by John Templeton-Smith
The Tamanrasset Aittisal
Less grandly than he deserved, we met in the late 1970’s, a few years after he had moved to the beautiful Channel Island of Guernsey.
It was a Saturday noon in spring, with the church clock tolling the hours, when I had bumped into a retired airline pilot friend of mine outside the yacht club in St Peter Port (‘Town’ to the locals) who was asking if I was still flying in West Africa. I said I was and that I had brought one of the company aircraft north for major servicing, and had refuelled at Tamanrasset. At the mention of Tamanrasset someone tugged at my sleeve.
That someone was of course the best-selling author Desmond Bagley (thereafter to be known to me as Simon, as to all family and friends) who had been to Tam the hard way (overland at the end of the war on his way to South Africa). He was, that day, visiting the Yacht Club for his Saturday lunchtime tincture when he heard this stranger mention the name Tamanrasset – not too common, one might consider, in the sleepy island of Guernsey, so he had grabbed the stranger’s sleeve (Simon liked collecting friends who had been ‘around the block a few times’ as he anointed the well travelled).
Simon lived in a classical 18th Century manor house in the Parish of Castel, near to the lower end of the Rohais, with his wife Joan and a Dragon Li (Chinese) cat that rejoiced in the name Xingyun (Fortune). The front of the house was an open courtyard whilst the rear of the property was a beautifully landscaped garden.
Simon’s study was on the upper floor and covered all the rooms on the East side of the house. It was full of creaking shelves holding about fifteen thousand books – I was very impressed and I told him so. Simon shrugged it off and explained that once you were a published author you received free books from your publisher’s lists. (Considering a major publishers monthly output over a twenty-year period it is easy to see how such a library was created.)
The rooms had been knocked through into a kind of open plan modern day office and there were workstations at every turn with one housing a massive HP Computer and Laser printer. Being used to an old manual Imperial typewriter myself, with the inevitable carbon paper, I was impressed all over again, this time at the quality of the pages from the Laser printer – as were Collins his publishers. I imagine he was the only author on their books (in those days) who turned in perfect manuscripts [or to be more correct, typescripts]. An example being his friend, Dick Francis, who would send a manuscript to his publisher on dissimilar sizes of paper, blue-pencilled with thousands of hand-written corrections – something they tolerated because Dick was Britain’s top best-selling author.
It was in this study, that Simon told me his life story, not least how his first book The Golden Keel came into being.
He had settled in Johannesburg in the early 1950’s, after a marathon overland driving adventure from England and was working for a local newspaper as a movie/book reviewer.
The conversation went something like this:
DB: [Settling in a leather-padded swivel chair in front of his computerised work-station] “One evening after work, I stopped off at my local bar and got into conversation with an American ex-soldier. The soldier’s name was Joe Walker and he had been a US Army major: part of the big push from Salerno up through Italy.
“Walker mentioned an Italian army captain he had met, who’d been witness to the removal of the Italian Gold Reserve in Rome at the order of Mussolini and how the trucks used to transport it out of the city – the buzz being that it was going to be ‘deep-sixed’ in a specific lake in the north of Italy.
“Walker went on to describe a plan to find and retrieve the gold by taking an ocean going yacht up to Italy. Anchor in a quiet bay and then travel overland to Lago Maggiore.”
JTS: “Why that lake exactly?”
DB: “According to Walker, Mussolini was at Stresa, a village on the shoreline of Lago Maggiore, in 1938 meeting with the Borromeo royal family and working out a plan ‘B’ concerning relocating the Italian Gold Reserve, given the upcoming war was only months away. One clever subterfuge by Mussolini was building a maze of tunnels at Mount Soratte, an hour’s drive north of Rome. It was built between 1938 and 1943. This heavily guarded site was locally rumoured to hold all the Italian gold reserves. The rumour, allegedly, was leaked by the government itself.”
JTS: “How did this Walker guy know that?”
DB: “The Italian army captain was none other than Giovanni de Lorenzo, the same man who was involved with the later planned coup named Piano Solo to take over the Italian government in 1964. And if you knew the exact location of the missing Italian gold reserve you would have had the financial clout to carry it through.”
JTS: “But it never happened, the coup?”
DB: [Shrugging, palms lifted upward]. “Always a fly in the ointment. Lorenzo was a soldier. He assumed that the gold reserve being offloaded onto a boat at Stresa meant that it was going to be dropped into the lake at a secret place.”
