Monday, 1 August 2011

An Interview with Anthony Price, Author of the David Audley Spy Novels, Part 1: Early Life, Journalism and Book Reviewing, and Becoming a Novelist

Photo Copyright © 2011 Rachel Day.
The nineteen brainy, compelling, endlessly fascinating spy thrillers written by British author Anthony Price over a twenty-year period from 1970 have become an abiding preoccupation for me this year. I wrote about them in a series of posts in June, reviewing each of the first three novels – The Labyrinth Makers (1970), The Alamut Ambush (1971) and Colonel Butler's Wolf (1972) – in turn. My latest review, of the fourth novel, October Men (1973), can be found here. The books – all of them first published in the UK by Victor Gollancz – feature a rotating cast of operatives of the Research and Development Section of Britain's intelligence services, notably Dr. David Audley, the highly intelligent, iconoclastic Middle East specialist and expert in history and archaeology, but also Colonel-nee-Major Jack Butler and Squadron Leader Hugh Roskill, among others. They are, in short, extraordinarily good, at their best rivalling John le Carré for their seemingly Byzantine yet ultimately deceptively simple plots and vivid characterization.

Something that struck me when I was writing those initial posts in June was that there didn't appear to be any interviews with Price available online, or indeed readily available in print. I managed to find one quote from him in my copy of Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher's Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide, but that was it. I knew that, unlike a lot of the authors I blog about, Price was still with us, and I also knew from the number of hits my posts on him were getting that there was still a lot of interest in his work. So, I decided to do something about it.

With the assistance of the lovely people at Orion – who currently have three of Price's novels available as both eBooks and print-on-demand titles – and Price's agent, I'd soon managed to arrange an interview. But more than that, Mr. Price invited me to lunch – partly because he's a little hard of hearing these days and, as he stated in the letter he sent, "a long [telephone] call would be agony for both of us", but also because he's a warm, sociable man who has always been very accommodating towards his many fans.

So it was that on a bright but overcast day in July, myself and my partner-cum-photographer Rachel were welcomed by Anthony Price and his wife Ann to the charming cottage in which they have lived together for fifty-seven years, in the countryside just outside Oxford. It was an idyllic setting: as we drank a glass of Chilean white in the conservatory prior to the interview (Price is a keen wine connoisseur, and would have "gone into wine" had he had the opportunity), three butterflies floated around inside the glass and brick structure, attracted by the warmth. ("We're supposed to count them, aren't we?" remarked Ann, referring to David Attenborough's appeal on that morning's television news for viewers to catalogue butterflies due to their decline.) Later, a green woodpecker would hop across the lawn while blue tits played in the hedges. (Like a sizable percentage of the population of the UK, Mr. and Mrs. Price are Countryfile devotees.) Following our chat, Price served a delicious luncheon of salmon and salad – featuring potatoes harvested from his son's garden – over which repast he regaled us with further literary tales.

But first we retired to his study, the small room in the middle of the house in which he wrote all twenty of his books (including his single non-fiction work, 1990's The Eyes of the Fleet: A Popular History of Frigates and Frigate Captains) – although parts of some of those books were also written "in my mother-in-law's boiler room in Eastbourne". Two walls of bookshelves – bearing a variety of novels and historical works, plus a box set of Sopranos videos – frame his desk, on which rests a computer, although it is not hooked up to the internet; Price is interested in technological advances such as email, but is not online himself. Bookcases also line some of the hallways in the house and the reception room, including one entire case holding nothing but editions of his own novels.

Price remains a voracious reader; he usually has "four books on the go" at any one time. Since his retirement he has enjoyed reading purely for pleasure, as opposed to for reviewing purposes – over the years he reviewed countless thrillers for the various Oxford-based papers on which he worked, including sixteen years as editor of The Oxford Times. In person Price is loquacious, amusing, solicitous, but occasionally guarded on certain issues. Nevertheless, for me, the interview proved instructive on a number of aspects of his life and career: on his family background; on his time as a book reviewer and journalist; on the politics of his novels; on their structure – how he wrote them, how he constructed their plots and deployed his cast of characters – and on how much he loves books and writing in general.

