Thursday, 8 May 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to an old Welsh novelist and once virgin soldier called Leslie Thomas

Leslie, chronicler of twentieth century sailors, squaddies and suburban sex lives has died aged 83.

What you possibly didn't know about Leslie, that he :

* born in 1931 in a council house at Newport, South Wales, the son of  a "wandering Welsh sailor", a stoker in the Merchant Navy who became violent after getting drunk and at whom his mother once threw a full chamber pot which led to his two year absence from the home.

* was 8 years old when the Second World War broke and started to pray, "make Dad's ship sink" and when he was subsequently killed when a German U-boat torpedo hit his vessel in 1943, was left with a mother who took to her bed with cancer and died shortly afterwards.

* had attended elementary school in Newport, where he was an undistinguished pupil, with some flair for English and now, at the age of 12, was moved to England with his 9 year-old brother and installed in a Dr Barnardo’s Home at Kingston upon Thames in Surrey, which he later recalled : "had cardboard on the windows where they’d been blown in" by flying bombs and from where an uncle failed to retrieve them because : "Any chances of us being allowed to live with him were dashed when he offered the Barnardo’s representative a gin and tonic."

* was sent to various homes including one, where the superintendent, who "had some kindness, but it was well-buried", told the boys that their brains would be turned to milk because of all the filthy things they did at night and found  that 'talker' in him could avoid getting beaten up by the bigger boys, by inventing stories and in a 1940s environment lacking radio and tv, found that his services were constantly called upon and 'the writer' could, after a visit, win a 2s 6d prize for his description of the City of Norfolk.

* while at the Barnardo's Home in Kingston upon Thames, attended the local Technical School, where he trained to be a bricklayer and then after meeting the journalist and author Charles Mitchell, was sent to take a course in journalism at South-West Essex Technical College, Walthamstow.

* got his first job, at the age of 17 in 1948, folding newspapers working for a group which owned the Essex 'Wickford Times' but soon progressed to pup reporter, was a fan of Neville Cardus, the distinguished cricket writer and music critic of the Manchester Guardian and progressed via a 'scoop' that Princess Margaret was about to visit a Barnardo's Home in the area.

* was 'called up' for National Service in the Army at the age of 18, and later said : "wanted to go into an infantry regiment and see the world” but "they sent me to Singapore, but put me in the Pay Corps as a clerk in an accounts office. I was basically a desk-bound soldier and Singapore was an exciting place to be, particularly for an 18 year-old like me. In my off-duty moments I was even a singer at the famous Raffles Hotel.”

*  rose to the rank of lance-corporal, saw some action against communist terrorists and later recalled : “The jungle was pretty terrifying. I remember we were sent up country again, this time on trains. This was particularly dangerous as the terrorists had a habit of jumping on to the roofs of the moving trains and firing down on to the squaddies below.”

* in 1950, at the age of 19, went with a few colleagues to Penang on leave, with the aim, with them, of losing his virginity and succeeded, courtesy of an 18-year-old Chinese girl he met in a dance hall and who he continued to see her and remembered : “She had a Chinese name, but if Doris Day was on at the cinema she’d be called Doris, or if Rita Hayworth was on it would be Rita or even Hayworth” and also managed to lose his lance-corporal's stripe when she threw his trousers out of a window.

* the night before he returned to Britain, danced the tango with his Chinese girl in a nightclub and "took a last look at her and went out in tears", then back home, after being demobbed, returned to working for local papers in the London area, from 1953 to 1955, was a reporter for the 'Exchange Telegraph News Agency'.

* at the age of 24 began a 10-year stint as a feature writer for the ' London Evening News' earning a princely £20 a week and wrote his first novel, 'My Name is Mudd' about a local reporter's rites of passage and was not published. 

* covered the trial of Nazi War criminal, Adolf Eichmann and "even went back for his hanging” and the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill and published a memoir about his life as a Barnardo’s boy, 'This Time Next Week', before trying his hand at fiction and in 1966, successfully received £3,000 for 'The Virgin Soldiers', which sold 500,000 copies in its first six months, enough to persuade him to leave journalism to concentrate on writing books full time.

*  in the novel, drew on his own experience of a group of raw Army conscripts desperate to get laid in communist- threatened post-Second World War Malaya, with the bar-girl character, Juicy Lucy, based on his own consort and found its irreverence about military life with the conscripts wetting themselves in moments of crisis and discharging their guns in the wrong direction under the auspices of their, often rather limited, NCOs, chimed with the anti-establishment spirit in 1960s Britain.

* was later paid £10,000 for the rights to the 1969 'The Virgin Soldiers' film and although he went on to publish an average of a book a year for the next 40 years, including 'Onward Virgin Soldiers' in 1971, 'Stand Up Virgin Soldiers' in 1975 , 'The Magic Army' in 1981 and his final novel, 'Soldiers and Lovers' in 2007, a love story set at the end of the Second World War, found that nothing matched the success of his 1966 novel and once described the book's title as "the best three words I ever wrote". 

* in 2010 he published, 'Almost Heaven: Tales from a Cathedral', having lived for many years in a canonry, once the home of the artist Rex Whistler, in Salisbury Cathedral Close, with a garden backing on to the river Avon with the ex Prime Minister, Edward Heath, as a neighbour and said : “Ted Heath was the first person to ask us over when we moved to The Close in Salisbury. I said: ‘I can’t believe I live here – I’m a working class boy’ and he said, "So am I", which I suppose he was. I am not political, but he was an unusual man and a great friend to us."

* made the tv documentary, 'Great British Isles' in 1989 and wrote 'The Last Detective', a series starring Peter Davison adapted from his 'Dangerous Davies' novels and was awarded an OBE for services to literature in 2004.

* before his death, in preparation for a programme in his honour, received a tribute from the BBC :

Susan Sandon, Managing Director at his Penguin Random House publishers, said:
 "Leslie Thomas was an immensely popular author with a huge gift for storytelling and a wonderful sense of humour.
 His books have given so many people pleasure over the years, with their mix of great characters, strong sense of time and place, and unique ability to combine laughter and tears in the space of a few sentences."

The author Peter Finch, former Chief Executive of Literature Wales, said:
"He was a super-friendly person. There was no edge to him whatsoever. He was a slightly private person but he was good company. He was a raconteur. That was his strength, which you can tell from the books. He made me laugh, a lot."

* after his death received this tribute from the BBC :

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