JTS: “And it wasn’t, you mean!”
DB: “Oh yes it was dropped and witnessed by Lorenzo who made a note of the precise latitude and longitude.”
JTS: “I’m still not with you.”
DB: “Writers. The one thing they are very good at is research. Mussolini’s mother, Rosa, who he was very close to was always known by Mussolini’s father as Bella – one of those family nicknames if you like.”
JTS: “I’m not following you.”
[DB wandered off to the library section of his open-plan study and returned with a large hard-back Atlas. He put it down on the desk and leafed through the pages.]
DB: “There,” [pointing at a place on a map and a body of water in northwest Italy] .
JTS: [I recognised the legend arced across it – Lago Maggiore, before his finger moved to the lake shoreline and the small village of Stresa].
DB: “Isola Bella!”
JTS: “An island called Bella, so?”
DB: “Not just an island. His mother, Bella. A sentimental place-name if you like; and given he was his mother’s favourite …”
JTS: “And you think the gold is there, but you said Lorenzo had seen it dropped into the lake at a recorded lat and long.”
DB: [With a long suffering smile expression] “The boat crew made sure it was witnessed before the soldiers left. Except what they dropped was worthless ballast. They then sailed north west to Isola Bella and in accordance with Mussolini’s instructions buried it there – probably in the dead of night!”
JTS: “So why didn’t you go with Walker and recover it?”
DB: [In subdued voice]. “In a way I did, except my gold was in a book. My first novel, The Golden Keel. Right down to getting the gold out of Italy by melting it down and casting it as a keel for the ocean yacht we had moored at the coast.”
JTS: “So, what of the real gold?”
DB: [With a shrug]. “Who knows, still there if truth be known.”
Simon had ended the tale, and now poured two Glenfiddich single–malt whisky’s – his favourite.
I even remember the toast: “To my lucky book.” (The royalties for that story, he had told me, never stopped pouring in. Sitting in his million-pound home, when a million was worth three times more than it is today, I had to agree).
Being a diligent student and ever heeding the advice of my peers, I eventually set the ending of a novel at Lago Maggiore with a seaplane departure from Stresa, an antithesis of the ending used in the movie Casablanca. [If you must borrow, borrow from the best]. The title of that book was The Fifth Freedom. Curiously enough that story earned the most royalties of any of my works, especially from my Japanese publishers. And as with Simon’s Golden Keel and buried treasure, The Fifth Freedom concerns treasure (this time deposited in an Italian cemetery), and as the cast of characters are killed off – the fortune is left and forgotten.
The genesis of the story came from someone who had witnessed the real thing, or at least part of it. By then he was an aging banker in Milan who over lunch one day had recounted a failed Mafia bank heist that took place in the city in the early post war years. The gang was shot dead to a man, near to a cemetery – the multi-million dollar haul, never recovered. [This ‘interview’ was made during the background research for The Fifth Freedom, with the assistance of a Bank president friend of mine in Guernsey, who by happenstance was a private pilot and who had purchased a twin engine aircraft for his regular visits to Geneva and Milan. I tagged along as his ‘safety’ pilot, for the moments when the weather was beyond the scope of his flying experience and qualifications. Hence the actions of the main character, Chance Fitzgerald in that story and whilst in Milan, largely mirrored my own knowledge of that city].
Being a bit of a romantic, I have often wondered if there is a curse on those who retrieve buried treasure, whilst for those who leave it be, there is bestowed a blessing!
Stranger than fiction? Quite possibly, but consider this:
The Borromeo family has owned a small group of islands (Borromean islands) in the Italian part of Lago Maggiore since the early 16th Century and although some were sold off in the later 20th century, the family still retains possession of Isola Bella!
Simon having finished his story had strolled over to the window, which looked down on the courtyard at the front of the house. He had heard someone knocking on the front door below.
He turned back towards me and laughed, ‘Postman. Every time I hear someone knocking on that damned door, I think it’s Walker come for his share of the royalties.’
I do recall in those years there was a late night TV show, presented by the writer Roald Dahl. It was entitled ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, and told unusual stories with a twist at the end of the tale.
I always thought of Simon’s The Golden Keel in those moments. I still do.
Simon usually knocked off the writing gig at about 1700 hours, Monday to Friday, and if I happened to be on the island and not flying around Africa or the Middle East I would call by his house at about 1830.
So it happened on the evening of the summer solstice of that year.
