Tom Stoppard

A graceful writer and a graceful man

Derek was straight out of Scott Fitzgerald, recalls Tom Stoppard, and his idea for a thriller about a double agent ordered to kill himself was absolutely brilliant

I wonder what happened to my first edition of A Dandy in Aspic. I must have been careless about lending it when it could no longer be bought. Derek’s succeeding novels, from The Memoirs of a Venus Lackey (1968) to The Rich Boy from Chicago (1979), are in their place on my bookshelves; seven titles, lacking the first and ninth. The last novel, Nancy Astor (1982), based on his own screenplay, had passed me by. But it was A Dandy in Aspic, written in four weeks in a flat he shared with me and Piers Paul Read just off the Vauxhall Bridge Road in 1965, that changed Derek’s life.

Derek, Piers and I were friends but not a trio. We each had a room and kept to it. We had a kitchen but seldom ate communally. It was the year of ‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’, by the Righteous Brothers: Derek played it on a loop. He went out most days because he had some kind of a job, and there were indications of an exciting life elsewhere. He’d met some people who had a rock band, and the band became The Who.

I’m writing from memory, an increasingly fallible resource, but my memory recalls that when Derek told us that he was writing ‘a spy novel’, we were sceptical. Surely that bandwagon had passed by? The Spy Who Came in from the Cold had been published years ago (three years seemed like a long time)! But what I do remember is that when Derek told me the basic premise for his novel (a spy with two identities who is ordered to kill his other self) I thought: now, that is an absolutely brilliant idea.

By that time, Derek had delivered his riposte to our scepticism. Gollancz, he announced one day, had accepted his book.

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