Before we began the interview – which I'll be posting in two parts – Price mentioned a couple of fan letters he'd received – one in 1978, the other more recently. He then handed me a copy of that first letter – which you can see just below – with the words, "I don't think anyone has ever said anything nicer about me."


ANTHONY PRICE: And that's one of the rewards of writing. Although money is the most important reward, of course! 

NICK JONES: And what was the other letter?

Oh, that was a normal fan letter. But, they're so, so sweet to take the trouble. Because, when you retire, obviously your royalties will go down gradually. I've been retired over twenty years now; about 1988 was the last time I wrote fiction and 1989 I finished with my only non-fictional book, which was about frigates – which taught me to be more modest about... Well, I realised how little I knew when I started writing it! However, since then, obviously the royalties go down and down and down gradually until they buy the claret, and then the claret becomes not so good, and then it's Cru Bourgeois, and now it's Chilean. 

[Laughter.]

But I still get occasional letters, and that's what I'm grateful for, for anything I did in the past. It's an ordinary fan letter, but, she took the trouble is the thing.

I only have elderly readers now, I suppose. 

You'd be surprised. There's a lot of interest in your work. The posts that I've written on my blog receive hits every day. Anyway, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

That's all right. I mean, all I can do is help other people now. You're making your way in whatever your choice is, and I'd be delighted to help you. 

When you retired in... 1989, was it?

Yes, I stopped writing then.

That's one thing I was interested in – why you stopped.

My health wasn't too good. There are those who might say I was drinking more than perhaps I should have done to keep me going. But I had other... I suppose these days you might call it – what happens if you type too much...?

Repetitive strain injury – RSI.

Yes, probably that. I had to wear a collar and things like that, and I decided that I had enough money... The only thing I really learnt at Oxford from my Philosophy tutor was that you should quit while you're ahead. He said – and it's absolutely true – that you'll reach a point where you have enough [money], but, that's also the point where you could get a lot more if you just keep going. He said, "And that's the moment to go back to the farm." So, we had enough, and the children were all more or less qualified to earn money and had jobs... 

Were you still working as a journalist at that point?

Up to 1988. I retired from being editor of The Oxford Times – which was a lovely newspaper to be editor of – and all I had after was the contract to finish the non-fiction book, and I just managed to do that by the skin of my teeth. 

Do you still write at all?

No, no. There's a joke, not too crude, about the two tramps sitting under a hedge in the rain. One says to the other, "Would you rather make love to a woman or think about making love to a woman?" The other tramp thinks for quite a long time and then finally says, "I think I'd rather think about making love to a woman." And the first tramp says, "Why?" "Well, I tend to get a better class of woman that way!" 

[Laughter.]

So I've written a lot of books since I retired, and they're all much better than the ones I wrote. 

Would you mind if we covered some biographical background? Because there is information about you online, but who knows how accurate it is. For instance, I wanted to talk about your early life – where you were born, where you grew up...

Well, I was conceived in India, where my father had gone after the First World War, and where my brother was born. It wasn't a very healthy place; my mother was quite ill several times. My brother was five, and I was on the way, so I was sent home, inside my mother. I was then born, but my father stayed in India, so I hardly saw him. 

What was he doing in India?

He was... [Chuckles.] He always wanted to be a farmer. He went to Repton [a public – i.e. private – school in Derbyshire, founded in 1557] – that was the family school, although I wasn't sent to it. He went to Canada to ranch before the First World War, and when the First World War broke out he was in the middle of Canada, ranching, and, I gather, those who could ride a horse to the railhead could enlist in the cavalry. So he enlisted in the Canadian Cavalry, the Fort Garry Horse – which is a famous Canadian Cavalry Regiment actually, and an armoured regiment later on – and he went back to Europe in the Fort Garry Horse and fought in the trenches.

