MY VISIT TO GOZO AND A. J. QUINNELL

 

Nearly 10 years had elapsed since I had read my first A. Q. Quinnell book “Blood Ties”. Like many others, I was desperate to read more of his published works, but I had already read all the ones that had been published in the English language, and the often mentioned “Priests of a Dead God”, remained tantalisingly elusive. So I decided it was time to again read the AJQ books I already had sitting on my bookshelf.

Once again I started with “Blood Ties”. This book hadn't even featured AJQ's most famous character Creasy, but it had been the one that had got me hooked on his writing.

On several occasions, much to my embarrassment, I found tears of emotion running down my face. When I had finished it, I sent a message to AJQ, expressing my renewed surprise at the emotions he had invoked and asking him how he did it.

Before reading Quinnell, I had been an avid reader of the likes of Forsyth and Follet, but as much as I enjoyed their stories, I had never found myself blubbing. Shortly after sending my email, I got a reply from AJQ, which went something like this:-

“I am reminded of a letter sent by admiral Nelson to one of his captains just before the battle of Trafalgar. The captain had kept his frigate under terrible weather conditions watching the French fleet in Calais. They had little food or water but their mission was vital. When Nelson arrived with the fleet he sent a cutter with a letter to the captain. It began:-

'My dear Blackthorn. Do you believe, as I do, that you can be a good friend of a man whom you have never met?'.

Well, I do as well. For my part we are firm friends, connected not just by e-mail, but by something much deeper. You have been a link between myself & my readers. So if you can find yourself in Europe in the coming few months try to make your way to Gozo”.

I also felt we were firm friends (mainly because I felt that apart from our internet bonding, someone who could stir my inner feelings like AJQ does, must share many of my values and have had similar experiences to my own). It was not long after this that he also sent me an email indicating that his serious illness of which I was already aware, was indeed very serious.

When I received his messages, I had no plan to go to Europe (I live in Singapore). Because of my workload at the time, I imagined I would not get there for years.  Then I thought “Why not?”. Perhaps I could arrange a trip to UK to see my relatives, including my mother, who often complains about the rarity of my visits. By world distance standards Gozo is just a short hop away from England. There is never a good time to be absent from work, although email reduces the implications, at least in my line. So I arranged it.

After scouring the internet for flights to London and Malta, which would fit in, I booked my tickets and informed AJQ of my schedule. He in turn replied that despite my early arrival time of 4:00am, I would be met at Malta Airport by a friend of his called Raymond, and then taken to the ferry to Gozo, where I would be met by his great niece Michelle, who was visiting from Australia.

Two months later I had arrived in the UK, and on 1st June 2005, I made an uneventful evening trip by train to Stanstead airport, which is located to the North East of London. I boarded the Air Malta plane at 11:00pm and having occupied my window seat, found myself sitting next to a very large man, who needed more than one seat to be comfortable. Luckily we had three seats to share between the two of us. He still looked uncomfortable, since the front of his belly was making contact with the back of the seat in front of him. He was very friendly and revealed that he was half Maltese and half English and was traveling to Malta to see his girlfriend.

The flight was a little over three hours, but due to the time difference and a small delay we arrived at 4:15am. Having passed through immigration and customs I exited the passenger only area and looked for Raymond, who was supposed to be holding a card with my name on it. The only problem was that none of the cards being held, had names which were in anyway familiar to me.

As an experienced Asia hand, this did not phase me at all. I sat in a plastic chair at the front of an airport café, which had not yet opened, and waited. Eventually everyone had drifted away, and except for some of the airport staff. I seemed to be the only person who was not an airport employee remaining in the vicinity.

I started to vaguely wonder if all of this was some fantastic hoax. Was it possible that someone had laid an elaborate trail of evidence, on the internet, which had duped me into unwittingly maintain a site about A. J. Quinnell. Had it all been fiction?

No, I couldn’t believe it. All the messages had been so sincere and every instinct, as well as my research, had told me they were genuine. Part of the research I had done was to Google the name of AJQs Danish wife, through who I had been receiving his correspondence. This had produced hits on pages, which although in Danish, mentioned her name as well as his real name in the same paragraph. If it was a hoax it was a well planned one. But then again, perhaps the Maltese tourist board had done it to bump up their tourist numbers?

A slightly lost looking man of Mediterranean appearance was walking towards me. “Are you Tony?”.

“You must be Raymond!”.

“No I’m his brother! Raymond apologises for not being able to pick you up himself”.

Not long after that, I was being driven at high speed across Malta in a very comfortable Mercedes to the ferry port. “I’m very sorry Tony. I was lead to believe the ferry leaves at 6:00am, but I phoned to check and it is actually 5:45am when it departs. I think we can just make it though”. Raymond’s brother was very pleasant and gave me a running commentary of how many kilometers we had to cover in the minutes we had left. The ratio was about one minute for each two kilometers. The roads were far from being straight. At 5:42am the ferry came into sight. It was a long way away. We drove right up to the car ramp. I was the last passenger to board, before it departed.

