Lionel Fanthorpe is one of the most prolific writers in the world today. With the aid of his wife, Patricia, he has written over two-hundred and fifty books covering an array of subjects from sci-fi to religion. But to describe this fascinating man as just an author does not do him justice. He is also a reverend with a love for Harley Davidson bikes, an explorer who loves unravelling the mysteries of the world, a major contributor to paranormal research and most importantly, a loyal friend and a man committed to his family.
The life’s work of Lionel Fanthorpe has been recently inducted into the Cardiff Metropolitan University archive. During his Inauguration, Lionel was kind enough to answer questions posed to him by a panel of first-year Creative Writing students: Alana Ellmes, Liam Fretwell and Ross Jeremiah.
You have written an outstanding number of books. Where did those ideas keep coming from?
I would like to give an example from my book The Joan of Arc Mysteries. Patricia and I were combing the internet for unsolved mysteries as we both have a love for them, and I saw a picture of a tombstone. It was near Rouen in France and claimed to have contained the bodies of Robert des Armoises and his wife, the Lady Joan. The date of death was a good forty years after Joan of Arc had supposedly died at the stake. We thought to ourselves if she didn’t die at the stake, what happened?
Using faction (a mixing of fact and fiction) we created the following story: A great local warrior named Robert des Armoises, sees a shepherdess fighting with tremendous courage to save one of her lambs from a pack of wolves. Armed with a huge battle axe, Robert leaps from his horse and disposes of six wolves before the others have the sense to run away. The shepherdess turns out to be Joan and he takes her safely home and continues his journey. After a few days, Robert realises he wants to marry Joan. He rides to her family home and discovers that Joan has been called upon to lead the French army. Robert takes a dozen of his best men and rides out to join her. Without Joan knowing it, Robert defends her flank and she comes to no harm. In the fourth battle, Robert is wounded and left for dead. Joan is captured without him to protect her. Robert does recover, and now we must imagine, how does he rescue her? On his estate is an old alchemist who has invented a powder that creates clouds of black smoke when thrown into a fire. With a strong plan, Robert, his armourer, and the old alchemist set out to rescue Joan and arrive as she is about to be burnt. They throw the powder into the fire creating thick smoke, the armourer cuts Joan free and replaces her with the body of a gipsy girl they acquired from the local mortuary. Joan is carried away on Robert’s horse, they marry and live happily for the next forty years. That whole plot came from a picture of a tombstone that says, ‘Here lies Robert and his wife the Lady Joan.’
What I would say to writer friends and colleagues is that a plot can come from anywhere. A plot can also come from looking for plots.
Your method for writing is very well known and involves ducking under a blanket and dictating your stories. Could you tell us a bit more about the reasons behind that?
When I worked for John Spencer & Co Publishers, the directors, Mr Assael and Mr Nahum, would send Patricia and me a rough sketch of a cover and ask for a list of titles and blurbs to go with it. We would send back a dozen titles like Forbidden Planet, Into the Unknown, Parallel Universe, and a dozen blurbs. The reply would be, ‘We would like title number three and blurb number seven by Friday.’
Now we would get this on a Monday, so we had to write fifty-thousand words in four days. That’s why we got the tape recorder, which is now part of the Cardiff Metropolitan University archive. I would get into bed with this tape recorder and fold the blankets over my head, so I was in a small black cocoon. I could then view the action unfolding in my imagination as if I was watching it on a cinema screen and dictate as the story developed.
My very hard working and long-suffering lovely wife, with whom I have just celebrated a sixty-first wedding anniversary, would do the typing herself or take it to one of our team of typists. We are sometimes, justifiably I feel, accused of having rushed endings, and I will explain why. We had to write fifty-thousand words to fill two-hundred pages. If I was feeling energetic, I would dictate four-hundred words per minute. When I was tired that would drop to thirty words per minute. Until the tape had gone around our team of typists, I couldn’t know how many words we had left. Sometimes I would plan for a great space battle, only to find I only had five pages left to finish the story. I would suddenly have to give an astronaut or a fleet of spaceships an incredibly powerful weapon to end the battle quickly. Hence the rushed ending. It was a little strange after you had read through a hundred and ninety-five pages of detailed writing.
