Well I hope we all enjoyed my exclusive two-part interview with British spy novelist Anthony Price – part one here, part two here, and also linked to by the estimable Jeremy Duns (thank you, sir). I certainly enjoyed meeting Mr. Price, and if nothing else, at least now there's an extensive interview with the author of the David Audley espionage novels freely available online for anyone who goes looking for one, something there wasn't previously. Doubtless I'll continue to make my way through Price's fine series, adding further reviews of the books to the four I've already posted (which can be found here, here, here and here), so there'll be plenty more from Mr. Price down the line. But before we move on, it wouldn't be Existential Ennui if I didn't seize with both clammy hands the opportunity to crow unattractively about the books that Mr. Price kindly signed for me when I met him, starting with the American first edition that he himself gave to me:
A 1976 US Doubleday hardback first edition of Our Man in Camelot, the sixth novel in the series (originally published in the UK by Gollancz in 1975), with a dustjacket designed by John Sposato. This is the novel which Price revealed to me was inspired by a US Air Force pilot who lived up the road from him and who mistakenly believed the author wrote about King Arthur, prompting Price to combine in one tale both Arthurian and aviation themes. Rather than precis the story myself, however, I'll let you have a look at the jacket flap copy instead (click on the images to enlarge 'em):
As I mentioned in my interview, Mr. Price signed and dedicated the book to me:
Which, considering there is currently only one other signed copy of this edition listed on AbeBooks, priced at nearly sixty quid, and only one other signed copy in any edition besides (a 1982 Futura paperback, going for more than £45), makes it really rather special. Of course, the fact that the book was given to me by its author makes it even more special, and something that I'll always treasure, but I suppose from a more objective collecting perspective, the other two books that Price signed for me could be seen as being even more remarkable...
See, shortly before I interviewed Anthony Price, as I detailed in this post, I chanced upon Gollancz first editions of the first two novels in the series, The Labyrinth Makers (1970) and The Alamut Ambush (1971). Both were for sale for much, much less than the going rate – anything from £150–£350 and £75–£200 respectively. And it was these two books that Mr. Price kindly signed and inscribed for me:
Making them, to my knowledge, the only signed copies of the two novels – in any edition, let alone first edition – available online. Or rather, unavailable online: I'm certainly not selling them. So as to their value... well, we're in the realms of pure conjecture. Pretty bloody valuable, I'd say.
Anyway, if you haven't yet read the Anthony Price interview, go have a look, even if you've never heard of him. You never know: you might find yourself suitably inspired to seek out one of his excellent novels yourself. And having posted one interview with an author, all being well I'll soon have another one to post as well – not quite as extensive as the Anthony Price one, but certainly of interest to admirers of current crime fiction – and indeed current crime fiction television.
Before that, though, I'll be staying with the signed editions for a wee while, with a couple more books bearing Anthony Price's John Hancock which I picked up online before I met the man himself, and then signed editions of novels by Robert Rankin, Eoin Colfer, Joseph Wambaugh, Ian Rankin, and a number of other authors who shall for the moment remain a secret (I don't want to spoil the surprise). Those – plus maybe one or two other bits and bobs – should keep me busy here on Existential Ennui for the foreseeable future (at least until that other interview I mentioned pans out – if indeed it does pan out), but they won't be the only blogging I'll be doing. Because as well as continuing to post dreary, prolix (my new favourite word), books-related nonsense on Existential Ennui, I'll also be posting dreary, prolix, books-related nonsense on another blog, too (besides the aforementioned, day job-related Ilex Press one, I mean).
Which brings me to a little announcement – although it's not so much an announcement by me, as an announcement about me, by someone else. So if you'd care to pop along to this post on this utterly essential website dedicated to a certain career criminal by the name of Parker, I'll be back shortly to elaborate and elucidate.
Friday 5 August 2011
An Anthony Price Interview Postscript – Those Signed First Editions of Our Man in Camelot, The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush – and an Announcement
Wednesday 3 August 2011
An Interview with Anthony Price, Author of the David Audley Spy Novels, Part 2: Plotting, Characterization, Locations, Chessgame, and Writers and Writing
|Photo Copyright © 2011 Nick Jones.|
. . . . .
The Labyrinth Makers, your debut novel from 1970, is a kind of a mystery, a whodunnit...
ANTHONY PRICE: Yes, I wanted to write whodunnits in a way that wrapped them up in espionage. One of the later books I remember I wanted to, for instance, make the Americans nice, because they were always villains at the time. I remember, very unfashionably, having a homosexual was was a villain. Because, by that time, you couldn't do a thing like that. So I thought, "Damn this, I'll do it! They'll never believe him as being the traitor, because it isn't fashionable." So one could do naughty things like that. The problem was, as my accountant said: not enough sex and violence! But you can only write what you can write.
