On writers: Leon Garfield

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be republishing on my blog a number of articles I’ve written over the years, about writers, especially writers for young people, whose work I’ve loved and been inspired by, both as a child and into adulthood. These articles have been first published in a number of different places. The first of these I’m republishing, is on Leon Garfield and first appeared in Magpies Magazine some years ago.

leon_garfield black_jackLeon Garfield,

By Sophie Masson

I remember the first time I met Leon Garfield’s work. It was a Friday afternoon, I was about twelve or thirteen, and I was looking for something juicy to read at the local library for the weekend. The Garners I’d wanted were out; but browsing idly on the same shelf, I came across a title that looked good. Black Jack. By Leon Garfield. The cover was evocatively spooky, the blurb tasty, and as I ever judged books by their covers and blurbs at that age–I was willing to give it a go.
From the first sardonic, intriguing sentences, I was hooked:

There are many queer ways of earning a living; but none so quaint as Mrs Gorgandy’s. She was a Tyburn widow. Early and black on a Monday morning, she was up at the Tree, all in a tragical flutter, waiting to be bereaved.

Flung headlong into the strange, funny, terrifying, vivid world of seedy 18th century London from those first sentences, I could not put the book down all that night, even after stern paternal injunctions to turn the light off, this instant! I begged Mum to take me back to the library on Saturday, and snapped up Devil in the Fog, the only other Garfield that hadn’t been taken out, and read it too within a few hours, heart racing. As soon as I got back to school on Monday, I went to look in the library, to see if there were any other books by this extraordinary author. In the space of a few weeks, I managed to gobble up Jack Holborn, and Smith, and Mr Corbett’s Ghost, and The Drummer Boy, and The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris. And then started again, with Black Jack, which even to this day remains my absolute favourite. I think that I must have read some of Garfield’s books five or six times over those years, and pounced on any new ones that came into the library.
Brought up on the strong meat of 19th century French picaresque adventure novels, I had taken to Garfield like a duck to water, amazed and delighted and whirled along with the inventive plots, wild casts of always believable though larger than life characters, skeins of mystery to unravel, bloodthirstiness and gruesomeness yet also humour, and the glorious language. Though his main characters were nearly always children or young people, they were never hived off into separation from the adult world; this is the opposite of the cosy boarding-school bubble. No; they had to fight, love, hold their own somehow in a harsh yet not completely unloving adult world, a world of tragedy and villainy, yet also compassion and joy and humour. The books, with their evocative illustrations by Anthony Maitland, became an indispensable part not only of my reading life, but of my writing life too, later.

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