 

As we slipped out of Malta the sun was just beginning to rise. I took a couple of pictures of it, with my digital camera. It looked like half of a small red ball on the black horizon, soon creating just enough light to make out Malta on my left side, Comino on my right side and what I didn’t realize then, straight ahead, was the not too far distant Gozo.

I sat down at a table in an on board cafeteria and put my bag and laptop PC on one of the chairs. There was not much of a queue at the serving counter, so I ordered a cup of black coffee and returned to the table. Although my body was probably tired, having been up all night, the excitement of at last approaching the domain of Creasy and his creator, meant that I felt very alert and far too excited to notice the effects of sleep deprivation. Of course the coffee helped give me an extra boost.

As we approached Gozo, the most noticeable landmarks were two impressive churches, on the higher ground. One of these appeared to have two spires. Surprisingly soon we were docking at our destination Mgarr harbour. By now it was full daylight.

I left the ferry and quickly spotted a girl waiting at the quay side, who I guessed must be Michelle. I felt slightly guilty that this young girl had come to meet me at such an early hour, when I’m sure she would rather have been sleeping. I was glad that she did though, since I was in a place I’d never been to before. Michelle reminded me that due to her recent accident, AJQ’s wife Elsebeth was current moving around on crutches, but to expect a call from her later in the morning.

A few minutes later Michelle had dropped me off at the Grand Hotel. I checked in and and quickly found I had a huge comfortable room.

After having a shave and a long luxuriant shower, I ventured out onto the balcony and immediately discovered that I had a great view of Mgarr harbour.

Based on intelligence, gleaned from photographs and comments that various AJQ fans had sent me in the past, I had a good, if slightly distant impression of the famous (made famous by AJQ) Gleneagles bar, among the other buildings which make up the harbour front of Mgarr. It was amazing to look at the building and imagine that many of the plans that I had read about in AJQs novels had been hatched in that very building.

There was little doubt that not only had Creasy planned many of his missions while in Gleneagles, but AJQ himself must have spent many hundreds of hours there, deciding what Creasy would do next.

Still being to some extent governed by Singapore time, I went down to reception to enquire about internet access. I was very pleasantly surprised when they told me they had wireless broadband in the lobby area. Twenty minutes later I had returned with my PC and was catching up with work email. Then I went back to my room for a nap.

At about 10:00am the room phone rang. It was Elsebeth, who told me that AJQ had not slept well the previous night, but that she and her brother would drop by the hotel at midday to take me out to lunch.

I recalled from previous responses to messages, that AJQ mainly writes at night. So I imagined that he must sleep a lot in the day. At 11:55 I went downstairs. At almost midday precisely a white Suzuki Jeep pulled up in front of the hotel. When I saw the lady on gleaming silver coloured crutches hobbling toward the entrance, I knew who it must be. I could hardly believe it though. I had imagined that Elsebeth would be in her 60s and with the trauma of being on crutches, accompanied by the stress caused by her husband’s illness, would look rather serious and strained. As it turned out, she was at least 20 years younger than I had expected. Once she realized who I was, she smiled cheerfully and waved one of her crutches in greeting. Elsebeth was accompanied by an equally youthful looking man, who she introduced as her brother, Lars.

Ten minutes later we were in Gleneagles, where I was introduced to the famous Tony (it is he who appears in the Creasy books, not me) and his dog, who has an interesting name. While there I had my first pint of Cisk (pronounced Chisk, so I was told. I was also told Mgarr is pronounced more like Majar). The beer was cold and very welcome. We sat on the balcony overlooking the harbour, while Elsebeth appraised me of AJQs current state of health, which was not good. She told me that Philip had been through a very bad night, but she hoped he would be well enough to meet me later in the day.

We returned to the Suziki jeep and drove to a restaurant called the Oleander in Xaghra. This was in a square near a large church. Excellent food and local wine followed. In an attempt to not gain too many kilos, I was following an Atkins like diet. Of course alcohol is not good when dieting, so I skipped the other carbs, but not the wine or beer. It was difficult. The bread, pasta and potatoes looked fantastic. I ate lamb and the lower carb vegetables. They tasted great especially with the local wine. We finished off with cheese and then coffee. My offer to pay the bill was declined, as were my subsequent offers.

I really enjoyed talking to both Elsebeth and Lars, but I had not yet managed to meet AJQ himself. I put it to them “How do I know this is not an fantastic hoax?”. They laughed and said “Well may be it is!”. I’m so glad those Danes have a great sense of humour!

I was returned to my hotel to take a rest, then later Lars drove me to the AJQ home. Like almost every house on Gozo and Malta, it was built of beautiful sandstone. I was apparently about to meet the man himself. I was quite nervous. Despite all our amicable correspondence, would we hit it off?

