Paul Ableman

Novelist and playwright


Paul Victor Ableman, novelist and playwright: born Leeds 13 June 1927; married 1958 Tina Carrs-Brown (one son, one stepdaughter; marriage dissolved), 1978 Sheila Hutton-Fox (one son); died London 25 October 2006.

Paul Ableman - playwright, experimental novelist and screenwriter - was one of the most recognisable and well-loved literary figures of Hampstead.

When I first knew him, he was living in a penthouse flat in Fellows Road, which went through many metamorphoses during his long residence. It started off as a small bachelor pad in the wild late Sixties, but expanded mysteriously over the years to accommodate more and more books, computers, his second wife Sheila, his younger son Tom, talkative dinner parties, and large summer parties of guests who would crowd on to newly sprouting balconies amongst the pot plants, sit on top of one another on settees, and yell at one another happily in crowded corridors. It was like the Tardis. There was much more room in there than you would have thought possible.

Ableman, too, though small of stature, contained multitudes. He was born in Leeds in 1927 into an unorthodox Jewish family. His father, Jack, was a tailor. His mother, Gertrude, wanted to be an actress, left his father and moved to London, to Hampstead, where she fell in love with an American journalist, Thurston Macauley. (I liked his mother, a flamboyant woman who used to make lively contributions to my class at Morley College, but Paul was more critical of her, and I guess he knew her a lot better than I did.)

Paul was brought up in New York with his mother and stepfather and sent to Stuyvesant High School, returning to England aged 18. He did his National Service in the Education Corps, in Gibraltar and Scapa Flow, then went to King's College London to read English, but did not finish his degree, hanging out in Paris instead, writing erotic fiction.

His novels include I Hear Voices (1957), published by the Olympia Press (a work of which Maurice Girodias was very proud), As Near as I Can Get (1962), The Twilight of the Vilp (1969, his first book to be produced by Gollancz), Vac (1971) and Tornado Pratt (1977): these works were praised for their inventive language, bawdy high spirits, and originality of form by Anthony Burgess, Philip Toynbee, Robert Nye and other friends of the avant-garde.

But his first publication had been a play, written with his mother, Even His Enemy (1948) - produced in London as Letters to a Lady in 1951. Green Julia, his first full-length play, in which two young men discuss an absent mistress, was a great success at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival, and other surreal and experimental plays (such as Tests, 1966) followed, with the encouragement of establishment critics like Harold Hobson, but Ableman also wrote screenplays of a more popular nature. He described himself, proudly, as a freelance writer, and could turn his hand to many different genres, including general science books.

He made something of a speciality of "novelising" BBC series, such as Shoestring (Shoestring, 1979, and Shoestring's Finest Hour, 1980), Porridge (Porridge: the inside story, 1979, and others under the pseudonym Paul Victor), Hi-de-hi (Hi-de-hi, 1983), Dad's Army (Dad's Army: the defence of a front line English village, 1989), Minder (Straight Up: the autobiography of Arthur Daley, 1991) and Last of the Summer Wine (Last of the Summer Wine: a country companion by Clegg, Foggy & Compo, 1992).

His embrace of the sexual revolution of the 1960s unwittingly exposed him to risks. In 1969 he published a book called The Mouth and Oral Sex, a harmlessly entertaining and informative book about orality drawing on mythology, psychoanalysis, literature and art, and pleasantly illustrated with images from Magritte, Kitagawa Utamaro and other respectable sources. This provoked an obscenity case of some hilarity, which was very ably contested by Jeremy Hutchinson, and the book and its author were triumphantly acquitted. I appeared as witness for the defence and I hope made a good case for Ableman's good heart, innocent intentions and literary merit.

Ableman's first marriage to Tina Carrs-Brown ended in amicable divorce: they had one son, Martin. He married Sheila Hutton- Fox in 1978, with whom he had Tom. His emotional life went through periods of turbulence, but he was always an attentive and affectionate father. As he grew older, he grew milder and more benign (although his amazing shock of hair grew larger and wilder), and he remained an eccentric rather than a conformist.

He was a great walker, and liked to set off into the wilds with his compass, alone or with his wife and son, sometimes sleeping in the amazing expanding Dandy he attached to his car. He made a good gin and tonic in his Dandy, high on Exmoor. He loved the natural world as intensely as he loved the pubs of Soho. On my last walk with him, in the Chilterns, we sat in a field eating our sandwiches, watching a red kite, while he explained to me his theory of the mind, which he expounded in his last book. He was a wonderful talker, but never a deliverer of monologues: he was always eager for a response, and listened to the stories of others with keen curiosity.

The Secret of Consciousness: how the brain tells "the story of me" (1999) concerns the function of dreams and the archival capacity and processing mechanisms of the brain during sleep. His claims have yet to be tested, although he maintained it would be easy to do so in a sleep laboratory. His scientist friends (who included Lewis Wolpert) were not persuaded by them. He believed that during sleep the brain sorts and stores diurnal sensory impressions, on a Twin-Data system, one pathway leading to consciousness, the other to the archival memory, and that identity is no more (or less) than the unique set, or narrative, of sensory data of each individual. He saw the novelist's use of "interior monologue" as an attempt to describe this fluid and ever-changing process of creation.

In later years he began to keep an impressively detailed journal - a sort of forerunner, as he saw it, of the blog - in which he noted domestic and social events and his thoughts on such disparate matters as Judaism, technology, the restaurants of Swiss Cottage and the acting techniques of Peter Sellers: a record of an enquiring mind which found all human life of interest.

Ableman bore his last years of illness with an exemplary mixture of stoicism, good manners and good-humour that made his company a pleasure. He never complained, and retained his affectionate delight in others to the last.

Margaret Drabble

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