He might not be a household name today, but at the height of his popularity Percy F Westerman was worshipped by thousands of adventure-seeking schoolboys. Nigel Gossop has devoted the past 20 years to uncovering the story behind this Portsmouth-born author. Chris Owen reports.
With a sickening thump, the mysterious man in black on the other side of the front door thrust his shoulder against the frosted pane.
It shattered instantly, sending shards of jagged glass flying into the hallway.
He lurched into the house and came face to face with his nemesis... Nigel Gossop.
But grizzled Nigel, a veteran of spectacular entrances such as these, was ready and waiting.
He had plucked his trusty First XI cricket bat from the elephant’s foot umbrella stand in the hall (a souvenir from a 1910 hunting expedition in Lower Burma) and with two glorious cover drives sent his dastardly, but stunned, assailant spinning to the floor.
Nigel, taking advantage of his intruder’s semi-consciousness, raced back down the hall towards the kitchen, hitting a cunningly-concealed button on the wall as he sped past.
‘Watch out! This is where we go all Thunderbirds,’ he cried, mixing his eras and children’s serials.
There was a moment’s silence before a quiet motor whirred into life, the ceiling parted and, from high above, a secret staircase was lowered to the ground.
With one bound Nigel flew up the stairs, raised the contraption behind him and breathlessly found refuge in his loft...
With profuse apologies to Percy F Westerman, all of that, it will not surprise you, is a fictional account of my arrival at Nigel Gossop’s Cosham home.
Fiction, that is, until we come to the bit about the electric staircase emerging from the ceiling to give access to that roof space.
You just know Westerman would have loved that.
Climbing that staircase is a Boy’s Own adventure in itself.
It brings you into Nigel’s immaculate office-cum-library with one wall devoted entirely to the 173 books written by his hero, the aforementioned Percy F Westerman.
‘Percy who?’ You might well ask.
Born in Portsmouth in 1876, by the 1930s he had become a household name for his ripping yarn adventure stories, many with military, especially naval, themes. During that decade he was voted the most popular author of stories for boys. When he died in 1959 he had sold 1.6m books.
Nigel, who manages the Portsmouth-based organisation called The Westerman Yarns dedicated to researching his life and works, did read some of his prodigious output as a lad. But he happily admits he did not remember a word of them.
‘I was brought up in Waterlooville and I had to earn my pocket money, about two bob [10p] a week.
‘So, to make it go further I bought all my books at jumble sales. Remember them? There were loads back in the ’60s.
‘I wasn’t very discerning. I just bought books which had exciting front covers on them and that’s why I remembered Westerman.’
About 20 years ago, while working in Portsmouth City Council’s arts department, part of Nigel’s job included trawling through The News each day ‘to see if we’d been mentioned in despatches’.
He adds: ‘One day, in the letters page, a chap was asking why Portsmouth did not celebrate one of its most famous author sons, as it did for the likes of Dickens, Conan Doyle and Nevil Shute.
‘That’s when I remembered that I’d read him as a boy, but had no idea he was from Portsmouth.’
And so began Nigel’s two decades of research in which he discovered Westerman wrote at least his first five books in the city.
‘His father was a retired Royal Navy Master-at-Arms who went into business in Portsmouth with a property developer. They built six houses in Campbell Road, Southsea, one of which became the family home.’
Westerman lived in this house, now sporting a blue plaque thanks to Nigel, until 1900 when he married Florence Wager, the girl from next door-but-one.
Westerman was an Admiralty clerk in the Dockyard earning £90 a year and the couple bought a house in Bath Road, Southsea.
Nigel says: ‘It was bombed by the Luftwaffe and I always reckon the Germans must have read some of his books and knew exactly how he felt about ‘‘the Hun, as he wrote about them’’ and probably targeted it.’
They had a son, John, in 1901 and in 1908, while he had chicken pox, Percy accepted a sixpenny bet from his wife.
Nigel says: ‘He came downstairs after reading to John, complaining about the book. Florence said she would bet him 6d he couldn’t write a better one.’
And so it began, a series of books which started with A Lad of Grit and included The Ju-Ju Hand, the Lure of the Lagoon and The Call of the Sea.
Nigel discovered Westerman set himself a strict writing regime. ‘He wrote seasonally – three books in the spring, three in the autumn because in the summer he would be out on the Solent sailing.
‘It was simply a means to an end. He wrote after supper every night, in longhand and with a dip pen. He wrote at speed and there were only two people who could read his writing, Florence and a typist at his publishers in Glasgow.
‘He would finish in the early hours of the morning, always in mid-sentence so when he came back to it the next night he could pick up the thread.’
Westerman churned out a book every six weeks. ‘He annoyed his publishers because before he’d finished one book they’d ask for an outline of the plot of the next. He wouldn’t tell them because he hadn’t a clue himself,’ says Nigel.
‘One of the things I love about his books is the number of times he refers to places in Portsmouth or the surrounding area. You get Portsdown Hill, Warblington Castle, Portchester Castle and Portsmouth Harbour.
‘Yes, they’re very un-PC by today’s tastes, but that was the way things were then. They are a fascinating piece of social history.’
The bookshelves behind Nigel’s desk in the loft are a shrine to Westerman. He fingers the books lovingly. ‘They’re real page-turners, an adventure on every page.’
And you get the feeling Nigel would like nothing more than to pull up that staircase and read two or three before teatime.
If your appetite has been whetted and you wish to discover more about Percy F Westerman and his ilk, there is an event in Portsmouth next month which will take you further.
On February 14 at Portsmouth Grammar School, High Street, Old Portsmouth, Nigel Gossop has organised The Ripping Yarns Literature Day.
‘It will appeal to a wider audience than those just interested in Westerman,’ he says.
‘It will include other authors from the golden age of ripping yarns adventures in the first half of the 20th century.’
Guest speakers for the day include the award-winning author Michelle Magorian, the author of the hugely-successful Goodnight Mister Tom and Just Henry. In her youth she lived at Victoria Road, Southsea.
Another will be Dennis Butts, a key contributor to the BBC4 documentary Real Ripping Yarns presented by Alexander Armstrong.
Tickets for the February 14 event are £15 and include refreshments and a buffet lunch. You can get them from Nigel on (023) 9237 5594 or by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.