Some final random jottings inspired by my approaching fiftieth birthday.
My fascination with research developed out of the early good experiences I had with my contact with writers and other researchers. If you go right back to the earliest contact I had with an author, that would be Malcolm Saville around 1971-72, when I was nine or so. I was a member of the Lone Pine Club around that time and ordered a signed copy of Where's My Girl? when it was released in 1972.
What prompted me to write to Saville was that I could not get hold of a copy of The Secret of Grey Walls, one of his Lone Pine novels. I wrote to Saville suggesting that he should reprint the book and, lo and behold, Collins put out a hardback edition in 1972.
Now, I'm not suggesting for a minute that the appearance of the book was a direct result of my letter to Saville but that's what it felt like. Come on... I was nine!
But back to writing to Howard Baker. I don't have the reply any more, but I do remember writing a series of questions, not just one. All I can remember now is that one of the questions was whether The Gem was another paper like The Magnet.
I got into the habit of writing to people fairly early and those early experiences of getting friendly replies only encouraged me to write to more people. When it came to doing the school project I described yesterday, it seemed only natural to write to anyone I could find an address for.
The other big influence was Bill Lofts. I'm not sure why I wrote to Bill, although it may well have been to discover the connections between authors active in the 1950s that I was growing interested in and Bill's great love, Sexton Blake. We corresponded heavily for years, but it was some while before I realised that I had heard from Bill years before. A scribbled note up the side of one of his letters was instantly recognisable as the same hand who had replied to my letter to Howard Baker. Bill's handwriting was unmistakable... and almost unreadable. In later years I transcribed a couple of things for him and occasionally had to leave gaps where his handwriting was so illegible it was incomprehensible.
We would occasionally meet up at a department store in Oxford Street and chat about some of the authors and collectors he had met. Bill and I collaborated on an article for The Book and Magazine Collector
which was my first paid feature. More importantly, he talked about some
of the nuts and bolts of doing research, like going to Somerset House
to find birth, marriage and death information, or Companies House to try
and find information about publishers.
In research you often find yourself travelling over the same ground time and time again, looking for a crack in the armour of some mystery. I find myself returning time and time again to certain authors to see what else can be discovered about them. My latest book, Gwyn Evans: The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet, is the result of revisiting an author I first wrote about a decade ago. Bear Alley was started so that I could share bits of research with anyone who might find it of interest. The beauty of the blog format is that I don't have to have the whole story; on more than one occasion I've admitted defeat with research and there's even an irregular feature here called "mysteries that have me mystified" for just such occasions.
I have a broad interest in what I consider literature for the masses — story papers, magazines, paperback originals. For years these areas were like a newly discovered country with only a handful of us traipsing around wondering what we would find. Twenty or so years ago, there was a growth in academic interest in what was dubbed "trash aesthetics". I was rather pleased to see that my books and articles were often cited, not because I had a desire to see my name in print (I've seen it so often it doesn't fill me with quite so much excitement these days) but because it means someone has read something I've written and found something of interest in it.
Bear Alley continues to exist for the same reason. OK, so we don't get the traffic of Craig's List but it's comforting to know that over 100 people return to these pages every day to find out what has been posted. And another 700-800 drop by on a daily basis, some of them newcomers who have stumbled onto the site after Googling something they have been researching themselves. Knowing that people actually read these posts keeps me going. Getting feedback is always exciting. Sending people off via links, usually to somewhere like Amazon, to find books they might enjoy... that's also exciting. Bringing lost comic strips to light or compiling little galleries of paperback covers is a joy to me. I hope it brings you some joy, too.