Leon, the history man

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Edward Blishen recalls his friend Leon Garfield, who died this week. I remember my earliest feelings about Leon as I observed him at work and as he told me what he had in mind. Always the first account of a book was in moral terms, in terms of the meaning the story was intended to have, and you thought "Good Lord, how abstract!" And then this wonderful scaffolding came down and there, inside it, was a marvellous story, not a moment of abstraction in it, that always made me laugh with pleasure and admiration.

He was perhaps the most intensely serious of all the writers I have known. Writing a book with him was to be marvellously bound to someone who was never off-duty (together we wrote The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow, both published by Gollancz). We'd work all day at my place and then, from home, he'd ring and point out, with the happiest satisfaction, that nothing of what we'd done that day was really necessary - and he was always right about that - and so we could just scrap it. And we did.

He said he set his books largely in the 18th century because he could understand men and women only when they wore fancy dress. Once we were in Vancouver together, in a department store that turned out to sell three-cornered hats. And we all, the rest of the party, tried these hats on, but we had silly modern faces that couldn't take them. Then Leon put on a three-cornered hat and it was perfect.

By bringing the past alive and kicking into the present, Leon Garfield made historical fiction accessible to a wide band of young readers, rescuing it from the deadening impression that it was an undercover branch of pedagogy, writes John Rowe Townsend. Meanwhile, the quality of his work became widely recognised outside the children's book world.

With a handful of other gifted writers emerging in the 1960s, Garfield raised the status of children's fiction in the literary and educational worlds. Jack Holborn, published in 1964, which he originally intended to be an adult novel, was a full-blooded sea adventure story featuring murder, treachery and shipwreck, with a villain, one Solomon Trumpet, as finely ambiguous as Long John Silver.

Garfield followed this with a dozen or so novels set mostly in 18th-century London, a "violent and ramshackle town" owing much to Hogarth and Fielding, and also looking forward to Dickens, but in essence the product of his own powerful imagination. The Garfield style, highly coloured and uninhibitedly metaphorical, sailed dangerously close to the wind but never quite capsized.

An approachable and gregarious man and a great talker on subjects that interested him (notably Shakespeare and Dickens), Garfield had a remarkable number of friends, and the gift of making them feel they were as important to him as he undoubtedly was to them. He also had a sequence of large dogs, as exuberant as his prose and overwhelming in their affection for all.

Leon Garfield, writer, born July 14 1921, died June 2 1996

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