Then there he was. I recognized him immediately from a picture, which had appeared on a Japanese web site. He had lost quite a lot of weight, presumably caused by his illness, but was definitely the same man. Minutes later we were drinking beer by the pool outside, one on one, discussing our agenda for the next couple of days. I had previously informed AJQ by email that I would be very grateful for any writing tips he could pass on to me. He in turn had set me a little project to do, which would form the basis of our discussions.

Later Elsebeth and Lars joined us. Elsebeth discarded her crutches and went for a swim. I had to admire her determination to get fit again. It was a warm sunny afternoon and the beers were going down easily. After drinking several of them, I plucked up the courage to ask AJQ to autograph my original tatty paperback copy of Blood Ties, which he kindly did.

That evening we had a great meal of cottage pie with salad, cooked by AJQ’s sister in law Kay, who is the wife of his brother Roger. Of course cottage pie is covered in potato, but despite my diet, I could not resist a second helping. We also drank too much excellent wine. Philip explained that wine is produced locally on Gozo, but because of the location, much of the imported wine is Italian.

Toward the end of the meal, Philip told me never to forget that now I had friends on Gozo, Denmark, South Africa and Australia.

It was an amazing and warming feeling to be so accepted into a family, who a short time earlier had never met me. All too soon it was time for me to return to the hotel. Lars was staying nearby, so kindly drove me back.

I was pleasantly surprised the next day to wake up without a hangover. I drank some coffee and then did my usual wireless internet stuff in the lobby, before Lars and Elsebeth picked me up again, to do some site seeing.

Our first destination was the ancient citadel in Victoria. Apart from excellent views across Gozo from the ramparts, there is an interesting Cathedral. If it had not been pointed out to me by Elsebeth, I would never have realized that the dome I thought I was looking up into, was in fact an optical illusion, painted on a flat ceiling.

Next we drove past some sandstone quarries to the coast to see the rock formation known as the “Azure Window”. The rocks here are embedded with some fossil, which looks like it may have been some kind of sea urchin. We were wearing shoes, but I imagine you would have to be careful not to cut yourself if you went barefoot. It was a bit overcast while we were there so the Mediterranean was not quite as azure coloured, as I assume it must often be.

We returned to the jeep and further along the shoreline we passed salt pans, which had been cut into the rocks, right next to the sea. I could not quite make out, whether the sea comes high enough to cover the pans, but I assume not, otherwise presumably the salt already collected would be diluted and washed away.

Further along the coast road, we stopped at Marsalforn for lunch. As we walked from the car we met a friend of AJQ, who introduced himself as Revel Barker. It became apparent that Revel had been a journalist in the UK, but had now based himself in Gozo.

We sat down outside at a seafront restaurant called Otters, where we had another excellent lunch, which was also accompanied by local wine.

That evening Philip came to meet me at the Grand Hotel, where he bought me dinner. He ordered lamb cutlets, while I ordered a steak topped with Roquefort cheese. We talked at length. We covered numerous topics. Since Philip had extensive experience of living in Asia and I was also living in Asia, it was naturally a subject of deep common interest for both of us. Philip had been heavily involved in the textile industry during his time in Asia in the 1960s and 70s.

We also discussed the project he had set me, during which he imparted some of the techniques, which can be used to bring life to fictional characters. He told me that the following day he would give me some chapters of his unfinished book tentatively titled “Priests of a Dead God” to study.

It was clear that it was an effort for Philip to come to meet me, for which I will always be grateful. His illness had done nothing for his appetite and he hardly touched his food. Despite that, he was full of humour and interesting stories. We discussed situations where people had tried to pretend they were AJQ for various reasons. Philip told me that if I ever found myself in a situation, where being A. J. Quinnell would help me to “impress” a woman I liked, to feel free to use his pseudonym without retribution!

It seemed that everyone who came into the restaurant knew Philip. I suspected there were few people on Gozo who didn’t know him.

I got the strong impression that Philip had lead a very full life and that was giving him a lot of comfort in the situation he now found himself. From my perspective he had made himself immortal through his writing.

Over coffee we discussed the AJQ web site, in particular the many messages, which had been sent in by readers. This lead on to him telling me about some of the time he and his family had spent in South Africa.

Later Elsebeth, Lars and Michelle arrived to collect Philip. We all sat in the bar for a nightcap and among other things talked about the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Jim Thompson, the reviver of the Thai silk industry, while on holiday in Malaysia in 1967. According to some researchers it was thought that Jim may have been using his textiles business as a cover for CIA activities, which could have lead to his inexplicable disappearance. In the mid 1960s much of Asia had looked as though it was on the verge of being swamped by communism. At that time the Americans were heavily involved in fighting that possibility in Vietnam.

