My Brief Career As A Novelist - With Thanks To Graham Greene,
A speech at the Graham Greene Literary Festival, Berkhampsted, October 4 2008
Although I never met Graham Greene, I have a small personal reason for gratitude: in the last years of his life he was kind enough to provide friendly endorsements for the dust jackets of two of my novels - "The Last Man Out of Saigon" and "The Year of the Fire Monkey" - about which more in a moment. I don't know how much he read of them, but if he got as far as page 43 in "The Last Man Out of Saigon" he will have found Lazarowitzc, a tired old CIA hand, remarking that "Graham Greene was a son of a bitch - and probably a communist, too."
I had always assumed that Greene's prejudices were broadly similar to mine. That is to say leftish, small L liberal, with a strong dislike of imperialism and neo colonialism combined with a gut sympathy for the underdog. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to read the other day that he had voted Conservative in 1945 and perhaps for Margaret Thatcher in 1979. 1979 I can just about understand. Mrs Thatcher was a then relatively unknown quantity and there may have been a superficial attraction in having the first woman prime minister, but 1945 was different. It was a seminal moment in British political history. The moment at which Britain had to decide whether it was going to be a social democracy or risk a return to the mass unemployment of the thirties. To have voted Conservative then suggests that Greene was a somewhat different animal than the one I had fondly supposed.
This impression was compounded when I read Michael Sheldon's remarkable biography. My goodness, what a surprise to discover a life full of deceptions,betrayals, paradoxes and that, indeed, he was for much of his life working for the Secret Intelligence Service. I also note, however, that he and I have some things in common. We both had an unhappy experience of boarding school, in my case a Catholic one. We both started our working lives as sub editors - he at The Times and I at the BBC World Service. It is comforting to note, too, that his early literary efforts, like mine, were failures. We have both spent time in some of the same countries - Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Liberia . For both of us, I think, Vietnam was one of the seminal experiences of our lives. In my case it gave me a wife, a host of Vietnamese relatives and a life long association with that beautiful country and culture which continues to this day.
I note one or two other little co-incidences. In 1951 Greene was commissioned by Life Magazine, owned by the deeply reactionary Henry Luce, to go to Vietnam and write a major feature on the fight against the Red Menace. In due course he submitted a piece concluding that the war was unwinnable, that the French should be preparing to retreat and that the Vietnamese communists were not part of some conspiracy to take over the world. This, of course, was not what Life and its proprietor wanted to hear and the article was duly spiked.
Twenty years or so later I had a similar experience with the Daily Telegraph magazine, then edited by a tyrant called John Anstey. For some reason Anstey got it into his head to commission me to write a major feature about "the future of South East Asia, dear boy, in 4,000 words". I knew then that this was the end of a beautiful relationship because there was no way that my analysis of the situation was going to conform to that of the Telegraph. I duly spent three months bumming round South East Asia, staying in cheap hotels, eking out the expenses for as long as possible, making maximum use of my Telegraph credentials to open doors that would otherwise have remained firmly closed and postponing for as long as possible the day when I would have to deliver my analysis. When eventually that day dawned I sat back and waited for the inevitable. My text was duly circulated to senior Telegraph foreign correspondents who unanimously gave it the thumbs down. This resulted in a ferocious memorandum from Anstey, a copy of which came into my hands though I wasn't supposed to see it, remarking on the folly of ever having sent me. It was many years before I wrote for the Telegraph Magazine again.
I note one other aspect of Greene's life which, I like to think, we have in common. A sense of mischief and a recognition that, when it comes to selling books, a good denunciation is worth a dozen eulogies. Michael Shelden recounts how, at the height of the Red scare in the United States, Greene contrived to get himself blacklisted by deliberately letting slip that, aged 19, he had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the communist party and then organising maximum publicity over his being
refused entry. I, too, discovered the advantage of a good denunciation 25 years ago when my first novel, "A Very British Coup" was published. The distinguished Conservative MP, Sir Ian Gilmour, took offence at a quotation from one his books which I had included at the front of the hardback edition. He duly wrote to The Times to complain and a brief correspondence ensued. As a result of which sales at Hatchards of Piccadilly, the top people's bookshop, soared. A few years later, I published my only work of non-fiction, Error of Judgement, which argued that the wrong people had been convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings and which attracted a torrent of abuse from newspapers like 'The Sun' -- LOONY MP BACKS BOMB GANG, MR ODIOUS, TWENTY THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT CRACKPOT CHRIS - all of which did wonders for sales.
