Gordon Williams 1934-2017: A Life in Books

Gordon Williams was a jack of all trades and a master of some. Will his reputation survive his death?

Did he have one in his lifetime – is a better question. He was a journalist, an admired literary writer (Booker short-listed), a successful hack writer (9 days to write his most famous book), a children’s author (Micronauts) and a scriptwriter, a tv presenter (fired) and an originator of a tv series and a writer of film adaptations ( The Duellists).

He rubbed shoulders with most of the literary scene and traded punches with a few of them. In the 1960s he was one of a  handful of authors actually paid to write books full time.  Several of his books were optioned – and two made it into movies.

So — part of the professional literary establishment then, but without ever really being in it.  True he worked alongside Tom Stoppard for a while (on Peter Cook’s short-lived SCENE magazine ) and went head to head with Iris Murdoch for the first Booker prize (guess who won?)* but he was (more than) equally at home working with Bobby Moore (autobiography) or Terry Venables (Hazel series) or handling PR for Acker Bilk while dishing out advice to a very young Andrew Loog Oldham.

There is no readily discernible arc to Williams’ life story. No young meteor blazing a predictable trail through the literary heavens. It’s more a firework display…. flashes of illumination with no easy way to know what his next flash of inspiration would reveal or where it would come from. Until you remember he was a journalist, with a voracious not to say a ferocious eye for detail. And once you know where he was grounded, where his journalistic instincts were unleashed, then the confusing medley of Williams output starts to make sense.

Yes, as a lad he helped out on a farm in post-war rural Ayrshire (From Scene Like These), was stationed in Germany under a deranged martinet commander (The Camp), worked as a local journalist (The Upper Pleasure Gardens), and was a denizen of the back streets of Soho in the late 1960s (Big Morning Blues). Most of the events in Big Morning Blues actually happened (though not to him). And Walk Don’t Walk was about an author’s book-selling tour of America . Even Straw Dogs (of which more later) and The Duellists benefited from his journalist instincts.  Brought in for the latter to write the book of the film he asked a basic journo’s question nobody seemed able to answer ‘Why are they duelling?’.

His very first book: The Last Day of Lincoln Charles was about a US airman who went berserk and ended up getting gunned down on Broadstairs beach. Improbable, but like so much of Williams’ work, actually true.

Williams later work includes the very polished Pomeroy about a raffish US special agent in La Belle Epoque London of the early 20th century. It has a lot going for it, apart from sales. Maybe if Gordon Williams had actually lived in that era.. .

The other late work of interest is Straw Dogs II: the revenge. Williams had the concept, the twists and the plotting  all sorted. In his head. It was an obvious sequel, with the strong possibility of film money (they are still doing remakes of Straw Dogs 1). But it was also predictable. And he didn’t do predictable.



*Gordon Williams told me he had heard it was tight-run thing between From Scenes Like These and The Nice and the Good (Iris Murdoch). In the end P H Newby won it, and no –I hadn’t heard of him either (ran the Third Programme, wrote lots of books.






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