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.’

Word soon reached the top that the young trainee (now devouring Aldous Huxley and Dornford Yates, and trying to write like Arnold Bennett) might be of use in the publicity department, and there he pulled off a coup demanding a fusion of technical knowledge and showmanship: he managed not only to sell a dud line in underpowered headlamps but to create a demand for more. Now he did have the power to sign chits. A career in the London advertising world, where everyone else was writing novels too, rapidly ensued. He promoted Exlax; he persisted heroically with his plays, though without success; he wrote his first book (about baby food); and he rewrote a muddled academic manuscript for the ‘Teach Yourself’ series (title, Clear Thinking).

On holiday in Marseilles, he had a weirdly prophetic experience. Having been cheated by a barman at poker-dice, and without money for food, he decided to take his thoughts off his stomach by planning an imaginary assassination. He chose the window from which he would mow down his foe, and ran the drama happily through in his mind. A few weeks later the newsreels showed King Alexander of Yugoslavia being mown down by a Croatian assassin on exactly that spot. ‘I felt oddly guilty, but also pleased. In the Mediterranean sunshine there were strange and violent men with whom I could identify, and with whom, in a way, I was now in touch.’ His first novel, published soon after, was itself prophetic, drawing on what in 1935 was still esoteric knowledge to forecast the political power implicit in the atom. He wrote it partly because he could not bear to read other people’s thrillers and because, like Raymond Chandler, he recognised the potential in this branch of popular fiction. ‘He has knowledge; and he has speed,’ said the Observer of that book. ‘Melodrama ... trivialising effects ... cheating,’ he says contemptuously now.

Ambler’s autobiography has many things besides its length in common with the two novels republished with it. The narrative style is the same – swift and sure, with sudden flashes of vivid colour, and surprises sprung after the most innocuous-seeming paragraphs. In The Levanter tension is screwed to an almost unbearable pitch; constrained by the facts, Ambler achieves a not dissimilar feat with his account of his wartime film-making career. He was having a good war – as a motor-cycling instructor, and then as a gunnery officer guarding Churchill at Chequers, while back home the film-rights money was rolling in – when he got an order to report to Major Thorold Dickinson (director of Gaslight in civilian life). Carol Reed and Peter Ustinov had been likewise commandeered, and the little group were told to produce a film to boost the British troops’ flagging morale. It was made, then aborted as subversive by the War Office; enough influential people had liked it, however, to ensure that a sequel was both made and shown. Ambler was then sent to help John Huston make a film about the liberation of Italy: his account of this collaboration, which took them into front-line fighting, is by turns funny, frightening and, in the miseries they witnessed, dreadfully sad.

The blurb claims (well, it would, wouldn’t it?) that Ambler turns his ‘cool and penetrating gaze’ upon himself, but this is not so. The gaze is indeed turned on his work, and on his feelings about it: we get an illuminating commentary on the genesis of his classic The Mask of Dimitrios and on the differences between writing for the page and writing for the screen. On the progress of his soul, however, he is silent. His fictional characters are instantly believable, but there is no imaginative power of the sort that produces a Philip Marlowe. The real characters who throng the autobiography are described with affection, but one has a similar sense of their being moved delicately about with tweezers.

Ambler acknowledges that his second Army film owed its success in large part to its star, David Niven, who used his fame and connections to smooth its passage past the censors. What does not emerge in Ambler’s characteristically modest account, however, is the film’s importance (despite its ‘meaningless and vaguely optimistic title’, The Way Ahead). In The Other Side of the Moon Sheridan Morley argues that it raised questions of class and economics in a way which should have warned Britain’s officers of an impending Labour victory at the polls. Niven himself was a member of that class off-screen as well as on; in 1939 he rushed back from Hollywood and, after failing to force an entry into the RAF or Navy, went on to give admirably unhistrionic service in a top-secret commando regiment. His two best-selling autobiographies were, contrary to appearances, discreet about his friends and reticent about himself; in Morley’s enjoyable book, which leans heavily on interviews, Niven’s personality and private life continue to lurk enigmatically behind the chronological facts. Keeping his polite distance, Morley presents an excellent commentary on the career, in which social climbing and strategic sexual alliances played their part, and in which the financial requirements of a smart life-style dictated work in scores of dreadful movies. Niven’s first wife died of a fall while playing sardines at a Hollywood party. Though he married again, the resulting emotional dislocation pursued him for the rest of his life. He had modest but genuine talent as an actor and later as an author; Morley’s catalogue of testimonies indicates that beneath the famous charm lay real warmth. John Mills saw him as someone ‘who had managed to create himself out of nothing’, and suggested that this was why California suited him so well: ‘unlike England, it’s a rootless place.’

For Ronald Hayman, no reader could ever come too close. From the moment he tells us, on page four of Secrets, that he has been psychoanalysed, we feel bound to help him if we possibly can. He never does tell us what the presenting symptom was (one assumes the analysis was more than a mere intellectual exercise), and the clues he offers come right at the end of the book, by which time, to be frank, our interest in the question has flagged. Brought up in the comfortable affluence of his family hotel, showered with love and gifts, and urged on (but not unpleasantly) by his parents’ vicarious hopes, he grew up a ‘crown prince’. Graduates of the aha-school will seize on his belated revelation that rivalry with his younger brother had been a serious problem from the start, that all may not have been well with his parents’ marriage, that he suffers from ‘not knowing how to value himself’, and that he now feels his childhood was not quite real. He castigates himself for his ‘habit of secretiveness’: ‘when you are not open with other people, you are not open with yourself.’ He views his infant self from afar, with twee delight, but somehow without curiosity. What mattered deeply to him and what mattered scarcely at all are presented in a richly jewelled jumble, so indulgently detailed as to give the reader visual indigestion. The smooth, elegant style is sometimes very evocative of place and atmosphere, but the dips below the surface – over his sexual frustrations, his loss of religious faith, the deaths of father and grandmother – never go very deep. The resolution of his frustrations was at least unconventional – he was deflowered by a glamorous aunt.

