Let’s start with Judgment on Deltchev.
It’s about a show trial and it’s also a moment in the life of Eric Ambler, who I think is one of the most intelligent and illuminating thriller writers of the 20th century, when he goes through that moment that a lot of left-wing people go through when he realises that what he used to believe in isn’t sound any more, and he does it with his usual great intelligence and his fine plotting and understanding of how people actually behave and work. There are also some wonderful descriptions of what it was like to be a journalist trying to operate in a Communist capital and some marvellous moments of seediness which Graham Greene couldn’t have outdone. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anybody who’s interested in both in thrillers and in politics.
Tell me who Deltchev is and give me an example of a moment of seediness.
Well, Deltchev is a politician who has fallen from grace in the Communist regime of an unnamed Eastern European country, and what the hero of the book (as in all Ambler’s books the hero is a sort of antihero) begins to discover as preparations go ahead for the trial, is just how complicated the past of this man really is. The seediness – there is a man whose name escapes me who is the hero’s fixer and helper and is, amongst other things, appallingly smelly. The description of having to deal with this pathetic, repellent and smelly personality and rely on him, and also at one point to be morally outpointed by him, is actually rather telling and sticks in the mind.
How is he morally outpointed?
There is the moment when you’re dealing with people in these places that you realise with your Western arrogance, having come from your wholly free country where you can say and write and do what you like, what it actually might be like to try and make a living in a country of this kind, and the point is rather harshly made here in a little speech which I can’t quote because I don’t have the book to hand. If you’ve been in this situation you recognise it.
Are you suggesting that the fact that the Communists had show trials is evidence that one can’t be left wing?
Well, there’s nothing to say you can’t be left wing, but it might suggest to those who are left wing that they could be a bit more hesitant about their certainties. Show trials arise from certainties and the fury of people who are certain of their own goodness against those who don’t necessarily share that belief. That doesn’t just apply to Communists, Marxists, Trotskyists, but in the past century it has tended to be idealists of one kind or another who have ended up holding show trials.
The Night of Wenceslas.
Many years ago I was told by the wife of Jack Jones, who had in her distant youth been a Comintern courier – gold one way and messages the other – that whatever else I did I should go to Prague, where you could encounter the faint echoes of prewar Europe and was also an astonishingly beautiful city. So in 1977, when it was not fashionable to go there and when stag nights were not held there and people didn’t even know where it was on the map, I and my wife set out on a visit there and it exceeded expectations. Then to stumble across this novel by Lionel Davidson, an author who has been very unfairly neglected, it seems to me!
He is one of the great thriller writers of the second half of the 20th century and he’s also very funny, but this book is again a perfect description of what it is like to be in a Communist capital city and it also contains wonderful moments of fear. For example, when the hero discovers that he is, in fact – and I don’t want to spoil this for anyone reading it – carrying something in his luggage which is tremendously dangerous to him and that the authorities are after him. What follows is a mixture of terror and laughter which it would take a great deal of trouble to undo.
The final scenes, which are played out around the British Embassy in the very beautiful part of Prague where it still stands, are also a wonderful piece of work. So, for anyone who’s interested in Prague, for anyone who’s interested in being made to laugh, for anyone who’s interested in a really good espionage thriller, for anyone who wants to have the atmosphere of one of the most atmospheric cities in the world recreated, you couldn’t do better.
It sounds wonderful.
Do read it! Everybody should. There are other books by him too – The Rose of Tibet and A Long Way to Shiloh, which are fantastic books. One set in Tibet at the time of the Chinese invasion and the other in pre-1967 Israel, the only really good archaeological thriller I’ve ever read.
Is the idea of this choice that it’s an exposé of what it was like to live under Communism?
I wouldn’t say exposé. It’s just an account. But it’s such a good description. Davidson’s own story is amazing. His parents were illiterate. He taught his own mother to read and was, as he proudly boasted later, the only Jewish submariner in the Navy in the Second World War. He started life as an office boy at The Spectator. His story is worth a biography, I think. He’d been to Prague as a freelance journalist to try and launch himself into a career and this is the product of what happened to him then, but nothing he described could have existed except in the mad world that Stalin had created.
In The Wet.
Shute was an engineer and a successful aircraft designer. People who judge the standard of their books by slightly higher measures than I do, might think that these books read more like engineering than like fiction. But the fact is they are very well engineered and they all have an understanding of what prewar society was like and they have a strong hatred of snobbery, which he particularly loathed. In this case you move from a disillusioned Anglican parson in the wilds of Australia going to the rescue of an old drunk man and being transported as a result, into an attempt to murder the Queen in an imaginary Britain of the early 1950s.
It also contains an enormous amount of really interesting constitutional theory. I can’t tell you how many things this book covers and how satisfying it is to read it. Again, I would recommend it to any intelligent person, and you would never guess from the opening pages where it’s going to take you, but when you get there you won’t be sorry.
What sort of constitutional theory does it have in it?
