I first became a fan of the author Herbert Theodoric Thomas, or H.T. to his friends and followers, when I read his book The Dragon’s Destiny at the age of fifteen. Hiding the book inside my tattered copy of Trollope’s Barchester Towers I was thrilled by the writer’s ability to conjure up on the white pages of a book the world of kings, warriors, and warlords. Captivated, I read as many of his books as possible. His stories were set in many different parts of the world and were always full of fascinating detail about the people and their culture who provided the background to his tales of intrigue and adventure.
As I discovered when I researched his background it was little wonder that he was so knowledgeable about places far from my own small boarding school hidden away from the world in the Sussex countryside. Thomas was born in India, the son of a senior diplomat in the service of the British crown. His father’s work took him to many of the countries within the British Empire and a good many of those not painted pink on the maps of the world that stared down on the young H.T. from the walls of his classroom. For although Sir George Thomas was a much-travelled man his son spent his youth incarcerated in an educational establishment not dissimilar to my own. Thomas revealed in his autobiography, which I have read many times, that the letters he received from his father describing the wonders of the world beyond the Sussex Downs inspired him to travel in his father’s footsteps. After leaving university and surviving the carnage on the Western Front, and much to his father’s chagrin, he declined a career in the Civil Service and set off to travel the globe and see for himself those places his father had described in his letters. With his degree from Oxford and his command of the English language, he found work as a schoolteacher easy to find. In several European capitals, he was employed as a docent, an assistant, lecturing in English Literature. While in the USA he worked as a guide at the Bronx Zoo and volunteered at the city’s great art museum, the Met. In his autobiography, he amusingly described one job as shovelling it and the other as spouting it.
The Second World War put paid to his travelling but he found employment with the intelligence service who had a use for a man who was widely travelled, especially in Europe. It was this experience that no doubt inspired his fascination with treachery and intrigue, Themes that ran through the books he wrote during those wartime years.
Shortly after the war and earning a decent income from his novels he resigned his commission and left London to live in the small village of Church Barsley. He fell in love with the bucolic lifestyle of a comfortably off country gentleman. The novels featuring heroes and acts of derring-do were replaced by a whole new genre of rural tales based no doubt on the places and people of his new surroundings. Not every critic approved of what became known as the ‘Barsley Chronicles’. He was accused of being a ‘poor man’s Thomas Hardy’ or as the Literary Critic in the News of the World put it, ‘More tripe than Trollop.’ This was strange because, as a boy, I read his books instead of Trollop’s but read his new books as avidly as I had devoured his earlier works.
It was while I was at night school that I started to correspond with him. I aspired to become a successful author like Thomas and there were some similarities in our childhoods. I had received a private education to prove that my father, a self-made man and proud of it, had risen in society. Whereas the young H.T. was sent to boarding school out of convenience and expectation. He was kind enough to reply to my letters and offered me some useful advice. Over time he moved from being a mentor to being someone I considered to be a friend and even invited me to visit him at his home in Church Barsley. I gladly accepted the invitation and we agreed to arrange a date and there the matter rested, until last month.
After I did my National Service and inspired by Thomas’s life story I travelled the globe following in his footsteps, reluctantly postponing my visit to his home. The world had changed from his day and some places like post-war communist China were less accessible to the casual western traveller. Perhaps lacking H.T.’s confidence and connections I found the kind of work he did on his adventure difficult to find. Instead of jobs as a docent, guide, or tutor, I had to pay my way by hard physical graft in often unpleasant working conditions in the more unsavoury parts of the world’s great cities. Throughout, I remained in communication with H.T. by postcards and the occasional letter. I shared with him my ambition to get at least one good novel on the back of my experiences and he responded with his usual words of encouragement.
When I returned to England I got a job at a private school in the south Midlands, not far from Church Barsley. I wrote to him to arrange a visit. His reply, when it eventually came, was noticeable for the decline in his handwriting. Throughout our correspondence, he always wrote in a beautifully legible old fashioned style of handwriting rather than using his typewriter. Now, his reply was brief and barely legible, He failed to respond to my suggested date and so I decided to take a chance and travelled in my newly acquired second-hand car Austin A40 to his home.
The village was just as he had described it in his first ‘Barsley’ novel, The Old Orchard and it was easy to see how H.T. had fallen in love with it. The village was indeed surrounded by the trees that produced the ingredients for the sweet, fruit beer for which the district was renowned.The stout, thatched, half-timbered cottages built with honey-coloured Jurassic Limestone, looked warmly welcoming in the late autumn sunshine. I found his home and knocked on the door, I was greeted by a man who looked the very epitome of a rural labourer. He was wearing an old cloth cap, striped collarless shirt with his trousers held up by a pair of ancient braces. Assuming he wasn’t my literary hero I asked.
” I’ve come to see Mr Thomas. Is he in?
“ No,” the man replied in a thick country accent, “ He don’t live ‘ere no more. I just does the garden now.”
I showed him one of the letters from our correspondence with the address, ‘ Orchard Cottage’ clearly shown.
” That’s right,” he said, “ Orchard Cottage” Then he shook his head and said. “ But ‘e don’t live ‘ere no more.”
“ Do you know where he went?”, I said, becoming worried that my trip had been in vain.
He said. “ I saw ‘im go up the churchyard ‘bout an hour past.” Pointing to a rough stone path that led up to the church.
I was a bit confused but decided I had no option but to go to the churchyard. The small church with its square tower was just as H.T. had described it in The Missing Chorister. In the churchyard, I saw a crowd of people standing near the vicar. I tried to spot a man who I might recognise from my many newspaper cuttings featuring H.T. Thomas but the mourners, for that was what they were, had their backs to me. I waited until the vicar had finished and the group dispersed. I stood by the lychgate and scanned the faces of the people as they passed me by. Finally, as the last mourner left I asked him if Mr H.T, Thomas was still in the churchyard.
“ I have an appointment with him,” I said.
The man stopped, dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief, turned and pointed at a freshly dug grave.
“ If you want him he’s over there. But I reckon you’re a bit late for that appointment don’t you?”
I go back to Church Barsley every year on the same day. I have a glass of fruit beer, or rather I did until the village pub closed down. As the years go by there are fewer mourners who come to the grave to pay their respects. Like clothes and hairstyles writer’s go in and out of fashion. Currently, H.T. Thomas is definitely ‘out’. I finally finished my book about my own travels. I have dedicated it to ‘ To H.T. My Mentor and Guide. Your words will continue to inspire me.”. But I can’t help feeling that like my appointment with H.T, I have arrived in the literary world too late.