Obituary: David Fiddimore, Scotsman letters contributor

Born: 23 December, 1944, in Pudsey, West Yorkshire. Died: 17 June, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 70.

David Fiddimore, author, former customs officer and regular contributor to The Scotsmans letters pages

David (Dave) Fiddimore was an accomplished and prize winning novelist, but his own life story outside the literary world would in itself make quite a story, albeit it one of fact rather than fiction.

Working as a junior HM Customs and Excise officer in swinging 60s London, Dave’s encounters included a cast as diverse and colourful as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the notorious Kray twins and Christine Keeler, the model at the centre of the Profumo scandal.

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A lifelong socialist and Labour Party supporter, Dave’s convictions and values would like many be shaped during the era he was born and raised in, post-war Britain – a time of huge progressive social change and the creation of the people’s NHS and the welfare state.

Dave was born in the West Yorkshire market town of Pudsey just two days before the final Christmas of the Second World War, the son of a chimney sweep serving at that time in Europe.

However, for family reasons Dave’s family moved to Carshalton, then part of Surrey, but now a suburb of London. After attending grammar school, Dave went to the Royal Veterinary College as a technician – where he met Marion, his future wife – but soon got itchy feet and moved into HM Customs and Excise, where he would serve almost 40 years.

Joining the service five years older than the average recruitment age, Dave’s view was that he would not last long, but as is so often the way with such feelings he would go on to outlast most of his fellow entrants on the induction course.

As a uniformed customs officer, jumping on and off ships for four/five years in pursuit of stashed tobacco and cigarettes were the best and most exciting of times for Dave. Although he would later go on to run the customs side of Glenmorangie and Balblair distilleries in the Highlands and then intelligence teams spread across Scotland, it is the London years that perhaps provide what Dave himself called his “Forest Gump moments”.

It was in late 1967 that Dave had his encounter with the fearsome Kray twins – Reggie and Ronnie – the gangland bosses who terrified sections of London’s East End for most of the 1950 and 1960s. Given a brief to face down the twins and issue them with a £100 fine for unpaid duty on the delivery of exports, the night before Dave admitted he was unable to sleep for fear of how the gangsters with a line and propensity for violence and intimidation would react.

When Dave arrived at the East End den of the Krays, he was met by a suited and immaculately dressed Reggie Kray, and he quickly informed the gangster he was issuing his company with a £100 fine for unpaid excise duty.

After inviting Dave in and learning of the fine, Kray reached out his hand for a handshake and simply said: “That’s fine, Mr Fiddimore. We don’t want no trouble with Her Majesty’s Customs.” He then went on to write out a cheque for £100, which he handed to Dave and offered him a cup of tea.

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The encounter came just months before the gangsters’ extreme brutality would finally catch up with them when they were arrested for and subsequently convicted of the murder of a gangland rival.

Christine Keeler, who played a role in the fall from power of the Conservative government in the 1960s after an affair with the minister of war John Profumo, was another of Dave’s passing acquaintances – they frequented the same Paddington pub. Although never a name-dropper, Dave, when pressed about his conversations with Keeler, would only say that she was the person who informed him John F Kennedy had been, in Dave’s words, “executed”, and who a month later would herself be jailed following a trial for perjury.

Such a fate did not befall one of the most famous couples of all, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor but his encounter with them in the late 1960s certainly made for a good story in the telling. The couple who made headline news around the world had a yacht moored off the Thames at Tower Pier and, standing at the top of the gangway, Dave’s instructions from his superiors were to make sure no one moved any goods such as alcohol or tobacco on or off the yacht.

But to make his job just a bit more difficult Taylor and Burton had dogs on board their yacht, all with quarantine status, but which the authorities had allowed the couple to keep there on the understanding they were not brought ashore and were attended by a quarantine officer.

Unbeknown to Dave at the time, that officer from Sprats Kennels turned out to be his eldest brother.

So during a shift that lasted almost a full weekend, Dave was forced to make sure the pet dogs of the celebrity couple didn’t come out for walkies in addition to his regular customs duties; one brother on the gangway, the other on the yacht, neither aware the other was there the entire weekend.

Of course given the nature of his work as a law enforcement officer Dave was involved in a number of notable seizures, witnessing the discovery of the last Chinese opium den in Scotland, which happened to be in Dundee back in the early 1990s.

This operation saw police chief constables flocking to Tayside from across Scotland to have their photographs taken in the last opium den. The next 
ten years of Dave’s service in the customs was in intelligence work, a time when he became settled in Edinburgh, the city where he would spend the rest of his life.

Well before Dave’s retirement and in fact throughout his working life, he had always harboured ambitions of being a novelist, but by his own admission never got past the first chapter and always got bored. But it was in Dave’s final five years in HM Customs when he took on an occasional training role that he decided he would start and finish his first novel.

In 2004, shortly after his retirement, he finished a novel set in the year he was born: 1944. As preparation, he spent hours walking around an old Second World War airfield that helped him develop the story set at a bomber station in the final year of the war.

In that year the book was entered in the Richard and Judy “How to Get Published” competition for Channel 4 and Dave scooped a £25,000 prize publishing contract.

The novel, Tuesday’s War, the first in a series of six, chronicles the story of Charlie Basset, an “Everyman” and Lancaster bomber radio operator.

The books take in the period from 1944 through to 1957 – covering post-war Britain right up to the aftermath of the Suez crisis.

In Dave’s books there is a great deal of social comment covering a period that saw the rise of Labour after the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state and a free NHS. The work reflects Dave’s belief as a socialist that we all have an absolute duty to protect and support the poor, whether it is felt they are deserving or not; for Dave this was an absolute belief in social justice.

In the Highlands in the 1980s Dave belonged to the Labour Party in Invergordon and worked to successfully unseat the Unionist/Tory MP Hamish Gray. However, they didn’t see Charles Kennedy sneaking up on them; he was to take the seat for the SDP-Liberal Alliance – Ross-shire was not yet ready for socialism.

Dave always retained his commitment to socialism and remained a member of the Labour Party right up to his death. He poured much of his energy into writing letters to The Scotsman and was also a member of the Edinburgh Fortean Society. Just before he died he decided which was the most important word in the English language – that word is “comrade”.

David Fiddimore died after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Marion and two daughters, Andrea and Gwen.