Obituary: W. J. West
Friday 25 June 1999
As a writer who found his trade only after some wild digressions, he made up for lost time with great industry. He was possessed of a cast of mind which led him to make links of all sorts. Sometimes these could be inspired, as in his discovery of Orwell's wartime BBC broadcasts, which the corporation had insisted were lost. Sometimes, however, he could be overtaken by an obsessive certainty that there was more to any event than mere coincidence. Either way, West would not be a standard-issue, production-line biographer, but went some way towards fulfilling Anthony Burgess's assertion that a writer should be able to write on anything.
William John West was born in 1942, the son of William West, who worked for Gieves, the Savile Row tailors, and who, as a director, was himself in charge of kitting out King George VI for his naval togs. His son - generally known as Bill - was brought up Roman Catholic and educated at St Benedict's in Ealing, west London, but early on distanced himself from the Church.
Even at school, he had been so taken in one examination by the possibilities of the first question that he gave all his time to it and did not bother with the other four; which oversight none the less won him a pass, such was the impression his answer made. His father died in 1959, one day before he was due to retire, and, rather than settle upon a single path, West studied for a while at the Architectural Association, where he discovered an interest in photography, and also at Brunel University, where he had a penchant for electronics.
In each case, as he had done at school, he only took as much from any course as he felt necessary for his - as yet - unsettled purposes. It was in the same spirit that he then worked as a railwayman: almost literally a baptism of fire, for he shovelled coal into the furnace on the footplate of a steam-train which plied the route between Sidmouth and Exeter, where his mother's family had a house built at the beginning of the century by a founder of a fabrics shop - Melhuish's - in the city.
This was to remain his base. From it, he set off for India on the Magic Bus in 1967, ahead of all those on Beatles-inspired jaunts, and there he sometimes slept on park benches. One day, he woke up to find that the neighbour with - or to - whom he had been speaking the previous evening was dead. West was certainly a great talker, his voice punctuated by the sound of the bee in his bonnet.
Almost inevitably, he was inspired to write a novel in the present continuous tense, much influenced by Michel Butor; not mere navel-dwelling, however, it yoked matters meditative with an account of the Nasa space program, and it is sad that, West being West, a telephone call distracted him from the work of revising the work, for which he had been given an advance by a publisher.
He used the money instead to fund a trip by Greyhound bus around America, on which he was invited by Elisa Segrave, who had been working without enthusiasm in a public- relations job in Manhattan and had only met West briefly in London before summoning him across the Atlantic. In her own belated first semi-novel, the funny and touching Ten Men (1997), she gives an account of monied hippiedom which catches perfectly that era.
The first purpose of her trip was to watch the trial of Jerry Rubin in Chicago, while West had got himself involved in an English professor's quest to obtain a comprehensive assemblage of the myriad underground newspapers being published in American cities. Segrave is candid about her wide-eyed youthfulness and her hunger for West's body - even though he "had a pink face and floppy brown hair, and was often out of breath. He wore glasses with thin rims and had small eyes. He was overweight and perspired."
They travelled the country from one flop-and-slop to another, where his insistence upon separate rooms increased both the bill and her longings. She had read Lolita at 13 and, ever after, nurtured fantasies of being taken around American motels by a sugar-daddy. Martin, as she calls West in the book, "did not fit into this category. Certainly he was nine years older than me, but, unlike Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's novel, he did not have any money. Also he was overexcited and neurotic, and his brain worked very fast."
It was an increasingly madcap journey, ending up in San Francisco, LA and Mexico, her honour all the while sadly intact. By which time, she was getting sick of
his intensity and the way he made me feel inferior. When we had an ice- cream in an old-fashioned ice-cream parlour, he made me feel he was only doing it to indulge me, that his mind was really on higher things. Why couldn't we do something frivolous for a change? I thought rebelliously. Martin's brain seemed to be speeding all the time, noticing things I would never notice, like the way the light fell on a certain building in Chinatown, or the shape of a bit of broken glass, but it was exhausting, and I was beginning to feel that my perceptions were not my own.
By splendid irony, they did end up in a wedding suite - and separate beds - after complaining of the noise of children and "Let It Bleed" in the corridor outside their cheap rooms. Despite all this, back in a Times Square hotel, she was still sick with love for him, so much so that, home in London and unable to write a book, she tried to distance herself by listing his unattractive aspects: spots, pale white eyelashes, his legs shorter than hers, and a slightly crooked face; all of which only compelled her to go down to his Devon hideaway, where, she found, "Birds Eye chicken- pie cartons lay all over his living-room floor. On a table were two open books, The Charterhouse of Parma and The Chubb Family, by Mrs Henry de la Pasture."
On another visit, she found items which suggested, as he admitted, that he was having an affair with an older woman nearby. "My view was that Martin would probably never write a good novel and never earn any money." This was, in the event, true, but it was less perceptive of her father to claim that, "if you marry this man, when the first flush of love is over, you will be left with a second-rate yobbo". West spent the Seventies in Exeter, and started the Market Park Gallery, promoting prints, and he was an early encourager of Norman Ackroyd and Chris Plowman. It was - as everything for him was - something of a crusade, and lasted about three years.
