Obituary: Leon Garfield

Russell Hoban
Tuesday 04 June 1996 00:02

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in