Wiltshire Character: Leslie Thomas OBE

PUBLISHED: 11:42 11 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:51 20 February 2013

PHOTO: Martin Murray

PHOTO: Martin Murray

For almost 40 years Leslie Thomas OBE has been one of Britain's most popular novelists. Nigel Tyrie catches up with him at his home in Salisbury just as he is planning his next book... and enjoying England's Ashes success

For almost 40 years Leslie Thomas has been one of Britains most popular novelists, a bestseller with 30 titles to his name. Nigel Tyrie catches up with him just as he is planning his next one...

Leslie Thomas is 80 in March, but looks and sounds younger, until he has to get up and walk about. Only then do you see hes been in the wars. When I last met him three years ago he was, as ever, full of beans and about to start his next writing project, a book about Salisbury Cathedral, Almost Heaven: Tales from a Cathedral. This was published last year by Bene Factum, a small publisher. He knew Random House, his usual publisher, wouldnt be interested so he chose a publisher who understood the need to achieve the right heft and physicality for the book, something which goes beyond merely the design of the dust jacket.

At the time he started it, he had intended it would be his last, something hed mentioned when we last met. Then, 16 months ago with the book nearly finished, he stepped off a plane at Gatwick and suddenly was barely capable of walking. He felt terrible. Next day he was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve, and the day after that he went into hospital for major surgery, but not before completing the very last chapter.

I finished the last sentence, put my pen down, and Diana drove me straight to the hospital. The dedication of a genuine writer? Not a bit. I didnt want to run the risk in case I wasnt coming back. He has also had two minor strokes but he cannot say more as the distaff half of his household has placed a moratorium on all discussion of his health, though not before he slips in the observation that his social life, which used to be a whirl of activity, now consists largely of watching Test cricket on TV and gently strolling to the Cathedral caf for a cup of hot chocolate.

Looking on the bright side, the book is selling well, over 500 copies alone in the Cathedral shop where it sits alongside his autobiography, which is also doing brisk business. He recognises the book, which has been very favourably reviewed, is really a niche publication and will probably only sell well in Cathedral towns. I was intrigued to know whether, notwithstanding he was so adamant three years ago that Almost Heaven: Tales from a Cathedral would be his last book, now he was recovering his puff he was having any second thoughts.

Thats a very pertinent question if you dont mind my saying so, because only last night Id just gone to bed, Id had 15 months off, Id had no real inclination to work when I slipped into thinking about one or two things, and suddenly I came up with what I think is a very good idea. It really makes me want to start working again. Itll be a novel. Its so original I started scribbling down the outline of the plot there and then. I cant tell you more at the moment, but its really made me keen to get going again.

Was it the case that he was only really happy when he was working? No, I dont think so. Im quite a lazy person really and Im not a very generous person in the sense of giving of myself or my time. This doesnt quite square with all the charity work hes done on behalf of Barnardos over the years (a Barnardos boy himself).

I asked about the creative process; which came first, if either, the idea or the desire to write which itself then generated the idea? Youve got to want to do it. If youd come three months ago, I just didnt feel like working, I didnt have any ideas, I didnt have any spirit. But in the last week or so Ive started to feel so much better, and you need something to keep you going, some plan, some objective. Ive written 11 pages already, so I know its worth doing. Its worth doing for me, irrespective of whether its a bestseller, and anyway, you never know now what is going to sell, but Ill definitely write it if God spares me.

Did he have any regrets? No, he didnt think so. At heart he believes hes quite a happy person. His only professional regret is that he wishes hed been more of a success in the US. He did all the talk shows and promotional tours, but hes never sold well in America. Obviously, they didnt like me that much, but it doesnt matter to me now. Im not rich rich, but Diana and I are comfortable. This is as much as we want. There was a time when we had three houses, one in Salisbury say, one in London and one abroad. We wouldnt want that again, you grow out of it. We are extremely content together. Weve never fought except just the once when she threw a hairbrush at me and it scored a bulls-eye. I think thats the only time we ever had a row. And I must say my children are fantastic, not just with me, but with Diana too. They love her, theres no two ways about it.

We ended our conversation with Leslie talking about Ted Heath. Why was it, given Heaths legendary discourtesy, that he and Leslie had got on so well?
He wasnt most peoples cup of tea, but you take people as you find them. On one occasion Foyles gave a literary lunch for me and Ted dropped everything to chair it. He lived in Arundells and was the first person ever to invite Diana and myself to lunch in The Close rather rarefied stuff for someone from a council house who left school at 14. You know, Im sure he liked Diana because he would nod off to sleep at the drop of a hat, invariably with a glass of malt in his hand, and, as he dropped off the glass would slowly slip from his fingers and she would catch it just before it hit the ground, like a slip fielder.
Of course, he was a very lonely man. Hed do a circuit of all the pubs in Salisbury and invite the landladies once a year to lunch at Arundels. He was a very Victorian person and he had this ridiculous, mirthless laugh where his shoulders would heave but nothing else. But he was an interesting man, a character, and theres a lot to be said for that.
Around the time of Heaths 80th birthday, a BBC crew came down to interview some of his neighbours. Was Ted Heath gay? they asked me. I said, gay? He isnt gay, hes ******* miserable! I ask you, what a daft thing to ask of a man whos 80!

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