Meanwhile, he had discovered that George Gissing had lived in the city for a therapeutic spell. In 1979 he published - on Kall Kwik's machinery - a small pamphlet, George Gissing in Exeter, and was inspired to take up writing again. A frequenter of bookshops and salerooms, he had a knack of picking up items overlooked by others and adding value to such acquisitions by augmenting them with things found elsewhere; in some cases, he saw a potential for producing books, as he did with a beguiling collection of the maritime photographs of the Victorian businessman Francis Frith; towards the end of his life, he was trying to do something similar with the stage and society photographs which he found in the papers of the theatrical producer and entrepreneur (and Independent obituarist) Ossia Trilling.
It was just such a chance discovery that led him to seek out the wartime broadcasts of George Orwell. He had the nous to see that these had been filed in the Caversham archives under the announcer's name. It was a good haul, unknown to Orwell experts, and published in two volumes (as Orwell: the war broadcasts and Orwell: the war commentaries, 1985) by Duckworth, a firm where he had found a kindred spirit in Colin Haycraft, a classically educated publisher whose modus operandi was to blow the dust from tops of books in the warehouse to judge how quickly they were selling.
Not exactly vintage Orwell, being addressed to a foreign audience, the talks are none the less full of interest, and West's commentary can be both lucid and overwrought: it must be no more than coincidence that Ignazio Silone in 1937 had published a story about a pig farm, but he is surely right to see in Orwell's dealing with the corporation's bureaucrats the world that became Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Fifteen years on, West's work in Caversham would, in its expense, now be well-nigh impossible, for independent research- ers are charged by the hour.)
BBC shambolism also inspired West's polemic The Strange Rise of Semi- Literate England in 1991. One day, when walking down Sackville Street in London in 1985, he had seen a sign in a bookshop offering BBC books for sale. Not its own publications, but thousands of volumes thrown out by its library, such as the exceedingly rare collection of poems by the Jamaican poet Una Marson, who worked with Orwell. The destruction of this library led him to trawl the country and, through bookshops, gauge the full extent to which libraries had dumped books in accordance with one librarian's half-joking decree in a trade journal, "If in doubt, chuck it out!" Brent Library, for example, had got shot of 105,000 books "to focus on the interests of minorities and avoid racism: presumably Una Marson's poems would have been safe with them."
It is a devastating piece of work, and was picked up as such by the newspapers; the only shame is that Duckworth was not alert to its great interest and issued copies at rather less than pounds 8 for a 93-page pamphlet.
Another such chance discovery led West to write about Graham Greene. In Ealing, he found the papers of Rene Raymond, the novelist who, as James Hadley Chase, wrote a bestseller in No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1939; subject of a devastating review by Orwell). Here were letters from Graham Greene which revealed a friendship unknown to other Greene chroniclers, and the book which West duly published - The Quest For Graham Greene (1997) - contains much missed by others: fascinating is his account of Greene as a publisher at Eyre and Spottiswoode after the Second World War, when it is evident that More Deadly Than the Male, a novel by Raymond (as Ambrose Grant, 1946), was so revised by Greene as to be close to a collaboration.
He is also good on J.D. Beresford's influence upon Greene, and, by nifty legwork, revealed the full extent to which Greene was swindled in the Sixties by a corrupt solicitor, Tom Roe, who, in partnership with the actor George Sanders, made free with clients' money. The bizarre nature of this is worthy of Travels With My Aunt, for Roe was in cahoots with a Sussex crook, Dennis Lorraine, who, as Denis Edwards, had in one scam bought up a small butcher's in Brighton and rechristened it the Royal Victorian Sausage Company on the faked grounds of a letter from King Edward VII which praised its products. By dint of vans emblazoned with the royal crest, the pair made this enterprise appear worthy of something in which Greene, Coward and Chaplin's fortunes could be safely invested.
All this is cogently done, but it is unfortunate that West made it a "quest" for Greene (though he himself blamed his publishers for the format); the result is an uneasy mixture of real insight and a trotting out of familiar material, but does show how much more a fresh eye can bring to these matters than the self-styled diligence of the official biographer, Norman Sherry.
West's knack for investigation led to his being commissioned by a deeper- pocketed company than Duckworth - HarperCollins - to write an account of the Guinness scandal. He attended the trials and, off his own bat, found much that had escaped the DTI investigations; alas, after this hard work, he came a cropper when the publisher insisted that he delete all reference to another of its authors, Jeffrey Archer. West was hardly one to stand for that, and, at considerable cost to himself, duly found another publisher in Richard Cohen Books, which promptly went belly-up, taking with it West's one chance of making money.
A tantalising project he also had in mind was for a book about John Grisham. One can scarcely guess what form this would have taken. By contrast with Grisham's global sales, West had bought up the remaining stock of the Amate Press, a small publishing firm run by the former Oxford bookdealer Robin Waterfield. Quite what his plans for it can have been, a somewhat bemused Waterfield could not imagine; it turns out that, when Oxford University Press recently dropped all its living poets, West had hopes that some if not all would gravitate towards his imprint.
Whatever happened, West was never daunted, justified time and again in the hope that something would turn up, and join the piles of material filling his half of the house - which, by design, lacked a doorbell so that he could work without interruption, except when he chose, as he often did, to talk at length on the telephone.
William John West, writer: born London 13 November 1942; died Exeter 9 June 1999.
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