The Tamanrasset Aittisal

I met him in the late 1970’s, a few years after he had moved to Guernsey.

It was a Saturday in spring and I had bumped into a local antique dealer friend of mine outside the yacht club in St Peter Port (‘Town’ to the locals) who was asking if I was still flying in West Africa. I said I was and that I had brought one of the company aircraft north for major servicing, and had refuelled at Tamanrasset (Southern Sahara). At the mention of Tamanrasset someone tugged at my sleeve.

That someone was of course Desmond Bagley (thereafter to be known to me as Simon, as to all family and friends) who had been to Tam the hard way (overland at the end of the war on his way to South Africa). He was, that day, visiting the Yacht Club for his Saturday lunchtime tincture when he heard this stranger mention the name Tamanrasset – not too common, one might consider, in the sleepy island of Guernsey, so he had grabbed the stranger’s sleeve (Simon liked collecting friends who had been ‘around the block a few times’ as he anointed the well travelled).

Simon lived in an 18th Century house in the Parish of Castel, near to the lower end of the Rohais, with his wife Joan and a Dragon Li (Chinese) cat that rejoiced in the name of
Xingyun (Lucky). The front of the house was an open courtyard whilst the rear of the property was a beautifully landscaped garden.

Simon’s study was on the upper floor and covered all the rooms on the East side of the house. It was full of sagging shelves and about ten thousand books – I was very impressed and I told him so. Simon shrugged it off and explained once you were a published author you received free books from your publishers lists. (Considering a major publishers monthly output over a twenty-year period it is easy to see how such a library was assembled.)

The rooms had been knocked through into a kind of open plan modern day office and there were workstations at every turn with one housing a massive HP Computer and Laser printer. Being used to an old manual Imperial typewriter myself, with the inevitable carbon paper, I was impressed all over again, this time at the quality of the pages from the Laser printer – as were Collins his publishers. I imagine he was the only author on their books who turned in perfect manuscripts [or to be more correct
, typescripts]. An example being his friend, Dick Francis, who would send a manuscript to his publisher on dissimilar sizes of paper, blue pencilled with thousands of hand-written corrections – something they tolerated because Dick was a top best-selling author).

My First Novel

Simon usually knocked off the writing gig at about 1700 hours (or 5 o’clock as it used to be called in Civvy Street) Monday to Friday, and if I was on the island and not flying around Africa or the Middle East I would call by his house at about 1830 (you’ve got it, half-six).

So it happened on the evening of the summer solstice of that year.

We were sitting out in the garden with the single malt poured when he asked me where I had been since my last visit. On this occasion I had finished my West Africa 3-year stint, contracting malaria for my troubles, and had undertaken a military contract for the Israeli Air Force (delivering Dorniers from South Africa to Tel Aviv). I mentioned an old Rhodesian friend I had met up with in Malawi and then how I had journeyed up to Nairobi and onward to Juba in the southern Sudan and then to Khartoum, Luxor, Cairo, Larnaca, and thence back to Tel Aviv. As the Israeli/Arab peace accord had at the time been consigned to the ‘Laugh & Tear Up Tray’ I had passed through Egypt giving my final destination as Europe - to do otherwise might have been a poor career move. Once in Cyprus I had been briefed to phone an Israeli Air Force major who could give me a callsign and a time the next morning to enter Israeli airspace at a specific checkpoint. ‘Get that wrong,’ the major said casually, ‘and you will be shot down by patrolling F4 Phantoms’. The thought that this sounded a bad way to start a day was classic understatement!

The single malt bottle had nearly emptied by the time I finished my travelogue.

‘There you are,’ he proclaimed. “Your first story.”

“It was just a flight.”

“How many people do your kind of work? How many people get to travel across Africa and meet all those interesting people you mentioned, and not just once a year on their annual hols but every day, every week, every month. How many people run the gauntlet of being shot down by the friendlies for being late at that checkpoint you mentioned? Write about what you know, that’s the key to this business.”

“I doubt I would term flying straight and level hour after hour very exciting,” I replied.

“That’s where the fiction comes in, John. Add a bit of spice. Diamond smuggling, murder … a chase … something like an aerial
Thirty Nine Steps.

So I did. A simple first-person tale of a pilot who had contracted that rare disease, a fear of flying, but had to do the trip because he needed the money. And yes, I included Simon’s diamonds and the odd murder or two … and even a chase up the East side of Africa. That book was titled
Skytrap; mined from Ruskin’s The Sky [Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two moments together; almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost divine in its infinity] - which seemed appropriate, as the sky can be a truly unforgiving place, especially to a fearful pilot.

The manuscript eventually went to Michael Sissons at A.D. Peters Literary Agency in London and as luck would have it Michael had an author on his books called Gavin Lyall. Gavin had been writing ‘flying thrillers’ (
Wrong Side of the Sky being one of his big best sellers in the 1970’s) for some years but had decided he wanted a change to something more cerebral. So Michael suddenly had a slot for a ‘flying thriller’ writer. That autumn morning my manuscript landed on his desk. Michael had his writer and I had my agent. (Footnote to history: The firm was founded by Augustus Dudley Peters in 1924 and A.D. eventually represented many leading writers, including: Hilaire Belloc, J.B. Priestly, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. His office, in my time was just off The Strand and was a Dickensian terraced house with a winding staircase that went up about three floors to his office at the top. Bookshelves crammed with First Editions covered every millimetre of wall space. I remember my first visit with great fondness now, although at the time I was more than a little intimidated at the thought of such literary greats treading those stairs before me).

