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7 – The Click of the Typewriter
"The click of the typewriter, like the voice of the turtle, was heard in the land – at something like its old speed!" wrote Charles Hamilton in his Autobiography (p190). "And all was calm and bright!"
Indeed, as the decade turned, Hamilton was as busy as ever. Some outlets were closing – the production of cheaply produced but relatively high-priced booklets popular in the immediate post-war years had given way to paperbacks and the rash of publishers who had sprung up immediately after VE Day had begun to dry up, including William Merrett, for whom Hamilton wrote the Sparshott series and other titles. Paper restrictions were eased in April 1950, which had an immediate effect on the publishing scene, allowing the major publishers – Amalgamated Press and D. C. Thomson – to begin switching their titles back to weekly publication, and newcomers to launch new titles, notably Hulton Press with Eagle. Too many titles were battling for youngsters’ pocket money and the failure of Hamilton’s Lynwood series to take off was symptomatic of changes taking place across the board in British publishing.
Hamilton, however, had plenty of work to do: "I was very much amused by your heading, ‘Frank Richards must possess the Elixir of Youth’, over my letter outlining the present programme," he wrote to Herbert Leckenby (18 January 1950). "Nine books and an annual per annum. But though this may sound rather an ambitious programme, it is as moonlight unto sunlight, as water unto wine, compared with pre-war production. In the Magnet alone there was a 30,000 word story weekly: which amounted in a year to a million and a half words, unless my arithmetic be seriously at fault: and that was double as much as a dozen books. So you see, my dear boy, that in reality Frank Richards is having a very easy time now; so much so that he was able to take six weeks off to write that little book of a different kind [Faith and Hope]. Now we are back in the old groove, and Martin Clifford has recently written "The Scapegrace of St. Jim’s", and Frank Richards has followed it up with "Billy Bunter’s Postal Order": and at the moment, Owen Conquest is getting busy on "The Rivals of Rookwood School", kindly sharing the typewriter with Charles Hamilton, who is writing a story of "King of the Islands" for the next annual – which, by the way, will be called "Tom Merry’s Own". Owen is in the planning stage, but waiting rather impatiently for Charles to have done with the machine!"
Hamilton’s nine-title schedule included three Bunter novels for Skilton, three Tom Merry novels for Mandeville and three other novels – the Rookwood mentioned above, a novel to feature Carcroft, and a third featuring the latest character to make their way out of Hamilton’s home at Rose Lawn and enter the wider world.
Jack Free was a character Hamilton had created during the war, planning and partly writing some books about his adventures which "he had long had in mind, but had never had time to write." (Autobiography, p182) Hamilton was extremely pleased with the deal had with Mandeville – "I was so pleased with Tom Merry’s Annual when I saw it that it made me feel a mere kid of sixty-nine or so!" he wrote to Herbert Leckenby (Letter, 6 October 1949) – and offered the new character to Mandeville’s editor, Raymond Richards, for publication early in 1950.
Jack was a typically Hamiltonian waif – a "nobody" who could slip into adventures anywhere Hamilton fancied, through any new friends or situations that Hamilton cared to dream up. To keep Jack independent, he was an orphan, older than the average Removite, and always on the move. Another major difference was that Jack’s adventures were intended to be part of a larger picture – an ongoing series of novels, as Hamilton explained to Herbert Leckenby (Letter, 9 September 1950): "the fact is that the "Jack of All Trades" series is somewhat in the nature of an experiment. In the old days of the Magnet a vast majority of readers plumped for the "series" which practically amounted to a serial: a dozen or so numbers being filled to make the story complete. Frank Richards had the bright idea – as he deemed it – of a series of books on the same lines: the story developing from book to book instead of from number to number as in the old Magnet. Each book will give a defining section of Jack’s career; but the main theme will be carried on from one volume to another. I have had this idea in mind for many years; and I think I have mentioned it before, some time or other; I don’t think it had ever been done before, but why not a new departure sometimes?"
