SNIPPETS: A SEXTON BLAKE SCRAPBOOK
Compiled by Mark Hodder
Items of information, extracts, obituaries, reminiscences and comments that don't fit anywhere else on Blakiana.
The Daily Express of April 2nd 1953 carried a report concerning Alfred Denville, a veteran actor and ex-M.P. who, upon meeting the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, informed him that a man he had met on the train spent the whole journey reading a bundle of comics. "Nothing odd about that!" said Mr. Baldwin, "My favourite reading is Sexton Blake!" ... and he pulled an issue from his pocket. Nice to know that Blake had fans in high places!
The following tale was reported by Ernest L McKeag, an editor at Amalgamated Press, to W.O.G. Lofts, and published in GOLDEN HOURS volume 1 issue 5, June 1962:
Friday was the day the freelance authors came in with their copy and their requests for specials, for they seemed to get through their money even more quickly than the staff men did. The result was that Friday nights, when everyone had drawn their salaries and their 'specials' — was indeed a 'balmy' night. Everyone, staff men and freelances alike, congregated in the various Fleet Street taverns and the landlords soon found their tills denuded of ready cash and filled instead with cheques — for A.P. cheques were rightly looked upon by publicans as 'as good as gold'.
It was sometimes a bit of a struggle to get a story finished in time for Friday morning — the deadline for payment — and there is the well-known story told of Gwyn Evans turning up one Friday morning with a 50,000 word Sexton Blake story for Leonard Pratt, who was editing the "Sexton Blake" Library at that time.
"Pratty" glanced through the first few pages, said it was good stuff, and put through a 'special' for Gwyn. It was not until Monday morning, when the editor came to read the manuscript thoroughly that he discovered it consisted only of a dozen or so new pages — to which had been attached the carbon copy of a previous story to make up the bulk.
"Pratty" was breathing fire and slaughter when the door opened and Gwyn came into the room.
"Awfully sorry about that manuscript'', he explained. "I fastened the wrong copy to it by mistake. Here's the correct copy."
Gwyn had, of course, dictated the story and had it typed over the weekend. In the meantime he'd had his cheque a week in advance. But it was a very good story — all Gwyn's stories were; there was no swindle and everybody was happy.
Gwyn was invariably hard-up by the middle of the week, for when he had money he was never happy until he had got rid of it especially when he left the firm and went out freelancing, as so many authors did in the twenties. Gwyn lived in Chelsea and wherever he went he was invariably followed by a crowd of what we would now call 'beatniks' who talked a lot about "art" but who were quite content to live on Gwyn's open-handed generosity.
Gwyn, beloved of 'old guard' Sexton Blake readers, did not have a very long life, but he certainly had a gay one. He would have lived longer if he had taken more care of himself but he had a rooted objection to going to doctors so even when it was obvious to some of us that he was suffering badly from ulcers.
When eventually he had to go to a doctor, it was too late; and when I went to pay my last respects to him at Golders Green crematorium I could not help but notice that his Chelsea beatnik 'friends' were conspicuous by their absence.
Irritation Corner by Vic Colby
Here's Mike Moorcock on CARIBBEAN CRISIS, Stephen 'Hank Janson' Frances and W. Howard Baker:
Caribbean Crisis, I should point out, was published long after I'd left SBL, so that's no doubt why I never came across Steve [Frances] while at SBL (apart from a couple of social occasions which happened to coincide). Jim Stagg was certainly an SBL regular (indeed a Fleetway regular who, if I'm remembering right, also did some post-Steve Frances Jansons). Usually Desmond Reid was put on a book which Bill had doctored himself (sometimes doing little more than change a few sentences, enough to justify paying the author less and himself more!) so it could have been anyone. Generally Desmond Reid didn't turn up as a regular but as a one-off (as was mine). I thought Richard Williams was another name used for what are these days called fixer uppers — again, books which Bill would decide were substandard and then 'rewrite'. Frequently this rewriting would consist of little more than getting his regular typist to retype the manuscript though in my case, of course, he changed the entire political bias from pro-Castro to anti-Castro! We always were on opposite sides of the political fence, though I think it was Bill who had decided I was a Communist (which I never was) largely no doubt because I didn't approve of his belonging to the Union Movement (in its earlier incarnation the British Union of Fascists) and was part of a group trying to get what became the Race Relations Act into law! For all my dislike of his politics and my disapproval of his editorial morals, I continued to like Bill and had a very large soft spot for him right to the end (when he had been conning Jack Story and Jack's ex-wife Ross in exactly the same way he had on SBL — Jack felt the same as I did!). I agree, by the way, that for all his bad spelling and grammar Steve really could come up with some nifty plotting. Don't want you to think I was belittling him, either. After all, there wouldn't have been a New Worlds without him, when he was working for Pendulum Publications.
