Elleston Trevor:
Life and Work

Interview with Elleston Trevor

John Ezard, The Guardian

SOURCE:  The Guardian, February 1992, FEA p. 23 [all rights reserved].
A distant prospect of Bromley.  John Ezard tracks down Elleston Trevor, alias Adam Hall, the man who invented Quiller, to his hideaway among the rattlers in the Arizona desert.

QUILLER was holed up in Novosibirsk in midwinter.  Elleston Trevor opted to leave him there and take me for a walk in the Arizona desert.  A walk in his company quickly becomes a near-jog; he is a singularly spring-heeled 71 year-old.  A jog with him gets complicated.  "A lot of my jogging is jumping," he said.  We jumped continually sideways to dodge the brittlebrush shrubs studding the ground--and the hypothetical rattlesnakes which like their shelter.  One morning when he was alone he avoided, with these assiduous jumps, treading not only on an actual rattlesnake under a bush but on its mate, under the next.

The odds on this happening are 1,000-1.  On the other hand, you encounter more than 1,000 bushes during one of his jogs:  and February, the start of the Arizona spring, is a time of year when rattlesnakes move about.  "It's like Russian roulette," he said, with satisfaction.  Quiller was with us after all.

Then it was back to Trevor's ranch-house study, where he had a book about the Trans-Siberian railway on his desk plus a Moscow Metro map for accuracy in devising the next trap for his solitary little mole.  At work or at play, this gentle, most courtly of men does like to induce a frisson.  It's been his metier for 27 years as author, under the pen-name Adam Hall, of the Quiller spy novels, the best after Le Carre and probably the most consistently high-selling after Fleming.

And it was an aspect of his gift for almost as long again before that, back in Britain in the early 1950s, when he was a best-selling general novelist alongside Nevil Shute and H. E. Bates, driving Rolls Royces previously owned by Benjamin Britten and R. C. Sheriff.  Like the Arizonan saguaro cactus, he casts a long shadow and spans epochs.

Elleston Trevor is one of the great, ultra-professional, survivors of mid-century popular fiction and, sometimes, of more than that.  His first world war novel Bury Him Among Kings (1970) was not unreasonably compared with All Quiet On The Western Front.  He remembers his nanny telling him as a toddler in the 1920s that thunder reminded her of the sound of that war's guns heard in England.  Yet his 15th Quiller hardback, Bamboo, published in Britain last Thursday, is set up-to-date in Hong Kong and Tibet in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.

For his next, he gets up in the ranch-house at 6 am to start listening to the news in case a Siberian upheaval enforces a change in the plot.  "It's suicidal but it's keeping me on my toes," he says.  "I'm working much harder now that when I was 30.  It's a faster track and it's more fun."

Next autumn HarperCollins are simultaneously reissuing all 13 previous Quillers and a million-strong edition is being prepared for the Soviet Union, where to his pride the first of the series, The Quiller Memorandum, is already sold in a joint volume with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  There are also plans to re-film his pre-Quiller saga The Flight Of The Phoenix.  The 1965 version, with James Stewart and Richard Attenborough, remains a cult movie on television.  As long ago as the 1950s, Attenborough starred in a Royal Command Performance film, Dunkirk, made from one of Trevor's earlier novels.

Trevor began writing before Ian Fleming and Alistair Maclean and is thriving long after these writers destroyed their talents and themselves.  Perhaps what saved him was being a shy, level-headed man, uninterested in egotism, hype, booze or great wealth.  He is the only espionage writer unashamed to admit that he knows no one in the security services.  Success once built him a villa with swimming pool and onyx-tiled floors.  But, while earning roughly as much as a US president, he has been as happy in the bungalow-sized ranch house at Cave Creek, near Phoenix.  One result of these traits is that he has consistently avoided the author interview tours and publicity circuses which have become almost mandatory on newer writers.  Our meeting was the first proper interview he has given in his life.

TRAPS ARE what he knows best.  International traps are what he sets for Quiller, who gets out of them through ingenuity, martial arts, an existential, bloody-minded courage and sometimes a little help from Control.  The tighter the trap, the better the book.  But none of them are as lock-tight as the original trap, the one he once faced himself with the mere resources of a child.  It is 56 years since he was a pupil at Sevenoaks public school.  Yet he was amazed--reading a page draft of his new Quiller paperback, Barracuda, published today--to find that it had erupted into the story.

In this passage, Quiller tells how a humiliated young agent, tortured into betraying himself, is being de-briefed by his own Control:  "He was sitting on his hands now, rocking on them as if he'd just been bashed over the knuckles by a ruler.  Oh those days, those bloody schooldays, they last you all your life.  But his eyes weren't squeezed shut any more."

Trevor says, "That incredible thing I put there, it came right out of me on to the page.  I thought, why did I put that?"  In fact, he has just indirectly explained how in an unexpectedly long answer to a routine biographical question.

-- What sort of kid were you?

"You've heard of stockbroker Tudor, haven't you?  I was born in Bromley.  My parents loved me very much and disliked each other very much, so I had a miserable childhood.  They never got on for my entire life so I was always waiting for something to blow up.  So I went to prep school and public school, where I got beaten soundly every Monday morning for bad Latin.  I had no refuge, you see.  And I think this must have inspired me to write because I used to disappear into empty water butts round the house, where I couldn't be found.  I'd curl up with some trashy kid's book just to be out of the way.  There was nowhere for me to go.  If I went to school there was trouble there, if I went home there was trouble there.  So who knows, it may not be simplistic to say that all my life I have been inventing stories in which I can live."

-- Did you feel you had no worth?

