By Jeremy Miles
Gordon M. Williams has enjoyed a spectacular literary career. His award winning work bestrides the cultural pigeon-holes marked ‘quality’, ‘popular’ and ‘esoteric’ and, though you probably think you’ve never heard of him, you will almost certainly have encountered his writing.
For this one time self-confessed boot-in-the-door tabloid terrier who cut his journalistic teeth in Dorset was short-listed for the first Booker Prize. His novel, From Scenes Like These, competed for top honours with people like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark.
His screenplays meanwhile include an adaptation of his own novel, The Man Who Had Power Over Women and he co-wrote the 1970s TV cop drama Hazell with soccer star and future England team manager Terry Venables
Most impressive of all, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, a piece of “pot-boiler” fiction bashed out in nine frenetic days to pay the bills, was turned into the blockbuster movie Straw Dogs starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.
Despite reputedly pocketing a $1million fee, Williams does not have happy memories of his dealings with legendary hard-drinking director Sam Peckinpah.
The pair never actually met but fell out big time when Williams - appalled by the graphic sex and violence Peckinpah had introduced to his psychological thriller - unwittingly slagged the director off in front of a Sunday Times journalist.
The piece that subsequently appeared sent the notoriously volatile Peckinpah on the warpath. He changed the title of the film to Straw Dogs, publicly described reading Williams’ original novel as being like “choking on your own vomit” and made sure that the writer’s on-screen credit was relegated to so far down the billing that most people were halfway down the street before it enjoyed its three seconds of glory.
“Bloody Pekinpah, he put it right at the end,’” mutters Williams, adding that,” ….in those days you still had to stand for the National Anthem, so every time it was screened you’d just see people running out of the cinema and not looking at my name.”
Williams is philosophical. “Once you’re dragged into the movie world you realise it’s a kind of warfare. I’ve dabbled quite a bit and it’s always the same - everyone suing each other from the word go.”
Amazingly, despite a high-flying career that has taken him across the world, Williams reckons he learned most of his skills while working as a hot-shot local reporter in Dorset in the 1950s.
His time on the long-defunct Poole Herald was, he says, an education second to none. “I was a working class boy from Scotland straight from National Service in the RAF. It was like a university to me.”
His experiences would inspire a book called The Upper Pleasure Garden - a barely fictionalised account of his time as a young hack on the make on the south coast.
It was a golden era for local journalism. Other cub reporters in the Bournemouth and Poole area at the time included David English who would go on to edit The Daily Mail and be knighted for his services to journalism and Ian Wooldridge destined to become one of Fleet Street’s greatest sportswriters.
Thirty years after it originally hit the bookshelves, The Upper Pleasure Garden has just been re-published. It’s a story that opens a window on a bygone era.
It is based on Williams own experiences of leaving a rough, sprawling Paisley council estate and arriving in the genteel environs of Bournemouth and Poole.
“Everything was so neat and clean. I’d never seen anything like it,” he told me.
However, he soon discovered that behind the privet hedges and beyond clipped lawns of suburban Dorset there were stories galore and often just as shameful and gruesome as those he’d left behind in Scotland.
For a brief couple of years in the 1950s Gordon Williams was, or at least aspired to be, the ultimate foot-in-the-door tabloid hack. By his own admission he would con his way across doorsteps and rifle the contents of peoples photo albums without conscience.
His big scoop was when he managed to outwit the nationals and find pictures of Albert Goozee, the child killer who butchered his landlady lover and her 14-year-old daughter with a commando knife.
“Goozee lodged with a one-legged landlord in Parkstone. The newspapers loved that, the one-legged bit. It made great copy.”
Getting the pictures involved physically heaving a women of mature years over a back wall while the cream of Fleet Street waited impatiently at the front of the house - “I still remember those corsets”, he shudders.
I arranged to meet Gordon, who is now 75, in a pub near his home in West London. He arrived clutching a scrapbook full of cuttings from his days on the Poole Herald.
They revealed a gripping slice of social and media history, not just the Goozee case but typical young reporter stories.
There was Gordon investigating the town’s first launderette one day and going out with the Army the next to witness the detonation of unexploded bombs on a mudflat in Poole Harbour.
“I’m not sure I particularly like the person I was then,” he told me as we flicked through the yellowing cuttings.
“ I suppose I gradually went off the idea of exposing people and getting their secrets by lying and cheating on the doorstep.
“All that stuff proved great source material later when I was writing books but it slowly dawned on me that there weren’t any old journalists doing what I was doing. Most of them were all washed up.”
He went into magazine production. “It seemed the way to go if you wanted to get on. I began to realise that most of the 50 year olds I met who worked for newspapers in those days seemed to be alcoholics.”
Many of the stories and characters he encountered in Poole in the 1950s found their way in one form or another into The Upper Pleasure Garden.
There are encounters with colourful individuals, dodgy councillors and behind the scenes rows over the town’s development which are clearly based on fact. Meanwhile the main character, young Scottish reporter Andrew Menzies, known as Ming the Merciless, is by Gordon’s own admission “not a million miles” removed from himself.
Indeed at the end of the book the editor takes young Ming aside and tells him he’s “The cleverest, dirt-digging, dog-eared, newshound rat I’ve ever known” To Ming this is the ultimate accolade.
Gordon, tells me that Poole, and indeed Dorset, left an indelible impression on him.
“To this day,” he says, “Every time I hear about Poole on the news or read about it in the newspapers I find myself thinking ‘Why the Hell didn’t I get that story first?’ Then I realise I haven’t actually worked there for more than 50 years.
It’s really odd, but I’ve never been able to let that place go. I think about it every day.”
*The Upper Pleasure Garden by Gordon M Williams is published by Revel Barker Publications at £9.99 (ISBN 978-0-9558238-6-2).