IT STARTED WHEN I WAS EIGHT; I announced that I wanted to be a writer so my Father gave me a notebook and some pencils that he’d probably liberated from the school where he was chaplain.
I took them up to bed. The story goes that he came up an hour later and found me fast asleep while the notebook was still virgin white except for the first page on which I had written – The Complete Works of John Gardner.
Like many only children I led an intense inner fantasy life. I remember falling to sleep while telling myself adventure stories – mainly, of course, with me as the hero. I recall vivid scenes of the hero, wounded and escaping down some subterranean river. Alas, I also told my friends about great adventures that existed only in my imagination. In turn they told teachers who really didn’t understand.
Things remained like that for a long time, but there was a huge compensation, for the famous J M Cohen - known for his translations of Lorca and Cervantes and editor of such compilations as Comic & Curious Verse – became my English teacher and switched me on to Shakespeare and the language of poetry.
Jack Cohen was wonderful but he could not teach me to spell – the punctuation was a shade slap dash as well, and the ‘Collected Works’ remained blank until the late 1950s when I was working as Drama Critic and Arts Reviewer for The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald. There, in ‘59 I was forced to face up to the fact that I was a chronic alcoholic and, by a series of small miracles, found my way to the famous Dr. Lincoln-Williams who did much pioneering work on the treatment of alcoholics. The result is that I have not had an alcoholic drink since 1959 and in that year I wrote a long memoir for my doctor. This became my first book – Spin the Bottle.
However, my generation was one of those whose lives, attitudes and outlooks have been forever shaped by the events of World War II. It is amazing to me now that a few weeks before my fourteenth birthday, in 1940, I found myself instructing men three times my age in the mysteries of the Lewis Gun and I was to become one of the many Private Pikes in the Home Guard – well under age of course but I got round it by being a drummer in the Home Guard Band. When I was 17, at the end of 1943, I volunteered for aircrew in the Fleet Air Arm and was told that I would have to wait for around eight or nine months. I had been an obsessive amateur and semi-pro magician from the age of 13, I took a chance and auditioned for the American Red Cross Entertainments Department and so became a professional, travelling around the country with a group of singers, elderly comedians and instrumentalists performing at the many US Hospitals which started to fill with wounded and dying after D-Day.
At the end of ’44 I was finally called up and remained in the Royal Navy for around a couple of months. By then they did not require any more aircrew so we were offered a number of alternatives which included a transfer to the Royal Marines. I was lucky enough to be in one of the last Y Scheme (potential officer material) intakes into the Royal Marines before the end of the war, serving eventually, without any distinction, in 42 Commando, RM in the far and Middle East.
When it was over, I completed my education at Cambridge and later Oxford, I became a priest – wrongly – in the Church of England, but found a rightful place in Stratford-upon-Avon and it was from there that I started my career as a writer. Having been brought up on the films of the ’30s and ’40s I thought that all I had to do now – after publication of Spin the Bottle - was write the great British novel, so I began a pretentious piece of rubbish about how governments went around legally killing people. I sent the first four chapters to my agent and got an immediate response. “I really need to see you,” he said on the telephone. Fame, I thought. It must be very good to warrant a trip to London. However, when I was settled in his office he sighed and said, “John, this book is truly dreadful. Having made a hash of drama perhaps you could try comedy.” So I went home and wrote the comic version of governments legally killing people. It became a best-seller and a not very good movie called The Liquidator starring a cowardly secret agent named Boysie Oakes.
Oakes went on to be the lead character in eight books and – though I have denied it many times – he was of course a complete piss-take of J Bond
In the mid sixties I switched to a couple of police procedurals (one of which was turned into a quite execrable Michael Winner film) then I began to write novels well away from the thriller/espionage genre – books like Every Night’s a Bullfight which in the US had to be changed to Every Night’s a Festival in case we upset anyone who disapproved of bullfighting , even though there was not a bullfight in sight, for this was a novel about a theatre company. It taught me a great deal about editing. The American publisher to whom I had sold it told me not to worry about things, they would edit, it really only meant changing the spelling. Wrong. When I saw the final result it had become a complete travesty of the original book. One lead character was edited out altogether, except for the fact that whoever did the job had become tired and the missing character suddenly appeared for the first time about two thirds of the way through the book. Of course by then it was too late to do anything about it.
There were other books that cannot be easily categorised, like The Censor, Flamingo and Golgotha. However my favourite character suddenly appeared on the page without any conscious thought on my part. It happened in The Nostradamus Traitor. The first draft was not to my liking and I knew it required many changes. Towards the beginning of the second draft I wrote, ‘Herbie Kruger got the job.’ I recall sitting and looking at those words, then I began to write a description of Big Herbie Kruger – the most visible of spies: large, ham-fisted with a calculated uncertainty about his command of the English language. Big Herbie had become involved in the trade of intelligence and security when the American service use him as a ferret sniffing out Nazis in the Displaced Persons camps which proliferated across Europe in the wake of the war. When the American service – the OSS - was disbanded, Herbie was passed on to the Brits. In all, I wrote seven books concerning Herbie – these include the last two books of the Generations Trilogy.
Also, in the mid-70s I wrote two other books of which I am rather proud – The Moriarty Journals purporting to be the truth about Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, archenemy of Sherlock Holmes. These consisted of two titles – The Return of Moriarty and The Revenge of Moriarty. There should have been a third volume but there was some stupid argument about the contract. I still wish to do the third book and it is, in fact, blocked out and will eventually be called The Redemption of Moriarty. The two Journals got much coverage in the USA where most of the many Sherlock Holmes societies got behind them. The most prestigious of these is the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI): a club that only accepts you as a member if they invite you to join. In the early ’80s I was honoured by being invested into the BSI in the name of Moriarty. At home in the UK, the Sherlock Holmes Society has never been in touch.
In 1980, while I was living in Ireland I received a challenge out of the blue. Would I be prepared to write a James Bond continuation novel? Glidrose, the literary copyright holders in Ian Fleming approached me through H R F Keating the scholarly author of the Inspector Ghote books. Within a week I flew to London to discuss the project and when the deal was done I expected to write possibly three books. When it came down to it I did fourteen, plus a couple from original screenplays. It was indeed a surprise to have the three-book contract renewed time and again, and I did the work – because I am a professional – as a challenge. In fact I have never been really fond of J Bond who is to my mind a fantasy character. Perhaps that is the lure and the secret of his success. The directors of Glidrose asked me to update Bond and bring him into the last decade of the 20th century. I did this with tremendous support and encouragement from the Glidrose Board of Directors and I remain proud that my contribution to the Bond saga played a great part in its development.
In 1995 I was suddenly taken seriously ill and – to my great surprise, and against the odds – recovered, following complex and very unpleasant surgery. That and the death of my wife kept me away from my career as a novelist of thrillers and adventure books for some five years. Yet when my life finally regained some equilibrium many people in publishing seemed to be astonished that I wanted to continue writing. But what else would I do? I have spent some forty years telling stories and delineating characters. I am not about to give it up now. Since I have been back in front of a word processor I have produced Day of Absolution – to be published by Severn House in December 2001, and Bottled Spider which follows in April/May 2002.
At present I am working on the sequel to Bottled Spider titled The Streets of Town. These books are set in the 1940s and in them a have found a new character – a policewoman in her early twenties living through the war years with the Metropolitan Police Force. I hope that she will collect as many fans as Boysie Oakes and Herbie Kruger assembled in their time. It’s good to be back.
- John Gardner, 2001