The Daily Telegraph's obituary for W.O.G. Lofts from July 12th, 1997:
Expert on Sexton Blake and The Saint
BILL LOFTS, who has died aged 73, admired popular writers such as Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris and Frank Richards and compiled bibliographies of their stories.
His interest in this kind of fiction was first aroused while he was a prisoner in Burma during the Second World War. The only relief from his Japanese captors was a battered volume he had found from the Sexton Blake Library.
The experience left Lofts with a lifelong love of the character — a more physical rival to Sherlock Holmes — who had made his debut in The Halfpenny Marvel in 1893.
Most of Sexton Blake's numerous subsequent adventures were written under pseudonyms. After the war, Lofts tracked down the identity of each contributor. One of his biggest surprises came when Brian O'Nolan (who wrote novels as Flann O'Brien and a column in the Irish Times as Myles na Gopaleen) once admitted to him that he had written "one or two" Sexton Blake stories in the 1950s, but could not remember which ones.
William Oliver Guillemont Lofts was born at Marylebone, London, on Sept 2 1923. On leaving school he joined the Zenith Carburettor Company as an engineer, where, apart from his war service, he remained until 1968, when he became the official researcher for Fleetway House. This was the successor to Amalgamated Press, one of the principal publishers of boys' comics.
After completing his work on Sexton Blake, Lofts turned his attention to British boys' papers, among them The Gem, Detective Weekly, The Hotspur and The Thriller. In the 1950s and 1960s Lofts wrote many articles for The Collector's Digest, the journal of the London Old Boys' Book Club.
These brought him into contact with a fellow enthusiast, Derek Adley, and the two collaborated until Adley's death in 1991. It was Adley who collated their research, being the more organised of the pair, while Lofts worked doggedly through the stacks in publishers' archives and the British Library newspaper collection.
One of Lofts's coups was the discovery of Man Overboard, a long-forgotten story written by Winston Churchill in 1899.
Lofts's and Adley's output included the standard British Bibliography of Edgar Wallace (1969) and The World of Frank Richards (1975), a study of the inventor of Billy Bunter.
They compiled an encyclopaedic guide to 2,000 writers of juvenile entertainment, The Men Behind Boys' Fiction (1970) and wrote a combined biography and bibliography, The Saint and Leslie Charteris (1971). The book that gave Lofts most pleasure to research was a list of all Rupert Bear stories, The New Rupert Index (1979).
Lofts lived in a small flat in north London, crammed from floor to ceiling with what was thought to be the world's largest private collection of juvenile fiction.
He was unfailingly generous with his time and expertise, although he tested patience with his unswerving allegiance to a decrepit manual typewriter and his steadfast refusal to install a telephone.
Lofts left unfinished a bibliography of Enid Blyton.
He never married.
Leon Kestrel by Vic Colby
A rambling set of reminiscences from W.O.G. Lofts:
I was told from a most reliable source that Charles Hamilton actually sold the copyright of his famous schoolboy characters to the Amalgamated Press for £3,000. This gave them the right to commission other writers to write tales about his famous schools. Dr. H. M. Staniforth, better known to us as Maxwell Scott, the creator of Nelson Lee, confesses in his diary that when the Nelson Lee Library started in 1915, he sold the copyright of this detective for as little as £50.
SEXTON BLAKE, easily the greatest moneyspinner the now new-named Fleetway Publications has ever had, and who obviously took a great part in building up this mighty publishing firm, was bought for only £9.9.0 And this included the payment for the first story as well!
It was my privilege to meet Mr. Harry Blyth, the son of the creator of Sexton Blake a few years ago, and glean the real inside story of how this famous detective character was created. His father who had died as far back as 1898, wrote the first story of Blake in 1893 and so did not, unfortunately, live very long to see how really famous his creation became.
Harry Blyth Junior (I call him that though with due respect if still alive, he would be in his eighties!) seemed rather peeved at the time I met him, that there was never any acknowledgment anywhere to the actual creator of a detective whose name was a household word — but this has certainly been rectified in recent years. Especially so, in the modern Sexton Blake Library, where the very first Blake yarn was reproduced.
