My favourite second-hand bookshop is on the way to the grocer’s, so a simple trip for a pint of milk can take some time. I’m always searching for something interesting and orange, an old and possibly forgotten and hopefully classic Penguin.
Usually the orangey quest ends in disappointment, akin to finding a tangerine under the sofa that’s been hiding since Christmas. But then A High-Pitched Buzz by Roger Longrigg turns up.
The cover is a cartoon, always a good sign. The first-time author is a Scot, born in Edinburgh. The blurb on the back describes a comic tale set in the advertising game: “Amid a high-pitched buzz of bluff and chatter we watch … a pageant of fairly bright young things and shop-soiled girls, elbowing their way forward … ” I can’t wait to read it. Indeed, before I’ve got the book home – not a long journey – I’ve convinced myself it’s the story of the real Mad Men, the cult American TV drama about adland which returns to our screens next week.
It isn’t quite that. In fact, it’s a whole lot more interesting.
Roger Longrigg worked in advertising in London and used his experiences as the basis for A High-Pitched Buzz and two follow-ups, Switchboard and Wrong Number, the latter being published in 1959, the year Mad Men began its story. And for the author, that’s when the real fun started.
He stopped sitting through tedious meetings about brand diversification and became a wildly diversifying writerly brand. He ceased selling dreams based on the notion that you could, for a small down-payment and hire purchase, change your life and become someone else, and split himself into eight different Roger Longriggs. And the books he proceeded to write under all those aliases amused and amazed the literary world through various scandals and unmaskings.
Longrigg, the real one, died in 2000 at the age of 70 and it takes a bit of time to track down his widow and fellow writer Jane Chichester, 83, to her cottage near Basingstoke, Hampshire, because she doesn’t have email. “I’m afraid Roger is quite forgotten now, which is rather sad,” she says. “But he had the most tremendous fun in his writing life – all of them.”
His greatest disguise produced his most sensational book, The Passion Flower Hotel, about schoolgirls who set up a brothel in their gymnasium for the neighbouring boys’ school, and purported to be written by Rosalind Erskine, 15-year-old nymphet. Published in 1962, it became a succès de scandale, racily exploited by Pan, experts at that sort of thing, and so convincingly did it portray the interior life of a teenage girl that few doubted its veracity. Those that did, almost exclusively in literary circles, enjoyed the delicious speculation over the writer’s real identity.
“But then Roger went to a cocktail party, drank too many martinis, and told a man who told the William Hickey gossip column in the Daily Express that he’d been responsible for The Passion Flower Hotel,” recalls Jane. “It was so stupid. He swore this fellow to secrecy but the headline the next day was ‘Balding adman is Rosalind Erskine’. I’m afraid that caused sales to drop off quite dramatically.”
Jane met her future husband when she was the tea-girl at the ad agency Coleman Prentice & Varley. “I was told to take a saucer of milk to the genius on the top floor who had just come down from Oxford. It was for his Pekingese. I said: ‘I have Pekingese and they don’t drink milk.’ But I had to do it, anyway. Later, he came down to the typing pool and spotted me reading Sporting Life. I gave him a winner for the next day and that was the start of our romance.”
She remembers Longrigg working on ad campaigns for Golden Wonder, Benson & Hedges and Cadbury – “There was one for plain chocolate, a young woman dripping in diamonds and pearls who insisted: ‘I’m a plain girl’.” The “never had it so good” years were an exciting time to be in advertising. “You could get rich quicky,” adds Jane. A High-Pitched Buzz earned him a £100 advance – “That was thrilling” – and after its success Hollywood came calling. “He was flown first-class and was going to write an original screenplay but the film never got made. Later, Hollywood called again. ‘Rog, we want you back.’ He said: ‘I’m terribly sorry but I’m off to Newmarket.’ He loved his horseracing but that was probably a mistake.”
It was Longrigg’s agent, Graham Watson, who suggested he adopt different guises. “He said: “You need to write three books a year to keep the family, but not even Dick Francis fans want to read three of his in 12 months.” Thus, in addition to Rosalind Erskine, he became Laura Black to specialise in Scottish-set bodice-rippers, Ivor Drummond to attempt to outdo James Bond and Grania Beckford to spoof Jane Austen.
As Frank Parrish, creator of Dan Mallett, “a loveable poacher based on our vet”, he scooped a literary prize for first-time authors, the John Creasey Dagger, then had to confess that the award-winner was in fact his 26th book. “Roger had to hand the dagger back.”
Another scrape came with Love Among the Bottles, which imagined 1966 Britain with a pot-smoking black prime minister. “We’d been staying at this rather louche hotel on Majorca run by a chap called Fluffy Wheeler and, stupidly, Roger used it as the basis for a brothel in the book,” says Jane. “Fluffy had a one-armed barrister who launched a libel action. That cost us £2000 and the book had to be withdrawn.”
But most of his books sold well and sometimes Longrigg would splash out on a racehorse. “Ours were looked after by a trainer who was completely deaf. I think the only win was at an evening meeting at Wolverhampton.”
Longrigg wrote in longhand, and he could do it anywhere, often on a clipboard floating in a swimming pool. Some books were fast and he could return from a weekend visiting a dissident writer friend in Prague with the latest more or less completed. Other had fast titles: The Necklace of Skulls, The Priest of the Abomination. Jane recalls a sailing holiday in the Mediterranean when she found Longrigg hard at work on the deck. “‘I rarely asked what he was writing but did that day. ‘Never you mind,’ he said with a grin.” This was his other brothel book, The Passion Flower Hotel.
After the Lady Chatterley trial, novelists fell over themselves attempting to shock, but this was mild erotica with humour. Reviewers always praised Longrigg’s ear for dialogue and there are some very funny exchanges between the schoolgirls as they discuss how to word the “services” their bordello will offer: “Intimacy? … Sounds like a story in the News of the World … Relations, then … Sounds like aunts and whatnot … Consummation? … Sounds so married … Completion? … Like buying a house … Insertion? … Shut up Melissa!”
But how did he manage to pass himself off as a teenage girl? “Well, he had three of his own! Every girl, and quite a few boys, had The Passion Flower Hotel under their pillow.” It was turned into a musical, score by John Barry, with Francesca Annis and Pauline Collins when they were young unknowns and a German film version gave a first role to Nastassja Kinski. “Alas, it was a blue movie but we thought, oh well, it’ll fund the girls’ schooling. The money was only good for one term!”
There were other disappointments for Longrigg such as when the mooted movie of Mother Love starring Glenn Close never happened (though there was a Diana Rigg TV adaptation). But, when Domini Taylor and Megan Barker were added to his gallery of pseudonyms, the final haul was 55 novels. “He wore himself out,” says Jane. Didn’t having so many alter egos get confusing?
“Well, Roger was totally absorbed in all his plots and characters. He’d lock himself in his study all day, only coming down briefly to walk the dogs. And he typed using just one finger.
“He answered all his fan mail in character, which in the case of The Passion Flower Hotel was quite a few lesbians. American girls adored the Laura Black books. Their letters would go: ‘I want to write – how do I get started?’ He’d reply: ‘You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein’.”
Longrigg stopped short of recommending 60 Benson & Hedges, his daily intake. “Those were the days – thanks to advertising, of course – that smoking was considered glamorous and, for a writer, Runyonesque. But the ciggies sharpened his brain. He stopped 15 years before he died and I’m afraid he never wrote another good book.”
She thanks me for my interest and expresses the hope that all the Longriggs, by whatever name, will eventually be reprinted. Now I’m off to find The Necklace of Skulls … I mean some milk.
l Mad Men Season 5 begins on Sky Atlantic on 27 March.