Obituary: Paul Torday, author

Born: 1 August, 1946, in County Durham. Died: 18 December, 2013, in Northumberland, aged 67

Paul Torday
Paul Torday

Paul Torday, the author of the best-selling novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, became a prolific author in his retirement after a career in business.

He had been diagnosed with cancer shortly after he completed that debut novel, published in 2007, when he was 59 (though he never disclosed it) but said he always strove to write “the ultimate story”.

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Writing, along with salmon fishing, was central to Torday’s later life. He published seven novels – one a year for the remainder of his life – each exploring a different social anxiety – alcoholism, romance, schizophrenia and racism – but none outshone the success of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which sold more than half a million copies and became a Hollywood film.

Paul Torday was the son of a businessman who came to the UK from Hungary before the Second World War. The family founded an electronics business in north-east England and later expanded into engineering. Torday attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, where he proved a bright and able pupil, winning a scholarship to read English at Pembroke College, Oxford.

After studying business management and market research, he joined his father in the family firm, Torday & Carlisle, in 1973.

The firm was well established and initially prospered under Torday’s management. Profits rose steadily and it got a stock market quotation in 1990. Torday had seen the firm through a severe downturn in the engineering industry in the late Eighties but during the Nineties it had accumulated sizeable debts and failed to pay a dividend in 1992.

The firm was sold to a rival and Torday found a job elsewhere.

He expanded his own business interests by making judicious purchases – one linked to the oil and gas industry.

With his commercial life more secure, Torday lived the life of a country squire: he much enjoyed the outdoor life and the Northumberland and Borders countryside. He was a keen angler and shot, and walked the hills with his dogs and tended his garden.

It was the experience of working in the oil industry that gave him the idea for his first book. Torday was at a business meeting in Oman when he conceived the idea of a novel based on a Yemeni sheikh who wanted to diversify the economy of his country by introducing salmon fishing on to the rivers of his barren, desert land.

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The plot had many twists and turns – not least visits to the sheikh’s baronial pile in the Highlands with the hero teaching the sheikh the subtleties of casting a fly. It was told with a glorious energy and a clear insight into the way government contracts are arrived at and signed for all the wrong reasons. Along with the sardonic drama, Torday captured a strong streak of satire and wry wit.

To the relationship between the two central characters he brought a real warmth and humanity.

It was as if, throughout his business career, Torday had been observing the attitudes and mannerisms of those around the table and had stored them in his memory banks.

Torday delivered the draft to his agent and some weeks later he was informed that publishers were in a furious auction for the rights. He was the centre of the Frankfurt Book Fair that year and an auction soon started for the film rights.

Sadly, within months of this acclaim, Torday was diagnosed with cancer. He seldom attended the launch parties of his books and avoided interviews. Torday never spoke about his illness publicly and carried on writing with enthusiasm. In 2009, he published The Girl On The Landing – whose film rights have recently been acquired by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.

Much of the book is set at Beinn Caorrun, a Perthshire glen with a mysterious past. Reviewing the book in The Scotsman, Allan Massie wrote: “We move from comedy, through pain, to a greater mystery than the mystery with which, on the ordinary level of crime and detection, the author has gripped us.”

The movie of Salmon Fishing, starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, had its premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival in 2012.

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Torday’s most recent book, Light Shining in the Forest, is about abducted children and is set in north-east England. It is thought he has left an unfinished, eighth manuscript.

One of Torday’s enduring passions was salmon fishing. He did not seem to mind if he actually caught any fish – he simply loved being in his waders watching the river and its wild life. “I can enjoy two or three days of doing nothing,” he once ­explained, “but after that I need something to do. Fishing, for example, which is why I make at least one trip to Scotland every year.”

His 1971 marriage to Jane was dissolved 1989. In 1991 he married Penelope Taylor who, along with two sons from his first marriage, survive him.