Welcome to the 200th edition of what began as a rather arcane desire to rediscover writers who were popular, influential, and successful, but who vanished from bookshelves, even in their own lifetimes. What I discovered was often more surprising than the fictions they wrote. These missing authors adopted false identities, switched genders, lost fortunes, descended into alcoholism, discovered new careers, alienated their readers, went mad, became millionaire recluses, or simply did something else. Some chose their own fates, others were simply unlucky – but their books lived on in homes and memories, were passed to children and friends, jumble sales and second-hand shops.
Changing tastes, shrinking budgets, poor cataloguing, and the need to pump the publishing spend into sure-fire titles still conspire against the author. This column quickly taught me that the creation of a book does not end with its publication. Often, it’s where the story starts to get interesting.
When I was 10, I discovered a chain of seedy south London second-hand book stores called the Popular Book Centres. They stamped their triangular logo inside all their books, and made enough money from top-shelf smut to keep yellowing paperbacks going for real readers. In this way, they were every bit as useful as public libraries, just grubbier and more delinquent.
The Popular Book Centre in Greenwich was presided over by a gimlet-eyed man with the complexion of an old haddock. He looked as though he had been cast to play a lecherous plumber in a porn movie. I could always find something rare and wonderful lurking in his racks, and as everything was 1s 6d (seven and a half pence in today’s money) I could take a chance on the dodgiest-looking books. Here I bought a lurid paperback depicting a robed priest plunging a sacrificial knife into a prostrate victim. The book was Here (Away From It All) by Maryann Forrest (No 24), who had changed her name and was designing interiors for the Globe Theatre. Here also was T Lobsang Rampa (No 9), the best-selling Tibetan monk who was revealed to be a Devon plumber called Cyril Hoskin, and who insisted his books were dictated by his Siamese cat Mrs Fifi Greywhiskers. And Thomas Tryon (No 15), the dazzlingly handsome actor who starred with Marilyn Monroe and dated a porn star, while writing beautiful Americana. Since the column began, many of these authors have been returned to print, while their original paperbacks have become valuable collectors’ items.