Obituary: Leonard Matthews

Leonard Matthews did me a good turn, writes Jack Adrian. Thirty-odd years ago, as Editorial Director (Juveniles) at the old Fleetway Press (then the biggest fiction factory in the world), he wrenched me out of the comfy but terminally boring editor's chair of a glossy county mag (all balls, blooming Soroptimists and baying drunks in DJs) in Stoke- on-Trent to the sub's seat on Lion ("King of Story- Papers!") in swingin' London.

My one boast on joining Fleetway was that I was the first bearded employee ever to be taken on by Leonard, a notorious detester of beards - who, only weeks later, suddenly sprouted a facial growth of his own. This was not because in some bizarre and deeply psychological way he fancied me (Leonard's sexual arrangement, both domestic and extra- curricular, were creative, but not that creative), merely that, in his Napoleonic way, he wished to demonstrate he could do anything his underlings did.

That was Leonard all over. A cocky little bantam, he liked to have very tall men as minions, dashing around at his beck and call although, like all monumental egocentrics, he was convinced everyone was plotting against him. Thus life as a minion, however tall, could be nasty, brutish and short. Ruthlessness was an essential part of his psyche. Having, through chronic overwork and emotional pressure, turned one of his editorial apparatchiks into an alcoholic, he fired him - for being an alcoholic.

A man more at ease with legend than reality, Leonard was convinced that vicious thugs such as Dick Turpin, Claude Duval and Rob Roy were in fact paragons of high-minded virtue and benevolence. This was thanks to the swashbucklers he'd read as a boy: Stanley Weyman, Rafael Sabatini, Harrison Ainsworth, as well as all the cheap story-papers lauding the exploits of other arrant scoundrels. But he turned this obsession to good effect during the 1940s and 1950s in the comics and story-papers he edited and was associated with, dragooning some of the finest illustrators of the day, both British and European (C.L. Doughty, Steven Chapman, H.M. Brock, Eric Parker, Geoffrey Campion, Arturo del Castillo et al), into drawing superb historical picture- strips about Turpin, the Three Musketeers and a host of other characters in weekly serial form, or as beautiful one-off 64-page pictorial "novels".

Leonard was a packager par excellence, churning out anthologies and annuals and year-books, then changing around the contents and churning them out again. Like all despots he could shift into purblind mode. Great events - with which he had no possible connection - at times passed him by.

In the late 1970s, when George Lucas's Star Wars was vast and you had to be a New Guinea caveman not to know the names Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and all, he buttonholed me to write some stories for an "exciting new project" he was working up for W.H. Smith. It was science fiction. "I've got a very good title," he said. "I'm surprised no one's used it before - `Star Wars'."

I said I thought George Lucas might not be too impressed to have that galaxy-famous title pinched. There was a puzzled silence on the phone.

"Who's George Lucas?" said Leonard.

He had, nevertheless, a formidable editorial talent.

Comments