I have always been interested as to whether there has ever been a live person with the name of Sexton Blake. Blake is quite a common surname in England, but never to my knowledge has the name of Sexton been used as a Christian name. A few years ago however, it was reported in a local British paper, that a man of the name of Sexton Blake had been brought to court and charged with speeding. After being found guilty, and fined, the Judge remarked rather dryly to the defendant "It’s a great pity that you don't live up to the reputation of your namesake." Also about the same period a reader wrote to the English 'Daily Telegraph' when correspondence was on the popularity of Sherlock Holmes and Sexton Blake, to the fact that there was once a man who had the latter name working as a chief collector of taxes in the London area. Despite a search by myself in the records of that period, I could find no trace of any such person of that name, so this reader's letter must be taken with a pinch of salt.
In closing my remarks on this subject, I feel that it is worth repeating a very amusing story related to me by the son of Charles Henry St. John Cooper some time ago. Henry St. John, the name under which he wrote for a great number of years in the early days of boys fiction, did, in fact, write a large number of Sexton Blake stories for the pink Union Jack. This was in the period when, for some reason or other, no authors names were given to to the stories. So this confirms a theory that Henry St. John did write a number of tales as suggested by Walter Webb in the "Collectors Digest”.
W. H. Back, the then editor of the U. J. (about 1910) used to send Henry St. John an illustration of some incident which was to be used on the front cover. St. John then had to write a Sexton Blake story incorporating the portrayed incident in his yarn. One day the son, who related this story to me, went with his father to a parish church not far from where they lived to attend a christening (The son was only a small boy at this time). The vicar was of the very fussy type, who fully believed in calling all his church servants and congregation by their respective occupational names, instead of Christian names followed by their surnames. "I want you to meet Farmer Brown," — "Meet Bellringer Smith" — he would say, as examples to the reader. After several introductions to Henry St. John of church servants attending the christening, he came to the Sexton of the Graveyard, and said to St. John "I want you to meet Sexton Blake." Young St. John nearly fell down with astonishment when he heard this. Knowing that his father wrote about the character, he never dreamed that he would meet the great Sexton Blake in person. For the rest of the proceedings young St. John looked on the Sexton with awe, until afterwards his father was able to explain that just by sheer chance the Sexton's name happened to be Blake.
Two of the greatest Blake writers of all time were G. H. Teed and Gwyn Evans. If ever any of you Australian enthusiasts visit England, and wish to pay homage to them at their graves, I'm afraid that you are in for a big disappointment. Their graves do not exist for the simple reason that both were cremated, strangely enough both around the same time.
Both had very good family backgrounds — Teed's family owned a big sawmills concern, and he actually went to the famous McGill University in Canada. Teed was given about £3,000 in 1910 to make his own way in the World. He went to Australia and started a sheep station. Unfortunately for him, there was a big drought that year, and he lost everything. A chance meeting with the widow of Michael Storm on the boat coming over to England set him up as one of the greatest Blake writers.
Evans also came from a most well-to-do family. His father, who was a priest, was a great friend of the famous Lloyd George (later to become Prime Minister of England) and Lloyd George used his great influence to give Gwyn every chance in life, which for some reason he declined, and though a successful Blake writer, died penniless at an early age in 1939.
It is practically impossible for one to give an authentic account of the early life of Tinker as there were so many variations by different authors, but I can certainly give an authentic account of how Tinker came to be called Edward Carter — from a very good friend of mine, John Hunter — the well known Blake writer.
Here is Mr. Hunter's statement in full — "Regarding our Mr. Carter, I originally used the name as a nom-de-guerre to cover Tinker's identity when staying at hotels in 'enemy territory'. The original Tinker was what, in those days, was called a street arab — a ragged little boy with no shoes and stockings. Hence the name. But there aren't swarms of barefooted ragged children running our streets these days, as there were half a century ago and thus the original Tinker would be a grotesque unreality in these days. Tinker has become a snappy young man with intelligence and guts and a sports car, and while he still can be called Tinker as a term of intimacy and affection, you can't visualise him registering at a hotel boldly as 'Tinker', or meeting folk and being introduced under that name. Keeping up to date, I thought he might as well have a name.
There have been three Australian Blake writers — the best known, Coutts Brisbane — real name R. Coutts Armour — who also wrote at times as Reid Whitley. Two others as yet have never been revealed, but both have written under the editorial pen-name of Desmond Reid — Brian McArdle, who originally wrote FLASHPOINT FOR TREASON, whilst the other is Noel Brown who hails from Sydney.
In closing I feel I ought to pay some tribute to the very popular editor of the Sexton Blake. Library — William Howard Baker. It is almost impossible for one to compute the help and assistance given to me at times by him in contacting old authors and editors in quest for information on the old papers. He has certainly made a very good job in keeping the SBL alive when all seemed lost in 1956, and the present circulation is very healthy indeed.
