Robert Westerby was born in Hackney, London, in 1909. From an early age he enjoyed writing sketches and plays for his family and by his early twenties had been successful in placing short stories and articles in national newspapers and magazines. Having been an amateur boxer in his youth much of his early output was centred around the sport and by 1937, although having tried his hand as a surveyor, architectural draughtsman and engineer, he began to write full-time following the publication of his debut novel, Wide Boys Never Work.
The book was released the year after James Curtis’s The Gilt Kid and the year before Gerald Kersh’s Night And The City and all three made an immediate and lasting impact with their gritty and then rare (and in some quarters unwelcome) portrayal of underworld, pugilistic and lowlife London. For ‘political’ reasons Wide Boys Never Work was banned in Australia for many years.
Only Pain Is Real (Foolish Giant in America) and In These Quiet Streets followed in quick succession. The first was voted the Evening Standard’s best fiction book of 1937 and told the story of twins and the rise of one of them to boxing fame in America. Reviewers loved it, though generally agreed it was not one for the squeamish, comparing its raw power to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th century prizefighting classic Rodney Stone.
In These Quiet Streets dealt with characters in a boarding house (a backdrop that gave much inspiration to his celebrated contemporary Patrick Hamilton) and a murder. The Spectator said it was ‘a realistic study of the submerged’ and The Saturday Review commented: ‘Mr Westerby is a realist who can still find beaty and scope for sympathetic laughter in a drab environment.’ The Times Literary Supplement fittingly had the last word on this novel, rather haughtily concluding in their review that ‘Mr Westerby shows every sign of preparing to write a book that will be necessary to read.’
Westerby described himself in those days as a rebellionist and when he was put on the reserve list for the British Army in 1939, after volunteering when war broke out, he sat down and wrote Voice From England, which was published in 1940. In this book, written under the dark shadow of German domination of Europe, he frets over a blighted future for himself, his generation and his country. He predicted that victory would bring no peace, ‘no resting for the exhausted Old World’, and perhaps he was right. However, he was wrong about his own future being blighted.
He continued to be prolific as an author, publishing almost a book a year up until 1952 – including Hunger Allows No Choice, A Magnum For My Mother and Tomorrow Started Yesterday – when he produced the screenplay for the British film Appointment In London, starring Dirk Bogarde. From then on his talents as a scriptwriter were much in demand from both the UK and US television and film industries and in 1956 Westerby was made screenwriter on the King-Vidor-directed War And Peace. Of all his film work, it was of this he was most proud.
Westerby worked constantly, crossing the Atlantic and contributing his skills to all manner of projects. In the UK he wrote episodes of the hugely-successful TV series The Invisible Man. He had been heavily influenced by American fiction all his life and first visited the country in 1937 when he covered the Joe Louis / James Braddock fight where The Brown Bomber won by a knockout to become the World Heavyweight Champion.
In 1961, Disney invited him to Burbank Studios in California to do a rewrite on The Three Lives Of Thomasina, and he settled there permanently, working for Walt Disney until his death in 1968. Among other projects he wrote the screenplay for the perennial children’s favourite Greyfriars Bobby: The Story Of A Dog and The Fighting Prince Of Donegal, as well as penning the long-running TV series The Wonderful World Of Disney.
Robert Westerby adored California with its sea and sun and spent his leisure time walking and playing tennis. He met his second wife Elizabeth there, who was an assistant on the Mickey Mouse show, although he did return to visit his two daughters from his first marriage and his other home near Cirencester every year. His body of work is extensive and varied and his later reputation as a Hollywood master-craftsman richly deserved, yet his books, which often mined the sweaty seam of dog tracks, boxing rings, conmen and shady spivs are classics and stand the test of time – defiantly.
Few authors ever had the knack of titling their books so magnetically that the reader just had to pick them up, witness: Wide Boys Never Work, Only Pain Is Real, In These Quiet Streets and Hunger Allows No Choice. As The Observer said at the height of his literary output: ‘Robert Westerby is gifted with irony and with a vigilant sense of the brutality at our doors.’