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Leon Garfield

Leon Garfield was born in Brighton on the 14th July 1921 and died 2nd June 1996, just short of his 75th birthday. He was a prolific writer of over thirty books for children and adults, including picture book texts, short stories, as well as the retelling of traditional and classical material. Mr. Garfield's first book was a pirate story entitled 'Jack Holborn' which he submitted to Constable, the publishers, as a novel for adults. Constable however persuaded him to adapt the novel for children and this he did very successfully.

Mr. Garfield lived with his second wife, Vivien Alcock, in Highgate, North London. Separated from his first wife after only a few months of marriage, he met Vivien during the war when she was an ambulance driver and he was a medical orderly. There was some opposition to their marriage from both families. Mr. Garfield worked as a bio-technician and Vivien as a commercial artist. Her character was shy and retiring and it was only when her husband began to write fewer books that she took to writing her own books for children. Her first book, 'The Haunting of Cassie Palmer', was published when she was fifty six years old.

 

Garfield took London as the backdrop for the general theme of his books for children set in the Victorian era. He had an intimate knowledge of the city which comes across in the detailed descriptions of the area in his writings. The tales often begin with characters of humble origin that fall into adventures and intrigues, their essential goodness winning through at the end. His descriptive narrative is stupendous and takes your imagination flying headlong into the story. So powerful is the text that when you finally raise your head to re-enter the real world and leaf back through the book you see that there were fewer illustrations than you had imagined. This is certainly the case with 'Black Jack' where the opening scene reads: "There are many queer ways of earning a living; but none so quaint as Mrs. Gorgandy's. She was a gallows' madam - a Tyburn widow, so to speak."

It transpires that Mrs. Gorgandy waits at the Tree to collect the corpses, asking strangers to help her cut them down as they "ticked and tocked in the diabolical geometry of the gallows" and her, a "mint-new widder." She then sells them on to the surgeons for anatomical research! This particular narrative tells how the hanged giant of a man - Black Jack - returns to life (before the surgeons get to him) due to his foresight of placing a "silver tube, some half an inch wide and four inches long," in his throat as a preventative against strangulation. The draper's apprentice Bartholomew Dorking, having been asked to sit vigil beside the corpse, becomes embroiled in Black Jack's return and escape and so the story unfolds...

Mr. Garfield wrote in many formats and won many awards for his work, both in America and Europe. 'Black Jack'' was made into a full-length feature film, but 'The December Rose' was written first as a script for a TV serial, then as a book. As always his narrative sets the scene wonderfully, creating many dramatic images. 'Black Jack' was awarded joint winner in the International Jury Award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival; 'Devil-in-the-Fog' won the first ever Guardian Award and was also serialized for TV. 'The God Beneath the Sea', a re-telling of Greek myths co-written by Garfield and Edward Blishen and illustrated by Charles Keeping, won the Carnegie Medal for children's literature and was followed by a sequel 'The Golden Shadow'.

Notable among Mr. Garfield's writings was a series of linked long 'short stories', published separately between 1976 and 1978 and then as a collection 'The Apprentices'. A bibliography of the series can be found at the end of this article.

A fine example of Mr. Garfield's retelling of classical material is his 'Shakespeare Stories'. These are carefully crafted, retaining much of the original language, but interwoven with his own prose to create an enlightening read for both those who are familiar with the writings of Shakespeare, and those who are new to the Bard. 'Shakespeare: The Animated Tales' a television production commissioned by Welsh Channel Four S4C, won Garfield the Sam Wanamaker Award, which celebrates work that has increased the understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare.

In conclusion I thoroughly recommend that you curl up in your most comfortable chair with one of Leon Garfield's absorbing books, child or adult as you may be.

Bibliography of The Apprentices series:

The Lamplighter's Funeral (Heinemann, 1976)
Mirror, Mirror (Heinemann, 1976)
Moss and Blister (Heinemann 1976)
The Cloak (Heinemann, 1976)
The Valentine (Heinemann, 1977)
Labour in Vain (Heinemann, 1977)
The Fool (Heinemann, 1977)
Rosy Starling (Heinemann 1977)
The Dumb Cake (Heinemann, 1977)
Tom Titmarsh's Devil (Heinemann, 1977)
The Filthy Beat (Heinemann, 1978
The Enemy (Heinemann, 1978)

 

Submitted by Rosemary Hanley

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