One of my nephews was a big fan of Casino Royale; early in his 23rd or so viewing, he turned to my niece and said, “This is the part where the cars and the clothes make me want to cry.” There is, however, also an anti-Bond tradition of English international thrillers, less glamorous and more appealing, exemplified by Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’ of the ‘30s and ‘40s—if you’ve read or seen The Third Man, Ministry of Fear, or The Confidential Agent, you will know what I’m talking about. I recently read two novels by Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Demetrios and Journey into Fear, which evoke a similar world where foreigners don’t all speak English, where the lighting may be poor and the politics ominous but the prose is bright and polished.
A world, also, without Bond girls. Greene may include a bit of (usually wholesome) romance, while Ambler’s women are mostly engaged in some form of prostitution (to his credit, Ambler doesn’t glamorize or sentimentalize this industry). Latimer in A Coffin for Demetrios seems to belong to the “man delights not me, no nor woman neither” school. The hero of Journey into Fear has a wife (not shown) who is said to be beautiful but of whom he thinks as though she were his accountant or tailor. Makes you wonder about the author.
Which brings us to his autobiography, Here Lies. This is a cool title, and the I enjoyed the book probably more than the novels. This may be in part because I have a soft spot for the English and tend to find them adorable when they’re not downright odious (a big reservation), but I’ll try to give you a sense of what I found so appealing.. Here is Grandpa Ambler:
His lifelong weaknesses were chronic asthma, a sweet tooth that favored Turkish Delight, and a recurring belief that the reams of commemorative doggerel he wrote would one day become publishable.
That’s a pro at work, starting out with a the brief and humdrum, establishing a pattern with the slightly more distinctive second term, and then rolling out the long and surprising punch line. His other grandfather, a carpenter, smelled “of peppermint drops and mahogany dust.”
Eric’s sex education was handled by his Uncle Frank, only a few years older than he was:
[He] supplied me with the essential stuff and nonsense for years of bad dreams by telling me in secret what he had been able to find out about the mechanics of sex and childbirth from the other boys in his school playground.”
Things start to make sense. Much later, Uncle Frank prompts a bit of classic deadpan. We are told that he has come to visit, seemingly recovered from his wartime trauma (German labor camp), now prosperous in a new suit and silk shirt, working in the scrap-metal industry. Ambler concludes this innocuous paragraph: “It must have been at about that time, I think, that he began his remarkably long career as an embezzler. “
One gets the impression that nearly all English people of the early 20th century were semipro musical-theater performers, and the Ambler parents were no exception. Their troupe played a lot of gigs for wounded soldiers during WWI, and though “Reg and Amy Ambler” were quite good, little Eric was fascinated to hear that another singer in the group had gotten “the bird”:
Her air of refined condescension had always seemed to me to invite dislike and abuse. If she had sung off-key too, that would have sealed her fate.
“What did they shout at her?”
“Oh, things like ‘Get off!’ and ‘Go home and tell your mother!’ and they blew very loud raspberries in a very rude way with their tongues out. Now stop talking about it, you little toad. Don’t be so morbid!”
Eric’s aunts found jobs as stewardesses on shipping lines. Once on leave Auntie Sis took little Eric to a picture theatre. “”It was very crowded, and we had to sit at the side, very near the front. For several years, even after I had read Zane Grey, I continued to believe that all cowboys were narrow-shouldered with elongated faces, and that the chaps they wore were made of narrow strips of plywood.”
One more theatrical tidbit, about a trip with his mother to see Peter Pan in the West End:
I caused a disturbance by refusing noisily to join in with the other kids to save Tinkerbell by saying that I believed in fairies. “Spoilt the show, the little fiend,” my mother reported over the small whiskeys that evening. My father laughed. I left my hiding place behind the stairs and went back to bed. All was well—no-one now need know that I had believed in Captain Hook and been frightened by him.”
Eventually, puberty plunged him back into the murky world that Uncle Frank had adumbrated. Enrolled as an engineering student, Eric used to play hookey by watching trials at the law courts. One day he saw a suit for breach of promise (!), where a seedy, pasty-faced woman successfully prosecuted her seedy, pasty-faced boarder.
If I had not heard the evidence, I would have found the idea of that drab pair actually succeeding in the act of copulation hopelessly far-fetched. They were unmarried—that should have been an insuperable obstacle for such unattractive people. Yet, awful as they were, with none of the romantic advantages of a Paula Negri aor a Ralph Ince to help them, they had somehow managed to do it, and to go on doing it, not just once, but several times. It made you think. Had I perhaps been overestimating the difficulties, or was lust as blind and all-conquering as love was said to be? If it was, then there was hope for fiends and horrors everywhere; there was hope for me.
His first job required him to learn the various tasks performed in a large factory; this was interesting enough, but not without attendant risks:
The only departments of the Ponder’s End works that I feared were the ones in which there were lots of women working together.
It is kind of Eric to be so frank with us. The ironic distance with which he is able to treat his younger self probably owes a lot to his having transferred to the wild, bohemian world of a London advertising agency (weirdly this is not a joke). His arty colleagues taught him about Vorticism and, I suspect, introduced him to seamy nightclubs where the danceuses moonlighted as call-girls. To judge by the novels, though, any meeting with a woman remained a Journey into Fear.