Obituary: Leon Garfield

Leon Garfield and I were friends for about a quarter of a century, writes Russell Hoban. We'd meet from time to time at Il Fornello near Russell Square to exchange current pages and encourage each other over pizza della casa and beer. We talked about money, reviews and the lack of them, the decline of Western culture, as manifested by writers who got bigger advances than we did, and in any pauses he'd talk Shakespeare and I'd listen.

He was a master storyteller: you could give him a page from the telephone directory and he'd weave a plot taking all of the characters - each of them vividly realised - through a series of exciting events to a satisfying resolution.

Supernatural stories are my favourite reading and I know of none more haunting than his The Ghost Downstairs, published in 1972. I don't think it's had the recognition it deserves, perhaps because it's more for adults than for children. In it Mr Dennis Fast, a solicitor's clerk bedevilled by envy, loneliness and dreams of wealth, does a deal with the mysterious Mr Fishbane who lives downstairs. Fast writes a contract in which, for the sum of one million pounds, he sells Fishbane seven years off the end of his life, stipulating cunningly in the small print (unread by Fishbane) that the seven years are to be deducted from the first end of his life, his childhood. From then on Fast is haunted by the ghost of himself as a child and drawn into a desperate pursuit, to the spectral accompaniment of a stick tapping a rusty rolling hoop, of his childhood soul, "his dreams, yearnings and the very springs of his desire".

It is a story, like Leon Garfield, full of darkness, shifting lights and sly humour, not to be forgotten.

Some 30 years ago I wrote to Leon Garfield after reading a story of his that appeared in the same collection as one of my own, writes Helen Cresswell. He immediately telephoned (Leon never, to my knowledge, ever wrote a letter). Soon after that we met and our long friendship began, despite the hundred odd miles that divided us. We shared family holidays and later, as the children grew up, shorter breaks, when we went antique hunting. There was lots of whisky and lots of laughter.

It was his practice, whenever we met, for him to present me with the rough typescript of his work in progress. He would then sit me down with the obligatory Scotch and watch me read. At such times one felt privileged but unnerved.

Leon Garfield was hugely knowledgeable, ranging from opera to old movies and, of course, Dickens and Shakespeare. But he carried his erudition lightly, and was incapable of writing, or uttering, a dull word. He was one of the funniest people I have ever known, as well as the most warmly sympathetic and generous.

I think it was Molly Keane who said that she always divided people into radiators and drains. Leon was unequivocally, and triumphantly, a radiator.

Leon Garfield, writer: born Brighton 14 July 1921; FRSL 1985; married 1949 Vivien Alcock (one daughter); died London 2 June 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Recruitment Genius: HR Consultant

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An HR Consultant is required to join thi...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable