In 2015 we published an article, an exchange between Richard Young and L J Hurst, on the delays and puzzling editions of John Mair’s thriller Never Come Back. Never Come Back had made a big impression on George Orwell when he reviewed it in 1941, and it may have been one of the paranoid thrillers of the recent decade that went toward shaping Orwell’s own plans for Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As we noted in 2015 the novel had had a troubled birth. Now Richard Young, who has access to the publisher Victor Gollancz’s archives, describes those troubles in more detail.
The illustrations in this article include the original agreement for Never Come Back dated 4 th December 1940. This must have followed the undated readers report which was very enthusiastic.
Then the trouble started. Review copies were quickly sent out during December. During this time the book came to the attention of Frank Whitaker the then editor of ‘Country Life’. Solicitors for Frank Whitaker, complained that one of the characters was based on him, and was distinctly unflattering,
A hold was put on the book, but as a letter from Victor Gollancz of 10th January 1941 shows, there was a ‘slip up’ and Orwells review of the book appeared in the New Statesman of 4th January (John Mair’s former employer).
John Mair replied to Gollancz on 13 th January 1941, admitting that he had based the character of ‘Mr Whitby on Whitaker, and did in fact quote some of his choicer phrases’. He thought though that this was perfectly acceptable from a legal perspective.
Unfortunately others begged to differ, and the file is full of correspondence relating to changes that had to be made, including replacing ‘Whitby’ with’ Mr Poole’ throughout.The bad feeling between Frank Whitaker and John Mair comes out clearly in the file, and it is clear that Mair had been sacked by Whitaker about a year ealier. Whitaker demands not only changes to the book, but that Mair be made to pay £10 from his royalties to the Newspaper Press Fund.
The turmoil did not stop with the eventual publication of the book, because John Mair took the unwise step of then complaining to Gollancz that it was not being marketed effectively, This led to an extraordinary letter from Gollancz dated 30 th May 1941 tearing a strip off Mair for his lack of gratitude considering how he had involved his publisher ‘in considerable expense and very great inconvenience indeed’. Gollancz concludes his letter ‘ I have had seventeen years experience of, and ( I am glad to say ) friendship with, authors: and during the whole of that period this present experience is unique’.
The last letter in the file is a groveling apology from Mair dated 10th June 1941 – ‘I don’t know whether I am more astonished or distressed to find how exceedingly my letter has offended you, a thing quite contrary to my intention’. He concludes the letter by saying ‘… my first novel is proving a very unfortunate one, though I have only myself to blame for it’.
Of course the sad thing is that his first novel was to be his last.
A note in the file from Mair’s literary agents dated September 1st 1941 confirms that Mair wanted to follow up Never Come Back with ‘ a detective story in an R.A.F. setting’. Given the trouble over Never Come Back it was proposed that this would be written under a pseudonym. This book never saw the light of day as Mair was killed in a training accident during his R.A.F. service in April 1942.**
** Another RAF member using the pseudonym Richard Lakin published The Body Fell On Berlin in 1943 (Hodder and Stoughton), suggesting the practicality of Mair’s idea.