Who Do You Think You Are (BBC TV) has a lot to answer for! It was this programme that inspired us to take out a six-month subscription to Ancestry.co.uk and compile as much of our joint family histories as we could in the time. Occasionally Ancestry has a free weekend, and there was one such from 17th-20th February, when I managed to partially solve two mysteries in my family - but will have to wait for the next free weekend to complete the task. My Uncle John flew flying boats in Coastal Command during the war - I have a treasured photo of him looking like one of my heroes from my 1950s boys' comics, and I wanted to find out more about his wartime exploits. This time, I didn't find anything, but I was able to find his birth record with some detective work, and discovered that he wasn't called John at all - he was, in fact Walter H Kimber. Armed with this new information, I can search for him next time...
All of my uncles on my mother's side entered the war - Uncle Leslie, who I just discovered was the baby of the family, the seventh of seven children to my Gran, was married to Aunt Grace; they lived in a road called Dinglewell, in Hucclecote, the next village along the road from mine: Brockworth. But her name didn't crop up anywhere in the records. Again, with a bit of detective work, I discovered that her real name was Laura Grace Warren, she was born in 1920, three years before Uncle Les, and while he died in 1979 aged just 55, she died in 1993, aged 72!
I cannot stress to the younger generations how desperately important it is for the youngest members of the family to ask questions about their ancestors while their mums, dads and grandparents are still alive. My sister Jean and I are the oldest surviving members of the Norman family - all of the uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents have gone, and we've inherited a box of old photographs of people we don't recognise, but who Mum would have been readily able to identify. This is why I've been writing my memoirs on this page - to give the youngsters something of our family history and the way we used to live. See you next month!
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How books changed my life... detective fiction...
I'm on record as saying that Endeavour (the Young Morse) is my absolute favourite of all the TV detectives, and that Stuart MacBride's Logan MacRae series is my favourite of all the written books about detectives, crime and the police. The reason I love Endeavour so much is because I was growing up when the events shown in the series were taking place. There are things I really don't want to remember from that period of my life (but which I can never forget), but on the whole it was a period of joy, mainly, of a happy childhood, loving parents and family members, wonderful schooldays and a love of books that began in the 1950s and continues to the present day. When all else fails, there will always be books. I have all of the Morse series on DVD: the complete Inspector Morse (a handsome 70th birthday gift from my children and my wife last year - we have so far watched three episodes, so plenty more to relish!); followed by the complete Lewis series - Kevin Whately remains one of my all-time favourite actors; and the acclaimed and superb Endeavour series - Series Four became available three weeks ago on DVD, and there will definitely be a fifth series, and I read somewhere that ITV had an option for at least a further three series after that - my cup runneth over! There are no Endeavour or Lewis books, of course (although a slightly different Lewis features in the Morse novels) - if there were, I would have them! I do have a complete set of the Morse novels, of course, and am happily re-reading them right now. There are one or two obscure references to the young Morse and his interaction with Max and Strange, but nothing of any significance. Morse's car in the earlier editions of the novels was a Lancia. In the later novels, and in the later editions of the novels. he drives a maroon Jaguar to tie in with the TV series. Of Lewis, we know very little from the books, because he began life, in Last Bus To Woodstock, as an older man (than the TV character) and with a very different background to the one played by the brilliant Kevin Whately.
If there were books featuring Young Morse or Robbie Lewis, they would undoubtedly be my favourites. No offence to Stuart MacBride - his Logan MacRae novels are absolutely unputdownable (ugly word but essential here) and the very best in the crime fiction genre as far as I'm concerned. I love putting fiction into genres, and it certainly helps me to create the pages you are now about to read in this month's issue. Looking back to the 1950s I can see that I was already hooked on at least three of these genres: crime fiction, science fiction (but not fantasy, I didn't discover that until much later), and romantic fiction (which in the pages of Books Monthly are housed on the Adult Fiction page). Before I started grammar school, where crime fiction was concerned, I was familiar with the works of Agatha Christie: I didn't particularly like Hercules Poirot; I had nothing against Belgians, didn't even really know who they were, but I preferred my detectives to be British, or rather English, because they were the inspiration for my preferred career choice (which remained with me right up until my life changed direction in 1963). I loved Lord Peter Whimsey, by Dorothy L Sayers, of course, but my absolute favourite was the Saint - Simon Templar. I suppose you could call Leslie Charteris's The Saint books crime novels - they certainly featured crime, and Chief Inspector Eustace Teal, although Simon Templar and his band of merry men were more like latter day Robin Hood figures. Superbly enjoyable, of course, and by the time I did start grammar school, I had a complete collection of Pan Saint books. And, of course, at that time, in 1957, Leslie Charteris was still writing new ones!
