Life and Work
The Guardian, July 25, 1995
Elleston Trevor, whose output as a writer ranged back from The Quiller
Memorandum, written under the pseudonym Adam Hall, to The Flight
of The Phoenix to the Hugo Bishop detective novels of the 1950s, has
died of cancer aged 75. Five years ago, he said: "I've created
my own timelessness. I haven't got old so far. I can do things
now 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." His unwritten
plotlines would have given most authors an abundant career.
Trevor was not only one of the great professional storytellers of the
postwar generation but the most sustained and long-lasting of them all.
His Quiller novels alone were as valid a counterpoint to the James Bond
genre as Len Deighton's Harry Palmer books, as high in quality and almost
as bestselling. He also produced one of the most vivid and haunted
of all first world war stories, Bury Him Among Kings.
After Ian Fleming he was probably the most consistently high-selling
spy writer. By many he was seen as the best after Le Carre.
He began writing before Ian Fleming and Alistair Maclean, and thrived long
after them. Yet he was little known publicly--thanks to his deep
reticence. Also he changed publishers often--and spent his money
on extensive travels, then actually settled abroad.
He was in flight from an England which gave him an abominable home
and public school childhood. He must have been Sevenoaks School's
bitterest and most devastatingly critical old boy. Overseas also
suited him. As the years went by in his small but superbly appointed
writer's villa outside Phoenix, Arizona, he remained a lithe, physically
and mentally active man who looked nearly half his age and could do the
most demanding of yoga exercises. Late in life he took up the cause
of battered women, campaigned vigorously for that, and was generous with
money. The only clue to his innate fear of frailty--he had watched
his first wife die painfully--was the way his second wife Chaille would
reach unobtrusively for his hand when his voice faltered at dinner parties.
Trevor recalled his nanny telling him as a toddler in the 1920s that
thunder reminded her of the sound of first world war guns heard in England.
Yet the 15th of his Quiller hardbacks, Bamboo (1992) was set up-to-date
in Hong Kong and Tibet in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.
Virtually the only interview he ever gave was to the Guardian
in 1992, when he disclosed that, though his home had been respectably stockbroker
Tudor, his parents were actually alcoholic. "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. 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 around 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. My father was an extrovert stockbroker
who womanised. He drank at all the clubs and 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. Looking back I could be heartbroken for both of them both.
At the time I just wished they'd stop.
"They say that if you're loved as a child you're going to be OK, you'll
be fairly stable. I suppose I am but you can have a lot go 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. It was
at that age like being asked to report to Auschwitz. You reported
there and stood in a line of similarly shivering boys hearing the thwacks
going on inside. Six strokes, usually from the headmaster.
It was pure sadism, ignorance."
I asked him during the interview if he was afraid of going back to
school. Oh no, he replied with a chuckle "because they're not going
to beat me this time. I'd kill them. I haven't put it behind
me, or I've brushed a lot under the rug or I've re-expressed a lot through
Quiller. I have what they call pervasive anxiety. I was reared
He left school unqualified, worked briefly as an apprentice racing
engineer and began writing as a wartime ground engineer with the RAF.
"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."
There were rich pickings after the war for obsessive story tellers
with a popular touch. Trevor's debut, A Chorus of Echoes (1950),
was an immediate book of the month choice. The Big Pick Up
was 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 background on a three shilling (15p) manual
called A Beginner's Guide to the Sea. Three reviewers compared
Trevor's feel for the sea with Conrad's. The Hugo Bishop gentleman
detective series went down big on the BBC.
When Trevor was 27 he married the children's writer Jonquil Burgess
and found his first personal contentment. He wrote more than 80 books.
The Flight Of The Phoenix was one of several to be filmed, with
James Stewart and Peter Finch. But his most durable work, alongside
Bury Him Among Kings, was the Quiller series about the dirty, sweaty,
terrified, non-commissioned officer side of espionage, drawing on the insecurities
of his childhood.
He and Johnnie had a son, Peregrine, who is an artist. Johnnie
died of brain cancer in 1986. He made a close second marriage to
Chaille Groom, a painter. Her name was pronounced Shelley and when
phoning friends he used to announce them jointly as "Shelleston."
-- John Ezard
Bob Tanner, Elleston Trevor's former publisher, adds: I find
it difficult to believe Elleston Trevor will no longer be there.
He was "Quiller." But it was Elleston's excellent adventure
novels which were translated into many foreign languages that established
him as an international writer. He finished a new novel shortly before
Elleston Trevor, author, born February 17, 1920; died July 21, 1995.
Copyright, 1995, by The Guardian. All rights