Later on he transferred to his old county regiment, which was the Loyal North Lancs, and met my mother and married in 1917. I wasn't born until 1928. He didn't go back to farming, not until much later, although he always wanted to. He became an accountant in, I think, the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation. He was what I think they called in India at the time a "boxwallah"; that is, he wasn't a soldier or a diplomat, he was a businessman. He eventually came home in 1940. My mother died prematurely, so I was brought up by an aunt. 

How old were you when your mother died?

Seven – something like that. I was brought up by an aunt, near Canterbury. My father stayed in India and didn't come back until 1940 or '39, when he instantly married again. He was farming again. I didn't really know him at all, actually. 

He wasn't a big part of your life, then?

No, he was not a big part. I remember waiting when the boat train came in; he came back once during my childhood, and I remember talking to my brother, who was five years older than I was – I was about three or something – and I didn't know what [my father] looked like. And my brother told me an entirely false story of what he was like. So when I waited to see my father for the first time I didn't recognise him.

However; I didn't get on very well with my stepmother, and my father was killed in about '42, '43. But he had prudently bought an education policy, so I was properly educated at King's School, Canterbury, which was then evacuated to Cornwall; I'm an expert on Cornwall because of that. Well, I was an expert; it's all different now. And then the war ended when I was about sixteen or seventeen, so I went back to Canterbury's King's School, and I won an exhibition [i.e. scholarship] to Oxford. Then I went in the Army, where I had a lovely time. 

You enjoyed the Army?

Yes, the Army was super. I was in the Royal Signals, but I wanted to be a schoolmaster back then, so they offered me a transfer to the Royal Educational Corps and made me a captain! So I had a lovely year. 

Why did you want to become a schoolmaster?

It was the only thing I knew! But having been a captain in the Educational Corps I decided not to become a schoolmaster! Nothing against schoolmasters: quite some of the most super people I've ever met are schoolmasters – particularly classics masters; I think they're a rare breed. So after the Army, which I enjoyed, I went to Oxford, which I enjoyed... 

What did you read at Oxford?

Oh, History. I should have read Law, but the problem with having no parents is, nobody advises you. 

That can be a good or bad thing...

Well, I think it would have been much easier if they had been there. But I drifted into journalism, because I'd met my wife, who was a nurse, and she'd got a job [in Oxford] as a Casualty Sister in A&E – she liked being a Casualty Sister, she said it was exciting. I was offered a job in Oxford, so I started at the bottom on a newspaper [The Oxford Times], and I stayed on that newspaper. In time it expanded and bought more newspapers, and eventually I became editor of the newspaper.

I had started to review books for The Oxford Mail, which was the evening version of the paper for which I worked. One day the editor of The Oxford Mail, a chap called Hartford Thomas – super editor, potentially a great editor but he died young; he became an assistant editor on The Guardian, which is not my favourite paper: bad for my blood pressure. Anyway, I'd written an article or two for him on things, and he said, "I've got this book, which has been rejected by my Children's Reviewer as being boring. But it's written by a local author, and I think we ought to review it. So would you like it?" So I said, "Yes, sir" – you called editors "sir" then, you see. And Hartford said, "Well, off you go. Four hundred words."

So I took the book away. It had been rejected because it was boring and it was the first of three volumes, but the other reason I'd been chosen was I'd gone to Merton College, and the author was a Don at Merton. I read the book and thought I'd go and see the author. I went along to see him and I was the first journalist he'd ever seen, so he lent me the proof copy of the second volume, and the galley proofs of the third, annotated in his own hand. And so I reviewed The Fellowship of the Rings. 

Wow.

Unfortunately he asked for the proof back! Otherwise I'd be in the South of France now. So I reviewed Tolkien! I knew him as a Don, although he was an English Don, and he wasn't very popular. There was a much nicer English Don at the time, a chap called Hugo Dyson, who was a real sweetie. He was one of the Inklings, the group that met in the Bird and Baby [Inn] to discuss the work they were writing. He said, "Yes, Tolkien: very clever fellow, dear boy. Didn't teach much. He used to bring that Elvish stuff, and I said, 'Don't let's have any more of this Elvish nonsense!'" 

