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Wordsmith's legacy

Former North-East journalist and writer Peter Kinsley has donated his life's work to Newcastle University.

Former North-East journalist and writer Peter Kinsley has donated his life's work to Newcastle University.

Peter Kinsley

It was a career packed with incident, with rogues, stars and world leaders - and this week, carefully packed into cardboard boxes, the evidence of it was taken into the safe keeping of a university library.

Delivering the boxes to the Robinson Library at Newcastle University, journalist-turned-novelist Peter Kinsley agreed that they did indeed contain his life's work - manuscripts, books, photos, diaries and letters from the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer and Albert Finney.

Intriguingly, the name "Somerset Maugham" was scribbled on top of one box.

"I used to drink with old Willie in his house in Cap Ferrat," says Peter of the novelist, who died in 1965 at the grand age of 91.

"I've been trying to get the BBC interested in a four-part series on his life. There was a recent letter from Lord Attenborough saying, `It's a good idea for a TV series but I'm doing two films at the moment'."

If the BBC wants to sift through Peter's Maugham-related material, obtained at first hand, they'll know where to find it.

As will the students or researchers who, according to Helen Arkwright, the university's special collections and archives librarian, are likely to make use of it once the papers and photos have been sorted and any necessary conservation work done.

"We have already got material by North-East writers Sid Chaplin, Jack Common and Barry MacSweeney," says Helen.

"The Kinsley Papers will make a wonderful resource for the university's School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics which supports the gift of these papers."

Peter Kinsley never went to university. He was born in Stanley, County Durham, but the family moved to No Place during the war. Yesterday he recalled being comforted as a small boy by the assurance that Hitler would never find No Place on a map.

Keen to become a journalist, he studied typing and shorthand at Skerry's College in Newcastle after attending the city's St Cuthbert's Grammar School.

At 16, he secured a job on the Daily Mail as a general editorial assistant, later being told that he was the only applicant who had included a stamped addressed envelope. Shortly afterwards he was sent to interview Lord Beveridge who laid the groundwork for post-war welfare reforms.

"He lived in a council house in Newton Aycliffe and luckily, when I arrived at his door in a taxi, he handed me the article he had written for the next day's paper."

After National Service in the Army, Peter embarked on a Fleet Street career, returning briefly to Newcastle to work on the Evening Chronicle, The Journal's sister paper, in order to learn about court reporting.

As crime reporter on the Daily Express, working for newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook, he interviewed notorious murderer Donald Hume who, in 1949, thought he had committed the perfect crime by hurling the dismembered body of his victim, Stanley Setty, from an aeroplane.

"I talked to him in the pub and he gave me some toilet paper from prison showing the design for the atom bomb by Klaus Fuchs with whom he had shared a cell. We had a scoop out of that."

Fuchs, a physicist and spy, served nine years for supplying secrets to the Soviet Union.

At the age of 26, Peter set up a news agency in Nice in the south of France, rubbing shoulders with stars who attended the Cannes Film Festival.

He remembered interviewing Burt Lancaster and, in particular, Claudia Cardinale, Italy's answer to sexy French starlet Brigitte Bardot.

"She was looking in the mirror and preening herself during the whole interview and she said, `My best friends are photographers'.

"But when Playboy asked her to pose in the nude she wouldn't do it. She was an Italian Catholic girl. I think their attitude was, `Who does the dame think she is?'"

During his years in the south of France, Peter also rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill and his minders.

"He used to drink with his detective in the Tip Top Bar. He loved to have a drink with the lads."

Peter was also earning an honest crust from Lord Beaverbrook who was determined not to be scooped by another newspaper with news of Churchill's death.

Every night Beaverbrook would have a special page made up, at considerable expense, announcing the great man's death. Peter's job was to supply details of that day's possible final moments whenever Churchill was in the south of France.

As it happened, Peter's Churchill contributions never made the actual paper since he lived a few more years and eventually died in London.

At the age of 29, Peter turned to writing novels. From novels he proceeded to volumes of memoirs, realising that his fictional characters couldn't possibly be more colourful than those he had met in real life.

In 1980 he returned to the crime beat with I'm Jack, the first book about the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper, the notorious serial killer, when the culprit, Peter Sutcliffe, was still at large.

His latest novel, The Shy Pornographer, is due to be published by Amherst later this year but was written 18 years ago. He explains: "I've got a suitcase full of books that haven't been published but this one was runner up in a PG Wodehouse Comedy of the Year competition. Then my agent, who was also Jeffrey Archer's agent, died."

Peter, a lifelong bachelor, says he doesn't write any more. "Dicky ticker," he answers when asked why he has offered his archive to Newcastle University. He will be 70 in December and moved back to the UK from Spain because of his faith in the National Health Service.

He now lives in a council flat in Nunhead, London. "I'm quite happy," he says, then jokes: "If I was found dead in my flat, all this would have been thrown in a skip by Southwark Council. They'd have put me in one skip and this in the other." Instead it will be preserved for posterity, a lively record of a life lived to the full.

* If you want to learn more about Newcastle University's archives go to www.ncl.ac.uk/library/specialcollections 

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