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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Approaching Fifty part 4: Getting into research

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!

I wrote to Howard Baker at around the age of twelve to ask about his Magnet reprints. I had read some of the Billy Bunter novels — available at our little local library — but the Howard Baker reprints were completely different to anything I had seen before. They reprinted issues of the original Magnet storypaper from the 1920s and 1930s (sometimes earlier), including the back-up stories, which I often found as fascinating as the lead feature. One favourite was "The Sea Spider" by George E. Rochester, which was spread across three different volumes. Another Rochester story, "For the Glory of France!" appeared in a volume I bought at Clark's, the book shop, at the pocket-money stretching price of £3.50. The book was the fifth volume of Magnet reprints containing the complete Courtfield Cracksman series and was the only volume not available at Chelmsford Library. Since I was now attending school in town, I had access to the big library. My junior library ticket allowed me to get four books out at once, twice as many as our local library allowed. Not only that, but Clarks and Smiths both carried paperbacks in abundance and, on Thursdays, there was a second-hand market where you could pick up paperbacks for 10p and if you returned them you would get 5p back.

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.

A major influence in that direction was Mike Ashley. Everything I read of his seemed to contain quotes from people who were actually involved and hearing those first person stories — in his history of science fiction magazines, for instance — made the history that much more interesting as you were listening to someone who had actually lived it. Mike's books also had bibliographies and that led me to other books. And lists. I loved lists.

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.


  1. Great Stuff Steve - your personal reminiscences over the last few days have been fascinating. I know you don't have too much spare time these days but I really hope we don't have to wait until you're turning a hundred before seeing more of the same. (In fact I'd be happy to buy a whole book of these 'Confessions of a Serial Bibliophile'! :-}

  2. I'm one of the 100. Long may you brighten up my breakfasts.

  3. Bill Lofts and Derek Adley compiled the original and ground-breaking Rupert Bear Index in 1978. Their work lives on through John Beck, the secretary of the Followers of Rupert.

  4. Re: "...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..."

    Yes Steve, it does bring me joy. Long may you continue to do it.

    David Simpson

  5. Alastair Crompton12 Apr 2012, 14:11:00

    I too am one of your 100 regulars.
    Allow me to wish you many very happy returns

  6. I also get great joy from your blog. Happy birthday, Steve - and I'm looking forward to the arrival of your latest book!

  7. My thanks to everyone who has commented and sent kind words my way. I'll keep going for as long as I can.