Friday, 15 May 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Richard Stanley Francis CBE FRSL (31 October 1920 – 14 February 2010)

By which, of course, we mean none other than Dick Francis, the celebrated and much-loved author. Now, at the very mention of that name, there will be some amongst us who will be muttering dark disgruntled complaints along the lines of, “What’s he got do with Academia & the Arts? All he ever did was write some thrillers.” Which is not unlike saying that “Churchill made some speeches,” seeing that Dick Francis was not only a prolific creator of bestsellers but also reached the pinnacle in no less than two careers, which including being crowned as Champion Jockey of the 1953-54 season. Anyone who hasn’t indulged in a Dick Francis is therefore criticising in uninformed ignorance; anyone who has will almost certainly not have stopped at just the one. As the famous quote has it: “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God.”

Richard Stanley Francis was born in Coedcanlas, Wales, to George and Catherine Francis, about whom precious little is known (in his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, Dick refers to them simply as Father and Mother). Whilst he wasn’t actually born in the saddle – even for his equine-obsessed family that would have proved a feat too far – it was most certainly in his blood, given that his grandfather and great-uncle had been two of the best amateur riders of their generation, while his own father had been a steeplechase jockey before the Great War and a horse-trader after it. Both Dick and his elder brother, Douglas (again, very little is known of him, apart from the fact that he was a sickly invalid prone to tuberculosis), learned to ride before they could even read and, in the true tradition of our Giants, Dick was a complete duffer at the academic side of things, spending more time playing truant than he did in the classroom, eventually leaving school at fifteen without any qualifications but with the decided intention of becoming a jockey. Indeed, where was the point in all that education to a young Francis anyway if, as the father’s motto insisted, “What he can't learn on the back of a horse is not worth teaching.” Somewhat on the dismissive side, perhaps, but, on the other hand, it’s entirely feasible to be in the saddle and browsing through a copy of The Brothers Karamazov at one and the same time, wouldn’t you say? And which of us hasn’t done that?

By 1938, aged only eighteen, Dick had become a trainer, though it seems that the powers-that-be in Nazi Germany were either entirely impervious to the fact or else simply didn’t give two hoots about it, because they went right ahead with their Annexing of the Sudetenland, following that up by rolling their tanks into Poland, at which Prime Minister Neville Peace-In-Our-Time Chamberlain rightly took umbrage and sent the blighters a Note telling them to jolly well sling their hooks sharpish like, or else. No such undertaking was received and consequently this country was at war with Germany. Which included Dick too, unfortunately, and he put his career on hold in order to enlist straight away. Given his background of almost saturation-point horses, horsemanship and all things remotely equine, the only possible place he could logically end up was precisely where he so dearly wanted to be: in the cavalry. So, what did the Army do? Stuck him in the RAF, of course. Flying bombers and fighters for the next six years. Not such a colossal blunder by a bunch of blithering imbeciles as it may at first appear (and they’ve made far worse over the years) because, if things did happen to get a bit sticky mid-air by any chance then, being as Dick was a jockey, they probably imagined he’d know how to fall …

In October 1945, with the war safely out of the way at last, Dick thought it might be just the right sort of time to take in a cousin’s wedding at Weston-super-Mare (well, why else would you even think of going there?), where his aunt had a hotel. There he met Mary Margaret Brenchley and the couple instantly fell in love (so they claim – something that would happen in Flying Finish, Knockdown and The Edge) and speedily made plans for a wedding of their own. They do say that the path of true love never runs smooth and so, naturally enough, hitches in their hitching began to appear even before they were under starter’s orders. For one thing, neither of the families was any too keen on the idea, hers thinking she should be marrying someone with a steady job, not some fellow who’d spent six years dropping bombs on folk from a great height. Dick’s lot, on the other hand, may have been well aware of how she had gained a degree in English and French when she was nineteen after only two years at university and that she was now an assistant stage manager in a company that included the young Arthur Lowe, but the point was that she knew nothing whatsoever about horses, so clearly she was a dead loss, wasn’t she? Nonetheless, married they were, in June 1947 (and it would last until her death in September 2000), for which Mary made her own dress, out of “cheese-straining cloth,” as they always, rather disparagingly, insist on putting it – it was impossible to get new clothes at the time – while Dick himself turned up to the ceremony sporting what he always wore: a riding injury, in this case a broken collarbone.