We were sitting out in the garden with the single malt poured when he asked me where I had been since my last visit. On this occasion I had finished my West Africa 3-year stint, contracting malaria for my troubles, and had undertaken a military commission for the Israeli Air Force (delivering Dorniers from South Africa to Tel Aviv). I mentioned an old Rhodesian school friend* I had met up with in Malawi and then how I had journeyed up to Wilson airport, Nairobi and onward to Juba in the southern Sudan and then to Khartoum, Luxor, Cairo, Larnaca, and thence back to Tel Aviv. As the Israeli/Arab peace accord had at the time been consigned to the ‘Laugh & Tear Up Tray’ I had passed through Egypt giving my final destination as Europe – to do otherwise might have been a poor career move. Once in Cyprus I had been briefed to phone an Israeli Air Force major who could give me a callsign and a time the next morning to enter Israeli airspace at a specific checkpoint. ‘Get that wrong,’ the major had said casually, ‘and you will be shot down by patrolling F4 Phantoms’. The thought that this sounded a bad way to start a day was classic understatement!
The single malt bottle had nearly emptied by the time I finished my travelogue.
‘There you are,’ Simon proclaimed. “Your first book.”
“It was just a ferry flight.”
“How many people do your kind of work? How many people get to travel across Africa and meet all those interesting people you mentioned, and not just once a year on their annual vacations but every day, every week, every month.
How many people run the gauntlet of being shot down by the ‘friendlies’ for being late at that checkpoint you mentioned? Write about what you know, that’s the key in this business.”
“I doubt I would term flying straight and level hour after hour very exciting,” I replied.
“That’s where the fiction comes in, John. Add a bit of spice. Diamond smuggling, murder … a chase … something like an aerial Thirty Nine Steps.”
So I did. A simple first-person tale of a pilot who had contracted that rare disease, a fear of flying, but had to do the trip because he needed the money. And yes, I included Simon’s diamonds and the odd murder or two … and even a chase up the East side of Africa. That book was entitled Skytrap; mined from Ruskin’s The Sky [Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two moments together; almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost divine in its infinity] – which seemed appropriate, as the sky can be a truly unforgiving place, especially to a fearful pilot.
The manuscript eventually went to Michael Sissons at A.D. Peters Literary Agency in London and as luck would have it Michael had an author on his books called Gavin Lyall. Gavin had been writing ‘flying thrillers’ (Wrong Side of the Sky being one of his big best sellers in the 1960’s) for some years but had decided he wanted a change to something more cerebral. So Michael suddenly had a slot for a ‘flying thriller’ writer. That summer morning my manuscript landed on his desk. Michael had his writer and I had my agent. [Footnote to history: The firm was founded by Augustus Dudley Peters in 1924 and A.D. eventually represented many leading writers, including: Hilaire Belloc, J.B. Priestly, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. His office, in my time was just off The Strand at 10, Buckingham Street and was a Dickensian-era terraced house with a narrow staircase that wound up three floors to his office at the top. Bookshelves crammed with First Editions covered every millimetre of wall space. I remember my first visit with great fondness now, although at the time I was more than a little intimidated at the thought of such literary greats treading those stairs before me. For fans of Charles Dickens: the great man actually lived a few doors down from my agents when he was starting out on his literary career with Sketches by Boz in 1836].
A few weeks later I was invited to London for lunch with Rosie Cheetham at Century (now a part of American publisher Random House). She was to be my editor.
It was on the BEA Viscount flight back to Guernsey that night, clutching an author’s contract and feeling quite pleased with myself, that I recalled Rosie’s words over a delightful lunch of Sole Meunière, accompanied by a suitably chilled Sancerre.
‘I love the settings, John, they are so realistic and the characters too, rather memorable. Just one or two little things if you don’t mind me mentioning them: Perhaps you could tighten up the prologue, it’s a bit overlong at the moment. The middle needs a little more romance as well I think. Oh yes, and the end; could we perhaps have a heightened sense of excitement – a twist in the tale as it were, something really heart-stopping? Other than that you really are a very good writer and we are so pleased to have you on board.’
The BEA steward served my celebratory scotch and as I raised the glass in silent toast I suddenly realised what Rosie had actually meant. Hell, she wanted a complete rewrite! My heart sank for a full five seconds as I contemplated the amount of work she had set me. It lifted just as quickly when the little voice inside my head laughed and commented rather grandly (he’s that sort of alter ego), ‘Oh well, dear boy, at least you are now a professional author.’
