The death of Welsh author Leslie Thomas recently prompted me to re-read his autobiography In My Wildest Dreams. My copy has an updated introduction written in 2006 where Leslie Thomas recalls how he met one of his childhood friends who said, 'I'm retiring next year and I'm going to finish my book then.' 'You're writing a book?' Leslie asked. 'No,' his friend replied, 'I'm reading one.'
Leslie's great sense of humour makes this a very readable book, even though I'm sure he makes light of his very challenging early life and years spent in children's homes. I was particularly interested in how his first novel (followed by twenty-nine more) became such a worldwide best seller. It seems he had several lucky breaks, starting with the title. Based on his far eastern national service in the Army Pay Corps, it was originally going to be called The Little Soldiers then someone suggested it should be changed to The Virgin Soldiers just before the books went to print. A nervous BBC review editor added 'Don't leave it around where children can pick it up.' An intrigued public rushed to buy it - and the rest is history.
Leslie modestly says of The Virgin Soldiers, 'It was a beginner's book, written from the heart.' The fact is he spent years learning his craft the hard way, writing for magazines and later as a reporter on the London Evening News. He also spotted an important niche when he realised no one had previously written a novel based on national service experiences.
I really enjoyed re-reading this life-affirming story of a resourceful but penniless orphan who, through his writing, became a much-loved celebrity, (dining with Princess Diana) and am sure I will return to it sometime. I should really leave the last word to Leslie: "I overheard two old ladies talking. 'This Leslie Thomas,' one said, 'They say he can write and he's funny and charming. I can't see it myself." Her friend replied: 'Nor can I.' "