It would have been given to me by my parents, the Christmas after my 12th birthday, 1950, cementing an interest in "cowboys and indians" that, for as long as I could remember, had been played out with friends – or, if necessary, by myself – in the streets and gardens of north London or on the open plains of Parliament Hill Fields and Hampstead Heath. Just short of 200 pages long and promising, as it said on the cover, "Illustrated Adventures, Action Pictures, Tales, Games, Woodcraft and 16 Colour Pages", it became my bible, my companion, the lodestone around which so many facts and fantasies of the American West would
Linked stories, not comic strips but each several thousand words long, and cleverly involving three English schoolboys taken back in time, were interspersed with dramatically illustrated "factual" sections detailing the principal tribes of American Indians or the deeds of famous outlaws. Then there were the full-colour plates, showing Custer vaingloriously leading his men into battle or – my favourite – the moment Pat Garrett gunned down Billy the Kid. The endpapers, front and back – fascinating to me – comprised a map of the United States, packed with tiny drawings and dotted with numbers which corresponded to all 26 chapters and allowed you to place each adventure in its correct location. "Tour the Wild West in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual" the book invited and for those impressionable early years, that's what I did.
Then other things intervened – sport, movies, girls (as distant and illusory, for the most part, as Annie Oakley's sharpshooting or Belle Starr's banditry), jazz and early rock'n'roll. The book got lost or given away. It didn't seem to matter at the time.
Then, in 1982, I walked into a book fair in Belsize Park and there it was, face out on the first stall: a copy in good condition. And the minute I opened it, every word, every frame, leaped back bright from my memory – and none more so than Denis McLoughlin's masterly artwork. McLoughlin, who came from Bolton, and was an honorary member of the Arizona Fast Draw Association, had in the mid-1970s compiled a fascinating Encyclopedia of the Old West, which had usurped the earlier annual in my affections. For, putting all that boyhood enthusiasm to good use, I had joined a small group of British writers of paperback Westerns – the Piccadilly Cowboys – and, often working in tandem and under shared pseudonyms, had produced some 40 or so books in such series as Hawk, Herne the Hunter and Hart the Regulator. That phase, too, passed in time. But Denis's encyclopedia is still on my shelves and the Bufflalo Bill Wild West Annual sits close to my desk, just inside my eyeline, to remind me, if necessary, of how it all began.
John Harvey's new novel, 'Far Cry', is published by Heinemann