A few weeks later I was invited to London for lunch with the charming Rosie Cheetham at Century. She was to be my editor.

It was on the BEA Viscount flight back to Guernsey that night, clutching an author’s contract and feeling quite pleased with myself, that I recalled Rosie’s words over a delightful lunch of Sole Meuniere accompanied by a suitably chilled Sancerre.

‘I love the settings, John, they are so realistic and the characters too, rather memorable. Just one or two little things if you don’t mind me mentioning them: Perhaps you could tighten up the prologue, it’s a bit overlong at the moment. The middle needs a little more romance as well I think. Oh yes, and the end; could we perhaps have a heightened sense of excitement – a twist in the tale as it were, something really heart-stopping? Other than that you really are a very good writer and we are so pleased to have you on board.’

The BEA steward served my celebratory scotch and as I raised the glass in a silent toast I suddenly realised what Rosie had actually meant. Hell, she wanted a complete rewrite! My heart sank for a full five seconds as I contemplated the amount of homework she had set me. It lifted just as quickly when the little voice inside my head laughed and commented rather grandly (he’s that sort of alter ego), ‘Oh well dear boy, at least you are now a professional author.’

Simon had a great sense of humour. He also suffered with a speech impediment that might have destroyed a lesser man.

One of his evening yarns over the single malt concerned his sixth or seventh novel launch (he was a bestselling writer from his first,
The Golden Keel).

As happens at these times the editor calls or writes to the author and invites him to town (as London was ever known to writers’) for lunch and to meet the Press. These Press meet and greets usually took place in a convenient Wine Bar (new 1970’s fashion in watering holes – when the French suddenly forgave Agincourt and now loved us and why not, their
vin ordinaire sales had suddenly gone stratospheric) within walking distance of the Publishers. So it was that Simon sat with his merry band of journalists who were diligently working their way through the expenses paid wine list. When the afternoon drinking jag neared its end one of the scribes asked, ‘What would you have done if you hadn’t become a best selling author, Simon?’

Simon smiled in what he called his St Francis of Assisi manner (reserved for children and dumb animals) and said, ‘With a bloody stammer like I’ve got you silly bugger, writing is the only thing I
can do.’ The Press boys, well into their cups, roared with laughter at the self-deprecating humour and forever after took him to their hearts.

He pulled the same stunt a month later in Guernsey when he agreed to be the guest speaker at the Ladies Luncheon Club (or something equally as grand). Apart from the Vicar’s wife who was a little red faced at the colourful language, Simon had the ladies in stitches. They too took him to their hearts.

When I finished the final book of The John Winter trilogy (
White Lie, Saigon Express and Then a Soldier) I reached a simple decision. I felt totally worn out and my crippling schedule of 18-months solid research and 3-months writing and rewriting (coupled to occasional flying duties) had affected my health. So when I had written the last page of Then A Soldier – 0600 hours on a dawn-chorusless Boxing Day morning, I logged off from the computer and half turned to the lady who had rested on my shoulder for more than 20-years and said, “Thank you for staying with me for so long, Calliope, but I don’t think I can carry on any more, so I’m letting you go. I know you’ll find someone else to help and inspire. A safe journey to you now.’ And in my wrecked and tired state, which had lasted for a solid twelve-weeks to meet my publisher’s deadline, she went. I believe in such things. Calliope, the beautiful daughter of Zeus, was of course one of the legendary Muses. I like to believe that she had spent 20-years with Simon and after his passing had seen his friend struggling in his new career and so decided he needed her guidance.

Before my writing days when I was a full-time professional pilot, my reading was limited to aviation material and airliner checklists. These many years later I find I have become seriously educated in the Arts and have discovered a greater passion for literature, which marries well to my other love, classical music. Naturally my spiritual home the sky always wins the day as it has been with me since my first flight at the tender age of 13 and will be so to the end.

Thinking back I may not have been as prolific as I had hoped but I enjoyed the journey. I certainly met some memorable people in the writing and publishing world but if one is worthy of mention it would have to be the legendary Rosie Cheetham, (now de Courcy), my first editor and without doubt the most loved and respected of all.

And all of this was due to a kind and generous man with a terrible speech impediment who never let it subjugate him, and who once heard a stranger on a Guernsey sidewalk mention a little known place in the southern Sahara.

As for the title of this piece – The Tamanrasset
Aittisal - a passing nod to the Arabic speaking Tuareg warriors of the Sahara who peopled my younger days when I occasionally dropped out of the sky to uplift fuel and share their mint tea. And, whom years earlier had offered Simon armoured protection on his overland odyssey to South Africa.

The Tamanrasset Connection that forged a never-to-be–forgotten friendship.

John Templeton Smith

This article, has been generously written by another best-selling author, offering a unique insight into their friendship. Please note, it is Copyright © 2017 and may not be copied, used or re-distributed without prior agreement. Please email me if you need more information.