From there, it was off to live in Cheshire, where Dick – actually, we should refer to him as Richard because that’s what he was always known as to his wife and family – where Richard began to ride as an amateur, though by 1948 he had turned professional, thus fulfilling his longheld ambition to become the genuine article: he was a jockey. (The word itself is a diminutive of Jock, used generically for a boy or “fellow” and applied to highly unsavoury sorts such as horse-dealers, itinerant minstrels, vagabonds and the like, in which form it even turns up in Shakespeare as “Jockey of Norfolk”, in Richard III – all of which means the Francis name has now been coupled in close proximity to that of Dostoyevsky and of Shakespeare, making a literary career almost inevitable, whether he wanted one or not). For now, however, there was only one focus: that of race-riding or, rather, of winning and, with that in mind, in 1953, he switched to Peter Cazalet’s yard, where he began his long association with the Queen Mother, riding numerous winners for her and taking the Jockey’s Title in that same season.

Jump jockeys are, and always have been, hardened men (and women) of steel – it is the only profession in which an ambulance follows you the whole way as you go about your work – and, at this time, Richard would be riding in around four hundred races a season, racking up a total of two thousand, three hundred and five in all, amongst which were some three hundred and forty five winners (about a 15% strike rate). Jump jockeys can expect to hit the deck once in every fourteen rides and, whilst only one in a hundred rides results in injury, Richard amassed an impressive array of them during his career: collarbone broken six times; nose five times; skull once; wrist once; “no end of broken ribs”; and he even rode twelve races with a broken arm, winning two of them. So badly was his shoulder injured that for the rest of his life he had to go to bed with it strapped up to prevent it dislocating (something that turns up in graphic inch-by-agonising-inch detail – the relocating of it – in Knockdown). On one occasion, a horse “put his foot through my face” – racing plates (shoes) are like blades – “slicing my nose open. I had thirty two stitches from above my eye to the end of my nose. The doctor was delighted,” quipped Dick, “because he could show the inside of a nose to all his students.” All that, and such a glittering trophy-strewn career, and yet he is only ever remembered for one single race. And he didn’t even win it. He didn’t even finish.

March 1956, Aintree, in the Grand National itself, aboard the Queen Mother’s well-fancied Devon Loch and everybody knows what came to pass, even non-racing folk, who might not recognise the name Devon Loch but will certainly have seen the iconic-now images that are, quite literally, History. If you haven’t, where on earth have you been all this time and was there a wizened old Japanese soldier there too, refusing to believe the war was really over? But you have seen it: Devon Loch and Dick forty yards out, National at their mercy, and then the sudden inexplicable belly-flop. The Pathe Newsreel of the race is definitely worth a look at – and, for our overseas followers, this really was the way we got all our news and sports presented to us back then: in cinemas, with some plummy but cheerfully chipper chappie describing events in a faintly humorous it’s-all-jolly-good-fun-to-us-British (but outrageously un-PC) fashion – and not least for the cheesy music they’ve dubbed onto it for some unfathomable reason, but especially for the phenomenally stupendous Predictive Commentary (you’ll see what we mean) that accompanies it.

What came to pass was, in actual fact, Dave Dick aboard ESB, but nobody ever remembers that (if ever you find yourself on Pointless and the category is National Winners, ESB is about as solid a bet as you’d come across). Not that Dave Dick minded too much: when the Queen Mum, bless her, asked what he thought when her horse came down, he tactlessly blurted, “I was absolutely delighted, Ma’am.” (It’s supposed that the cacophony of cheers that erupted to greet an expected royal winner was what put Devon Loch off in the first place). When she herself was asked what she made of the whole incident, she replied philosophically with a stiff upper lip, “Well, that’s racing!” And then promptly sacked Dick Francis, bless her.

Well, records have it that it was actually Lord Abergavenny, her adviser, who did the sticking in of the right royal size thirteener, supposedly on the grounds that, what with all his injuries, it was probably safer and for the best if he retired on the spot. Dick was devastated, though he was man enough to rise above it all, never holding it against her and, much later, he would always insist on personally taking the first copy of his latest novel round to Clarence House. (This is allegedly the reason why his books never contain any hanky-panky, as you wouldn’t want to be ramming that sort of thing down the Queen Mum’s throat, now would you?) For now, though, at only thirty six, Richard Francis was simply an out-of-work ex-jockey with a wife and family to support, which is when he embarked on his next career – this is already number four and we haven’t even got to his starring role yet – though he would hate this one and, in return, it would only provide him with a pittance. He became a racing hack. Which was actually even worse than it sounds: it was for the Sunday Express. But he would stick at it for some sixteen years. Meanwhile, he already had his half-finished autobiography, The Sport of Queens, which seems to be about as far as he ever got with it seeing it is, quite frankly and not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely direly written and lacking any of the polished craftsmanship of the later novels. In our opinion. We are, of course, completely wrong on this one as, when it appeared in 1957, the public loved it. Mind you, they were also buying the Sunday Express by the sackload at the time, which may explain that.