What did you think of The Lord of the Rings?

I thought it was marvellous. I thought the poetry was dreadful. But I thought the book was splendid. I went back to my editor and I said, "Look, can we do a big feature on this?" He said, "No, it's a very odd book. I've been talking to some Dons about Tolkien: they say he's a real weirdo. But do the four hundred words." So I did the four hundred words for him and he asked if I'd like to review more books. Of course I said, "Yes, I'd love to review books" – I wasn't paid very much at the time in provincial newspapers. He said, "Well what would you like to review?" He was reorganizing The Oxford Mail at the time. I thought I'd choose an unlikely subject, which I read a bit, so I said, "Science fiction." He said, "No, I've got a chap to do that – chap called Brian Aldiss." 

Oh, right!

Who became a great friend of mine as a result. And I said, "Well, military history I'd like." And he said, "Would you review crime? If you review crime regularly, once a fortnight, you can take military history as well." So that was the deal. 

Were you reading crime fiction yourself anyway?

Oh, yes. I'd read masses of it. It was what one tended to read. There were a lot of good crime writers then. It was the great age of Ellery Queen and others whose names are now forgotten but I thought were super at the time: Rex Stout... well, I could name-drop indefinitely! There were some marvellous people writing then. But anyway, I reviewed crime, and I also got all the military history, which I enjoyed. And it was quite economic. I was married, I had children... 

How many children do you have?

Three, only three, but it seems a lot. Very nice children, actually – exceptionally nice. I am, and was, blessed. [Price now has five grandchildren as well.]

So I did that for quite a long time. And I must have given Gollancz some good reviews because they had a very good list at the time. I mean, they started John le Carré. He left when Victor [Gollancz] wouldn't give him enough money! 

[Laughter.]

Livia, [Victor's] daughter, wrote to me and said would I like to write a book about crime fiction? This is some time later – I'd been reviewing for ten, twelve years by this point. And I said, "No, I don't think I'd like to write a history, because it's too much wotk, and a lot of it in French!" Which would've been tough. But I said, "I'll write you a thriller if you like!" And she said, "I'll come back and collect the manuscript in a year's time." 

Right. So it was as easy as that!

Well, Livia described exactly what happened, and she put it in her book – which I happen to have to hand, so you can read it! Whereas I will recharge my glass. 

At this point Price headed off to the reception room and collected a 1978 first edition – in a yellow dustjacket, of course – of Sheila Hodges's Gollancz: The Story of a Publishing House 1928–1978, which he handed to me opened at a passage quoting himself, before heading off for more wine. The quote runs thus:

"Livia simply applied the necessary encouragement at the right moment. Whether I should have gone ahead otherwise I don't know, but if I hadn't met her, I certainly don't expect I would have dared to send my first effort to Gollancz, which I regarded, and still regard, as the top detective thriller publisher. We first met, as I recall, on the steps of Oxford Town Hall, where Livia had gone to rehearse for something or other that the Chelsea Opera Group was putting on. I carried a Gollancz yellow jacket for identification – an appropriate cloak-and-dagger meeting.

"At the time I had been reviewing crime fiction and military history for a number of years for The Oxford Times' sister paper, The Oxford Mail. I had been interested in military history ever since I had read History at Oxford, and interested in crime fiction long before that, so I'd struck lucky there. Also the Mail's literary editor, Brian Aldiss, was a great friend who had always encouraged me to write. So anyway, I suppose my books are simply a distillation of all that military history and crime fiction interbreeding. Plus the fact that I have lived for many years in a cottage in the country, and crime-writing is one of the last cottage industries." 

"And that is the whole story," remarked Price as he returned, glass suitaby recharged.

