Desmond Bagley was born Simon Bagley in Kendal, in the county of Westmorland, 260 miles north of London. His parents ran a theatrical boardinghouse, where, as a small child, he met Basil Rathbone, who was playing Shakespearean roles with Sir Frank Benson’s touring company at the time. Bagley attended schools in Bolton and Blackpool, but he did not follow in the public school tradition. The spirit of Bagley’s characters is discernible in his own act of quitting school at the age of fourteen to take on his first job, as a printer’s devil. He subsequently worked in a factory making plastic electrical fittings and, when World War II broke out, in an aircraft factory, making parts for planes.
In 1947, Bagley traveled to South Africa. He is said to have departed from Blackpool during a blizzard, to have gone three thousand miles across the Sahara Desert guided by star and compass, and to have traveled across Nigeria, then west to Kampala, Uganda, where he contracted malaria. Next he traveled down the African continent, working in asbestos and gold mines, until he reached Natal Province, South Africa. There, he wrote feature stories for the press and pieces for radio, worked as a nightclub photographer, and began to indulge his hobbies of sailing and motorboating. Bagley became a freelance journalist in 1957, and he later became a script writer for a South African subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox. He married Joan Margaret Brown in 1960.
Bagley lived his later years on the English Channel island of Guernsey. In 1983, he suddenly became ill and was taken to the Southampton General Hospital, where he died on April 12.