Well, the argument is curiously familiar. The country is going bankrupt and there isn’t any way to stop it doing so except abandoning the electoral system which rewards the governments who bribe their voters with their own money. So, rather than taking the vote away from the masses, the proposal is to give extra votes to people who are qualified to have them. So, if you have a university degree or have served in the armed forces or if you have a proper skill you can pile up extra votes to a total of six. If you then do something fantastic or brave you get the seventh vote, which is the highest honour available. As soon as this system is introduced governments which want to bribe their own electorate cease to be elected because good sense takes over.
Is this something you would back?
I find it curiously attractive, but I can’t believe they’d ever get away with it.
No, I don’t think so either. Advise and Consent.
This is all about the United States and it’s a novel based really, I think, on the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers hearings, but it fictionalises them beautifully. If you read this book and then you watch, in future, a hearing on the confirmation of a secretary of state or a supreme court judge, you will understand far better as a result of it how these things happen than you otherwise would. It is dated, but in an instructive way. Allen Drury was a reporter for Associated Press on Capitol Hill before he wrote it. It was his one big success, filmed slightly unsatisfactorily with Charles Laughton, of all people, playing a particularly wonderful and devious senator, who is my favourite character in the book. I understood American politics much better after reading it.
Interestingly, the centre of the plot is an attempt to blackmail a heroic and upstanding senator because of his past homosexuality. The attitudes towards this and the way in which it is used now seem tremendously outdated, but the fundamental view of the person, which is that he is to be judged as a person rather than because of what he might get up to in bed, seems to me to be wholly enlightened.
How would this qualify as being anti-ideological?
Well, I think there’s a lot of conservative sentiment in it in terms of just being cautious about idealists and I think that if you know about the Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers hearing, and Drury was a witness to this, you see that he was pretty much on Whittaker Chambers’s side rather than Alger Hiss’s. The allegation was made by Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist, that Hiss and a number of other senior people in the state department and elsewhere were effectively Soviet agents. Hiss was tried for perjury and convicted but maintained his innocence to the end, though later transcripts showed that Chambers had been essentially right. This convulsed Washington, of course. What we now increasingly know is that, although Joe McCarthy was an idiot, a lot of what he said was actually true.
When The Kissing Had To Stop.
This is by Constantine FitzGibbon, about whom I know very little. He lived a rather rackety life and is, alas, no longer with us. The title comes from a haunting Browning poem called 'A Tocatta of Galuppi's', which contains the words 'Venice spent what Venice earned', and these lines:
'As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?'.
I read it at an impressionable age, 13 or 14, and again it’s a fantasy about an England that never happened. It’s a classic right-wing fantasy novel about how a Labour government comes to power and is taken over – much as the Greater London Council was taken over by Ken Livingston – and turns the country into a Soviet puppet state. All this is now terrifically outdated, but what remains good about it is the characterisation of so many of the fairly thinly disguised people in British politics and the way they behave. Amongst other things there’s a policeman called Prendergast, who is a completely unprincipled worshipper of authority and is prepared to pervert his office and his oath simply so that he can stay on the right side of power. This is actually quite telling and believable and I think there are a lot of people like that. It was difficult in those days to think of an English policeman behaving in that way. It’s not so difficult now.
Who do you think is like that now?
Oh, lots and lots of them actually. I think the old stout-hearted English yeoman view of not giving in to foreign domination has by and large vanished. Nobody much believes in anything any more and you find an awful lot of people in authority who, it seems to me, would cooperate with anybody who could demonstrate that they were in power.
So, a lot of the choices are anti-Soviet, anti-idealist, but I wouldn’t have thought that we were at the moment under any great threat of becoming a Communist puppet state. How do these views tie into today’s politics, would you say?
Oh. I don’t know really. This was the background to so much of my life that I think that those who didn’t go through these experiences should read about them. I always used to think that the proper solution for East Germany was that it should be taken over by the Disney Corporation and maintained in its state indefinitely so that people could go and see what it was really like, because it becomes increasingly unbelievable that all this actually happened. But it did.
Most of Russia is still like that.
No. Even the most remote places are enormously better than they used to be.
God, really? They seem just the same to me. You go to these tiny little shit-holes and I feel as if almost nothing has changed. I stayed in an Intourist hotel in southern Russia recently and it could have been 1986.
I haven’t had that experience. What I see is that people’s lives are, in many significant ways, better. The state has ceased to be interested in what people think. It’s interested in what they do but not in what they think. In some ways thought and speech are probably freer in Russia than they were in the Soviet Union, even freer than they are here. There is an almost complete absence of political correctness, which we take for granted here. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing but it’s the case.
I’m not sure about that. Putin has almost complete control over the media.
He has, but provided you say what you say in small think-tanks or minor circulation newspapers nobody will bother you, whereas in the old days any dissent from the line would have been visited with persecution, however obscure. It’s not an ideological state so as long as people don’t do anything to challenge it… People ought to realise that this didn’t all vanish like a puff of smoke. When the Berlin wall came down a huge number of damaging ideas escaped across it and started to propagate themselves in the West because they were no longer discredited by their practical expression in the evil empire. The right, which never bothered to argue very hard about its principles, before the wall came down could simply point eastwards and say: Look that’s what you’ll get if you follow left-wing ideas. So the left was handicapped at election time, but now it is much freer than it ever was. The left was liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in any case was an aberration as far as the cleverer thinkers of the left are concerned.