ANTHONY PRICE: Livia was a dear. She was terribly nice to me. She's still alive. She's very formidable. She's like the Snow Queen in Narnia. She was too nice to me, in fact: she didn't edit my books much, and perhaps they should've been! But I wouldn't criticize her. She ran a very good list. She didn't pay us hugely, but it was a privilege to be published by Gollancz. 

You stayed with Gollancz for the whole of your career as a novelist, didn't you?

I stayed the whole time, yes. I left while she was still in post, just at the right time. Gollancz was a lovely old-fashioned publisher in Henrietta Street, next to Covent Garden – gorgeous old publisher, a rabbit warren of pretty young girls and eager young men, moving from floor to floor up. It was on the other side of the road from from Rules, the eating place, where Livia occasionally took us to lunch.

She was a very good singer. On one occasion I was taking a manuscript up to her. I went with a great friend of mine who was a printer in Oxford, very fine printer. We went to see Livia, and I said to her, "Livia, here's the manuscript, but I gather you were the star of the publisher's pantomime, and you sang Rule Britannia. I'm sorry I missed it." She said, "You haven't missed it: I'll sing it for you now!" And she proceeded to sing Rule Britannia! She had a terrific voice! She'd been a musician: she was first horn in the Hallé Orchestra, but her father had seduced her out of music into publishing. As we left, my friend said to me, "You're not much of an author, but you're the first author I've ever met whose publisher sang to me!" 

[Laughter.] 

So you said you'd write her a thriller...

Yes, and I did, and she published it, and it did well enough to keep going. 

What about the espionage element? Where did that come from?

I had met a few people, over the years... And, um... I'd met one or two people. 

OK...

Well, you know, some things are private. There are one or two spy thriller writers who were... in it. John Bingham was an early Gollancz writer – he was Lord Clanmorris – but he was, you know... [Long pause.] Anyway, so... I'd read a lot of espionage, and you can pick up a lot in books... [Price gestures to the shelves full of espionage works behind him.]

I was a Cold War warrior, that's the beginning and end of your story, actually. When I was in the Army, I wasn't going to stay in the Educational Corps if anything happened, because there would have been more exciting things to do. But we were all like that, in 1947, '48, which was my Army service. As one chap in the mess said, "What are you doing now, young fellow?" I said, "Well I'm going up to Oxford." He said, "Oxford? How long?" I said, "Three years." He said, "No, no. We'll have you back before three years is up." And of course the Korean War broke out. I remember I was in France at the time with another chap, in the summer, it was June, July. He said, "Well, we're both on Z Reserve, do we go home now and curtail the holiday?" And I said, "Well, I suppose we ought to go home." He said, "I'm not going home! I'm going to have my holiday! I don't care if the third world war starts!"

Well of course it didn't, but those were the days when the Russians had 20,000 tanks in Europe. I had met various people who had had experience of Communism red in tooth and claw, particlarly Polish people, and we all felt that the West had to resist. I wouldn't have objected if I'd been called up again. There were various illusions that young men had at the time, but we didn't have pacifism among our defects. I didn't get at all pacifist until 1956, when the Hungarian Uprising took place. 

Ah, yes, a lot of people forget about that. 

That was the thing. We sent reporters there to cover that, even from Oxford. And we all decided then that no longer would we give Communism the benefit of the doubt. 

I've read Kingsley Amis saying something along those lines, in his – misunderstood, in my opinion – essay, "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right".

It was the key. Not Czechoslovakia later on. It was Hungary. After that, I had no doubt about the fact that, with all the defects there were in the West, we still had to resist. So, my books were... I suppose today you mustn't use the words, "He was passionate"! Please! "Passionate" must never be used in anything you write about me! But I woke up about it. And I wanted to write detective stories which were fun, but translate them into espionage stories. I mean, obviously I was influenced by Le Carré, obviously I was influenced by Len Deighton, both of whom I thought wrote brilliantly – in their early phase. Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of my favourite books. 

Mine too.