What does my work owe to Graham Greene? To be honest it is a mite insolent to mention my three small novels in the same breath as his, which are in every way superior. I do, however, make so bold as to suggest two respects in which I have been consciously or unconsciously influenced by him. First, we both write concisely, a legacy perhaps of our sub editor days. I think I am right in saying that none of Greene's major works exceeds exceed 300 pages. His prose is lean, his dialogue crisp and to the point. It is the same with the early John le Carre's novels which I think are his best. That I have tried to emulate.
Second, location - be it a small town in Argentina, a leper colony in the West African rain forest, or colonial Saigon. Location plays a big part in a Graham Greene novel; to the point where it becomes a central character in the story. So, I like to think location plays a similar part in my three works, set respectively in recesses of Whitehall, in Vietnam during and immediately after the fall of Saigon and in the Litang valley, in east of Tibet.
Beyond these two points I make no claim to be considered in the same breath as The Master, but if others wish to do so I shall not stand in their way.
I now turn to my three works. The first, "A Very British Coup" was first published in 1982. However wildly improbable it may now seem, it presupposes the election of a radical Labour government, led by Harry Perkins, a former Sheffield steelworker committed to a radical programme which included expelling the American bases. It goes on to describe how that government is brought down by a cabal of establishment figures including the heads of the intelligence services, the media barons and the military with, of course, a little help from the Americans. It was conceived in a political climate wholly different from the one in which we now live (although Harry Perkins would no doubt be pleasantly surprised to see New Labour nationalising banks). In the early 1980s, prior to the Falklands war, Mrs Thatcher had yet to consolidate her grip on power and was trailing badly in the polls. The arrival of American Cruise missiles was provoking huge demonstrations. Tony Benn was at the height of his powers and there seemed, to some at any rate, a possibility that a Labour Party lead by him might go on to win a general election. The right-wing media were working themselves into apoplexy at the prospect. "No longer if, but when", screamed a headline in one of the Rothermere newspapers over a full length picture of Mr Benn. There were also darker forces at work. In the late 1970s, as some of you may recall, General Sir Walter Walker talked of organising a private army to cope with the chaos that he had no doubt would result from a prolonged period of Labour government - and this was the government of James Callaghan, not Harry Perkins. Later, there was a tendency on the part of some in the Establishment to dismiss General Walker as a lunatic, which he may well have been, but he had also been the commander of NATO, Northern Europe. A more sinister figure, Colonel David Sterling, founder of the SAS no less, announced that he was setting up an organisation of ex army officers to cope with what he was sure would be the coming anarchy. The Times even carried an article by an anonymous serving army officer discussing the circumstances in which military intervention might be necessary. And if we go back to Harold Wilson's government in the late '60s, you will recall that the newspaper magnate, Cecil King actually proposed replacing the elected government with one consisting of businessmen headed by Lord Mountbatten.
So the proposition that a government which attempted to run a defence and foreign policy independent of the United States was in danger of being subverted by the Establishment, was not entirely ridiculous. You will recall that just about all popular fiction at the time was predicated on the notion that the only conceivable threat to our liberties came from the Soviet Union and their alleged fellow travellers
in the West. My purpose in writing "A Very British Coup" was to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. To suggest that a much greater threat to our liberties came from the very people who were charged with upholding them and who so frequently and loudly proclaimed their love of freedom and democracy.
It was published to modest acclaim. There were feature articles in the Guardian and The Times. One or two useful denunciations appeared elsewhere. The hardback print run of 3,500 quickly sold out and a reprint was ordered. At Tribune - the little socialist newspaper that I used to edit - we sold the book by mail order through an advert at the back of the paper. One of the first cheques to arrive came from the American embassy. We dispatched a copy and waited to see what happened. We did not have long to wait. It was followed by an invitation to lunch with the Minister, the top man after the ambassador. A day came when he sent his bullet proof Cadillac to Tribune's multi-storey headquarters to convey me to his mansion in Kensington. I had assumed there would be many of us at lunch, but no there was just himself, a colleague and a Philippino butler.