Simon had a great sense of humour. He also suffered with a speech impediment that might have destroyed a lesser man.
One of his evening yarns over the single malt concerned his sixth or seventh novel launch (he was a bestselling writer from his first, The Golden Keel).
As happens at these times the editor calls or writes to the author and invites him/her to town (as London was ever known to writers’) for lunch and to meet the Press. These Press meet and greets usually took place in a convenient Wine Bar (new 1970’s fashion in watering holes – when the French forgave Agincourt and now loved us and why not, their vin ordinaire sales had suddenly gone stratospheric). So it was that Simon sat with his merry band of journalists who were diligently working their way through the expenses paid wine list. When the afternoon drinking jag neared its end one of the scribes asked, ‘What would you have done if you hadn’t become a best selling author, Simon?’
Simon smiled in what he called, his St Francis of Assisi manner (reserved for children and dumb animals) and said, ‘With a bloody stammer like I’ve got you silly bugger, writing is the only thing I can do.’ The Press boys, well into their cups, roared with laughter at the self-deprecating humour and forever after took him to their hearts.
He pulled the same stunt a month later in Guernsey when he agreed to be the guest speaker at the Ladies Luncheon Club (or something equally as grand).
Apart from the Vicar’s wife who was a little red faced at the colourful language, Simon had the ladies in stitches. They too took him to their hearts.
*The old Rhodesian school friend was the man who unwittingly gave me the bare bones of my first novel Skytrap and featured in the story as ‘Lucky’ Clay. Lucky was also a pilot, and was ‘camped’ in Malawi with his younger brother, following independence in Rhodesia when his family farm was taken over by the rebels and his mother and father murdered. Lucky and his brother had escaped in the family light aircraft. They left behind everything his family had worked for over many generations, including an emerald-mine and a storehouse of broken or unserviceable farm machinery (amongst which – hidden in plain sight – dozens of trade-tin-boxes used for shipping Smith’s Crisps – full of uncut stones).
I remember sitting with him halfway up Zomba mountain, in the pine forest, one sunny afternoon, looking out over the lowlands far below; reminiscing over family history (Gerald and Evelyn my uncle and aunt had also lived in Northern Rhodesia, so we were long-time friends) and reliving happier times. We discussed at length the emeralds left behind and if there was a way to get them out. The sun was setting by the time we had exhausted the many possibilities and continued our trek back to the top of the mountain and Lucky’s bungalow. It was on that late evening walk that I decided the healthy option was to use one of Lucky’s suggested emerald-retrieval-schemes in the plot of a book. Simon’s words on the Lago Maggiore gold had not gone unnoticed. A course of action that would prove to be uncannily accurate.
What about Lucky? I hear you ask.
Some years later whilst picking up an airplane in Dar es Salaam, and staying at a small hotel in Oyster Bay, I came across a pilot who had known Lucky’s family – such being the small world of aviation – and was told the story. Of how Lucky had flown in to the then renamed Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in a twin-engine aircraft and landed at night on a moonlit bush road, and with a few helpers who had arrived by truck, drove near to his old family home and removed a consignment of the Smith’s Crisps tins. They then drove back to the bush road-makeshift airstrip and loaded the ‘cargo’ onto the plane.
Depending on which version you believed (for the story had grown into legend), the plane either crashed on take-off or was shot down by a SAM (surface-to-air-Missile). There were no survivors.
So it goes, we are born and we die. It’s what we accomplish in between that reconciles life’s balance sheet.
I often raise a glass to my friend; he really was a one-off. Six-feet six tall – christened by the house-boy, Bwana Blue Gum (after the 200-feet tall blue gum Euclyptus trees at the top of Zomba mountain). He reminded me in many ways of Neil, another pilot from my past, a Kiwi who was the life and soul of any party. He was also Best Man at my wedding. He, like Lucky, and so many other flyers I once knew, is ‘late of this parish’.
(In the distant future I too will face my own mortality in the mountainous terrain of Southern Greenland, but because it is the morning of April 1st the Gods will conspire and allow me to walk away from the wreckage with a few cuts and bruises, having decided a ‘fool’s life’ wasn’t worth the admission to Valhalla. At least that’s the excuse I sometimes offer to Lucky and the rest of the boys for not joining them in Asgard at their majestic Hall, whose ceiling is thatched with golden shields).
