A Brief Biography
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Sarban was the pen-name of John William Wall, born on the 6th November 1910 at 30 Lorna Road, Mexborough, near Rotherham in South Yorkshire. His father was George William Wall, a passenger guard on the Great Central Railway, and his mother was Maria Ellen (née Moffatt). John was the youngest of five surviving children, the others being Doris Catherine, Ann, Alfred and Jane Adelaide. Mexborough was then a small town, and Wall was able in his early and teenage years to get out on foot into the surrounding farmland, waste marshland and woods.
However, his love for the countryside, birds and animals struck its earliest roots during visits to Moorlands Farm at Beltoft, near Bolton, his father’s boyhood home. He and his brother Alfred, four years his senior, visited their farming relations together. It is not unusual that among lovers of animals and the countryside there is also a passion for hunting, and at various times in his life Wall owned an extensive armoury of more or less legal guns, augmented by very powerful home-made crossbows. It is therefore all the more astonishing that The Sound of His Horn, whilst informed by this background, can be read as an extremely effective anti-hunting novel. The very first line of the book, “It’s the terror that’s unspeakable”, refers to that experienced by the hunted. The story may seek to give the reader an intentional thrill in its descriptions of humans being hunted for pleasure, and, some may feel, delights in the details, but the implication is that hunting for sport is morally repugnant. If there was anything at all subversive about Wall’s avowed attitude in favour of hunting, it was that he had more time for the poacher than the gamekeeper, (indeed, his favourite song was “The Lincolnshire Poacher”.) The theme is further explored in an unpublished, unfinished novel written in the 1970s, in which he has his protagonist recalling that as a child he sabotaged his father’s snares. It is perhaps only in his writing, published under a pseudonym or unpublished, that Wall expresses the sympathies which would have surprised those who knew him.
Although John Wall’s roots were decidedly amongst the respectable working class, he was a clever boy. From the local Elementary School he gained, in September 1922, a scholarship to Mexborough School, and fom there, in October 1930, he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge to read English. He obtained the cheapest rooms that he could find, on a staircase in the oldest part of the buildings. (The set opposite was the Ghost Room, reputedly haunted by a member of the Everlasting Club—see Arthur Gray’s Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye.
Although obviously a gifted youth, Wall's origins would have been a disadvantage at that time. In a biographical chronology written for his daughter towards the end of his life, Wall noted that “As a job I had already got the idea that I might get into the Colonial Service. I already had an ambition to go to the Middle East (influenced by Flecker’s poetry, I think.) And reading George Borrow had awakened a desire to master a difficult Oriental language.”
He decided to take the First Part of the Modern Languages Tripos as his Third Year Course, and on taking his finals gained a first class honours degree. He then took the Consular Service Exam, a decision influenced to some extent by the fact that Flecker (The Golden Journey to Samarkand) had been in the Levant Consular Service. In his spare time Wall was studying Arabic.
Money was tight, and when in September 1933 he heard that he had a place in the Consular Service, he had just £1 remaining to his name. He was soon appointed to the Levant, and the outfit allowance of £130 was a great relief.
John Wall's first Diplomatic Service post was as Probationer Vice-Consul at Beirut. In succeeding years he was stationed at Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan and Casablanca. He was later Counsellor at the British Middle East Office in Cairo until 1952. His daughter does not believe that Wall ever achieved the position that he thought was his due, although his career was steady and obviously well-regarded. Once again he would have been conscious that his background was not that of most Foreign Office officials.
1947-1989: "Sarban" part 1
In the last months of 1947 Wall wrote two short stories, “Ringstones” and “A Christmas Story”, and early in 1948 he showed the typescripts to Eleanor Alexander (née Riesle), who was later to become his wife. They had first met in 1946, and they married on January 20th 1950. She suggested an alteration to the ending of “Ringstones”, which he duly made, and she also said she knew a publisher who might be interested in his work. According to his chronology, Eleanor later admitted that: “What she did was to look up the names and addresses of a few publishers and—on just what grounds, I’ve forgotten—picked out Peter Davies... It was solely due to Eleanor’s enterprise that the stories eventually got published.”
Wall’s lack of self-confidence meant that Eleanor was the dominant force in their marriage. Their daughter, Jocelyn, recalls her father as sociable in a small circle of friends, but reliant on his outgoing wife to play hostess at larger social functions. Although Wall’s name is written on the fly-leaf of the books he owned, it is inscribed in his wife’s handwriting. It was not a happy marriage. An unfinished novel presents us with a hero whom it is tempting to identify with the author. It’s central character is divorced from a wife who had loved him (the Wall’s arranged a legal separation in 1971), and for whom he had felt tenderness, but whom he should never have married as he was not able to meet her expectations of his career or social life.
From February to June 1948 Wall wrote the three other short stories published with “Ringstones”. Peter Davies liked these, but said that he should write a novel because short stories didn’t sell so well. The attempt was The Discovery of Heretics, completed, but rejected twice by Davies. On turning down the novel for the first time, in February 1950, Peter Davies agreed to publish the short stories. The heroine of The Discovery of Heretics was called Jocelyn, the name Wall later gave to his only daughter.
The pseudonym "Sarban" means "Caravan-driver" in Persian.
1947-1989: "Sarban" part 2
In Cairo in the summer of 1950 Wall wrote The Sound of His Horn and “The Doll Maker”, before returning to England in November 1950.
The family spent January of 1951 in and around Dorset. While staying at the Swan Hotel in Wootton-under-Edge Wall wrote “A House of Call”.
In February 1951 Ringstones was published, and the Walls returned to Egypt in March. The reviews were generally very approving. The Sound of his Horn was published in 1952. Wall himself said that the book received about a dozen mixed notices in the press and that sales were poor. However, the reviews seem to have been very positive, with most noting that he had successfully carried off an original idea which would have failed in the hands of a less gifted writer.
1947-1989: "Sarban" part 3
The September 1953 publication of The Doll Maker was less well received and reviews were this time more mixed. Wall claimed that after 1951 he had no time for writing, and that when he did find the time, he had lost interest. This is now known not to have been true. Wall wrote a long novel entitled The Gynarchs in 1965, partly revised the following year. Another story was begun in March 1972, although left unfinished. A further typescript exists, probably dating from the 1940s or 50s, of an un-named novel on which he collaborated via Diplomatic bag with Ted Wiltshire, an old friend.
Wall rewrote his manuscripts several times to make sure that they were flawless, and he was obviously something of a pedant. He kept a file entitled “Their English”, in which he noted mistakes made by newspapers, radio and television presenters. For example, someone had said “Harps back to” rather than “Harks back to”, and this is carefully noted and the error pedantically explained. Language was important to Wall, and he was fluent in many tongues, including various Arabic dialects. Another unpublished novel exists written in a code of his own devising, which is partly a form of shorthand and partly Arabic. Entitled Sysgol, it’s contents have yet to be rendered readable.
Wall retired from the position of Consular General in Egypt in 1966, but continued to work for the Foreign Office, at first in a teaching position in London. In 1970 he took a position in Cheltenham and stayed there for six and a half years, at the end of which time he retired to Monmouthshire. John Wall died in 1989, aged 79. His ashes were scattered under a tree in the Fellows’ Garden at Jesus College, Cambridge.
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