What of the present day authors? How do they compare with those of yesterday? With different types of writing, a job to tell, but the popularity of them I would rate as follows:
1. Peter Saxon (W. Howard Baker)
2. Trevor Story
3. Arthur Maclean
4. James Stagg
5. Arthur Kent (who incidentally has only one arm and still types his stories)
6. Thomas Martin
7. Edwin Harrison
8. Rex Dolphin
9. Jonathan Burke
Rex Hardinge stories are not included, as they are rehashes of old yarns and not original, much to the dismay of older readers who expected fresh stories of Africa from his pen.
The Story Behind the Cover Illustration by W.O.G. Lofts
The film "A Terrible Beauty" had not long been completed in Ireland, when Dan O'Herlihy, who had co-starred with Robert Mitchum in this production about the I.R.A., came over to London to see me for a short visit before returning to his home in California.
One evening found me in company with Dan, Mr. W. Howard Baker editor of the S.B.L. and Eric Parker the well-known artist. We all gathered enjoying a social get together in one of Fleet Street's famous taverns and during the course of the evening, many kinds of topics were discussed, in the main connected with events in our hobby and artists and authors of the present and days gone by. When the conversation was on the subject of Sexton Blake, I asked Eric Parker if he had modelled his Sexton Blake on any particular person, as to my mind the characteristics were very similar to a former editor of the "Union Jack", Mr. H. W. Twyman, whom I had met quite a few times in recent years.
"Nothing of the kind," replied Eric. "The Sexton Blake that I created was completely drawn out of my own imagination, and in my opinion It does not resemble Twyman at all."
"Here, let me show you," Eric went on, and proceeded with pencil and paper on the counter of the saloon bar, to show me the different characteristics in the two faces, between Mr. Twyman and Sexton Blake. I am not an artist, but I could see, after his technical explanations, some vast differences that I had not appreciated before.
That was how the cover sketch came to be drawn. In closing, I would like to add that collectors who have the Canadian "Story Paper Collector" No.65 can see an amazing likeness to the cover sketch in the picture of Mr. Twyman as shown in a group in the centre pages. When I also add that, to the best of my knowledge, Eric Parker has not seen Mr. Twyman for over 25 years, it speaks volumes for his memory and ability in remembering features so well.
Critics of Eric Parker's work in the past, have, perhaps quite rightly, assumed that he could not draw faces, as most of his characters have the same hatchet type of look. Now, with the evidence of the cover sketch, plus a wonderful group drawing in the S.B.L. last year (I don't think readers appreciate how much Mr. Baker works to please the old fans) perhaps even E.R.P.'s sternest critics will acknowledge the fact that he can draw a face!
Read The Heading and Skip the Chapter by Vic Colby
William Murray Graydon was a real stalwart in the early Blake days, so far be it from me to say anything unkind about this amazingly prolific author, who must have had a large and appreciative following. However. I feel he would take in good part my gentle raillery, knowing that I admire and respect his memory although I chuckle softly at his old-world style.
One feature, which distinguished W. M. Graydon's stories, was his long chapter headings, some of those occupying a rich depth of print!
One glance at a Graydon story was sufficient for identification purposes. Those long chapter headings left no room for doubt that here was another of those poignant romance-cum detective stories featuring distressed maidens and oppressed innocents.
Do not imagine, however, that his stories were rapid things. W. M. Graydon made Sexton Blake endure the perils of Petrograd, made him shiver In Siberia, and cross swords with the Belgian Rubber Slaves in the Belgian Congo on behalf of the enslaved and grossly maltreated blacks. Stirring stuff, this, spoiled only by Blake's lack of self-confidence. When the going was tough, Blake would ask plaintively "Is there no hope for us?" Having then answered his own question by groaning "We are lost!", he would fly into the fray with the heart and courage of a lion and promptly reverse the situation!
Getting back to those chapter headings, how do you like this one found at the beginning of Chapter 4 Sexton Blake Library 1st series 1,228?
"News for Blake — The House In Tooley St. — An Interview with the Landlady — The clue of the Slipper — Pedro on the Trial — The House in Nightingale Lane — Basil Wicketshaw Discovers his Pursuers — A Dash for Freedom — Wicketshaw's Daring Escape — The Lost Scene — Back to Cable Cottage — A Talk with Ben Shaldon — The Problem of Robert Mortimer — Kathleen Returns — Blake has a Baffling Mystery to Solve"
Eleven lines of print, and 65 words! Some Chapter Heading! One certainly knows in advance what is going to happen in the chapter but surely this robs the story of the element of surprise and suspense!
Never mind, one can always read the headings and skip the chapters!
The ever-excellent Michael Moorcock on Jack Trevor Story: