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John Harris: a bestselling author over four decades

John Harris (1916-1991). Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

He might not have been from Sheffield, but Rotherham counts, and the steel city had a big impact on his career.

Ernest John Harris (1916-1991) was a sailor, airman, a journalist, travel courier, cartoonist, and a history teacher. He was best known as a productive author publishing a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Pel, as well as numerous war books. He wrote under his own name, John Harris, and under the pennames of Mark Hebden and Max Hennessy.

He wrote more than 80 novels, including The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) that became a film of the same name starring Michael Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde and Anthony Steel.

Harris was educated at Rotherham Grammar School before getting a job as a reporter at the Rotherham Advertiser in the early 1930s.

He married Betty Wragg in Rotherham and had a son, Max, and a daughter, Juliet, who carried on the Pel detective series after her father’s death.

Harris moved to the Sheffield Telegraph and during World War Two served in the RAF as a corporal attached to the South African Air Force. It was said that he served two navies and two air forces during the war.

Afterwards, he re-joined the Sheffield Telegraph as a political and comedy cartoonist, drawing comic strips such as the Calamity Kids and Amateur Archie, and published his first novel, The Lonely Voyage, in 1951.

Amateur Archie featured in the Sheffield Telegraph, as well as other regional newspapers during the 1950s. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

He stayed in Sheffield until the 1950s and following the success of The Sea Shall Not Have Them became a full-time author, moving to West Wittering in West Sussex.

After turning to full-time writing, Harris wrote adventure stories and created a sequence of crime novels around the quirky fictional character Chief Inspector Pel.

Covenant with Death was published in 1961 and despite critical acclaim has long-since been overlooked. Photograph: Sphere.

Harris’s books are still in publication, and for Sheffielders, a must-read is Covenant with Death (1961), a ‘fictionary’ account of the Sheffield City Battalion from its formation to catastrophe at Serre on 1 July 1916.

“When war breaks out in 1914, Mark Fenner and his Sheffield friends immediately flock to Kitchener’s call. Amid waving flags and boozy celebration, the three men – Fen, his best friend Locky and self-assured Frank, rival for the woman Fen loves – enlist as volunteers to take on the Germans and win glory.

“Through ramshackle training in sodden England and a stint in arid Egypt, rebellious but brave Fen proves himself to be a natural leader, only undermined by on-going friction with Frank. Headed by terse, tough Sergeant Major Bold, this group of young men form steel-strong bonds and yearn to face the great adventure of the Western Front.

“Then, on one summer’s day in 1916, Fen and his band of brothers are sent to the Somme, and this very ordinary hero discovers what it means to fight for your life.”

Harris interviewed battalion survivors for the book, and the central character, Mark Fenner, is partly based on his Sheffield Telegraph colleague Jess Richard ‘Roddy’ Robinson.

John Harris died in 1991.

A master of war and crime fiction. Photograph: Curtis Brown.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

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Enid Blyton: once upon a time

(Image: Alamy)

A few unsuspecting people across Sheffield might not realise that the houses they live in have a connection to Enid Blyton, that infamous children’s author of over 400 titles, 600 million copies sold, and translated into 42 languages.

Our story begins in the 1870s when a Lincolnshire-born linen draper, Thomas Carey Blyton, and his wife, Mary Ann, moved from Kent to Sheffield. They brought with them four children – Bertha Sidney, Thomas Carey, and Sybil – and a fourth child, Alice May, was born here and died at Dore in 1962. The Blyton family lived at Asline Road, Aizlewood Road and finally moved to Machon Bank.

Their son, Thomas Carey Blyton Jr, married a Sheffield girl, Theresa May Harrison, from Monmouth Street, Broomhall, in London in 1896, moving on account of his job as a cutlery salesman. The newly-married couple lived in a small flat above a shop in East Dulwich where Enid Mary Blyton was born in 1897, followed by two boys, Henly and Carey.

They later separated with Enid’s mother telling people that her husband was “away on business.”

It appears that Thomas Carey wanted Enid to be a concert pianist but in 1916, aged 19, she moved to Ipswich and trained as a teacher. However, she had already started writing and her first book Child Whispers was published in 1922.

She went on to write hundreds of short stories, as well as introducing us to Noddy and Big Ears, the Famous Five, Secret Seven and the Malory Towers series.

Her work was loved by children, less-so by critics who regarded it as being “not great literature – but harmless.” However, some libraries and schools banned her works, and the BBC refused to broadcast it from the 1930s until the 1950s because they were perceived to lack literary merit.

The negativity about Enid Blyton continues today – not least tales of her being a ‘bad mother’, and in 2016 the Royal Mint blocked a proposal to honour her with a commemorative 50p coin on the grounds that she was ‘a racist, a sexist and a homophobe’. Millions of children would probably disagree.

Did Enid Blyton ever visit her Sheffield relations? Perhaps not, she became increasingly distant from her mother and with her less direct relatives, although a visit to Meadway Drive at Dore to see Auntie Alice May might not have been out of the question.

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.