What I would say to writer friends and colleagues is learn techniques to work quickly and effectively. In this computer generation, you can do all sorts of miracles like we did with a tape recorder and a gang of typists.
I understand that H.G Wells was one author who influenced you?
Very much so. I was not a particularly good schoolboy and I would disappear into the school library and hide during lessons I didn’t like. While there I found a book by H. G. Wells and I thought it was great. The next time I hid, I dived behind the same partition for some more. I wanted to write the sort of thing that Wells was writing, like Tales of the Unexpected and The Time Machine.
After I had read several H. G. Wells volumes, the thought occurred to me that this is fiction, but what if some of these stories really do exist. He inspired me to look for the real mysteries. Now my lovely wife Patricia and I have done many books and TV productions on unsolved mysteries, including my Fortean TV series. We have been all over the world looking for them. We have investigated Berenger Sauniere, a mysterious priest who in 1885 became the richest man in the south of France. We have been to investigate the mysteries of Oak Island. When I learned of the tragic death of explorer Dan Blankenship, I recalled when we had visited Oak Island and Dan and I looking down a shaft that he called Borehole 10X. It was over one hundred feet deep, and he used that shaft to try and find whatever it was that was hidden on Oak Island.
I have also done some podcasts with a friend. In these, I have my vicar outfit on and there’s a big teapot on the table, and I sit with my cup and my friend says, ‘More tea, vicar?’ Which is also the name of the series. I then tell a story of one of the real-life mysteries Patricia and I have investigated over the years.
You mentioned your Fortean TV series. I know working on that is just one of your many roles. You are a reverend, a successful author, you have held many academic positions, the list is endless. What has been your favourite role?
Without embarrassing my wife and my two lovely daughters, the thing I love most in my life is being with my family. That is my life: just to be a husband and a father and making sure I can be around for them. But when we talk about work, in the 1950’s I got a job as a junior reporter for a paper called the Norfolk Chronicle. It was owned by Sir Thomas Cook, who was running as the MP in North Norfolk. I walked into the office one morning and my editor came up to me, threw a bunch of keys at me and said, ‘Get back in your car and drive over to Cromer. Our man has just left, and you are now in charge of the Cromer office.’ When I arrived, I found I had to run the office, sell papers and be the reporter picking up all the Cromer news. It was frantic, but I loved it. If I could jump into a time machine and go back to the job I liked best I would like to be a journalist again.
You have told us about The Joan of Arc Mysteries. Is there anything else that you are working on?
Yes, something a little different to what I have done in the past. It’sa book called Sinister Silver Silence. It’s about four minor criminals coming up to retirement age who want to give something back to the community. They become moral hitmen and begin targeting evil, vicious criminals, the type who kidnap teenage girls or rob pensioners. That will be out before long.
Following on from the idea of the moral hitmen, you often put into your stories your ideas about philosophy, spirituality and human nature. Do you think that fiction is the best place for those ideas and would you encourage new writers to do the same, to try and change things with their stories or speak a moral message?
I will use an example from the science fantasy Derl Wothor Trilogy Patricia and I released about a year ago. The books are called, The Black Lion, The Golden Tiger and Zotala the Priest. Each of the characters represents an aspect of human nature. The black lion is an Alexander the Great, type. He is an adventurer, he wants to conquer, he wants to rule, but he is not a bad man. The Golden Tiger is the hedonist. He likes as many girls as he can entice, he has huge banquets and drinks like a fish. The third character is Zotala the Priest, he is the theologian, the philosopher. If we look internally there is ambition in each of us, hedonism in each of us, morality and ethics in each of us. The three characters in the trilogy are elements of a human being. I hope that by bringing that exploration of character in and asking, why we do what we do, the way that we do it, it may give the reader some pause for thought.
