Only the cars parked carelessly outside the Georgian houses and the roar of pneumatic drills spoil the illusion. Leon Garfield’s house, albeit one of the youngest in the street – about 80 years old – has a pleasingly rural aspect. But then a broken gate which hangs on its one remaining hinge might make you feel that about any house.
Garfield hasn’t always lived in Highgate, even though that particular area of London – and the city itself – has played such a large and important part in his work. He is now almost as much of an institution in the world of children’s books as St Paul’s Cathedral is in London. He won the first Guardian fiction award with his second book, Devil-in-the-Fog, and he’s also received the Carnegie Medal (with Edward Blishen for The God Beneath the Sea) and the Whitbread Award for John Diamond.
He was born in Brighton in 1921, and his family background could have come straight out of one of the novels he was later to write. `My father was a businessman, and he wasn’t a very good one. My mother was always highly critical of him.
`It was always a very up and down life. One moment we’d be enormously wealthy, and the next we were in the most dismal debt. I had one older brother, but to all intents and purposes I was an only child.’
The young Leon was despatched to Brighton Grammar School, but his `further education was brought to a halt by one of my father’s periodic debts.’ As a child he had `always written. I wrote absurd stories, based a lot on my desultory, unsystematic reading. I read a lot of detective and school stories, and for some reason I’d come across Anatole France, who was a great influence.’
He’d also shown a talent for drawing, and had turned to it more and more. `I think that was because I needed to do it, and also because it expressed the normal desire of a child to show off. It’s far easier to show off a drawing than a page of writing in an exercise book.’
Eventually Leon made it to art college, and when he left two things happened. He got married – a marriage which really lasted only three or four months – and joined the army ,more or less to get away from home.’ The army decided that because he’d been trained as an artist they’d put him in the medical corps `because they thought I’d know about anatomy – a completely erroneous assumption.’
He left the army in 1946, but not before he’d seen the worst the twentieth century had to offer. `I had a brief and grisly spell on the War Crimes Commission investigating two or three-year-old murders in concentration camps. I think it did have a tremendous effect on me. We had to do things like dig up murdered corpses and put them together from the fragments they’d decayed into, then take photos of the skulls to see where the bullet had entered. One thing I’ll never forget is the hideous stench.’
The difficult relationship with his father reached a low point when he left the army. `I was thrown out of my home because I wanted to divorce my first wife. At the time my father was in one of his enormously wealthy periods, and he offered me a choice – a business or nothing. But I was young enough to do without comforts, and by then I wanted to be a writer. So I took a job in a hospital working on biochemistry and set about becoming a writer.’
Part of his decision to become a writer appears to have been influenced by Vivien Alcock, whom he’d met in Belgium and who was to become his second wife. `I showed her some of my drawings and she said that I’d do better as a writer!’ But it was to be a long time before success came to him. His first book – Jack Holborn – wasn’t published until 1964.
`I tried every sort of writing until! I found a sort that suited me. I sent loads of stuff off to publishers – I even finished three novels – but I knew the rejection slips were justfied They just weren’t very good. I was doing a lot of imitation – which isn’t a bad thing, that’s the way you learn – but I simply hadn’t found my voice.’
The essentials of the Garfield mixture were already there, waiting to be put together. His war experiences had given him a vision of evil and its consequences which was always to stay in his mind. The ups and downs of his father’s business dealings filtered later on into his novels in the many fortunes suddenly won and lost. London too played a part in his childhood, as did the sea.
`I’ve always liked the sea, I suppose that’s because I was born near it. But living by the sea we naturally had our holidays in London where we had relatives. When I was small London was a vast, glittering place. We made visits to shops like Selfridges, which seemed like a palace to me with its glamorous lift attendants in gilded lifts which had an overpowering smell of perfume.
`But most of all I remember – and these memories are so early they’re probably memories of memories – the London fogs. Fog is absolutely fascinating to a child. My earliest and strongest memories are of London fogs where the sky was brown and the lights were strangely orange. You had no sense of direction in a fog like that, the road had vanished, the pavement had disappeared, and you felt that once you’d stepped out of the front door you could be lost forever.’
To the ups and downs of fortune, evil and its consequences, London, the sea and fogs, he added a love for a particular part of the City of London. `A friend became an articled clerk to a solicitor and we used to meet for lunch in St Paul’s Churchyard. I became fascinated by the area round St Paul’s where there are so many solicitor’s offices and articled clerks having lunch in little cafes, and gradually I developed a strong feeling for the necessity – and the absurdity – of the law. I was also overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of St Paul’s dome, which almost seems to float above the streets around it.’
But between 1946 and 1964, despite all the writing and the sending off to publishers, nothing happened to advance the career of Leon Garfield, writer. Except that is, for a chance meeting with a man from the Daily Mail on a train, who found out he wrote and asked to see some short stories. `I sent him one, and he used it in a Daily Mail annual. I got £5 and spent £20 celebrating.’
All the Garfield strands, however, came together in Jack Holborn, a book he wrote with adults in mind. `I think I’d realised what is meant by the advice given to writers so often – “use your own experience”. Up to then I’d misinterpreted it. It’s really a question of recognising the right idea for a novel. Lots of people who try to write worry about not having something to say, but that comes along later. Everyone’s got something to say.
`With Jack Holborn it was the first time I had that sensation of the pen coming into contact with the paper with nothing in between. It was the first time I’d used actual places, and that was exciting. And it was the first time I’d ever done a proper historical novel.’