By the mid-1990’s I was commissioned by Simon & Schuster to write a trilogy, based on a fictional SAS (Special Air Services) soldier, whom I named John Winter. The first book in the trilogy, White Lie, used a lot of biographical material from my own travels in the USA and Colombia, South America, and for the first time I discovered my own ‘visual’ writing style. That is, I would plan out the opening of the story in my mind and then assemble a group of main characters. These storybook people were based upon people I had known.
Writing on the computer screen, in my upstairs study, I found I could be typing copy whilst seeing the scene the story was at, as a kind of hologram suspended between me, and the computer screen. I even found myself using film directing techniques: dissolve, wipe, cut-away, fade etc.
By page 75 or so the characters had found their feet, at the time when I had no drafted plans for the story direction. It was then that the images in the hologram took over and began speaking to each other; leaving me to simply type as fast as I could to keep up. This was, to me at least, quite unreal.
I mentioned the process to a friend at my university and he likened it to the starving artist in the apocryphal garret in Montmartre, Paris producing some of his best works, mainly because of the fact that he did not eat, but probably drank too much coffee to stay awake, thus releasing enzymes into the blood stream, which travelled to the brain and had an hallucinatory effect. Not exactly an expert medical opinion, but certainly one that resonated.
Saigon Express, book 2 in the trilogy went just as well, given my background knowledge of the settings of the story – the banker in Nassau, Bahamas who actually had a pilot’s licence, as did the fictional banker in the story; the noisy streets of Saigon, Viet Nam (now named for ‘Uncle Ho’ – Ho Chi Minh City); the American War museum, right down to the British Consulate, the military bases, and hotels around Lam Son Square all of which feature throughout the book.
Then I was at the final work. A flashback to the beginning, when Winter was embarking on his adult life. It was at this point that I threw caution to the wind and scribbled down the opening scene of the prologue, which introduced the book’s hero, John Winter and the woman he loved, Nancy Ryan. The fact that he was an undercover SAS soldier working in Northern Ireland, while she was a member of the PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army) and Catholic, and married with two children, threw up conflicts by the bucket load. But that is all I had, an across-the-divide love story. Or almost all, I scored the book like a movie soundtrack. The prologue was written to Sibelius’ haunting Valse Triste, which I had taped on a loop.
So I started, and the supporting cast unsurprisingly, jumped out of my past: Frank Ryan an RAF NCO armourer I had once known; Pat Cavanaugh borrowed from an Irish priest namesake of my boyhood; Nancy’s name came from a willowy Nun with an Audrey Hepburn pretty face, who was the housekeeper for the priest; even the car used in the latter stages of the story, a gold-coloured Ford Corsair with lowered suspension, chrome wire-wheels, removed front radiator grill for improved engine cooling, blown-exhaust and an 11.4:1 compression ratio – was a hot-ship I had owned back in my young days. Thus the cast, being reasonably well drawn and strong enough (given they were real people and hardware from my own past), took over and led me along. Somewhere in the middle of the story we attend a ‘moving’ funeral of a gentle old soul known only as ‘Mouse’ (and find out his real was Cathal Kennedy a legendary 1940’s IRA soldier) – for this I offered a chorus or two of Danny Boy, guaranteed to dampen the eyes of the hardest drinking Irishman in any bar. (The quiet man, ‘Mouse’ would have loved that little memory from his youth).
Towards the very end of the story, with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending floating ethereally in the background, Winter and Nancy have climbed a small mountain named Cader Idris (Giant’s Chair) in North Wales. They are together and happy as they start the walk back to the farmhouse owned by Winter’s aunt, the artist, Dorcas Volk. Halfway down the mountain Winter stops suddenly, looking around, almost sniffing the air, as if sensing something is wrong!
“So what happens next?” I asked out loud. Damned if I know the little voice inside my head replied.
As it was 6 in the morning, I logged off and went downstairs to make some fresh coffee and toast. After that I fell asleep in an armchair by the fire, still wondering where these almost lifelike characters had led me.
Tomorrow night (for night was always my most productive time for writing -10pm to 6 am) I would find out.
Inevitably, the next night came around and true to themselves and their creator the storybook people carried me along and wrote the final few devastating pages. (Scored full circle back and befittingly to Sibelius, and the dark tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela). I was as shocked at the outcome as many readers were to be in the future.