By the time the first novel appeared in July 1950, Hamilton had already written four more novels about him, and his hope was that the character would take off: "I just love him myself, and should like to be writing a book about him every month," admitted Hamilton (Letter to Jimmy Iraldi, 2 October 1950). "But I fear that my readers, kind as they are, would pronounce that to be a little too much of a good thing! The second volume is scheduled for April next year, and I wouldn’t send the cash for it yet, for there are limitless delays in these uncertain times, and it may be late."
Indeed, the latefulness, as Hurree Singh might have said, was terrific. Of the ten books due in 1950, only just over half appeared (two Billy Bunters, two Tom Merrys plus the annual, and the Jack Free). Hamilton’s frustration was evident in many letters, and comments to an American correspondent about penetrating "the biggest and best market in the world, the United States," may have been on his mind when he approached Mandeville with Jack Free. His other books would not easily translate: "the school systems are so different, that a Greyfriars story would be very unlikely to appeal to the young American. But … I have thought of suggesting to the publishers to make a move in that direction with "Jack". I needn’t say how tremendously pleased I should be to have American readers … If it wouldn’t be a lot of trouble, could you send me one or two copies of boys’ papers circulating in New York? I have not seen anything of such publications for a good many years now, and am rather curious to know what American youth is reading. I have heard that "Hopalong Cassidy" is very popular now." (Letter to Jimmy Iraldi, 2 October 1950)
While Hamilton was easily able to complete a 60,000 word novel each month, continuing supply problems were keeping Hamilton’s books off the shelves, so that by the following spring – when the second Jack Free novel was to appear, Hamilton was writing: "Poor ‘Jack’ is relegated to the dubious future, and Rookwood and Carcroft remain on the knees of the gods. If this goes on I think I shall chuck writing, and carry out my original intention – formed in 1880 – of going to sea!" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 24 April 1951)
The paper shortage had set in again, as severe as it had ever been. "I hoped we had done with it! What a hope!" Hamilton complained to Herbert Leckenby. The smaller, newer companies who were limited to a quota were hit particularly hard and changes were seemingly afoot at Mandeville. Despite their expanding plans, their actual output of novels (which also included titles by J. Radford Evans, Geoffrey Webb and Hereward Ohlson) had been staggered throughout 1950, and the company had changed both publishing and trade addresses by May 1951 – probably the result of being sold (hence Jack’s "dubious future"). Editorial control seems to have been handed over to A. E. Gerrard (although Raymond Richards may have continued his involvement as a director of Wakefield & Richards who operated out of the same new address), but the handful of novels that appeared in the latter half of 1951 were those already completed by Hamilton over a year earlier for publication in 1950. Mandeville’s last novel – the long-awaited The Rivals of Rookwood School by Owen Conquest – was published in September 1951 alongside the latest volume of Tom Merry’s Own and the latest Tom Merry novel, Talbot’s Secret. They continued to publish the popular Tom Merry’s Own annual until September 1954, and their name continued to appear in trade journals at their address at 45 Great Russell Street until 1957, although they had actually left that address by early 1955.
The letter to Jimmy Iraldi asking about the state of American juvenile publishing highlights the interest Hamilton had in expanding his horizons, especially at a time when the horizon for British publishing was so close, but also highlights another aspect of Hamilton’s work around this period – his close ties to his fans.
Herbert Leckenby’s Collectors’ Digest entered the new decade as a healthy three-year-old, now firmly established as a journal of some learning, with articles and commentary on a wide range of boys’ papers and characters, but already the focus starting to coalesce in three main areas: Sexton Blake, St. Frank’s and Hamiltonia. The latter was Leckenby’s particular interest (the other two section were edited by H. Maurice Bond and Bob Blythe respectively), and included a regular letter from Frank Richards keeping his fans up-to-date with all the latest news and, increasingly, with comments on the latest articles to appear in the magazine. Hamilton also used articles and correspondence to see which characters might be worth bringing into the spotlight, and correspondents became a sounding board for ideas. A show of popularity for Wibley, the young actor of Greyfriars, led to his reappearance in Billy Bunter’s Benefit, for instance; and letters asking for an appearance from Talbot in the Tom Merry books led Hamilton to respond "I am featuring this character in the book which will be published in September" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 11 March 1950) – the book was Talbot’s Secret published a year late in September 1951.
