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London, 21 April 1976

Mr William Sansom: Author with loving eye for the London urban scene


Mr William Sansom, the novelist and short-story writer, who was at his best when drawing on London life and scenes, died suddenly yesterday at the age of 64. A splendid observer, and a lively eccentric, his outlook had also been expressed in composing light music and writing lyrics.

William Sansom was born on January 18, 1912, the third son of Ernest Sansom. He was educated at Uppingham, but as a boy travelled widely in Europe with his father, a naval architect. He studied German in Bonn and then took his first job in a London bank. After some years he joined an advertising agency as a copy-writer, a job he varied with spells playing the piano in a club and directing radio playas abroad.  He joined the NFS as a full-time fireman on the outbreak of war, and, incidentally, played a leading part in Humphrey Jennings’s documentary film Fires Were Started.

It was not until he was 30 that his first stories, based on his experiences in the blitz, were published. These, appearing in New Writing and Horizon, made an immediate impression: though notably influenced by Kafka, they were carefully composed, rich in imagery and detail, and written from a highly idiosyncratic viewpoint. His first volume, Fireman Flower, was published in 1944, and was followed two years later by Three, also short stories.

The critical success of these led Sansom to devote himself full-time to writing and ensconced in a ground floor flat in Swiss Cottage, with a lush garden beyond the French windows, he produced a steady flow of short stories. Something Terrible, Something Lovely, in which the macabre and the fantastic were often compellingly blended, appeared in 1948, as did South, a brilliant series of fictionalizes travel sketches about the Mediterranean. Every year now he visited some new country, making extensive notes for later work. The Passionate North (1950), a companion piece to South, dealt with Scandinavia, but a year earlier Sansom had written his first and probably best novel, The Body.

Great comic gifts were now apparent, as well as his usual sense of the bizarre, but The Body is most remarkable for his loving descriptions of various parts of London. As an urban poet of prose he had few equals. Subsequent novels, The Face of Innocence, A Bed of Roses, relied rather too much on foreign settings, and it was only when he returned to the London scene, in The Loving Eye (1956), that his earlier success was repeated. The strain of regular freelance journalism was responsible for a decline in quality about this time, and while he produced further volumes of travel pieces such as The Icicle and the Sun, and another novel The Cautious Heart (1958), short stories, in which his qualities were most surely demonstrated, became few and far between.

In 1954 Sansom married Ruth Grundy, a former actress, and after the birth of their son Nicholas, moved to Hamilton Terrace. He wrote, during the later fifties, numerous ballads, revue sketches, and songs, as well as a script for the film of The Loving Eye. He mellowed much after his marriage, an early contrariness in company, especially company not of his own choosing, rapidly disappearing. To  a small circle of friends he was extremely hospitable and in the presence of these he was unfailingly genial, funny and warm. He became something of a dandy, with an individual, rather Edwardian taste in clothes, and grew a stylish beard. His recreation he listed in Who’s Who as “watching” and this sums up as well as anything a character that was insatiably curious, especially of the minutiae of life. Distinctive of appearance, he was immediately recognizable as an unusual man of unusual talents.

His output, despite increasing ill health, remained remarkably steady. He published four more novels, The Last Hours of Sandra Lee, Goodbye, Hans Feet in Love and A Young Wife’s Tale, - none of them perhaps as fascinating as The Body – and his stories were collected in 1963 in a volume running to 400 pages, after which he produced two further collections, The Ulcerated Milkman and The Marmalade Bird, the latter containing “Down at the Hydro”, one of his very best stories.

Two more collections of travel essays, Away to it All (1964) and Grand Tour Today (1968) gave hints of an increasing distaste for the business of travel, though his inquisitiveness and odd angel of approach still produced occasion telling observations and vivid phrases. For one so well-travelled and curious about the world he showed no interest in the East or America.

In the last year or two he had some difficulty getting about, and his spirits were often low. But the old euphoria and gaiety could surface even to the extent last year of giving a German – speaking ball in the style of the late 19th century that he loved. He never lost his charm, and the sight of him in his brown bowler was always restorative. If he sometimes tried the patience of his closest friends, especially in his cups, he never lost their love. He was at heart a genuine eccentric, imaginatively comical, affectionate and tender. He had grace of manner – as indeed, as a writer, he had grace of style.

Although is later work was uneven, usually without the density and tension of his earlier stories, he certainly ranks amongst the best short story writers of this century. He took immense pains, was never without a notebook, and whether compiling a photographic essay about Proust or working on a story, was fastidiously dedicated to every aspect of his work.

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