The plots do seem quite complicated...
I think the plots are terribly simple! From outside a mystery, everything is complicated. It's only when you get to the end, and even then, you mustn't cross every "t"... Who did I meet who said that? Somebody quite brilliant, who said, "For God's sake, don't cross every 't' and dot every 'i'. Leave some things in the air at the end."
Well that's something else I wanted to ask about actually: when you started out with the first book, did you think it would turn into a series?
Oh yes. I wanted to have a repertory company of characters. At the time I'd been reviewing the Playhouse and the New Theatre in Oxford. A repertory company's where you have one or two leads, and then one or two character actors who are in the back, and then one or two juveniles. I thought it would be fun to keep the repertory company, have one or two leads, but bring in other characters in turn, and the ones who stood up would be in other stories. Colonel Butler was Audley's subordinate in the beginning and his boss in the end. He developed. And I married Audley off so I didn't have to put sex in all the time.
I never wrote the twentieth book...
[Here Price revealed a personal reason – in addition to those outlined in part one of this interview – for not writing the twentieth novel, which will have to remain private.]
Was Dr. David Audley, your ostensible lead in the novels, based on anyone?
No, he... Well, yes, there were one or two chaps that I had met over the years that I wanted to amalgamate – my company commander in the Army for one. But I made [Audley] big, clever and Cambridge because I was small, Oxford and not so clever. I thought, "Nobody will think he's writing about himself."
But were you?
Well I don't know. The trouble is, other people know more about your books than you do. I know I'm loquacious now after a couple of glasses of wine, but really I didn't quite enjoy this side of being an author – the publicity side.
Well it's not really a natural thing for an author to do, being such a solitary profession.
At Gollancz [the British publisher of Price's novels] they would tell me to do things, and at my paperback publishers, who were always very nice... My paperback publishers had lots of very nice young men and girls – very pretty girls – who wanted me to do publicity, but it's... it's not easy.
So Livia, Victor Gollancz's daughter, was your editor at Gollancz?
Yes. She really let me have my head, I suppose you could say.
What was your writing process? We're currently sitting in the study in which you wrote all of your books: when you sat down at this desk to write, would you start with characters, or plot, or would you...
Colonel Butler's Wolf] is set on Hadrian's Wall. The idea was there must have been many Roman soldiers who were on the Wall for almost their whole life. They never saw Rome, and they never saw who they were defending really, and they probably didn't like them anyway, but they were there, and the Wall had to be held. And in Western Europe in the '70s and the '80s the wall had to be held there, too. Because the logic of it, I always felt... In the sixteenth century, there were more books published about the Turkish menace than about the New World, just as in 1970 there were more books published about the Soviet menace than about space. The idea was that, if you had somebody you couldn't make war against, who was too strong, you had to resist them. And if they were bad, the contradictions of their own regime eventually would destroy them.
The dangerous moment was when they started to reform. I thought the dangerous moment would come when Communism started to fail. I was entirely wrong! It ended with a whimper, not a bang! But I was terrified it was going to end with a bang.
I found a quote from you where you said ours is the second great age of treason – the first being the late sixteenth century.
That's the Elizabethan time, when you had religion, and that's a very interesting period for treason, treachery... and loyalty. I mean, to think that the man who commanded the fleet at the time of the Spanish Armada was a Catholic! Amazing! It's a contradiction.
You talked about having a setting or a place to start your novels...
Well, some of the places were places I wanted to go to.
For example, Hadrian's Wall in Colonel Butler's Wolf – did you do Jack Butler's walk along the Wall?
But there were places that occurred in my books, I must confess, that I simply wanted to go on holiday to. Italy is a lovely place; the American Civil War is an interesting war. The books helped to finance my holidays!
But there's also the idea that history informs the present...
Oh yes. I always felt that the past is lying in wait for the present. I'm not sure whether I'm right, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in a way that I never expected. That was another thing that made me decide to retire, along with my health and other factors: it made me think that it was time to quit while I was ahead, because Audley was no longer as clever as he thought.
Yes, he didn't see that coming.
But he could live on... His daughter said to him, in a book that I never wrote, "What did you do in the Cold War, Dad?" And he said, "I won it, my dear." Which is not true.
The Alamut Ambush, as it's set in large part in my neck of the woods – in East Sussex, specifically Firle.
Oh yes. Well my wife comes from Eastbourne, and I love that area – it's a Kipling area, and I'm a Kipling admirer.
Did you climb up Firle Beacon, as Hugh Roskill does in the novel?
All those places, yes, I walked them. Those are fun. That's the nice part about writing: the research. It's like the two tramps [a joke Price told in part one of this interview]; while you're researching you're writing a better book than you actually write. Research is always fun.
