My old friend Dick Francis died last week. He was 89.
When I describe him as my old friend, I commit a slight exaggeration, since we never actually met.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he seemed like an old friend, since I have known him for so long not personally, but through his books, and there have been a lot of them.
Francis was a best-selling British writer in the mystery genre. He managed to crank out a novel a year for more than 40 years.
My father introduced me to Dick Francis a few years before he (my father) died. Like most teenagers, I was skeptical at first. I was a bit of a snob when it came to literature, and I confess that I looked down on popular fiction. I preferred books with more substance.
Fortunately, dad was persistent, and eventually he loaned me one of his Dick Francis novels, and convinced me to read it. I agreed, partly just to get him off my back. Not for the first time, I discovered that the old man was right.
I was immediately hooked. I read every Dick Francis book I could find, and after I read everything that had been published, I waited, along with millions of other fans, for the next Dick Francis book to be published each year.
For nearly three decades, I have immersed myself in the world of horse racing, and many other fields, through his novels. Part of the appeal is that one always learned something from reading them.
During his career, his wife, Mary, worked with him, doing a lot of meticulous research that made the stories come alive, as did his son, Felix, who was co-author of his last few novels.
Francis’ books may have lacked some of the substance of other literature I have read, but they certainly were entertaining.
I remember spending lunch hours sitting in my car reading my latest acquisition, because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Other times, I read through the night because I couldn’t quite bring myself to put a book down and turn out the light.
Part of the fun has been sharing this addiction with friends and family members who were equally enthusiastic.
As a writer, I admire his discipline. No one publishes a novel a year without some serious dedication to his craft. I also admire his ability to create engaging plots and memorable characters.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Dick Francis though, has less to do with his writing, and more to do with the way he lived his life.
Born in 1920, he joined the Royal Air Force in 1940, and flew Spitfires, Wellingtons, Hurricanes and Lancasters during World War II, which one assumes was far from dull.
Later, he served as a steeplechase trainer’s assistant in his father’s stables, and became a champion steeplechase jockey, winning more than 350 races. This adrenaline-filled sport is a young man’s game, and a serious fall forced him to retire in 1957 at the ripe old age of 36. It was after this that he began writing.
He worked as a racing correspondent for many years, and published his autobiography in 1957.
His first novel was published in 1962, and there was no stopping him from then on. He won a variety of awards for his writing during his long career. The latest novel that he wrote with Felix is set to be published later this year.
Despite his successes in a variety of fields, he never rested on his past accomplishments. He was always pushing forward and working hard.
There is, of course, no doubt that he lived a bit more comfortably as time went on. The biographical notes in his early novels indicate that he lived in England and spent his winters in Florida. At the time of his death, he was living in the Cayman Islands, far from the damp English winters.
Still, there is a lesson here for all of us. Francis was never content to sit back and wallow in his past success. He spent his time looking forward, not backward, and, as a result, he was able to wring as much out of his long life as was humanly possible.
There is something a trifle sad about people who seem to live in the past. It is much more interesting to talk to people who are always trying new things. These people always keep their brains busy and they are always actively learning. They are both fascinating and fun to be around.
It should be noted that this applies to people of all ages.
There are individuals who seem content to quit learning and developing about the time they shake the principal’s hand and collect their high school diploma.
There are others, in contrast, who continue to learn and try new things not just into their 60s or 70s, but into their 80s and 90s.
Unless one is a follower of Hinduism or Buddhism, and believes in karma, and that we are going to come back as something else the next time around, most of us have just one life to live, and we might as well make the most of it.
As Dick Francis learned early in life, one doesn’t slow down when the winning post is in sight, or take it easy because of past victories. The next rewarding career or great adventure could be just around the corner, but we will never find out unless we keep moving forward.