On the third morning I was picked up by some of AJQ’s close friends, Mark and Akiko who are also residents of Gozo. I had checked out of the Grand Hotel and so put my bag and laptop computer in the back of the car.

Mark drove. The route took us along a normal two lane road and then down a bumpy track to a secluded inlet, from which the Mediterranean was accessible, but not visible. This looked like an ideal cove for pirates to hide in. It was here at Mgarr ix-Xini that we stopped for lunch. The menu consisted mainly of a wide variety of local fish. I chose a chunky tuna steak, which was duly barbequed to perfection and consumed along with a couple of glasses of Cisk. Mark and Akiko also ate fish, but they tried varieties whose names I’d never heard of before, and which I have since forgotten.

Having had our fill, we headed over to the AJQ home, for me to say my farewells. We had time to sit around the pool and have another couple of drinks, then it was time for me to go. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to say goodbye to people I’d only met for the first time, just over forty-eight hours before. It was especially hard to say goodbye to Philip, knowing that these couple of days had not only been our first meeting, but would also be our last.

Mark and Akiko drove me to the Ferry. A few minutes later we steamed out of Mgaar harbour. I watched over the back rail as Gleneagles, The Grand Hotel, Mgarr and then Gozo itself, faded into distance.

Later on arrival at Malta I was met by Raymond (not his brother this time) and was driven at a more leisurely pace to the airport. Now that it was still daylight I could clearly see how much more densely populated Malta is than Gozo.

The departure of the aircraft back to Stanstead was delayed by about 45 minutes. I used the time to sit at a wine counter and sample some additional Gozian wines.

The flight itself was uneventful apart from being late. After having passed through UK immigration and customs, I descended to the deserted Stanstead airport railway station and purchased a ticket to Sevenoaks from the ticket machine. After a few minutes of wondering why no one else was waiting for a train, I checked the timetables, only to find I’d missed the last one. A nearby notice informed me that I could use my train ticket, to catch a coach from the coach station upstairs to Liverpool Street Railway Station or Victoria Coach Terminal.

I caught the coach and as we approached London I asked the driver if there would be any chance of getting a coach to the Sevenoaks area from Victoria, given the time of night. As a result of his answer I left the coach at Liverpool Street. It took just a couple of minutes to find that the doors to the underground were locked, so I took a taxi to Waterloo.

I couldn’t believe it. The main line station at Waterloo was also locked up. It was quite cold, so I walked around the adjacent streets for about an hour, looking for an all night café or fast food place, where I could buy a coffee and keep warm, but I found none.

I returned to the station and resolved to spend the night on one of the benches. I had figured that a black cab from Waterloo to Sevenoaks would probably end up costing more than my flight from Stanstead to Gozo, which didn’t seem like a good deal.

As I approached the bench area, I smelt a lovely waft from a bakery cooking French bread and Danish pastries. Unfortunately, it turned out that the spot where this warm yeasty smelling air was emanating from, was already occupied by another more deserving vagrant.

I sat on the bench for about thirty minutes, before the cold caused me to rummage in my bag for a T-shirt, which I put on over the shirt I was already wearing (I was also wearing a jacket). An hour later and another T-shirt was added to my insulation. By now my ears were absolutely freezing. All I could think of doing was putting a long sleeve shirt over my head and tying the arms together under my chin, to keep it in place. That is what I did. It was pretty obvious from their pitying glances, that the various station workers and even drunks, who passed by, were convinced that I was on the very bottom rung of humanity.

A little before 5:00am, much to my relief, the station opened again. I went inside only to discover that it was just as cold inside as out. It was more than another hour before some of the café outlets started to open, at which point I ordered a succession of very big café lattes.

The trains didn’t start to run again until about 8:00am (it was Sunday morning). When they did start to run, the first announcement was that due to maintenance work there would be no direct trains to Sevenoaks. After various enquiries, I walked to the platforms at Waterloo East, took a train first to London Bridge and then Lewisham. At Lewisham I caught a specially laid on bus (even Sherlock Holmes would have been proud of how I managed to locate the departure place for the bus) to Orpington. From Orpington I took another train to Sevenoaks and then a taxi to my brother’s house at Riverhead. I arrived there at 11:00am on Sunday 5th June 2005, where my first action was to take a long hot shower.

A few weeks later while on a business trip to Korea, I received several emails from different sources, bearing the sad news that on 10th July 2005 on Gozo in the afternoon, Philip Nicholson (a.k.a. A. J. Quinnell) had passed away.

Revel Barker to who I had been introduced during my visit to Gozo shortly afterwards wrote this short biography of Philip Nicholson.

In retrospect I am so glad I went to Gozo. The trip made up some of the most memorable days I have ever experienced – I was so lucky to get the chance to meet Philip and those who were close to him. Even the low point (the night on a bench outside Waterloo station) is one I will never forget.

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