18th February 2016

An Evening with Jack Higgins

Last Tuesday I spent the evening at our local theatre attending an event supporting ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. This is of course a very worthwhile charity, which helps provide care for injured and elderly veterans, soldiers who have left the army and are having trouble getting jobs or finding somewhere to live and they also arrange other specialist support. That such a charity is needed to look after men and women who have selflessly served their country is actually quite beyond me, however I will refrain from getting up on my soapbox as the purpose of this blog is to talk about the gentleman who got me out from my nice warm sitting-room on a very cold February night.

Harry Patterson, who is better known as the writer of The Eagle has Landed Jack Higgins, was in conversation with Ian Haydn Smith. Ian has written widely on Film and the arts and is a personal friend of Mr Patterson.

Now, I must admit it has been years since I have read a Jack Higgins novel, but at one time I avidly read each of his Liam Devlin and Sean Dillon books as they hit the shelves. So when my husband told me the great man himself was coming to East Grinstead we rushed into the town that very evening to get tickets and I then dug out my well thumbed copy of “Eagle” to remind myself of why I had once loved Jack Higgins novels so much. I’m glad I did – from the first page I was once again hooked. For anyone who has not read this book I urge you to do so. Don’t be put off by thinking of it as a World War II story, because it’s so much more. The characters are wonderful and within the first few chapters I suspect, like me, you will be rooting for the main characters Steiner and Devlin even though they are technically speaking on the wrong side. I will say no more other than – Read It!

We arrived at the theatre in plenty of time, but the guest of honour was already there chatting to members of the charity, Mr Pye, the owner of the local bookshop who was looking after book sales, and members of the public.

The “show”, for want of a better word, began at 7pm on the dot and Harry Patterson was introduced by Ian Haydn Smith who started by reading a defining few pages from “The Eagle has Landed” then carried on by asking Harry about his writing, his books and how it had felt when he was catapulted into stardom by “Eagle”. As it happened once Harry got started Ian didn’t need to ask many questions and the time flew by as we were told about how originally he wrote under his own name, how he got his ideas and how he handwrites his novels on sheets of foolscap.

One of the things that I found really astounding was that “Eagle” very nearly didn’t get printed at all – his publisher hated it! He didn’t like it was a wartime novel, he hated the character Liam Devlin and wanted to completely cut him from the novel, and he didn’t like the start or finish. Liam Devlin almost consigned to the waste paper bin! Was the man mad?

The session finished with the opening clip from the film “Prayer for the Dying” and an explanation from Ian as to how sometimes even though the screenplay differed from the book it could still be just as effective. The scene was harrowing and I must dig out my copy of the book to make a comparison.

Thankfully Harry did get the novel published and was vindicated when a week after the book came out it reached number ten in Time Magazine and the following week it took the number one spot.

There was a twenty minute break mid evening when there were books and raffle tickets (for the charity) on sale and there were even complimentary sandwiches to snack on. Once again Harry mingled before returning to the stage.

The audience were then asked for their questions, which were very interesting and several were actually questions I would have asked. One question was did he start with a title and work from there – and he even had to think about that one. Apparently the title “The Eagle has Landed” only came to him halfway through the book. Another question (which is one I always ask other authors if I get the chance) is whether he religiously plots his books and sticks to it. To my great satisfaction he said no, and admitted it sounded mad, but his characters drove the plot and you could never quite tell what they would do and where they would take you. I could have leapt up and thumped the air, because several people in the past have looked at me as though I was crazy when I’d said the self same thing.

Anyway I digress. All too soon we’d run out of time, but we were told Harry would chat and sign books in the bar (sadly closed!) if we would like to hang around. To be honest I think Harry was a little tired by now (did I mention he was 86!), but I had my copy of “Eagle” tucked in my handbag “just in case”! So I waited and, bless him, he saw the book clutched in my hand as he walked into the bar, gave me a smile and asked whether I’d like him to sign it for me. Would I? He found himself a seat and once he was comfortable asked my name and whether I had enjoyed the evening as he personalised and signed my book. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to chat as Ian appeared wanting to disentangle Harry from his microphone and other assorted wiring. Even so I was on cloud nine. My copy of “Eagle” can join several other novels I have managed to get signed by my other literary heroes – James Herbert, Basil Copper and Joe Ramsey Campbell amongst others.

The latest novel by Jack Higgins “Rain on the Dead” (Book 21 in the Sean Dillon series) is out now.

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