"Very much so, yes, because my parents were alcoholics.  Both of them.  My father was an extrovert stockbroker who womanised and he drank at all the clubs and he smashed all his cars up.  He was a noisy drunk.  My mother was more secret, being a woman, it was much more shaming for a woman to be like that.  She simply did it because, poor soul, she didn't know how to cope with life otherwise.  You know, looking back I could be heartbroken for them both.  At the time I just wished they'd stop.  I wasn't old enough to be able to try to help--because they seemed so helpless.  And they both loved me.  And they say that if you're loved as a child you're going to be OK, you'll be fairly stable.  Well I suppose I am fairly stable but you can have a lot goes wrong in your life if you're the child of alcoholics.

"At school--whatever was happening at home--I would go shivering into prayers knowing that my name would be read out to report to the Junior Common Room.  That was the great phrase, it was at that age like being asked to report to Auschwitz.  You report there and stand in a line of similarly shivering boys hearing the thwacks going on inside.  Six strokes, usually from the headmaster.  It was pure sadism, ignorance.  You can't beat ability into a boy so low in Latin."  Trevor adds that he holds nothing against the headmaster, who was a man of his time.  But he has never been back to Sevenoaks School.

-- Any wish to go back?


-- Any horror of going back?

Oh no, he replied with a chuckle "because they're not going to beat me this time.  I'd kill them."

-- But when did you begin to feel you were putting it behind you?

"Um, I haven't put it behind me.  I've put a lot of it behind me, or I've brushed a lot under the rug or I've re-expressed a lot through Quiller."

-- Are you still afraid?

"I have what they call pervasive anxiety.  I was reared in anxiety, you see.  I wonder, when there's been a phone message, whether it's OK, whether it's good news.  I've never had bad news on a telephone.  But that is what they call pervasive, there's no reason for the anxiety.  But I've beaten a lot of it."

His father left home when Trevor was 16.  Trevor left Sevenoaks with no exam passes--"I was proud of it." After working as an apprentice racing driver, he joined the RAF.  Grounded by photo-sensitive eyes, he served in the 1939-45 war as an engineer keeping Spitfires in the air.  Off duty he was soon earning more than his RAF pay selling short stories.

"I slipped into writing like warm water.  It's a dire necessity for me.  I've got to tell stories.  It scintillates and shimmers in front of me, the whole idea of telling stories.  If I couldn't write, I'd grow carrots on a mountain and bring them down on my donkey and sell them in the market.  I'd want to do something on my own."

He looked after his mother till she died when he was 30.  When he was 27 he married Jonquil Burgess, a children's writer, and, he says, began to be happy.  For a stylish though improvident period, they lived at the Atlanta Club Hotel, Brighton, and bashed typewriters on the same table in its silk-lined ballroom.  He was writing 75,000 word novels every two weeks.  His debut, A Chorus Of Echoes (1950), was an immediate book-of-the-month choice.

One day Jonnie mentioned that the author J.B. Priestley was complaining about "these terrible people writing war stories for money."  Trevor sat right down and wrote The Big Pick-Up, the first of his stories to be filmed.  "I'd never been a soldier, never been to Dunkirk and it became the definitive novel of Dunkirk." A subsequent novel, based on the 1950s news story of the Flying Enterprise salvage, relied for its maritime lore on a three shilling (15p) manual called A Beginner's Guide To The Sea.  Three reviewers compared his feel for that element with Conrad's.  He was truly launched.

His tally so far is 80 books, most of them exceptionally well reviewed for their fastidious writing as much as for their grip on the reader.

HE HAS a knack of buckling language into unconventional shapes to match extreme situations, as in this interior monologue from Bury Him Among Kings:  "The mud moved, alive with its sores and parasites, all the brave phrases wallowing, the mud smothering, the sovereignty of nations, the mud sucking and not letting go, the will to win and glory on the field, here the glory and here the field, say what you will."  For the same book he devised a war poem in the Siegfried Sassoon class:

You in your polished boots
who talk of glory,
Leave your high horse and
walk these earthly shadows:
All you'll find here are the
bones of your soldiers,
And in the far streets a
gathering of widows.

But his reticence, his pseudonyms, his chameleon subject-matter and his house-moving, from Britain to the South of France to the Arizona sun, have made him an elusive quarry for those who track literary reputations.

Quiller sprang fully-formed from his excitement at reading reviews of Le Carre's breakthrough in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a realistic spy novel without romance.  With a copy of it unread on his shelf, he wrote his own prototype.  Quiller emerged as a distant cousin of Le Carre's Leamass.  But Le Carre's heart was always with Smiley, the Oxford patrician Controller.  Trevor's is with his decent, obsessively skilful, sweaty little ferret sent to burrow alone in what is sometimes a kind of Greeneland, where ignorant armies clash by night.  His fans tend to be rabid.  A Canadian woman has built a shrine to him in her back garden.

In 1986 Jonnie died of brain cancer.  "I said to her, do you want me to come along with you because I would very willingly.  Not to make her afraid of going alone, that's why I would have done it.  She said no, we had a son and she said, you want to look after him.  So that perhaps did change my anxiety.  If I can get through that I can get through anything."  Their son Peregrine lives in Britain.

Trevor has since married a family friend, Chaille Groom, a painter who trains Arabian horses.  It is a close marriage.  Deep now into the disciplines of yoga and aikido karate, he says, "I've created my own timelessness.  I haven't got old so far.  I can do things now physically that I couldn't do at 30.  My mind teems with ideas.  When I finally drop dead at the typewriter I shall leave 15 bulging envelopes of them, which will be a fortune to any writer who can't think of plots."