Why did you choose Firle?
It's that whole area. Every area has nuances of its own, and that southern part, it's the Kipling part. Kipling loved it. Puck of Pook's Hill – a great children's book, wonderful children's book.
And October Men, your fourth novel from 1973, is set largely in Italy.
Well I was exploring Italy at the time. The Italians are interesting people. Roman history is a hobby. It's a wonderful area there, beautiful. Much too good for them.
I was also interested in Roskill, because he only really stars in the one book, The Alamut Ambush.
Tomorrow's Ghost, 1979]. Again, one can fall in love with one's characters to some extent. I didn't plan that, to end that book like that, but it ended the way it wanted to end. It's not true that a book writes itself: a chap's always in charge and can do any stupid thing. But that came out of the blue. It wasn't planned.
That's something else that has been remarked on regarding the series as a whole: that people grow old, people die...
Oh yes. It emerged Audley was perhaps not the son of his father. That happens with many people. Until DNA, it was a wise man who knew women love their children more than men, because they know that the children are theirs, whereas the men only think they're theirs.
Something that's notable about the books is the long stretches of dialogue and how you reveal character through those conversations.
That's how you reveal character. You reveal character not by the author saying anything, but by the character saying something, or doing something. An actor I was talking to once said, "If you want people to think a man is a bastard, get him to kick a dog!"
But, yes, dialogue is... I always wanted to write a historical novel, a Roman novel, long before Lindsey Davis. In fact I've written a couple of Roman short stories for collections. However I always wanted to write a Roman story about a Roman intelligence service, which they must have had; there must have been a very good intelligence service in the first and second centuries. But I could never hear them talk. I could only hear people talking in my own age.
Did you ever see Chessgame, the ITV adaptation of your first three novels?
It's not available on DVD in the UK, so I haven't seen it, although I was surprised by the casting: Terence Stamp as Audley...?
You will understand, I was editor by then [of The Oxford Times], and we were having a lot of industrial trouble. It was before Wapping; the unions were tremendously strong and we were having terrible troubles. For instance, we printed The Oxford Times one time in Luxembourg. The Oxford Times! Not one of the great newspapers of the world! But we couldn't print it in England because we'd got industrial disputes up to here. I remember getting those papers through Customs – they couldn't believe that we'd printed 40,000 copies or whatever it was. They thought it was pornography or something!
Other Paths to Glory: yeah, you could do that one." But my agent said, "No, no, they want to do these. And they've got Terence Stamp to do them." I thought, "Christ, Terence Stamp..." Totally miscast! But then so was Alec Guinness [in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy].
So I said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" And my agent said, "Nothing. Don't do anything. Don't bother them, don't write to them. They know what they want. If you want the money..." I'd got three children going to university at the time, one of them going to law school, which was very expensive, and another one about to go to law school. So I needed the money. My agent said, "Write to them and say how delighted you are, say if they want any help you'll be delighted to provide it." So I got a call back saying, more or less: "Thank you very much. Go away." I thought to myself, "Well, Granada has done Brideshead." So I didn't do anything. In due course I was invited to the press show. But you haven't seen it, have you?
And you certainly won't. Can you imagine The Labyrinth Makers in which it isn't a Dakota, and it has nothing to do with the Schliemann treasure?
Oh. So what was...?
Well I don't really know. I've only seen it one-and-a-half times.
Things do change for TV or movie adaptations...
This was quite out of all proportion. I was so deeply wounded by it that I've never seen them again, since they were made. They bore only the faintest... Still, I took the money.
And they put your kids through university.
Yes. But, yes, terrible. I have the videos here; I'm not going to lend them to you. I met Terence Stamp long afterwards, briefly. I said to him, "Why didn't you make other [books in the series] which could have been good? The first few, I agree, I never wrote them for television, so perhaps I got what I deserved, but other parts might have been good." And he said, "I hate television!" He said, "I had the most dreadful experiences making those and I never want to do television again." And I don't think he ever has done. Those were the only television he ever did.
Do you look back at your books at all? Re-read them?
I have occasionally re-read bits of them. They're either much better than I thought or much worse! Some of them I thought needed some good editing. As you said, too much dialogue.
Well, no, I actually don't think there is too much dialogue; those long stretches of dialogue are part of why I like them.
You were producing a book a year, weren't you?
That's what, I think, an ordinary, workaday author does – not a great writer, who gets a huge breakthrough and can afford to wait a few years, and wait a few years. Most of us are like peasant women: they have one child a year, each must produce, or go to jail! It's what the publishers like, really. They lose money with some of the blockbusters they've bought for a million pounds; they never really get their million back, or they get it back in a very curious way. But the average run of guys who are paying the bills...
