the fact that he was homosexual – partly due to the times in which he was writing, and partly because, as he was at pains to point out, the books were less about himself than the places he travelled to and the people he met.
Skip a few years and I’m in W.H. Smiths in Bradford, when I find on their discount table a hardback copy of the Elmfield Press edition of The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers by Michael G. Coney. I’d never heard of the author, but I liked the blurb. I bought the book and started reading it on the bus back to Haworth, and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those rare and epiphinal moments when you know you’ve come across a writer whose voice, whose worldview, meshes with your own: I knew from that very first reading that I had to collect Coney’s work. Over the years I did so, reading everything he’d written – fewer than twenty novels and around forty short stories. His best work, novels like Hello Summer, Goodbye, Brontomek!, The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers, and the short stories “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel”, “The True Worth of Ruth Villiers”, “The Cinderella Machine”, combined good writing, interesting characterisation, excellent story-telling and an evocative sense of place, often his beloved West Country transported to the stars. His work spoke to me, and still does, even after countless re-readings. Back in the mid-nineties I began writing to Coney, and around 2000 I suggested that we collaborate on a short story. “The Trees of Terpsichore III”, published in Spectrum SF 8 in 2002, was the result.
I came across the novels of Peter De Polnay in the mid-1980’s, in a second-hand bookshop in York. For much of his long writing career he was published by the same company who brought out many of Rupert Croft-Cook’s novels, W.H. Allen – a third-rate stable where ailing mid-list writers were put out to grass. De Polnay is certainly a mid-list writer, a stalwart of the lending libraries of the 50s and 60s, who produced around seventy novels and half a dozen or so volumes of memoirs in a career lasting almost fifty years.
He led an interesting life, chronicled in Death and Tomorrow – about his time in France during the German occupation, and his role in the resistance there – and in The Moon and the Marabou Stork, detailing his time as a planter in Kenya. After the war he settled down and devoted himself to producing, at the rate of sometimes two a year, detailed accounts of mainly middle-to-upper-class protagonists and their tortured psychological lives. His characterisation is second to none, though his attention to style and structure is less assured; you receive the impression when reading De Polnay that he was more interested in the content of his books than in their form: his stories, while fascinating glimpses into the minds of his protagonists, are often rushed and sometimes superficial. However, I find rewards in his best books, among which are Not the Defeated, A Permanent Farewell, and Blood and Water. His autobiographies are well worth seeking out, too.
I’ve been asked, more than once, why I have this fascination with the halt and lame of the literary world, those forgotten scribes little lauded in their own lifetimes and hardly read now. Some people have suggested that I see my own career reflected in these neglected wordsmiths, and while I don’t deny that there might be a smidgen of truth in this, I’ll also claim that my interest in the above writers (as well as others like Robin Maugham, J.T. McIntosh, Norman Levine, Arthur Sellings, Miles Tripp, James Wellard… the list goes on) has more to do with a reaction to the populist and consumerist world in which we live, where the latest best-seller is the must-read title, where celebrity books – ghost-written, for the most part – flood the market. It’s nice to get away from all this, to discover writers who laboured away for years with little reward, and to bring to life their lost visions, even if it is only upon the stage of my own imagination.