A FORMER car salesman has just completed his own remarkable journey of discovery into the life of the writer who created Lassie. Greg Christie’s fascination with writer Eric Knight began when he was confined to bed with a broken back 20 years ago and was given a copy of one of his books, The Flying Yorkshireman.

He said: “I wanted to find out more about this man who was originally from Yorkshire, but I couldn’t find any information, so I set out to research it for myself.”

Greg, 65, who lives in Norton, studied literature at York St John University and won the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to the USA where he completed a six-week lecture tour across America lecturing on Knight.

“Eric’s work was lauded by the literary establishment of the 1930s, including Ernest Hemingway and Hollywood movie studios, but he came from humble Yorkshire beginnings,” Greg said.

Eric’s father, a diamond merchant in Leeds, fled to Australia to escape his debts. Eric and his two brothers were told he was dead and their mother took a job as governess to a Russian family, leaving the boys with her sisters.

Greg said:“He was complicit in the mystery because he told different versions depending on who he was talking to.

“Eric never spoke about being a 10-year-old glue-stirrer at Chas Wilkinson’s knacker’s yard, which is odd because in America they love a rags-to-riches story.

“He put enough aside for a one-way passage across the Atlantic, and in 1912, at 15, he sailed from Liverpool.

“By the time he returned to write a novel about Yorkshire miners called Now Pray We For Our Country, a bigger seller in its day than Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, he had put himself through college and become a newspaperman and a published author, bashing out copy on the portable typewriter given him by Hemingway.

“He made friends with the great and the good.

“By the time Lassie was published, he was one of the most recognised people in America.”

Among his associates was Charlie Chaplin and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was his tennis partner. But as the US entered the war, his career took a darker turn.

Attached to the US Office of Strategic Services with the rank of Major, he was a liaison attaché between Lord Halifax, the British ambassador in Washington, and the President.

In 1943, he was on an Air Force flight over North Africa – possibly en route to Casablanca to a conference involving Churchill, Roosevelt and the other war leaders – when his transport plane exploded in mid-air, an incident still marked “classified” by US Intelligence.

“I have no doubt that the plane was sabotaged,” Greg said. “There is an official letter giving direct instructions to the recovery crew to bring back his briefcase.”

Greg said Eric was “a mischievous man and a duplicitous one”.

“He was also an outstanding writer who made a very significant contribution to the literature of the 1930s – one that has been very unjustly overlooked,” he said.

After Greg returned from his research in America he rapidly lost his eyesight due to a genetic condition, and eventually was no longer able to read his own research.

A friend offered to help Greg turn his work into a publishable format, and a year later the book Knight - Yorkshireman, Storyteller, Spy, was accepted by the very first publisher they approached.

Greg said: “Once I’d started how could I now finish - it was such a fascinating story.

“I’ve had amazing feedback about the book from all over the world and am grateful I have had the opportunity to publish it.”

l Helmsley Community Library will be hosting a special evening with Greg Christie, who will talk about his book. It will take place on Thursday, November 29, at 7pm, in the old library.

Tickets cost £5, which includes wine and nibbles. They are available from Helmsley Library during opening hours or by phoning 01609 534553.

Enquiries about Knight: Yorkshireman, Storyteller, Spy can be made at all good bookshops and via Amazon.