(Photograph © Lecia Foston.)
Desmond Bagley was born in Kendal, England on the 29th October 1923 to John and Hannah Bagley. His father was a Lancashire coal miner, gentle and a lover of good music, while his mother was stern, strong-willed and slow to offer sympathy. It was in this mix of parental temperaments that the author’s life-long speech impediment began to develop. Exactly why or when he started stammering is not recorded. He had an older brother, Jack, but it doesn’t appear they were very close, perhaps because there was a 10-year age-gap between them.
Bagley spent his youth in the Lake District educated at strict state-schools where he later felt curiosity had been routinely stifled. Corporal punishment was the norm, used often and indiscriminately. Eventually his stammer was considered a stigma and hinderance that couldn’t be beaten out of him, nor could his left-handedness. Only one teacher was remembered with any fondness in later years having that precious ability of being able to kindle the flame of interest in a young and eager mind. The subject was mathematics, one the author was to enjoy and excel at subsequently.
Throughout his childhood the world was in turmoil. All around was evidence of the Great Depression which had begun in the USA in 1929 with the Stock Market Crash. In the UK there were National Hunger Marches and in the North, Work Camps to offer the increasing number of unemployed some way to feed themselves. When the author was eleven his father was retired prematurely from the mines due to ill-health and the family moved across the county line to Blackpool to run a theatrical boarding house. The result was that the young Bagley found himself with an unusually long summer vacation – the first six weeks from Cumbria, then called Westmoreland, and a handsome extension courtesy of Lancashire who had a later term start date. During this ‘Glorious Summer’, as the author would later describe it, he found great enjoyment reading away the days on Blackpool’s famous pleasure-beach, having first become acquainted with his new home’s much larger public library.
Leaving school with no formal qualifications the author started work as a Printer’s Devil (an apprentice or errand boy) at the age of 14. He didn’t much like the work and tried his hand at several other occupations. For a time he was servicing the vending-machines and one-arm bandits along Blackpool’s ‘Golden Mile’. When World War Two finally broke out the factory he was working in was turned over to making machine-gun turrets and parts for Spitfires. Having been passed over for military service due to his stammer, apparently on the grounds that a man who has difficulty talking clearly, wouldn’t be able to understand orders either, the author became foreman and in a job that couldn’t spare him when the rules for conscription were later modified to bring in more men.
At home family tensions were steadily increasing throughout. Bagley’s mother always thought her son idle and when his brother’s newborn child was found to be autistic, the sister-in-law vented her anger very hurtfully towards the young man with a stammer.
Life together, under one roof became intolerable and at the end of the war Desmond Bagley, then 23, decided to emigrate to South Africa. This was January 1947. Unlike the many who made the same exodus at the time he chose to travel overland, leaving England during a heavy snow-storm with twenty-three like-minded individuals. It must have been a striking contrast to find himself, not long after, crossing the inferno of the Sahara Desert, unlike anything he could’ve encountered before except on the pages of a book. Later that year he’d reached Kampala and Uganda but in their climates, where the mosquito rules, he contracted Malaria. For his health he moved along smartly, arriving in Kenya in 1948 and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in 1949. Finally he reached South Africa by 1951.
Throughout the journey he worked his passage but never settled in one job for long, often feeling his speech impediment lost him opportunities along the way and preventing him from finding long-term employment. Luckily his freelance work was always very successful and able to sustain him. A local hospital where he worked proved to be a generous and forward-thinking employer and offered him the chance to go on a residential course designed specifically to alleviate his problem. Unfortunately the outcome was not successful but later, after a move back to Durban, a friend who was a hypnotist taught Bagley techniques of self-relaxation and these were helpful in easing the problem and allowing him to gain confidence. In this part of the world gold and asbestos mines figured large in the economies and the author worked for a time in both industries.
A landmark perhaps was that while in Natal Bagley became interested in journalism, adding another string to his already ample bow. As well as writing he also worked as a nightclub photographer and once in Durban he wrote a series of radio scripts on various science subjects for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. After his final move to Johannesburg he worked as a freelance reporter for several of the well-known newspapers – the Sunday Times, the Star and the Rand Daily Mail gaining a significant scoop for being on the spot at the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd. During this time he was also popular as a reviewer of books, films, theatre, music and concerts and often wrote for trade journals. Between 1956 and 1962 his work included feature articles of a mainly technological slant.
It was in 1957 that he wrote his first short story to be published in the UK. Called “My Old Man’s Trumpet” it was published in the Argosy magazine for January. At this time he rather mysteriously gave his occupation as an engineer.
In 1959 while at a party in Johannesburg he met Joan Brown, the director of a leading local bookstore and the couple married a year later. (See Joan Bagley)
In 1962 he wrote the first of his best-selling blockbuster novels – The Golden Keel – perhaps not the first he had tried but the first to be published. He’d taken a long time planning it and his other work had been shelved to accommodate the efforts.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1964, after a short and abortive sojourn to Italy, he moved back to England and lived in Totnes, Devon until 1976 after which he moved on to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, a splendid place and one the author obviously loved. He wrote an affectionate article about his life there called ‘A Little Peace Of Britain’ published in a 1980 edition of ‘In Britain’ magazine.
His recreational activities were many and varied and he listed them as: sailing, travelling, music, reading, mathematics, computer programming, and military history. In South Africa he kept a Siamese cat which he brought to England via the six-month quarantine rules and later, in both Devon and Guernsey, various dogs and other cats.
Desmond Bagley died on the 12th April 1983 in Southampton hospital, eight days after having a stroke.
Such a sudden and early end to this active and prolific author’s life seems a very unfair blow – not just for his family and friends but a whole world of loyal readers built up over two decades of thrilling writing. Few people who start out with such hindrances make such a mark on the world.