Sean Gabb at Sixty: A Balanced Appreciation
I’ve read the various appreciations written to commemorate Sean Gabb’s sixtieth birthday. These are all good and true. I don’t claim to be much of a political analyst. What I can offer is that I’ve known Sean for half a century, which is somewhat longer than anyone else here can claim. Because I usually helped put them there, I know where all the bodies are buried. Over the years, he’s returned the favour. I think this qualifies me to add to the growing heap of praise.
I met Sean on Tuesday the 7th September 1971. It was our first day at a crap comprehensive school in South-East London. He was a short, fat boy, with NHS glasses and a mass of brown curls. He had a flat voice and a permanent look of boredom. He despised most of the teachers, and responded to their usually incompetent lessons by reading in class or falling asleep. The other boys responded to him with ruthless bullying. His response to that was truancy. If I ever wanted to find him after school, the surest place was Lewisham Library, which in those days was a treasure house of books on every subject.
It was at school that he first showed his talent for the written word. His taste in those days was for writing sicko horror stories. We both read our way through the many volumes of the Pan Horror Stories. Sean’s early ambition as a writer was to outdo them all in nasty black humour. He came close. One of his stories, about a serial sex-killer, he recycled when he was at university. This provoked an assault by the feminists with beer and used tampons.
His twenties were the time when he should have established himself as a writer. Everyone who knew him agreed he was a genius. Sadly, that was the decade when he seemed to go off the boil. He did write a few novels for a strange old publisher in Manchester – someone who spent more on drink and rough trade than he ever did on printing or marketing. These novels had their good points. Their defect was that the publisher welcomed and encouraged every tendency Sean has to self-indulgence. There were too many digressions and sub-plots, the overall plots too freakish. Every page seemed to shout: “Look, look – I’m writing a novel!” Even so, I wish he’d bring out a new edition of Return of the Skolli. Though told in the first person by a thief and paedophile who never washes, this is a pretty good apocalyptic novel that touches on some of the themes that mark his later fiction.
I’ll pass over Sean’s work as a serious political writer. It’s for this that he gets so much praise. But I think, and I always thought, he was wasting his talents. Unless you’re a scumbag elected to line your own pockets, you don’t get rich from politics. Sean was about the first person on the right to notice we were headed for a police state. He’s done more than most to explain the peculiar nature of this police state and the people in charge of it. His reward was to make himself so unemployable in higher education that he’s reduced to offering Ancient Greek to a total British market that might not fill a church hall. All that political stuff took time away from his real mission, which is writing fiction, and has probably reduced sales of his fiction.
In my view, Sean’s greatest achievement has been his twelve Byzantine novels written as “Richard Blake.” I’ll quote The Morning Star reviewer: “It would be hard to over-praise this extraordinary series, a near-perfect blend of historical detail and atmosphere with the plot of a conspiracy thriller, vivid characters, high philosophy and vulgar comedy.” I can’t add much to that, but it’s in these books that you see all his strengths in complete balance. What I most admire is their immense architecture. He can make fifty pages flow like a single chapter. Every so often, he whines to me that they don’t sell in the numbers he hoped for. My reply is that, despite his publisher’s worst effort, they will sell, and, because of them, his daughter will never have trouble paying her bills.
And now he’s sixty. When we were nineteen, I predicted his future life for a joke. Among the predictions was that he’d die at fifty-nine of the heart attack he’d been talking about since he was thirteen. He tells me he had that one in mind as the clock went past midnight the other week. Well, I’m sorry if I provoked any superstitious twinges over the intervening forty years. On the other hand, I also predicted all his teeth would fall out and he’d have a son called Denzil. That should have told him something about my powers as a seer. So my public message to Sean is to stop whining about being old and frail, and wondering when he’ll get his heating allowance. The past sixty years haven’t been too bad for him. And it isn’t over yet.