A favourite photograph of one of my grandsons shows him astride his rocking-horse, wearing one of my old hats, a rifle and a pistol in his tiny hands and the reins between his teeth – a miniature copy of John Wayne in the iconic scene from True Grit, in which he challenges the outlaws to draw their guns and face him. As soon as I saw it, I realized I had infected him with my lifelong obsession with Westerns, on screen and on the page. I thought: ‘If that child says “Fill yore hands you sonsabitches” I’m in trouble.’
Naturally, it was my grandfather who indoctrinated me in Western ways. When I was about 10, and coming home from Saturday matinées with my head full of the exploits of Hopalong Cassidy, he gave me one of his library tickets and sent me into the adult section to find the books of Cassidy’s creator, Clarence E. Mulford, or the even more authentic writer of Westerns, Zane Grey.
Successive generations came to identify the actor William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, hardly surprising since he played the role in over sixty films, followed by another fifty black-and-white TV shows. The silver-haired former silent screen star turned Hoppy into an industry. He received 15,000 fan letters a week and undertook personal appearances and charity tours around the world, often taking his faithful and highly intelligent horse Topper with him. He even devised ten Hoppy Cassidy commandments for boys and girls: ‘The highest badge of honor a person can wear is honesty. Be truthful at all times. . . Many animals are good and loyal companions. Be friendly and kind to them . . . Children in many foreign lands are less fortunate than you. Be glad and proud you are an American.’
It was not only because of that last one that I went off my hero. I quickly realized that the on-screen Hoppy was something of a milksop compared to the hard-drinking, red-blooded, trouble seeking and often vengeful wrangler in the Mulford books. Boyd insis
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