14 February 2010

Dick Francis RIP

So farewell, then, Dick Francis ...

I notice how tactfully the press gloss over the question of how much he actually wrote of his stories, but that's not the point.

In this life we have to box clever but above all we have to box solvent.

As Dick neared the end of the useful money side of his career as a jockey, he needed to leverage his assets - don't you love my Wall St lingo? - and what more sensible way than team up on the Underwood with his shrewd wife Mary?

  • Dick knew racing backwards and talked it well
  • He was a charmer whom no one would want to catch out
  • Team Francis and those novels were the franchise to which the book trade aspired.

    I worked briefly in a very humble PR capacity for his publishers Michael Joseph in the mid 1990s. I wasn't trusted with heavyweights like Francis or Jeremy Paxman but I was handed the poison chalice of Spike Milligan's 5th volume of his Irish trilogy 'Where have all the bullets gone' and I had the honour of plucking Geoffrey 'Rogue Male' Household out of the publicity 3rd division and effortlessly land him the press coverage he deserved.

    I had been in the business 12 years earlier, handling the PR of the stellar Secker & Warburg and basking in the reflected glory of their consistently fine books.

    I returned to the business as a disheveled hack for hire but Francis remembered me with David Farrer from a launch party he'd attended for 'Breeding for Racing' and a charming bijou auto-biog, "Horse Sense" by the mischievous Alan Deacon.

    Dick was married to an essential appendage for a writer - a disciplined wife - and we all knew to pass all PR schedules thru Mary.

    One day I happened to be hanging around the lobby when the Francises came in and I made a passing flattering remark about a literary trick he had used to keep the interest up and which I hoped would survive the proof copy to the bound edition.

    Something about Dick's nonplussed look gave the impression that he not only had no idea what I was talking about but that he did not WANT to know, and the look he exchanged with Mary also sparked my curiosity.

    De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est, I always say but now is as good a time as any to share this snippet of memory.

    I thought nothing of it and went about my days until one evening bumping into the formerly powerful lit ed of the Sunday Express, Jack-Good-lookalike, Graham Lord, I mentioned my frisson of puzzlement.

    Lord reacted quite vigorously and shared his own opinion, later voiced in his unauthorized biography of DF where he suggested that the Francis canon had in fact been written by Francis' wife Mary.

    As I say, who cares? Certainly not MJ's editrice to whom I oozed up in an effort to find out more.

    But once you know that, you watch the TV interviews more closely and damn me if Dick didn't paint in very broad brush strokes, that and the fact that he was a legend that no one would pull down.

    "Dick - I think this is one of your best thrillers - I could hear the hoofbeats drumming off the pages. One of the best scenes is where you have Colonel Kircudbright stay behind to switch the tonics and then leave by the laundry exit. Did you ever know this trick to be played in real life?"

    "I'm glad you liked that bit because it was great fun to write.

    You've just reminded me of a style tip the Queen Mother gave me after reading an advance copy I sent her."

    Who could quibble and for his belly flop on the Queen Mum's derby favorite, he deserves all the rest he's doubtless enjoying.
  • Sameness = Francis' strength
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