Spurred on (are you noticing how many equine or racing metaphors we’re managing to shoehorn into this?) by encouragement from Mary, he then penned his first novel, Dead Cert (1962 and filmed in 1974), at which point the tapes had gone up (there’s another one) on career number five and Dick Francis the concept had been born. Richard himself always insisted that part of what led him into it was not wanting to go down as “the man who never won the National” but, quite frankly Dick, old mucker (that’s not), you’d be lost in the crowd in that case, seeing there’s simply loads of us who could claim that selfsame thing. In fact, seeing the National has only been run (officially) since 1839, had a break for both wars and has seen a number of multiple winners (George Stevens has most with five), there are precious few who actually have won it. Mick Fitzgerald famously said that winning the National was “better than sex.” His wife’s comments are not recorded.

After that, Dick Francis produced one novel a year without fail right up until 1997, the following year seeing a collection of stories instead, Field of Thirteen, then Second Wind (1999) and Shattered (2000), which proved to be the last annual appearance, the final later works coming more sporadically – Mrs F had died of a heart attack in 2000. The format rarely varied – thirtyish bloke, decent enough sort, generally with some physical or mental defect, a figure of great integrity and modesty, faces adversity and discovers he’s braver and more resilient than he’d imagined or, in other words, an inspirational role model to us all – but at least he gets inside them and gives the characters emotional realism, unlike Agatha Christie, say. As for the women, well, they barely get a look in, other than as “arm candy” or else some battle-axe harridan tweeded matron, Dick averring that, “I love a woman's body and I don't like to see it knocked about. I really hate to see a woman jockey riding over jumps. I don't have girls doing active things in my books. A man's job is to protect women.” Which may seem somewhat sexist and chauvinistic to some of the more nitpicking sorts, but that’s only because it is. Maybe we’ll remind you about that statement later on, Dick.

The novels may well have been formulaic (the usual unoriginal carping criticism laid by the inadequate at the door of phenomenal success) but there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as they don’t go stale. And how could books about the seedy and nefarious twilight world of jump-racing ever go stale? It’s not as if they’re Jaffa Cakes, you know. (Jaffa Cakes are cakes, not biscuits, on the grounds they go hard like cakes, not soft like biscuits, or they would if everyone didn’t always scoff the lot the moment the packet’s opened – sorry to come over all sciencey there, but you see the point?) Moving rapidly on, the writing methodology itself was as rigid and self-disciplined as race-riding: they would hit the bookshelves in September, followed by a promotional tour to ensure the Christmas sales were up to the mark, though they pretty much sold themselves just by appearing. Then, on January 1, Dick Francis would sit down and begin writing the next one from scratch, which would then have to be ready for the publishers by mid-April, which seems to imply (to us, anyway) that these dubious publishing bods needed more time to get the thing ready than it actually took Dick to write them, and he’d already “put them into the computer” for them, so what were they playing at? Having handed over the manuscript, he would then take the whole summer off – come on, Dick, that’s May to September on holiday: it’s not as if you’re a politician or something – during which time he would be percolating the ideas for the next one before the whole cycle began again in the autumn. “Writing a novel proved to be the hardest task I had ever attempted,” remarked Dick, who worked in pencil in a notebook, slaving over one sentence until he was satisfied and then moving on to the next. “My first draft is it,” he revealed, never rewriting because, “although it may be different, it won’t be better.” Sometimes he claimed that he would begin a book with no preconceived plans at all: “I just start with a first line. With Enquiry (1969) we said, ‘What's the worst thing that can happen to a jockey?’ and I wrote down: ‘Yesterday, I lost my licence.’ The rest of the book just followed from that. There is no going back. I start on page one and go straight on to the end. I never scrap a chapter or change my mind halfway.”