If we as writers can bring in morals and ethics we care about and show what a wonderful and unselfish hero in an adventure story can do to help others, then hopefully it points your readers in the same direction. It certainly encourages me to improve what I do in the world.
You’ve been president of the UFO Research Association, you are currently president for the Association of Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena. You are also a member of the paranormal research society The Ghost Club. Is this what led to the Sci-Fi and Supernatural subject matter, or was it the other way around?
I will tell you a story of the strangest thing that ever happened to me.
When I was teaching in Cambridge I had a great friend called Bill Farrar. Bill and I were like brothers. I thought the world of him. One day I got a phone call from Bill and with great courage, he said, ‘I’ve been told I have six weeks left to live, will you come over and see me before I go?’ I said, ‘Of course I will.’ For the next six weeks, I drove from Cardiff to Cambridge to spend the weekends with Bill. Then I got a call from Bill’s village priest, Ian, who said that he was very sorry, but Bill had passed over. One of his last requests had been for me to conduct the funeral service in the village church. I said, ‘Yes, of courseI will’. Father Ian said, ‘Come over on Thursday night. Stay with me in the rectory; we’ll do the service together on Friday morning.’ Now I am not psychic at all, my feet are very much on the ground, very much a Harley Davidson rider, but while we arranged the service, I saw Bill. The last time I had seen him alive he weighed six stone, but he was healthy again, back in his 20’s, and he gave me a great big smile. I could feel the happiness coming off him; it was like sunlight. He said to me, ‘Tell Ian, Juliana was absolutely right.’ And then he was gone.
Ian had seen and heard nothing. I felt if I told him what I had seen then he was going to think that I was coming off the wall, but if this were the other way around, Bill would have done it for me, no question. I took a deep breath and said, ‘Ian I am sorry if this sounds strange, but I have just seen Bill. He looked young again; he was radiant, and he asked me to tell you, Juliana was absolutely right.’ Ian nearly fell off his chair. He said, ‘You can’t have known that.’ He went on to explain that during the last 20 minutes of Bill’s life he had told him the story of Lady Juliana of Norwich, who had been a saint. Everyone thought she had become ill when she seemed to be about to faint. She had recovered herself and explained that she had just seen heaven. Everyone there was ecstatic with happiness, and all was well. Ian and I prepared the rest of the funeral service with great joy brought by Bill’s message. When you have an experience like that, you take more of an interest in mysteries and the supernatural.
You’re extremely well-known for the sci-fi novels you did for Badger Books, but you’ve also written on a host of other subjects. Would you say that the impact of the work you did with Badger Books is the legacy you’re happiest with?
I am thrilled that so many people enjoy the work I did for Badger Books. But I wouldn’t say that writing them was what I enjoyed most. What I have enjoyed most is working with Patricia on the non-fiction pieces. We go out, investigate strange locations and try to solve mysteries. It’s what we both love to do.
Does the Sci-Fi genre live up to the expectations that you had when you first took the genre under your wing over fifty years ago?
That is a wonderful question. In some ways, we do not seem to have moved at all. When I was writing in the 50’s I thought that today we would have established colonies on Mars and Venus, and they would have been as easy to get to as hopping on a train to Newport. In other ways, the inventions and technology of today have gone way beyond what I could have imagined all those years ago. I have written one or two novels about computers trying to take over humanity and make us into slaves. What I would like to do in my next book, is put some serious study into robots and ask the enormous theological question. If a robot develops a consciousness, does it have a soul?
As Creative Writing students at Cardiff Metropolitan University, we are fortunate enough to be introduced to the work of Lionel Fanthorpe. Exploration of his unique style and vibrant worldsteach us to free ourselves from any preconceived ideas of what writing should be. It is his legacy that encourages us to delve into our imaginations, forge our own paths, and find stories everywhere.
(Images courtesy of Cardiff Metropolitan University)