And you get a few more sales each year, and you get a good library take-up. I had ten years of the maximum for Public Lending Rights, for which, thank you very much.
But even though you don't look back so much, are you pleased with the series as a whole?
I think desire always outruns performance. When I look at some of the really good books, some of the thrillers that have been written, the best bits of Le Carré – the best bits are pretty damn good. The best bits of a number of writers are enough to stop one writing. When I look at this historical novel... [Price hands me a book from his shelves, by Cecelia Holland.] The best Mediaeval novel ever written, by an American girl in her late twenties. A Hammer for Princes. [Published in the US as The Earl.] It's the best book she ever wrote, too. That's enough to stop me ever writing a historical novel.
Or C. S. Forester, when you think about those... I'm sending this one to a German friend of mine who hasn't read it. [Price pulls out another book, this time a paperback, The Sky and the Forest.] Have you read it? Write it down on your list. I mean, they talk about Hornblower, who's wonderful, but the other books that Forester wrote: The General, and this one, The Sky and the Forest... it's a marvellous book. I'm sorry I can't give it to you. I know he's middlebrow for everyone, but I should rather have written one of his books than taken Quebec! It's storytelling on a different plane, I think. And then you think about Kipling, and then you're in the ultimate plane.
I see you have some Kingsley Amis on your shelf, who I'm a big fan of. Have you read him?
I love Kingsley, yes. Once upon a time when we'd not been here [at the cottage] very long, there was a ditch at the front there, which I later filled in. When it was wet it had six inches of water and six inches of mud in it. Kingsley fell in that ditch while drunk! He was a friend of Brian Aldiss's, not a friend of mine, but I met him a few times. So he came here one evening, got drunk, fell in the ditch, and wrote a beautiful letter of apology to [my wife] Ann. Great chap!
Do you think you'll ever write again?
No, no. I still think about it. It'd be interesting to write about one's life, just for the grandchildren, not for publication. Because such a lot has happened! I saw the Graf Zeppelin fly over. Eighty years is a hell of a long time if you think about it.
And it was an eventful century.
Yeah, a hell of a lot happened. And a hell of a lot has changed.
. . . . .
Here the interview ended, although our conversation continued over lunch in the dining room. As a former newspaperman, the News of the World phone hacking scandal – which was all over the media at the time – greatly interested Price, especially the underlying question of press censorship. But he and Ann also regaled us with tales of writers they knew and had known, including P. D. James ("Like an aunt to everyone," recalled Ann fondly), Gavin Lyall ("Good guy, but could be quite difficult," according to Price) and the creator of the Oxford-based Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter, whom Price hired many years ago to The Oxford Times to formulate the paper's crosswords ("I could never do them myself, though"). For my part, I informed Price that there was a new film adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy on the way, which, considering the high regard Price holds the novel and the 1979 TV adaptation in, he was quite astonished to hear, although he was intrigued by the casting of Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
Guardian Fiction Prize). "I was on the platform and a voice behind me called my name. I turned around and there was a tall chap there who I slightly recognised. He said, 'It's David – David Cornwell.' And so that was John le Carré. He was going to the same ceremony and said we should get the train together. I said, 'I'm afraid I'm in second class, whereas I expect you're in first.' He replied, 'We'll sit in the restaurant car and drink champagne.' And so we did, all the way to London. So by the time I got to the ceremony I was a little worse for wear."
Following lunch, I asked Price to sign my Gollancz first editions of The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush, which he did, adding warm dedications to each. And then just before we parted company, as talk turned to an American pilot who used to live up the road from Price, he vanished off to his bookshelves once again and reappeared with a 1976 US Doubleday first edition of his sixth novel, Our Man in Camelot. Mentioning that the US editions of his novels had "interesting covers, ranging from the awful to the quite good", Price revealed the origins of the book, which was inspired by said American pilot. "I'm going to write a book about you lot," Price had told the US Air Force man, who replied incongruously, "I thought you wrote about King Arthur." So Price decided to write about both in the same book.
Having told me the this tale, unexpectedly Price then signed and inscribed his copy of Our Man in Camelot and presented it to me. It was a typically thoughtful and generous gesture from a man who, despite the fact that he hasn't written for more than two decades, still receives fan letters from admirers of his unique books, and who continues to concoct fiendishly complicated plots for his repertory company – David Audley, Jack Butler and the rest – to become embroiled in. That those stories will probably never be set down on paper is a great shame, but at least we have the novels Price did write – novels which will continue to thrill and confound readers, both old and new, for some time to come.
Interview Copyright © 2011 Nick Jones. Go here for an Anthony Price interview postscript.
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 Nick Jones.|
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.
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.
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?
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!"
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?
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.
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?
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!
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:
"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!"
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.
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".
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.
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?
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.)