Obituary: Oliver Anderson

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The Independent Online
Oliver Anderson was at the centre of a considerable furore when, in 1937, he wrote a satire on provincial life under the pen-name Julian Pine.

The book, Rotten Borough, was withdrawn by the publisher after just three weeks under threat of a string of libel writs, instigated by, among others, the then Lord Brownlow, a close friend of the Duke of Windsor. The Rotten Borough affair, which achieved national status, with Anderson being pursued around the country by the pride of Fleet Street, would have passed into history, were it not for the fact that the town at the centre of the excitement was Grantham, birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, and that a leading character in the novel was a local grocer and town councillor, identified by many in the 1980s with the benefit of hindsight as the then Prime Minister's late father. As a result Rotten Borough was republished in 1989 under the author's true name and created considerable interest.

Anderson always denied that any of the characters in the novel were based on real persons and, in particular, that Councillor Nurture, the grocer in question, was based on Lady Thatcher's father, Alderman Alfred Roberts. Indeed he claimed to have changed the character, who in the novel is surprised in his shop in flagrante, from a butcher to a grocer, for fear of sailing too close to the wind. Nor, it should be said, was Alderman Roberts among the many local dignitaries who, following Lord Brownlow's lead, claimed to identify themselves among its pages and joined him in his threats of action.

Anderson was born in the village of Snitterby, some 20 miles north of Lincoln, the second child of the Rector, the Rev Robert Anderson. After the First World War, his father was appointed Rector of Little Ponton, a village a few miles south of Grantham and the family moved to the large and rambling rectory which is now the residence of the actor Richard Todd.

Anderson was educated at the King's School, Grantham, and was subsequently apprenticed as a local journalist in the Grantham office of the Nottingham Guardian and Evening Post. Dutifully reporting the annual round of "dog hangings and pony shows" gave him much of the material which was subsequently to find its way into Rotten Borough. His constant companion on these duties was David Wood, latterly Political Editor of the Times, who was then performing the same function for the Grantham Journal and became a lifelong friend.

Following the furore of Rotten Borough Anderson went into business, but, on the outbreak of the Second World War, immediately enlisted. He served in the ranks in the Royal Artillery throughout the war, refusing a commission, and taking part in almost the entire North Africa campaign in Northern Europe.

After the war he returned to Grantham, taking up residence with his mother in the village of Harlaxton where he continued to live in the same cottage for the next 50 years. During the 1950s he published a series of comic novels, including Grit and Polish (1951), Ripe for the Plucking (1961), Thorn in the Flesh (1954), and In For a Penny (1950), again based, if more carefully, on the small town and country life which had given rise to Rotten Borough; and a series based around something of a "James Bond" character, Guy Random, including Random Mating (1956) and Random Rapture (1958). In a style which has subsequently been suggested as a forerunner of Tom Sharpe and others, they achieved a not inconsiderable success and a faithful following but, as his style of humour passed out of fashion in the early 1960s, he turned his hand to more serious work. His last published novel, The Last Mirage, was published in 1969.

Thereafter Anderson continued to live in Harlaxton, delighting in observing the comic potential in everyday village life. Anderson was a true countryman, until quite recently walking 10 or 12 miles each day and relying solely on his bicycle for trips further afield. He had a particular gift for communicating with children and young people, ever prepared to converse well into the early hours and inspiring a number of them to take up literary or journalistic careers. Although, as his novels clearly indicate, he was by no means immune to the attractions of female companionship, he never married.

Andrew Bond

Oliver Charles Anderson, writer: born Snitterby, Lincolnshire 30 September 1912; died Harlaxton, Lincolnshire 19 October 1996.