A not-too-serious rival for the Saint was John Creasey's the Toff, and, I suppose, the Baron. But Creasey's finest work, for me, out of the twenty-eight different noms-de-plumes used by him, was the Inspector West series. He also wrote the Gideon series, and Gideon and Inspector West were both hugely enjoyable and the latter was a very successful radio series while Gideon made it to the big screen in Gideon's Day. Pan Giants published The Saint and Inspector West - brilliant covers always afforded me such great pleasure - holding one of those books was like holding Aladdin's lamp for me- a way to explore other worlds, just by turning the pages! I never had complete sets of Inspector West or the Toff - they were never as good as the Saint, but worthy replacements if there was nothing else to read. Which brings me to Carter Dickson... Before the invention of television (we didn't get one until 1963, when we upped sticks and moved to Stevenage New Town - my Dad went along to the Rediffusion shop in the parade where our shop was, and hired one; one of the very first programmes I remember watching was Thunderbirds), or rather before we discovered the joys of television, we all read profusely. My Mum accidentally introduced me to Dennis Wheatley when she borrowed the latest black magic novel from the Alpha-Ro library: a man with a car packed with new books that she paid a few pence to borrow for a couple of weeks - these were books that were so new, the public library in the primary school didn't yet have them. There may be more reminiscences about Dennis Wheatley in a future article - but for now, back to crime. Mum read Dennis Wheatley and various other books that couldn't be classified into genres, or at least, it didn't occur to me to do so at the time! My Dad seemed to be obsessed with Aldous Huxley during this period - I remember he had a book containing two of Huxley's finest (I have never read him, I'm ashamed to say!): The Doors of Perception, and Heaven and Hell. His head was always in this book when there was nothing on the radio, on the Home, the Light, or the Third Programmes...
My sister Jean inadvertently introduced me to the Whiteoaks Saga by Mazo de la Roche. I was in her bedroom rifling through her books and comics, looking for something to read, and chanced upon a pink volume: Mary Whiteoak. Before long I was immersed in the wonderful world of Jalna and making up my mind that Canada would be the very first place I would visit when I was old enough to travel. It's a good job this was not a New Year's resolution - I have never been outside the British Isles, and now, at age seventy, I'm beginning to think I never will... once again, back to crime. In the 1950s I read anything and everything that came my way. In the comics that we had in the house (Lion and Tiger for me, Schoolfriend and Girls' Crystal for Jean), there were some detective and crime stories: Terry Brent in the Schoolfriend, The Spider in the Lion. Occasionally I got hold of a copy of the Eagle, and discovered the adventures of PC49. I had no idea that there were PC49 books, or I would have tried to add them to my collection! But I was going to start talking about Carter Dickson - I had no idea he was American until but recently! Like John Creasey, Carter Dickson was one of the many alternative writing names of John Dickson Carr. He didn't write as many novels as Creasey, who wrote almost as many as Enid Blyton! But he created the fantastic character of Sir Henry Merivale, whose adventures almost always included an impossible locked room mystery, which entertained me mightile, along with the brilliant exploits of Sherlock Holmes, and Sexton Blake.
On most school nights, and at weekends too, I would eschew the delights of BBC Radio and go to bed early so that I could read in bed. I did only enough homework to keep the teachers satisfied, and would read and read and read. Like I said, a complete set of Saint books were, at that time (1957-1958) my pride and joy; a couple of Agatha Christies, a few Inspector Wests, a couple of Carter Dicksons (green Penguins)... there was so much brilliant detective literature to be collected and read, and that did not take into account my reading through the Whiteoaks saga, the Georgette Heyer regency romances (my favourite romantic fiction!), the Jean Plaidy historical stories (no help whatsoever with my O Level history - always the wrong period!), and the comic strip adventures (Jet Ace Logan - that other genre of Science Fiction [but not yet fantasy] I had yet to discover!) I needed to keep abreast of, because the comics were weekly, they were packed with strips and text stories, and they were discussed at play times at school... Occasionally I would take time out to discover new writers in the crime fiction genre, such as Delano Ames, who managed to combine serious crime with schoolboy humour in the form of Jane and Dagobert Brown (how I longed to change my middle name to Dagobert!); Joan Butler, one of the aliases of writer Robert William Alexander, and whose comedic crime novels I discovered one day in the book sale on the ground floor of the Bon Marché store in Kings Square, Gloucester. It wasn't often I had enough money to buy a hardbacked book except from the Boots Lending Library in Eastgate, where there was a bench beneath the window on the upper floor where they piled up the books they were withdrawing from the lending library, and which they sold for 6d. But on the occasion of the Bon Marché sale, I happened to have enough money with me, on the way home from school, to buy a Joan Butler comedy crime mystery. Then there were the Bloodhound books. This was an imprint with a caricature of a bloodhound on the spine, and comprised mostly American crime stories - some were worth a look, but the gulf between our two countries was enormous in terms of culture in the 1950s. Sometimes I would borrow books from the library such as Fabian of the Yard, and this kind of memoir, along with the crime fiction that inspired me brought me to the conclusion that there was only one career open to me - to be a policeman. It never happened, unfortunately, but Oh! how I admired Constable Hutchinson's uniform as he wheeled his bicycle out of his garage from the house diagonally opposite ours in Brockworth, and pedalled his way to work. We went in awe of the police, always paid heed to what he told us, always kept out of trouble, because the long arm of the law was there to protect and guide you, to help and inform you - you didn't answer back, you had more respect for the village bobby than you did for anyone else (except your parents), and that way you got along just fine. Crime fiction in the 1950s wasn't real, we all knew that. I guess that Inspector West was the closest to real of all the authors I've mentioned above, and there is little doubt that modern crime fiction is as far removed from real life detecting as ever. But for me, it was inspirational and hugely enjoyable. Eventually I got to see TV shows like No Hiding place, featuring Chief Inspector Lockhart, and Dixon of Dock Green - but they were never as good as the books - nothing ever was in those days. It was my golden age of crime fiction, and I lapped it up like no other genre! Until... but that's enough for now - more next month!
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its twentieth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.