The third publisher to see the book- Constable – liked it sufficiently to publish it on two conditions – one that it should be cut by a third, and the other that it was to be published as a children’s book. ‘I had the cuts done in a week,’ said Garfield, who found himself at last a published author.
The flow from the Garfield pen hasn’t stopped since. `Even before that I was writing in a very concentrated way, starting something else as soon as I’d finished one thing. Since Jack Holborn I’ve done a book a year, really.’
The praise and awards and commissions have flowed steadily since, too. His books have also been translated into television and film. Devil-in-the-Fog, Smith, and The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris have all been serialised on television, and John Diamond was made into a television film which was shown last year. Black Jack is now a feature film, and there are several other Garfield tales in production.
The success of the books has surprised some. Historical novels are not what is wanted, they say; contemporary books for contemporary children is the banner cry. Leon Garfield – as you might suspect – disagrees.
`It’s very hard for anybody to say what’s “wanted”. Often that sort of thing leads to something being imposed. I fee! to a certain extent anyone who goes along with that is going along with a very poor sort of popular culture which is, in the end, in very cynical hands – a lot of people are making an awful lot of money out of teenagers.
‘I think it’s very sad to see adult writers and critics going down on all fours and trying to get into the playground, trying to become children. Anatole France said a very interesting thing about writing for children which I believe -“The child is naturally curious, and wants to enter into your world. He doesn’t want you to come into his.”‘
He thinks that there are two ways of writing a historical novel. ‘The first is looking back, the other is looking around you. I prefer the second, and it’s really a sort of science fiction in reverse. Doing it that way you can draw clear, social parallels.
‘You get a picture of a whole society, and as with people, it’s easier to see them more sharply if you put them in new clothes. It’s like seeing someone you know in fancy dress – all of a sudden it’s like seeing them for the first time.
‘In my books I’m creating a place in which my stories happen, not a time. I’ve looked back rather than forward because my imagination needs hard fact to shape and confine it. But the historical novel does allow you to look at things which you might take for granted around you in a new perspective, and then you see how monstrous they are.’
That’s why he writes about violence and the absurdities of the law, evil and its consequences and fortune and redemption. At the moment all these themes are coming together for he’s in the middle of writing a Tales from Shakespeare for Victor Gollancz, which will be illustrated by Michael Foreman. Garfield says that ‘any writer who writes in English is totally dominated by Shakespeare’, and although finding some of the tales ‘formidably difficult’ is enjoying them greatly. He lists his other influences as Dickens (although he didn’t read any until after his first three novels were published), Swift, Fielding, Defoe, Victor Hugo and Balzac among others.
He’s also writing some more stories for picture books and finishing off a novel for Kestrel. In fact the Garfield home is very busy. Leon’s wife Vivien – she who told him to concentrate on writing instead of drawing – has developed into a writer herself. Her book The Haunting of Cassie Palmer has been made into a TV South serial, and she is now working on her fourth novel.
‘Vivien works upstairs, and I work downstairs, and we meet in the mornings over coffee with some pages of manuscript to discuss. We’ve agreed to take it in turns to talk about each other’s work, and we’re finding that we can be more and more of a help to each other now.’
It was a dark and overcast day when Leon Garfield talked to us. His study at the front of his house grew progressively darker. On one wall is a huge facsimile of a 1745 map of London to which he often refers while writing his books. His dog, Ben, a retriever lay at his feet, and the family cat, a British Blue called Sam sat staring out of the window. He talked of how much he’d enjoyed working with artists like Antony Maitland and Charles Keeping, both of whom have illustrated his work. He talked of adapting his prose style to suit the needs of each story he was working on, whether it was a short story, a novel for children or a picture book text – or indeed, a tale from Shakespeare.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost my favourite Shakespeare play, and there’s a line in that which just about sums up what I think every artist is trying to do. “To give to aery nothing a local habitation and name.” That’s what I try to do, anyway.’
Jack Holborn Puffin, 0 14 03.0318 9, 50p
Devil-in-the-Fog Kestrel, 0 7226 5089 2, £4.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.0353 7, 90p
Smith Kestrel, 0 7226 5090 6, £4.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.0349 9, 95p
Black Jack Kestrel, 0 7226 5092 2, £3.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.0489 4, 90p
Mister Corbett’s Ghost and Other Stories Kestrel, 0 7226 5091 4, £4.95 (Reissue August 1982) Puffin, 0 14 03.0510 6, 85p
The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris Kestrel, 0 7226 5095 7, £4.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.0671 4, 90p
The Ghost Downstairs Kestrel, 0 7226 5094 9, £4.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0788 5, 85p
The Sound of Coaches Puffin, 0 14 03.0961 6, 65p
The Prisoners of September Kestrel, 0 7226 5097 3, £3.50
The Pleasure Garden Kestrel, 0 7226 5098 1, £4.50 Peacock, 0 14 047.119 7, 70p
The Confidence Man Kestrel, 0 7226 5407 3, £4.50
Bostock and Harris Kestrel, 0 7226 5529 0, £4.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.1308 7, Winter 1982
John Diamond Kestrel, 0 7226 5619 X, £4.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.1366 4, 95p
The Apprentices series Heinemann, 11 titles available, £2.10 – £2.50
King Nimrod’s Tower Pictures by Michael Bragg, Methuen, 0 416 24410 6 about £3.95 (mid 1982)
Fair’s Fair Pictures by Margaret Chamberlain, Macdonald, 0 354 08126 8, £3.25
With Edward Blishen
The God Beneath the Sea Kestrel, 0 7226 5093 0, £5.50
The Golden Shadow Kestrel, 0 7226 5162 7, £4.50