"Why me?" I inquired.
"I reckon you're among the top one thousand opinion former in the country."
"I must be about number 999."
"The other 999 have been here, too."
In due course a paperback edition was published. The publishers, who had other many fish to fry, put no effort into promoting it. It soon sold out and might have sunk without trace, but for the fact that events conspired to keep it in the spotlight.
In 1986 a former senior member of M15, Peter Wright, published his memoirs in which he alleged that he and other members of the security services had conspired to undermine the government of Harold Wilson. A huge furore ensued. The government tried to ban the book which, of course, turned it into a best-seller. Suddenly the idea that the democratic process might be subverted by the Establishment didn't seem so ridiculous after all.
A number of other events floated in my novel subsequently came to pass. I had a spy on the general council of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, sure enough, it turned out that there was a real one. His name was Harry Newton, the treasurer.
Sir Peregrine Craddock, my fictional head of M15, is said to have been quietly blocking the promotion of "every BBC executive whose background displayed the merest possibility of disloyalty". In August 1985 the Observer newspaper revealed that there was a Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham, based in room 105 at Broadcasting House, whose job it was to stamp upturned Christmas trees on the personnel files of staff who were not to be promoted on account of their suspect political views.
Some years later, after I had been elected to parliament, I and a small group of MPs were invited to lunch with the top brass of the BBC. The purpose was to discuss the Broadcasting Act, then only a twinkle in Mrs Thatcher's eye. Halfway through I inquired, "who now works in room 105 now that Brigadier Stoneham has retired?"
All around the table there was the sound of knives and forks hitting plates. The Chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, choking on his smoked salmon, said, "I think this is one for you, Patricia," indicating a woman at the other end of the table. After a bit of humming and hawing, Patricia replied that she thought it was "a special assistant to the director general".
"Yes," said I, "but what is his name and what does he do?"
And do you know, even though we had the top brass of the BBC around the table, no one could name the occupant of Room 105 let alone say what his job was.
"Don't worry," I said. "We're only two floors up. Why don't I just nip down and knock on the door?"
"No, no, no…Wouldn't do that," they said. "We'll send you a letter."
Eventually, after a bit of prompting, they did. Sure enough the new occupant of Room 105 was a former army officer and while the BBC was at pains to assure me that his job description was very different from Brigadier Stoneham's, it sounded remarkably similar.
A hugely successful television series followed. Harry Perkins was played by that wonderful actor the late Ray McNally - I've brought a few CDs with me if anyone is interested. The television series was shown in more than 30 countries and won a clutch of BAFTA and Emmy awards. The novel has been reprinted several times, currently by Methuen and the title, A Very British Coup, has become something of a catchphrase, poached by advertisers, producers of unrelated television programmes and newspaper columnists - it once even headed a first leader in The Times.
"The Last Man Out of Saigon", my second novel is entirely different, but my purpose was similar. I wanted to write an antedote to that genre of books and films - Dispatches, Rambo, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now - that (however good they were) tended to show Vietnam through the eyes of Americans, in which the only Vietnamese were only there to be shot at and usually played by Thais or Philipinos in funny hats. I wanted to show Vietnam from the ground looking up, instead of from a B52 looking down.
It is about a CIA agent called MacShane - which got me into trouble with my colleague Denis MacShane, another former BBC sub editor and Foreign Office minister - who is sent to Saigon in the last week of the war to try and establish a stay behind network of agents with a view to disrupting the Communist takeover once liberation euphoria has worn off. Needless to say, it all goes wrong. MacShane is soon rumbled and whisked off to Hanoi where he is held at first in prison and later sent to work among rice farmers in a village in the Red River delta where he falls in love with young Vietnamese woman.
I had high hopes of "Last Man…" It was blessed with a feature page denunciation in the Daily Mail by a tired old hack who subsequently reviewed it, each time more virulently, in the Spectator and the Far East Economic Review. When we sold Japanese rights I dropped him a note suggesting that, if he'd care to stick a carbon paper in his typewriter, he might earn himself a few yen.