The ‘hotel’ in which Audrey Peckham spent six excruciating months, before her trial and conviction for ‘incitement to murder’, was a remand centre. A Woman in Custody is a shocking tale, and its enthusiastic reception by penal reformers has been well-deserved. The account begins with the accelerating nervous breakdown which caused her, without knowing exactly what she wanted, to seek the help of a private detective in ‘dealing with’ a sexual rival. Caught in a brutally clumsy police trap, she found herself suddenly incarcerated in conditions suggestive more of Solzhenitsyn’s world than of what we expect of the democratic West. Stripped of her clothes and possessions, deprived of physical and emotional privacy and of anything bar the most fleeting contact with her distraught family, she was allowed to sink ever deeper into her psychosis. At no time was she told what her rights were. Books sent in were subject to censorship (Iris Murdoch’s The Accidental Man was confiscated). Like everyone else, she was forced to perform tasks more squalid and degrading than any normally imposed on convicted prisoners. Admitted one day to the chief officer’s sanctum, she was approached by that august being’s spaniel. ‘I knelt down and petted the dog, as I had not seen an animal for so long, and I yearned for the touch of animal fur.’ The officer guarding her grew apoplectic, and she found herself snapping back to attention and apologising profusely. It only struck her later that there was something wrong here, since, as a prisoner on remand, she was officially under the presumption of innocence.

Ms Peckham plots with meticulous precision the stages by which the institutionalising process ate into her soul, but her primary purpose is to provide ammunition for her campaign to reform this under-scrutinised segment of the penal system. She observes that in 1982 no fewer than 40 per cent of those on remand were eventually either found not guilty or given a non-custodial sentence. She also points out the catastrophic effects which a period on remand can have on people’s lives – on their jobs, families, and on their ability to keep paying the rent. Compensation for wrongful detention is rare. The author’s description of the treatment of her fellow detainees – many there through drugs, many more for single acts of demented desperation – amounts to a shattering indictment.

Before the disaster she had been deputy head of a secondary school, and that background has stood her in good stead. She vividly evokes the sights, sounds and smells, and pinpoints the less obvious privations: through tension, lack of exercise and a chronic lack of privacy, everyone suffers from constipation. She writes movingly about individual casualties, and about the hysterically shifting communal moods, particularly at the dreaded time of Christmas. She notes the release which everyone experiences through hymn-singing, and she writes interestingly about the ritual known as ‘singing out’ – out of prison, that is. ‘Some people were not allowed to sing, on the grounds that anyone they sang out always came back again. Others were much in demand, on the grounds that no one they sang out had ever come back in again.’ After conviction she was sent to Styal: her report on that institution should be required reading at the Home Office.

Llewelyn Morris Humphreys rechristened himself Murray after the Chicago judge who briefly took him under his wing when he was merely a teenage hood with high hopes. When he died fifty years later, of what one wag termed ‘unnatural causes – a heart attack’, Murray the Hump (alias the Camel, alias many other more discreetly serviceable names) had achieved the peak of notoriety, described by an admiring press as Public Enemy Number One and as ‘the Einstein of the Outfit’. The Outfit was the organisation which blossomed thanks to the sterling work of Al Capone (the original Public Enemy). Humphreys first assisted Capone and then, when Scarface Al’s flamboyance landed him in gaol, replaced him as leader of the colourful band of ukelele-players, flower-arrangers and pineapple-merchants. The Camel began as a practical man, throwing his own acid and pumping his own lead, but his fastidious chess-player’s intelligence soon ensured that the dirty work was done by others. With Big Al he ushered in the financial term ‘to launder’, and he enthusiastically implemented the vote-early-vote-often principle in municipal politics. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre may have been one of his vicarious achievements. He was a dab hand at systematic, large-scale extortion, whether from high-rise residents (‘You want the lifts to keep reaching your floor?’) or from the biggest Hollywood studios (‘You want the cameras to keep rolling?’). Film workers who tried to fight his closed-shop policy got branded as Communists. He helped set JFK on his path to the White House, and he got quite cross when Attorney-General Bobby, whose father Joe had been a rival bootlegger in the Thirties, started to hound him. Connoisseurs still marvel at the brazen way he outmanoeuvred the law. The day the game was finally up, he had his heart attack.

No Gangster More Bold originated in the research for a television documentary. As told by John Morgan, the tale becomes one long shiver of delight. Morgan is terribly excited that a fellow Welshman should reach such dizzy heights, rather than merely star as a wing three-quarter on the rugby field. Surveying the Camel’s unusual combination of tastes and gifts – a cinéaste who made and edited ‘substantial documentaries’, though these sound uncommonly like home movies – he describes him as ‘a man so various that he seemed to be not one, but all mankind’s epitome, perhaps’. Well, perhaps. The trouble is, Mr Morgan seems to know very little more than he could have gleaned from the already voluminous literature about Capone and his successors. He has pumped some cops, and the Camel’s not tremendously informative daughter. He tells us so little about his ostensible subject that the occasional crumbs of information come almost as a surprise. Brilliantly elusive in life, the Camel has continued the trick with his would-be biographer.