The system also worked when it came to negative criticism: "I was very interested in the question ‘Why Always Bunter?’ in your article on page 205," Hamilton wrote to Leckenby (Letter, 15 July 1950). "By a coincidence, it happens that in the ‘Bunter Book’ I am now writing, for publication next year, our fat old friend takes rather a back seat, and Harry Wharton has very nearly all the limelight. Just for once B.B. is little more than an ‘also ran’."
Hamilton was also aware that he needed to keep his eggs in many baskets, especially with many of his recent publishers falling by the way – including Cheshire-based J. B. Allen and, it was looking more likely, Mandeville Publications, which was his main outlet.
Hamilton even began building bridges with the Amalgamated Press, who had been the target of his anger for ten years, ever since the departure of The Magnet. That ire had gradually disappeared as first they had allowed Hamilton to revive Billy Bunter and later gave him free reign to his pen-names and other characters. They had, throughout this whole period, been paying Hamilton a £5 honorarium for use of Billy Bunter in comic strip form in Knock-Out – drawn for many years by Frank Minnitt – and had, in 1949, taken over the publication of Comet from J. B. Allen. In issue 85 (17 December 1949), editor Edward Holmes had begun reprinting ("disinterred and cut to pieces to make it fit") Greyfriars stories, to Hamilton’s disinterest. That interest changed in March 1950 when he was asked to write new stories featuring Bunter & Co., telling Leckenby "I don’t like these old relics, especially in such a fragmentary state, so for that and other reasons I was glad to undertake the new series. To be quite frank, I rather pine for Greyfriars, and two or three Bunter books a year don’t fill the aching void. Anyhow I am quite enjoying writing the new series, and I expect the first story, "Billy Bunter’s Tea Party", will be appearing before long, to be followed by "Stumped" and "Bunter Borrows a Bike", and so on ad lib. They are quite short stories: but writing them has made me feel that I should like to be writing the old Magnet again." (Letter, 8 April 1950) These weekly stories began in issue 97 (27 May 1950) and continued to appear until issue 135 (17 February 1951). That spring, Hamilton also wrote a Bunter story for the Knock-Out Fun Book and Hamilton commented "What with writing Greyfriars again, and this glorious weather, Frank Richards is feeling as if the Time Machine had carried him back a quarter of a century or so, leaving him a mere kid of fifty!" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 9 May 1950)
Bunter, in fact, was still as widely known as ever despite his seven year hiatus and his name appeared regularly in newspapers around the country whether it was through interviews with members of various Old Boys’ Book Clubs or as clues in cross-words (even if occasionally the clues offered were wrong – as in the Radio Times’ "Jolly Tom of Greyfriars", 5 letters). Bunter even made it as far as the pages of Clinical Excerpts in "A Feast of Fat Things" – an article about obesity through the ages.
Towards the end of the year, Hamilton was concentrating on revising his Autobiography. As discussed in Chapter Two, the original Autobiography written during the War while Hamilton had an axe to grind was a very different book to the revised version written by the Hamilton who was enjoying writing Greyfriars anew. There was still the occasional glitch, and many projects were "as the poet has remarked, ‘full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air’. I wonder whether the time will ever come when we shall be able to forget that dismal word ‘shortage’." Hamilton kept himself entertained by creating a card game called "The Bunter Game" with the Bunter card played somewhat like the Joker. "I have a rather vague idea of getting it out for Christmas: but in present conditions it doesn’t seem very probable." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 7 February 1951)
The card game may have come to nothing, but Hamilton had another project in the pipeline which was to come to fruition. First alluded to in newspaper reports in early 1951, Hamilton wrote in June: "I see from your not that you have seen the allusions in the Press to Bunter on TV. This seems now to be taking definite shape, and I hope to have some news for you on the subject before long. There are many details to be worked out. But it does seem settled now that ere long a familiar fat face, adorned by a big pair of spectacles, will be peering from the TV screen – to the satisfaction, I shall hope, of viewers old and young." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 7 June 1951)
© 2001, Steve Holland
Last Updated: 19 October 2001
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