He was terribly lucky, of course. The television adaptation is brilliant. It's better than the book. He was allowed to put bits in. He was allowed to do the ending, for example, which wasn't in the book. It is absolutely super, and I still look at it and admire it. I think his later books... are not so good. However, nice chap, and Len Deighton's a super chap, too. What stopped me reviewing was meeting everybody, meeting people – not these two, but others – who I thought were delightful but I didn't like their books much! 

The curse of the reviewer...

And then I met people who I didn't like, but I thought they'd written super books! And that's what cracks a reviewer! Well, it cracked me. But I didn't need to review by then. 

There's a writer called William Haggard – did you know him?

Ah, yes, Haggard: he was more right wing than even me! He made me look like a liberal! There are a number of writers... Even the strictly police procedural, whodunnit thrillers, there are chaps now forgotten who I thought wrote brilliant police thrillers. Maurice Procter: do you know his name at all? 

No...

There were a number who were writing long before the Z-Cars era – they pioneered the work and wrote better than many others.

. . . . .

In the second part of the interview, the discussion turns to some of Price's individual novels and to the author's writing process, as well as to the television adaptation of the early books in the series, Chessgame – which, it transpires, Mr. Price isn't terribly fond of... 

(Interview Copyright © 2011 Nick Jones.)

9 comments:

  1. Nick
    Like you I have searched high and low for interviews with Anthony Price and found nothing. I assumed he refused to give any on principle. So this is a fantastic coup for you, and a wonderful insight into a writer whose work still gives a lot of pleasure to a lot of people (and not just the elderly as Mr Price so modestly claims!) Interesting to note he was in the Royal Army Education Corps about the same time as my father - who was a more lowly NCO, a sergeant. I wonder if they knew of each other. Anyway, I am looking forward to Part 2. Best wishes Tim Bowler

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  2. Superb, Nick. You've done something very valuable. Looking forward to Part 2.

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  3. Great stuff. I appreciate that you went into his background, as I often find that kind of context so helpful in understanding people's work. I like how he is generally quite candid, except when he's not (except that he is actually candid about what he won't tell). Love his description of Gollancz "a rabbit warren of pretty young girls and eager young men, moving from floor to floor up."

    Nice work!

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  4. Terrific interview- well done!

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  5. Thanks all! Glad you enjoyed Part 1. Part 2 has some good stuff in it as well; should have that up Wednesday.

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  6. Just stumbled across this site which I shall plug to my crime fiaction friends on Facebook.
    I was one of those "keen young men at Gollancz" when AP first came on board. I was a representative for the company and sold his books into the trade. Eventually I met up with him when I left Gollancz and started up Post Mortem Books, a mail order business selling crime fiction. He kindly let me visit him at the Oxford Mail and he signed copies of his latest novel for my customers. After his retirement we would meet at The Six Bells pub outside Oxford and he'd sign copies over the Saloon Bar table. Good to see he is still with us and sharp as razor.

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  7. Well thank you for sharing your personal recollections, Ralph! Most insightful. I don't know if you've seen yet, but Anthony kindly signed some books for me when I met him. He really is a splendid chap.

    And by the way, if you're sharing Existential Ennui on Facebook, there is an EE Facebook page, a link to which can be found in the right hand column. And I've just set up a new page on the blog, showcasing beautiful British dust jackets.

    Thanks again for the comment!

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  8. Thanks for this illuminating interview. I have just read the David Audley series for the third time and in the correct chronological order which you can find on Google just by asking the question. It really helps and needless to say I have enjoyed the books just as much as I did over years as they were published, what long waits they were. So thank you too, a very big thank you to Anthony Price, who helped me through my middle age and is now helping me through my old age. With luck I will be able to manage a fourth read through in few years; and although I have never been able to afford a premier Cru habit, Chilian wine ain't half bad.
    One more point, anybody who has enjoyed this series would also enjoy Patrick O'Brian and what I broadly call Berlin Noir as typified by Alan Furst, David Downing, Philip Kerr and William Ryan. They are all cracking reads which are soundly based on the history and politics of their times.

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