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Sunday 13 December 2009

Lionel Davidson (1922-2009)

Last year (Sunday 30 November 2008) I wrote a blog on Lionel Davidson, pleased that Faber and Faber had brought out a collection of all eight of his books for adults published between 1960 and 1994.

Lionel Davidson died at the age of 87 on 21 October 2009. You can check the obituaries in the Guardian, Times and Daily Telegraph but here I’ll repeat that he was the youngest of nine children of a poor Polish-Jewish tailor (who died when he was two), that later, when the family moved from Hull to Streatham, he taught his Lithuanian-Jewish mother to read and that, on leaving school at fourteen, he got a job as an office boy at the Spectator and by the age of seventeen was writing syndicated features for the Morley Adams Group, including a column for children and advice to the lovelorn.

He served as a telegraphist in submarines during World War 2 (though he never used the experience directly), freelanced his way to Czechoslovakia in 1947 and later worked for the Keystone press agency and as fiction editor of John Bull Magazine. His first novel, The Night of Wenceslas – set in Prague – was published in 1960.

I should declare a tenuous connection. Lionel’s lovely brother Cyril and wife Kathleen were my family’s close friends. We’d see Lionel, his first wife Fay Jacobs and their two children on Boxing Day and later, when Lionel and family moved to Israel for about ten years, hear how they were getting on.

I always seem to have known that Lionel Davidson suffered from depression. The death of his wife Fay in 1988 did not help.

His second wife, however, the author Frances Ullman, encouraged him to write again. This was not easy. Lionel Davidson always said he did not enjoy writing. Working on films made him feel ‘like a road digger’, he finished novels feeling like the loser in a boxing match.

At one time, in a spectacular effort to solve writer’s block, he bought a lighthouse on Beachy Head. I don’t believe he ever moved in. The lighthouse is now apparently owned by the BBC.
What turned out to be his last book, Kolymsky Heights, was published in 1994, sixteen years after the seventh.

In memory of a writer who, after all, was in the business of entertainment, this may all seem a little grim. Far from it. This is a thank you note for the life of a charming, witty and inventive writer of excellent thrillers. Apart from also working on films, he wrote a number of children’s books under a pseudonym and his own name.

One last confession. My father always bought Lionel Davidson’s books when they came out and would give them as presents. This worked very well until The Chelsea Murders. An elderly recipient wrote back to say that she was not going to read the book because she had heard it was ‘pornographic’. (I believe there is an allusion Swinburne). But the kerfuffle meant I never did read that novel. I have just ordered it.

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