By Jeremy Miles
I FIRST met the best-selling fantasy author David Gemmell nearly 20 years ago. He was standing on my doorstep pretending to be John Wayne. He was also about to become the editor of the newspaper I worked for and had decided that a face-to-face on home turf with his new senior staff was a good idea.
Whether it was, I don’t know. Dave – never David in those days – was I quickly worked out, far more scared by the encounter than I was. He talked 19 to the dozen about his great passions, the songs of Bob Dylan, the films of John Ford and his great hero Wayne. He would later have a framed picture of the movie star on his office wall. I don’t think he mentioned newspapers once. He finally departed, moseying in classic style down my front path with the words “Walks off slowly into the sunset.” The fact that it was 10 O’clock at night and pitch dark didn’t appear to register.
A man with a rampantly overactive imagination and sense of romance, he was I now realise horrifyingly ill-equipped to deal with the day to day reality of editing a newspaper. If there was a meeting he didn’t want to attend he just wouldn’t turn up . I believe there was even a summons to court once that he conveniently mislaid.
Today there are dozens of web sites devoted to his work and heaven knows how many fantasy fans out there for whom Gemmell is a God. He recently came to Borders in Bournemouth to promote his latest book??? Sadly I was away. It would have been good to meet up with him again. His own CV makes fascinating reading he doesn’t mention the Hastings and St Leonard's Observer or the Folkestone Herald.
As a career journalist, he was always an inspired writer. However he suffered the fate that so often awaits high-flyers in this business. Promotion to a job that frankly he was never cut out to do.
Having said that Dave Gemmell displayed some astonishing moments of editorial genius. He could design a front page in 10 seconds flat . When two well known councillors clashed over some mundane nonsense he immediately sketched out an idea which found them art-worked onto the front page of the paper with stetsons and six guns, ready for a showdown on Main Street.
Most of the time though he would stay shut in his office tapping away at his manuscript, endlessly reworking the novel Legend which would eventually catapult him to fame and fortune.
Occasionally he would display alarmingly erratic behaviour. He once told local MP and the then new Home Secretary Michael Howard to “sod off and get shave” because “we’re not taking your photograph looking like that.” Astonishingly Howard, not always the easiest of people, meekly complied. On another occasion he phoned me in the office from home demanding that I boil the mug which he regularly drank his office tea from. He had a sore throat and was convinced that following a trip to Spain he had been infected with typhoid. He even pulled a gun (a toy as it turned out) on an unsuspecting woman reporter just to see what her reaction would be. The “research” was duly used for one of his books.
Working with Gemmell may have been weird but it was always fun so when he was asked to start a free newspaper in Bournemouth I didn’t hesitate to take up his offer of a job. The Bournemouth Express was a short-lived project that ended up with me walking up the road and getting myself a job on the “proper” paper (where I find myself to this day) and Gemmell being sacked. Not before however he had launched a hugely successful literary career.
I remember him holed up in a crummy room in the then unrefurbished Norfolk Royale Hotel with his portable typewriter bashing out page after page of his next book. He even paid me the dubious compliment of having me killed on page 255 of his 1986 novel Waylander. In interviews he has said that he bases his characters on real people.
Well I’m immortalised as a young soldier called Milis. In the space of a page and a half Gemmell has me taking a pee over the edge of a cliff and swapping tall stories about the local whores before getting three arrows in my back and having my throat cut by a marauding invader. Thanks Dave, was it something I said?