And what was Mary up during all this? Well, she did the research. Which is a bit like saying, “Churchill made some speeches.” For Flying Finish (1966) – aristo runs air-taxi service – she signed up for flying lessons, obtained a pilot’s licence and operated an air-taxi service of her own for seven years. She even wrote a manual on it: Flying Start: A Guide to Flying Light Aircraft. Rat Race (1970) and Second Wind (1999) also leant heavily on her knowledge of the aircraft business. For Reflex (1980) – jockey turns to photography – she learned the art herself and became so adept at it she often shot Dick’s book-jacket photos and was asked to do one of the Queen Mum, bless her. For Twice Shy (1981) – physics teacher gets handed a bookie-beating computerised betting system – she taught herself all about computing (son Felix, incidentally, was a physics teacher), whilst for Driving Force (1992) – computer virus hits horse transporting firm – she hung out in a Fort Lauderdale IT store to find out all about viruses (son Merrick – a name formed of a ghastly combination of Mary and Dick – was a horse-transporter). In the Frame (1976) and To the Hilt (1996) both feature artists and so, you’ve guessed it, she learned to paint, and exceedingly well, by all accounts, while Proof (1984) saw her looking into the secrets of winemaking, though without ever dabbling in the homebrew lark, it seems. Then on to glassmaking for Shattered (2000), studying the process thoroughly, though this novel is the only one where the research is a little too apparent (in our opinion). She was willing to try her hand at anything, except underwater research – which may be why there is no “jockey turns deep-sea diver” novel left to posterity – and the ones she did attempt, she was outstanding at. So, Mr Dick Francis, with your “women don’t do active things and should be protected” antediluvian gentleman’s argument, what have you got to say for yourself now, eh?

“At least the research keeps her from going out shopping … ”

Yes, we see. Unfortunately, due to the fact that Richard Francis was an ill-educated ex-jockey with no qualifications while Mary Francis was a university graduate highly gifted in a number of varied areas, people began spreading dark malicious murmurs suggesting that she, rather than he, actually wrote the books, speculation fuelled by Graham Lord in Dick Francis: A Racing Life, his unofficial biography of the legend, though, if folk are going to go in for mudslinging and rumour-mongering, Lord himself had written an unauthorised biography and so, seeing Dick’s own Sport of Queens had told the tale already, wouldn’t he be looking for some new (you might say Franciscan) twist on it, the more sensational the better, as far as selling the wretched thing goes? The Francises made no secret, always insisted in fact, that they worked in close collaboration, that he was Richard, she was Mary, and Dick Francis (that is, the both of them) wrote the books. So where’s your point, Mr Lord? Doesn’t many an iconic oil-painting have the clothing painted by the master’s apprentices or studio? Are they any the less for that? The answer is a resounding no. The answer is actually who gives a flying fig where one starts and the other ends if you can’t see the joins? In the end, it really doesn’t matter …

Dick Francis, of whatever identity, wrote more than forty international best-sellers, selling more than sixty million copies in twenty two languages. By the end, in Britain alone, each new work would sell a hundred thousand in hardback and five times as many in paperback. He won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best Novel three times (the only author to do so), a Gold Dagger and a Diamond Dagger from Britain's Crime Writers’ Association, two Cartier Lifetime Achievement Awards, an honorary doctorate in 1991 and the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1996, topping all that off with the OBE in 1983, upgraded to CBE in 2000. In 1999, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His admirers included Larkin (“absolute sureness of his settings … the literate jauntiness of style”), CP Snow (“a writer with qualities and gifts which few novelists possess”) and John Mortimer (“He has the true writer's knack of making you want to turn the page”). In 2006, Dick Francis had a heart-bypass operation and a year later his right leg had to be amputated. On Valentine’s (one of the National’s trickiest fences) Day 2010, at his home in Grand Cayman, he passed away peacefully of natural causes, aged eighty nine.

Dick Francis may be gone but we still have the books …


Dick Francis: via Wikimedia
The Lads of the Village (first steeplechase): By Georges Jansoone (JoJan) (Own work (Own photo)) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Sudeten German Party combining with Nazi Party: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dostoyevsky: Vasily Perov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Molly Long-legs: George Stubbs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Queen Mother: By May 1939 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Clarence House: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Dead Cert (First Edition Dust Jacket): [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Agatha Christie: By Agatha Christie plaque -Torre Abbey.jpg: Violetriga derivative work: F l a n k e r (Agatha Christie plaque -Torre Abbey.jpg) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
Jaffa Cake: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Air Taxi: By Assoaeronautica at it.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Ediedi at it.wikipedia. [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons 
Laughing Cavalier: Frans Hals (1582/1583–1666) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Red Rum: By Rick Weston from UK [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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