It was just as I had discovered the true art (for me at least) of writing the novel, that I finished the final book of The John Winter trilogy and reached a simple decision. I felt totally worn out and my crippling schedule of 18-months solid research and 3-months writing and rewriting (coupled to occasional flying duties), repeated over the many years, had affected my health. So when I had written the last page of Then A Soldier – 0600 hours on a dawn-chorus-less winter morning, I logged off from the computer and half turned to the lady who had rested on my shoulder for more than two decades and said, “Thank you for staying with me for so long, Calliope, but I don’t think I can carry on any more, so I’m letting you go. I know you’ll find someone else to help and inspire. A safe journey to you now.’ And in my wrecked and tired state, which had lasted for a solid twelve-weeks to meet my publisher’s deadline, she went. Calliope, the beautiful daughter of Zeus, was of course one of the legendary Muses. I like to think that she had spent 20-years with Simon and after his passing had witnessed his friend struggling in his new career and so decided he too needed her guidance.
I believe in such things, much in the way I found out in my early adult life that I was an ‘old soul’, so recognised by another and when the meaning of living past lives was explained, I fully understood the boy who at age 8 would read through text books, looking for errors. Who would carefully mark the pages with slips of paper and present a list to one of his teachers at school. In later life the boy who had become a man would realise he had been copy-editing – I think his teacher would have considered he was simply a curious child.
That same child would go to the movie theatre in the 1940’s and 1950’s with two of his school friends to watch the staple diet of ‘Westerns’, but rather than enjoy the movie (which he did anyway), he would tell his friends when the scene was going to ‘cut’ to a different ‘scene/set’ and to which scene this would be. He had for some unknown reason latched on to the directors unheard commands of ‘pan out’, ‘close-up’ or ‘fade’ et al. He would also, every once in a while second guess the outcome of the movie.
This would later elicit questions from the first boy of ‘How did you know that?’ The second boy answering, ‘Because he’s seen it before.’ First boy to the protagonist, ‘Is that right?’ The protagonist boy, blinking back the harsh daylight after the magical shadow-world of the movie house, answering ‘Yes.’ Knowing that to say ‘No … I just get feelings about these things’ would promote arguments and as his old grandfather always preached ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’ (In these boyhood situations such clichés served as peacemakers).
During the long school holidays of summer, the solitary boy would walk miles along country lanes to a big lake and sit all day watching fish jumping and Kingfishers diving, and because the lake was near to an Air Force base, occasionally look skyward as training aircraft passed overhead and daydreamed that the sky was where his future lay – there was no rationale for the decision. He just knew.
The boy would finally stir and set out on the six-mile walk to his Great grandparent’s house – his home. An old fashioned Victorian villa, peopled by adults who had fought in the Boer War; maiden-aunts whose young men had gone off to the Great War (as it was billed by the politicians) where, along with millions of England’s other young men, were consigned to the fields of Flanders, where the poppies still grow – row on row.
The boy who deduced that England’s villages were inhabited mainly by girls and women and a few older one-legged men, and therefore that men must be the rarity of the human species because there were no young men – not one. And when the boy would ask his great-grandfather why there were no young men in their village, he would receive the stern rebuke: “Children should be seen and not heard” or if he caught the old man on a bad day when his Great War scarred and battered legs were being washed and treated with a black tar like ointment before being re-bandaged, a back of the hand spoke volumes, to the accompaniment of ringing in the ears.
So it was that the boy grew up with books, not any books however, but technical manuals of beam engines, steam engines, and internal combustion engines (all the once-upon-a-time property of the young men who had relocated to Flanders’ fields) and in his teens he wondered if his upbringing was responsible for his introverted persona – nurture not nature.
A curious child, indeed.
Before my novel writing days, my studies were mainly limited to electrical engineering and once I had moved on to become a professional pilot, my further reading embraced meteorology, cartography, jet engine theory and airliner hydraulic systems, not forgetting the unending courses on the many and varied aircraft types I became involved with – a technical being to the core. These many years later I find I have become reasonably well educated in the Arts and have discovered a greater passion for literature, which marries well to my other love, classical music. Naturally my spiritual home the sky always wins the day as it has been with me since my first flight at the tender age of 13 and will be so to the end.
