South Africa, journalism and short stories 1947 – 1962

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

Employment in South Africa

Bagley was employed at a factory making hardboard from papyrus, located on a small island in the middle of a swamp approximately fifteen miles outside Kampala. He contracted Malaria, a condition that would trouble him for the rest of his life, and left Uganda for a healthier climate, working briefly in Kenya before moving to Southern Rhodesia. He found employment as a stores clerk in the Zvishavne asbestos mine in Shabani and worked at the mine for a year before moving to Pinetown, 20km west of central Durban, where he worked managing the stores for the Pinetown Construction Company.

In 1951, keen to start a career in writing, he worked for the South African Broadcasting Corporation writing radio scripts on ‘Popular Scientific Subjects’, explaining the subjects in easy to understand layman’s terms. Most of his later features were to be of a similar nature and this style also became a characteristic of his later novel writing. He took employment as an import clerk for a firm of fruit importers, was made redundant and, unable to survive on his radio broadcast earnings, he moved closer to Johannesburg in search of work.

In Estcourt, between Durban and Johannesburg, he found employment with another hardboard manufacturer, Masonite (Africa) Ltd. Starting at 1s/2d an hour making wooden crates, he progressed to the position of warehouse superintendent also taking charge of producing the in-house magazine. He later moved to Johannesburg, working in the stores department of the local hospital and then took employment in the Time Office of the Glen Harmony Gold Mine in the Orange Free State.

Newspaper Journalism

Desmond Bagley - 21st August 1956 'Bringing People Back from The Dead'. Image © The Johannesburg Star.Bagley’s entry into newspaper journalism started on 21st August 1956 when he had an article published in the Johannesburg Star. Embarking on a career as a freelance journalist, between 1958 and 1962, he served as film critic for both the Rand Daily Mail and the Johannesburg Film Society also writing book, theatre, concert and record reviews. In addition he wrote feature articles for the Rand Daily Mail and other Johannesburg newspapers including the Star and the Sunday Times. So prolific was he as a newspaper journalist that he wrote under a number of pseudonyms: Anthony Cantrell; John Reed; Justin Pound; Simon Brockhurst; and John Lackland.

With his love of science he enjoyed covering the Rand Easter Show, an annual showcase for innovation agriculture and industry. During this period he progressed from being a minor reporter on the show to virtually organising all the daily show supplements, becoming the Rand Show expert. With his love of science fiction and background as an engineer he was in his element. On Saturday 9th April 1960 Bagley was reporting on the show when he witnessed the assassination attempt of South Africa’s Prime Minister, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. In 1978 he recounted the details of the incident in ‘The Circumstances Surrounding the Crime’, published in I, Witness, a publication of the Mystery Writers of America.

Wishing to broaden his scope he also started writing film script scenarios for the Johannesburg based film and television advertising company Filmlets (S.A.) Ltd., a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox. He wrote his first scenario for Barclays Bank on 6th June 1960 and in total wrote fifty-nine scripts, whilst still working as a freelance journalist.

Short Stories and Science Fiction

Desmond Bagley 'My Old Man's Trumpet' Argosy Magazine January 1957. Image © Amalgamated Press.In the late 1950’s Bagley had started experimenting with the short story form, having tried his luck at poetry without much success. His first published short story was ‘My Old Man’s Trumpet’, which appeared in the English short story magazine Argosy, in January 1957. This fantasy story was Bagley’s attempt to show a reality behind reality, a strangeness behind familiarity. It was inspired by a number of things: his interest in Kwela, the penny-whistle-based street music of urban detribalised Africa; his father, who had played the trombone in his early and middle years, though had to stop on medical advice; and the fantasy writing of the science fiction author Ray Bradbury.

By March 1962, in addition to his journalism, Bagley had settled down to a steady production of short science fiction stories, producing six over the preceding two months in a state ready for submission to a publisher. In seeking an agent to represent him he chose the prominent New York based Scott Meredith Literary Agency, whose first client had been P.G. Wodehouse and were to later represent many prominent writers including the science fiction writers J.G. Ballard, Arthur C. Clark and Philip K. Dick.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - Desmond Bagley Welcome, comradeOf the six stories Bagley submitted only one was to be published. ‘Welcome, comrade’, was taken up by the American publisher Mercury Inc., and was published, under the pseudonym Simon Bagley, in the April 1964 edition of their Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction periodical. There are touches of Bagley’s later writing style evident throughout this story, which is resplendent with the humour, attention to detail and willingness to both inform and educate the reader that would become a trademark of his later work. Written at the height of the Cold War, and with so many pivotal events occurring between Western Bloc and Easter Bloc countries, this story reads as both a satire and a metaphor for the Cold War as a whole. Satire and the Cold War was a technique and topic that Bagley revisited later in his writing career with his novel Running Blind.

Bagley was paid £5 for the story, which he promptly spent on a meal in an expensive restaurant, for both himself and his wife Joan, whom he had met in 1959. Bagley had realised that if he wanted to achieve a successful career as a novelist he would have to change his genre, so together with Joan he embarked on some serious market research.


Next: Joan Brown and Bagley’s Career as a Novelist


Images © The Johannesburg Star; © Amalgamated Press; & © Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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.