Born: 22 March, 1931, in Newport, South Wales. Died: 6 May, 2014, in Salisbury, Wiltshire, aged 83
LELSIE Thomas once recalled a moment when he stood at the window of his home, a 17th-century canonry in Cathedral Close at Salisbury, with his neighbour, Edward Heath. “I can’t believe I live here, I’m a working-class boy,” Thomas mused. “So am I,” rumbled the former Conservative prime minister.
Thomas was indeed a working-class boy, who grew from humble beginnings in Newport, South Wales, to have a career as a best-selling writer and novelist which spanned five decades.
His most famous book is still the Virgin Soldiers, based on his own experiences of National Service in Malaya, which has sold seven million copies worldwide and is still on sale today.
Despite the fame and fortune it brought, Thomas continued to work prolifically. He was awarded an OBE for services to literature in 2004, marking a career distinguished both in popularity and longevity. When not writing, he loved cricket, travel, collecting stamps, and was a fabled raconteur.
Thomas was born in Newport, to a family of sailors. His grandfather had sailed round Cape Horn on a clipper. His father was a stoker, a man he would later describe as “the sort that would set out for the corner shop to buy tobacco and turn up two years later having been to Spain”.
His absences were sporadic, and the family always poor. A Newport headmaster wrote of young Thomas: “He’s a good lad but he’s had a very difficult upbringing. One day he’ll either be a clerical worker or a craftsman”.
His difficult childhood got abruptly more difficult when his father was killed when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1943. His mother died of cancer six months later. Thomas, then 12, and his nine-year-old brother Roy were sent to live in a Dr Barnardo’s children’s home, the subject for his first book, This Time Next Week, published in 1964.
Life in the home was spartan and food was scarce: “two rounds of bread and dripping in the morning, two slices of bread and jam in the afternoon”.
But Thomas enjoyed the camaraderie of the other children. He wrote later: “People think you grow up with a chip on your shoulder after an experience like that, but it never injured me… I never had any doubts that things would go right for me.”
He trained as a bricklayer at Kingston Technical School, but was always determined to write, and progressed to a course in journalism at Walthamstow and a reporter’s job on a local newspaper in Essex. Then, in 1949, he did National Service. He hoped, he said later, to join the British Army and see the world. He was sent to Singapore to work as a clerk in the Pay Corps, which gave him a desk job by day and a chance to explore his exotic new surroundings while off-duty.
He did see active service, however, when he was sent “up country” to fight communist guerrillas.
He described one incident in East Malaya when he decided to try to get some sleep in a tent in the ammunition pit, after being kept awake by his comrades snoring. A corporal loading his rifle fired a shot by mistake, puncturing the tent fabric just above Thomas’s head.
His experiences in Malaya provided the material for his most famous book, the Virgin Soldiers, which he wrote while working as a feature writer on Fleet Street for the London Evening News in the early 1960s. He wrote with good humour and immediacy about young men hopeful of adventure and sex, bored by the tedium of garrison duty, both terrified and invigorated by the dangers of jungle warfare.
The novel sold 500,000 copies in its first six months. It was made into a film in 1969, directed by John Dexter and starring Hywel Bennett, Nigel Davenport and Lynn Redgrave. Thomas later said that the reason for its success might have been the word “virgin” in the title, and that if he had written it three decades later it would have been “three times as long, three times better written and (would) sell about a third as many copies”.
As a journalist on the London Evening News, Thomas had covered events such as the trial in Israel of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann and the funeral of Winston Churchill. But the success of the Virgin Soldiers allowed him to become a full-time writer. He would produce almost a book per year for the next 40 years, including 30 novels and a variety of non-fiction books, as well as writing for television.
Among his novels were Dover Beach and Tropic of Ruislip, and several featuring detective Dangerous Davies (played by Bernard Cribbins on film and Peter Davison on television). His publisher praised his “great mix of characters, strong sense of time and place, and unique ability to combine laughter and tears in the space of a few sentences”. His last novel, Soldiers and Lovers, was published in 2007.
Always a cricket aficionado, he met his second wife, Diana Miles, on the London Underground on the way to a Test Match at Lord’s. They have one son together, and Thomas has two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, to Maureen Crane.
He and Diana turned moving house into an artform, admitting that in their married life together they have owned upwards of 15 homes. The jewel among them, however, was the Walton Canonry in Salisbury, which they lovingly refurbished, and which in turn inspired a book, Almost Heaven: Tales from a Cathedral, published in 2010.
Thomas enjoyed recognition for his work, but was never forced to endure a level of celebrity which would have threatened his much-valued privacy. He continued to support causes important to him, becoming a vice-president of Barnardo’s, and retaining both Welsh and seafaring connections as the president of the Merchant Navy Association in South Wales.
In an interview in 1994, he described himself as “a born optimist”. The day after he died, Diana told the media: “He had a wonderful life and he travelled the world. All he ever wanted to do was write and that is what he did.”
Thomas is survived by his wife, Diana, four children, Lois, Mark, Gareth and Matthew, and four grandchildren.