A decade is a big chunk of time, at least by human standards. Yet it goes by in a flash, as if by magic, and at the end of ten orbits of old father Sol, it’s usually a case of “Wow, what happened there, then?”
So it is with the ten years to the day that have passed since the man credited by some with saving sword and sorcery writing, almost single-handedly, passed away at just short of 58 years old, from complications after heart surgery. I’m not far off that age myself now. It makes you think.
David Andrew Gemmell was a British author of heroic fantasy, best known for his debut work, Legend, first published in 1984, and probably his most famous character, the Drenai warrior, Druss. Strangely, he wrote that during a cancer scare when he thought he was facing death. A former journalist and newspaper editor, Gemmell went on to write over thirty novels in several series. Wow.
In April 2002 I actually had the chance to meet David in, of all places, Wednesbury Library, a building that was very familiar to me, as I’d gone to college just over the road. I’d spent many an hour in that library, in the days before libraries became filled with computers. The college, which we used to call the ‘Hole in the Wall’ back in the day, has long since been demolished, sadly, but thankfully the library is still there. For how, long, who knows.
I was (and still am) a fan of sword and sorcery and epic fantasy, most notably the work of Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock and J.R.R. Tolkien, amongst others. David Gemmell had also been on my radar for some years, and when I spotted an announcement that he was making an extremely rare visit to my area (I live in Bloxwich, Walsall, not many miles from Wednesbury) I was determined to beat a path to my old stomping ground and meet the great man in person.
Oddly, David wasn’t due to give any readings – the organisers reckoned he was normally reluctant to undertake events of that type, but he was up for a book signing and a question-and-answer session from fans and, inevitably, budding writers. Which was why I was there.
When I got there, a little before 8pm, the place was packed, as you might expect, though I don’t think the publicity had been all that extensive. There was an admission fee of a measly £1 (50p concessions!), to cover the cost of refreshments. Typical library event, on that basis. I assume his publishers had coughed up for David’s travel expenses. I parked myself in the front row.
He chatted about his work for about an hour, answering many, many questions, then, surprisingly, he did give a reading, from Legend. Tea and biccies followed, during which I managed to collar him for a chat about writing. He seemed like a nice chap, very knowledgeable about his craft, and encouraging. I hadn’t done any fiction writing since the late 1990s, and had a vague idea of starting up again, but that wasn’t fated to get anywhere until some years later, as I was too involved with other things and time ran out, as it so often does.
Anyway, David kindly signed a paperback copy of Hero in the Shadows for me, and that was the last I saw of him. A pity, I would have liked to get to know him better. From what I hear, his friends were lucky to know him, and he is well-regarded in fantasy circles, which is certainly something to aspire to.
So, ten years on from his untimely passing, David Gemmell is rightly commemorated in the fantasy writing awards named in his honour, and his work is still much-loved by sword and sorcery fans. A legacy which any of those of us writers who came after would be proud of.
Time to pay my respects here, and by returning to the source, Legend.
A. Stuart Williams
My thanks to Gary Crutchley for his picture of Wednesbury Library.