Joan Brown and Bagley’s career as a novelist

The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley - © The Bagley Brief

Bagley had taken up fencing in 1940, the only sport he ever pursued, and had joined fencing clubs whilst in Durban and Johannesburg. It was at a fencing club party in Johannesburg in 1959 that he was introduced, as Simon, to his future wife Joan Magaret Brown (which she assumed was his given name). They soon realised they shared common interests, as Joan worked at a bookshop Bagley regularly frequented.

Desmond & Joan Bagley pictured together in Reykjavík, Iceland in August 1969. Image © & courtesy DV ehf.It was a whirlwind romance, he took Joan to dinner the following Sunday, to a circus on Monday and proposed marriage to her on the Tuesday after knowing her for only ten days. They were married on 2nd September 1960.

Joan worked as a Manager at ‘Exclusive Books‘ in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg and the knowledge of the book trade that she gained during her eleven-year term of employment proved extremely useful. Well placed to know what type of novel and publishing house were popular her advice led Bagley to the publishing house of William Collins. Collins were publishing successful authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh under their Crime Club imprint. But it was the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Geoffrey Jenkins that were proving the most popular at the time. This fitted Bagley’s idea for a plot involving Mussolini’s missing gold, which an old work colleague, from Durban, had allegedly found and hidden in Italy. Taking his wife’s advice, he read the novels, taking them apart as an engineer would take apart a machine to understand the mechanics of the stories, analysing their word count and chapter structure.

Bagley’s father, John, had died in 1954 and on 20th March 1961 his mother, Hannah passed away leaving him an inheritance of £300. Bagley had worked out that with his inheritance, his wife’s salary and some good husbandry he could live on the money for three months without working. He sat down at a desk he had bought for £7 and in-between administering to a sick Siamese cat (a teaspoon of bouillon and brandy every hour on the hour) he commenced what was to become his first published novel The Golden Keel. Typing as he always had done with a single finger of his left hand.

Joan made an introduction for her husband to John Donaldson, who was in charge of the Johannesburg office of William Collins, and Bagley walked into the office and over coffee told Donaldson he had written a Collins novel for Collins. This did in fact prove to be the case, Donaldson sent the novel to the London office and Bagley was introduced to Robert Knittel, who was to become his editor and life-long friend.

Desmond Bagley pictured at Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames embankment, London in January 1971.First, Last and Always a Storyteller

In 1964, following the success of The Golden Keel, Bagley and his wife left South Africa and following a brief, and unsuccessful, residency in Italy the couple moved to England, settling in Devon. They lived at Manor Cottage in Bishopsteignton until, in August 1965, they found their Georgian home, Hay Hill, in Totnes. The couple moved from their home at Hay Hill to Câtel House, in the parish of St. Andrew on the Channel Island of Guernsey, in November 1976. An islander at heart, Bagley came to love his new home later saying:

..It is really a place where the peace settles into your bones as you sit at Cobo and watch that marvellous mellow light seemingly springing from the rocks at sunset. It is my home – I would have no other. [1]

Bagley’s novels depict natural disasters, political and economic sabotage, espionage, germ warfare, third-world revolution, sea and air adventures and treasure hunts. His vivid descriptions of international locations give the reader an insight into the terrain, local customs and points of interest, almost reading like a travelogue, though never at the expenses of the plot. The background was always treated as another character in his novels. His technical information, always vital to the plot, is both carefully researched and detailed. He once said that he read twenty newspapers a week, twenty magazines a month and a book every day. He built up an extensive library and had what he called a ‘fly-paper’ memory.

His hobbies included the study of mathematics and symbolic logic, war gaming, fencing and computing. From his Citizen 60-1012 quartz digital watch to his use of computers, he was an early adopter of new technology. In October 1973 his first machine, a Hewlett-Packard, cost an astonishing £5,777.46 with the printer costing an extra £1,335.85. In 1979 he upgraded to another machine costing £12,963 and later purchased a Xerox 860 dedicated word-processor, one of the first of its kind. He was ahead of his time although not, as he once said, ahead of the author Len Deighton in this respect. Above all else Bagley said:

I consider myself to be first, last and always a storyteller. [2]

Next: Joan Bagley and posthumous publication


Image: Desmond & Joan Bagley pictured together in Reykjavík, Iceland in August 1969 © & courtesy DV ehf.

Image: Desmond Bagley pictured at Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames embankment, London circa 1969-70 © Jerry Bauer, from the collection of Philip Eastwood.

1. Bagley. D. ‘A little peace of Britain’ In Britain Magazine (London: The British Tourist Authority, 1980).

2. Bagley, D. ‘Writing Action Fiction’ Writer, 86 (Boston: The Writer Inc., 1973).

From ‘The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley Exhibition’, first exhibited at the Guille-Allés Library, St. Peter Port, Guernsey – 10th May – 9th June 2018.

The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley - © The Bagley Brief.