It was published both in America and in Vietnam, though sadly it didn't made much impact in either. The Vietnamese because they were fed up with reading about the war. The Americans because the publishers decided to go for the psychopath market which, I grant, is a large market in the US. They put on it a cover which bore no relation to the content, depicting a marine stumbling through a minefield. As a result I received several letters from disappointed psychopaths. One enclosed a photo of himself brandishing an M16 on the back of which he had written "Korea, Vietnam, Laos…no regrets".
At the prompting of a great British film maker, Chris Menges, a Hollywood studio purchased an option on the film rights. I sounded out the Vietnamese film industry on the possibility of making the movie in Vietnam, using Vietnamese actors and the actual locations. They were enthusiastic. Alas, however, we were ahead of our time. America had not got over losing the war. The American government was still pretending that there were American prisoners being held secretly in Vietnam and was using this as an excuse to impose an embargo. In the end it proved impossible to find either the necessary finance or an American actor of sufficient status willing to brave
the wrath of his government by playing agent MacShane. As for the book, there are just six copies left and, by a complete co-incidence, I have them with me today.
My third and final novel, the Year of the Fire Monkey, is set in Tibet. It is based on a little known CIA operation, the survivors of which I came across in Nepal in the late 1970s. I was staying in a hotel in Kathmandu. The young man on reception was a Tibetan and I was questioning him about the Dalai Lama's exit after the uprising in 1959. The boy pointed to an old man sweeping the floor. "Ask him," he said. "He came out with the Dalai Lama."
Using the young man as interpreter, I asked if the Dalai Lama's party were in radio contact with anyone during the two weeks they were supposedly lost in the Himalayas.
"Yes," he said. "We had a radio."
"Who were you talking to?"
At this point an argument broke out between the interpreter and the old man.
"Don't listen to him," said the boy. "He is talking nonsense."
"What does he say?"
"He says they were talking to the Americans."
Indeed they were. Since the mid 1950s, unknown to the outside world, the CIA had been smuggling young men out of eastern Tibet, to American military bases in the Pacific and later to camp Hale in Colorado, training them in paramilitary warfare and parachuting them back into Tibet at dead of night. Two were trained as radio operators and sent to Lhasa in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Dalai Lama to appeal openly for American intervention. It was they who had joined the Dalai Lama's party when he fled and who kept the Americans informed of his whereabouts. I eventually tracked down one who was running a tea shop in Darjeeling. The CIA continued to support the rebellion into the 1960s, operating out of Western Nepal. Later it was handed over to the Indian secret service, finally fading out in the early 70s.
'The Year of the Fire Monkey' is built on this operation. I created a fictional Tibetan called Ari who is separated from the others and trained for a special, utterly secret mission. He is sent back as a sleeper, instructed to join the Communist Party and work his way up to the point where one day in the distant future he may get close enough to assassinate Chairman Mao. The years pass. No more is heard of Ari. In Washington meanwhile the line has changed. China and the United States are about to become friends. Nixon is about to visit. At CIA headquarters in Langley,Virginia, Harvey Crocker, an old hand and a veteran of many failed CIA operations, is on the brink of retirement. At his farewell party someone asks, "whatever became of the little guy you sent to take out Chairman Mao." Panic ensues. Inquiries reveal that Ari has done exactly what was asked of him. He has joined the Communist party and worked his way up to the point where he has just been appointed a delegate to the National People's Congress and where, for the first time in his life, he will come within pistol range of Chairman Mao.
The second half of the novel is about the race to find Ari before he takes out Chairman Mao, without letting on either to the Chinese - or the White House.
So, that's my three novels. They were written between 1981 and 1986. Shortly after that I was elected to Parliament and the rest, as they say, is history. As you may know, I shall be retiring at the next election when I hope to resume my writing career. I have a volume of diaries, entitled "A View from the Foothills," coming out in March next year which I hope will kick start my sleeping literary career. One day I may write a sequel to "A Very British Coup" and I have one or two other ideas which I hope will keep me gainfully occupied in retirement.
Hopefully The Master, if he's up there, will continue to smile upon me.