Thinking back, I may not have been as prolific as I had once hoped but I enjoyed the journey (Surprisingly, when I finally exit stage left, I will leave behind in the region of ten unfinished works and a slim volume of second-rate poetry – second-rate maybe, but my first foray into print was a Christmas poem, Chestnut Dreams which told of a brother and sister (based upon my own children, Sacha and Georgie), snatches of it come back to me now – snowballing homewards … and roasting chestnuts on the too close fire … and when the grownups start their usual talk again, then unwilling up the stairs they’ll go, to whisperings in the dark of how they’re going to catch him … All on Christmas Eve. The poem, set in our island home, was published in the Guernsey Evening Press). This was something I had questioned Simon about in my early days (why write half a story and then shelve it? – he had filings cabinets full of such aborted projects). Now I knew the answer. Like romance, I suppose. It starts off well enough with the first stirrings of unbridled passion, which slowly tempers with the seasons to a bearable plateau of existence before, for no apparent reason, it crumbles and ruinously falls apart. (Perhaps the Spenserian stanzas of Flanders’ boys had the best of it, after all!)
Yet for all that I certainly met some memorable people in the writing and publishing world and if one is worthy of mention it would have to be the legendary Rosie Cheetham (now de Courcy), my first editor and without doubt the wisest and most respected of all. Apart from the famous authors I had the opportunity to meet, my greatest joy has always been receiving letters from my readers – the good folk who buy my books and help me buy the reams of paper and printer ink and computers, and simply put food on the table – many of the letter writers tell a tale as well as any professional, and I have had the great good fortune in becoming friends with many of them. Lastly, but by no means least, the Press, especially those who write the book reviews, for they are the true masters of column-inch brevity and as E.M. Forster once observed are the only people who can consistently get a quart into the proverbial pint-pot. Having spent a number of afternoons with these gentlemen in London wine bars I have often wondered if Forster’s interpretation was literal or metaphorical!
One final vignette regarding the press boys: I had flown six-passengers from Gatwick to Caen on June 6th 1984 – the commemoration the 40th Anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings. The trip was also a celebration of the launch of Max Hasting’s latest work: Operation Overlord. The day was quite simply entertaining, with Max keeping everyone captivated with gripping tales of the war, passed down from his father, Macdonald Hastings, who had been a journalist/photographer for Picture Post in those far-off dark days.
Due to Queen Elizabeth II and other heads of State being in attendance, our late afternoon departure was delayed, as their aircraft were understandably given priority. We eventually were given permission to start engines. So it was that a multitude of light twin-engine aircraft taxied as a slow motion conga-line towards the duty runway. It was halfway to the holding point that I noticed a slightly overweight gentleman walking slowly along the edge of the taxiway (imagine a pedestrian strolling down the middle of a motorway in the fading light of day and you get the idea this is an accident waiting to happen). The person in question had his right arm raised, thumbing a ride. Someone in the back shouted, “It’s Clive, can we give him a lift?”
So I stopped, and one of the passengers lowered the rear door. The hitch-hiker shouted, “Goin’ to London by any chance?” Distinct Aussie accent.
“Gatwick,” someone shouted back.
I looked back from the cockpit and recognised the TV personality and journalist, Clive James. He came forward and shook my hand, “Thanks, mate, thought I was in for a long swim … how much do I owe you?”
“A beer one of these days.”
“You’re on,” he called back, as he moved down the cabin to find a seat.
We had a mill-pond-smooth haul back to Gatwick, landing with the last of the evening light into a gossamer ground mist diffusing the runway and taxiway lights into a fairy-grotto movie-set, and where my passengers departed chatting and laughing, happy with their day – leaving me to get start clearance for my short flight home to the Channel Island of Guernsey. Max, gentleman to the last, was gracious enough to inscribe a hardback copy of his book for the driver. Such works line my bookshelves today, each with its own personal backstory, marking chapters from my writing years.
And all of this was due to a kind and generous man with a terrible speech impediment who never let it subjugate him, and who once heard a stranger on a Guernsey sidewalk mention a little known place in the southern Sahara, (an ancient Arab township and airstrip shadowed by the Hoggar Massif).
As for the title of this chapter – ‘The Tamanrasset Aittisal’ – a passing nod to the Arabic speaking Tuareg – Africa’s blue people of the Sahara – those magnificent warriors who peopled my younger days when I occasionally dropped out of the sky to uplift aviation fuel and share their mint tea. The same warriors whom years earlier had offered Simon armoured protection on his overland odyssey to South Africa.
The ‘Tamanrasset Connection’, that forged a never-to-be–forgotten friendship.