Keeping out and coming close

Michael Church

  • Here lies: An Autobiography by Eric Ambler
    Weidenfeld, 234 pp, £10.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 297 78588 5
  • The Levanter by Eric Ambler
    Weidenfeld, 216 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 297 99521 9
  • Doctor Frigo by Eric Ambler
    Weidenfeld, 250 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 297 76848 4
  • The Other Side of the Moon: The Life of David Niven by Sheridan Morley
    Weidenfeld, 300 pp, £10.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 297 78708 X
  • Secrets: Boyhood in a Jewish Hotel 1932-1954 by Ronald Hayman
    Peter Owen, 224 pp, £12.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0642 X
  • A Woman in Custody by Audrey Peckham
    Fontana, 253 pp, £3.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 00 636952 9
  • No Gangster More Bold by John Morgan
    Hodder, 179 pp, £9.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 340 26387 3

Eric Ambler told an interviewer recently that though he often felt the urge to write for the stage he was put off by the scrutiny to which he would be subjected: and the pun in the title of his autobiography was a precaution against exposure. It proved less necessary than he had feared, but the message underlying the opening chapter is unmistakable: readers, and reviewers in particular, should keep their distance. The chapter takes the form of a prologue, characteristically melodramatic, and with an oblique jump back through time. He has turned his new car over on a motorway in Switzerland, and is taken to hospital with concussion, miraculously lucky to be alive. He tries to deceive the doctors into setting him free so that he can go home and diagnose himself with the aid of his forensic-science library, but they keep him in for observation. He’s suffering from amnesic aphasia, and observes his own symptoms, wondering if the wits by which he has lived will now desert him for ever. He can’t remember ... and then suddenly he does remember what he had been thinking about when the accident occurred.

He had been thinking about the promotional ‘tour’ which his American publishers had put him through the previous year, and how he might avoid having to undergo such penance again. It had not been the physical strain, the writer’s cramp of signing two hundred copies an hour: it had been the enforced intimacy with ‘local wiseacres, rogue literati and aha-school instant analysts’ – dentists, doctors, and above all teachers. What makes you tick? How much is fact? Which of your books is the autobiographical one? It was all too much, and he took to referring the more persistent buttonholers to his forthcoming autobiography. But ‘only an idiot believes that he can write the truth about himself.’

No such agnosticism troubles the second chapter, in which the early life is briskly and conventionally presented, with salient details dotted temptingly about for the school of instant analysis. One grandfather a printer’s proof-reader and the other a cabinet-maker (aha). His stage-struck parents worked up a vaudeville act as living marionettes (aha). The author was fascinated by the mechanics of this seaside-pier art form, as he was by the mechanics of ventriloquism and by anything else which could mystify, dazzle and amuse. ‘Getting the bird’ (from an angry audience) is a phrase which significantly recurs in these pages. Conmanship – commercial as well as artistic – was a family trait: while his father wryly settled for a career in an advertising agency, an uncle who had had a bad time in the trenches settled for a career as a big-time embezzler.

Young Eric quickly developed his own powers as a con-man, though he had no need to use them to seriously illegal ends. R.M. Ballantyne was his first literary love; a later one was Newth’s Inorganic Chemistry. He made a very ambitious wireless, and carried off a top university scholarship with perfect papers in physics and chemistry. By this time, however, he was immersed in Ibsen and Pirandello, and was determined to become a playwright. The Law Courts were close to the engineering library in London where he was supposed to work, and he used the public galleries like a theatre. He haunted the real theatre, jotting down scenes from Ben Travers plays to see how they looked on paper, accumulating backstage technical knowledge, and even trying for a job as an electrician (no chance, closed shop).

He faked his age to join the Rifle Brigade, and augmented his daily allowance of two shillings by selling matches for charity, which began at home, and by running an ingeniously simple horoscope racket through the columns of a weekly magazine. During the General Strike he ‘protected’ the offices of the TUC newspaper as a special constable. His next step – joining an electrical firm as a trainee rather than soldiering on at college – seems to have been the wisest thing he ever did. Here, moving from department to department, he developed theories about the nature of skills, and learned to distinguish real from bogus ones. ‘I gave no orders, signed no chits, had no power and told no tales. I did not even take notes. I only listened and looked and began to understand.’

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