The maxim ‘write what you know’ has been drummed into aspiring novelists on creative writing courses for years and it aptly sums up the varied career of R. F. Delderfield, whose writing life was divided into three distinct parts. He was encouraged early on by George Bernard Shaw and Graham Greene among others, and one of his several mentors advised him to ‘write what pleases you and you have a slim chance of pleasing others by accident’.
R. F. (Ron) Delderfield was 6 when in 1918 his family, shaken by the Great War’s air raids, moved, as so many Cockney families did,
to the suburbs. Ashburton Avenue, Addiscombe was then on the Kent/Surrey border, close to Shirley, an outer London ‘ring’, near Croydon – very different from Bermondsey and a paradise for a small boy. Five years later, his father upped sticks to Devon, changed his job and became editor of a weekly local paper, the Exmouth Chronicle, where Delderfield worked after leaving boarding-school as a reporter and ‘virtual sub-editor’. He interviewed visiting celebrities, wrote memorial notices (an inappropriate source of hilarity), attended weddings and funerals, and was required to fold the papers prior to distribution. Though his father considered him fortunate to have a job in the late 1920s when unemployment was widespread, Delderfield felt his prospects were limited, and he determined to write a successful play.
Returning to London, he worked his way through theWriters’ and Artists’ Yearbook and was on the cusp of success when war broke out again. Having been rejected for training as air-crew because of his extreme short-sightedness, he joined up as a clerk and did unpaid stage writing for the RAF (including a pantomime). He eventually joined the bomb disposal squad since he was considered insufficiently educated to be an officer. The armed forces would prove to be a rich source of copy.
Discharged in 1945, he was delighted to discover that a play he had sent to seve
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