Here Lies: An Autobiography by Eric Ambler (1985)

Only an idiot believes that he can write the truth about himself. (p.18)

This autobiography was written when Ambler was in his mid-seventies, living in tax exile in Switzerland. It has the same relaxed, urbane, ironic and amused tone of voice as his later novels. The anecdotes about family, friends, lovers, publishers and fans are rounded and pat. Emotion or confusion or uncertainty are eschewed in favour of crisp declarative sentences and sly humour.

For me, money troubles and puberty arrived together. At about the same time that I became a lecher I also became a thief. (p.58)

It must have been at about that time, I think, that he began his remarkably long career as an embezzler. (p.81)

It contains a lot of information, yet you have the sense that nothing is really revealed, nothing of emotional or personal value, anyway.

Twelve chapters:

1: An odd mixture of an account of a car crash he had in his 70s which appears to have crystallised his decision to write an autobiography, with satirical memories of book tours of America.

2: His grandfather came from Preston. His father was born in Salford. In 1903 the Amblers moved to Charlton in south-east London. His mum and dad tried for many years to make a go of a marionette stage act, The Whatnots, in addition to his dad’s day job in a factory in Silvertown. Born in 1909, Eric went to school during the Great War and remembers zeppelin raids. Uncle Frank was captured by the Germans. He passes the exam to go to Colfe’s Grammar School.

3: School and its strange teachers, piano lessons, a pushbike and a passion for chemistry shared with his friend, Sims. Schoolboy discussions about sex. Eric wins a scholarship to an engineering college, unfortunately, just as he decides to become a playwright.

4: Attends trials to observe characters and performances, with playwriting in mind. Attends engineering courses. Joins the Territorial army and helps employers during the General Strike. Dad gets him a job as trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company in Ponders End. Learns about the manufacture of light bulbs, drilling copper plates, storage batteries, dynamos, radio components.

5: Still a trainee, he is sent to Lydbrook colliery in south Wales, learns about vulcanising rubber, insulated wires etc. Moved into the Publicity department where he concocts copy to promote a batch of duff bulbs. They sell out. He has a gift! Reading Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler. His father collapses and dies. Funeral. Very throwaway reference to an affair with a married woman. He has to pay for her to have an abortion. Good old Uncle Frank lends him the 16 guineas required. His boss secures him a job at the advertising agency which has the Edison Swan Electric Company contact.

6: Thrives in advertising. Meets colourful characters. Begins to meet theatrical people and has his plays read and even performed. Visits a colleague who’s moved to an Italian village and realises many things are done better abroad. Encounters Italian blackshirts. Back in England, taken to court by the Inland Revenue. His plays are read & performed by the Guildhall Arts School: for example, one about a young man who tries to gas himself, is confronted by a supernatural Prosecutor who calls witnesses to his life, and then condemns him – to live! In Marseilles Eric is conned out of all his money by a gambler. He fantasises about assassinating him with a rifle from his hotel window. A few weeks later a Croat assassin kills King Alexander of Yugoslavia at the same road junction. ‘In the Mediterranean sunshine there were strange and violent men with whom I could identify, and with whom, in a way, I was now in touch.’ (p.115)

7: Relationship with Betty Dyson. First novel, The Dark Frontier, published. Thinks the contemporary thriller was very poor: ‘As I saw it, the thriller had nowhere to go but up.’ (p.121) Frontier starts as a parody, with peculiar elements, such as the dual identity of the protagonist, but develops into something genuinely gripping. Eric becomes director of the advertising agency and writes his second novel, Uncommon Danger. He casually refers to going to lectures by communists. ‘If the term fellow-travellers had been used in its present pejorative sense at the time I think that many of us could well have been described in that way.’ (p.124) The precise nature of his political allegiances is debated to this day, but it’s clear he was never politically active. After delivering his third novel, Epitaph For A Spy, to his publisher Eric quits his job at the advertising agency to become a full-time writer. Epitaph is serialised in the Daily Express in March 1938, for which he is paid the princely sum of £135.

8: Eric uses the money to go and live on the Continent, in an out-of-season skiing resort where he completes his fourth novel, Cause For Alarm. He has barely submitted that to his publisher before he is planning the fifth, Mask of Dimitrios from an apartment in Paris. More film offers come in. Eric takes a cargo liner with 30 passengers across the Atlantic to be wined and dined by his publisher in New York, go to literary parties and jazz clubs. Steamer back to London then back to his apartment in Paris where he falls in love with Louise Crombie, an American divorcee with three children working in Paris fashion (p.150). The Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced and they squeeze onto a ferry back to London and are married in Croydon. The Mask of Dimitrios has the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France go to war with Germany (p.154). He tries to enrol in various bits of the Armed Forces and starts writing Journey Into Fear, partly based on his recent transAtlantic voyage. Eric makes another brief transAtlantic foray, is briefly reunited with his American wife, before returning to Britain. Journey Into Fear is the Evening Standard‘s book-of-the-month in July 1940, the month the third Republic ceases to exist and the Battle of Britain begins (p.158).

9: Army. Royal Artillery Driver Training. Then motor bike training. RKO pay Ambler $20,000 for the movie rights to Journey Into Fear (Here Lies, p.170). Applies to become a gunnery officer. Commands the artillery unit protecting Winston Churchill at Chequers, near Wendover. An evening with Winston Churchill watching a movie featuring his favourite Hollywood film star, Deanna Durbin. A few more artillery posts, then he is ordered to join ADAK.

10: Assistant Director of Army Kinematography, a unit consisting of Thorold Dickinson, Carol Reed, 21-year-old Peter Ustinov and now Eric, set up to make training films. They collaborate with Army psychiatrists to make The New Lot, designed to bolster confidence among new recruits, but it is suppressed by higher-ups who think it is not sufficiently patriotic. After typical movie production negotiations, The New Lot is converted into a full-scale commercial movie, The Way Ahead, starring David Niven and shot at Denham Studios. Eric is seconded to the American Office of War Information to go to Italy with a film unit led by John Huston. Prolonged negotiations with generals and so on about what is suitable or possible to film. Story of the GI propositioning the wrong Italian lady in daylight. Story of the priest and the dog poo.

11: Detailed account of the unit’s progress along the bombed road into the devastated village of San Pietro. The plan had been to make a film showing the benefits of being ‘liberated’ by the Allies. However, what they find is fields full of dead soldiers and the village an abandoned, booby-trapped pile of rubble. They come under artillery attack, where (according to John Huston’s later reminiscences, Ambler displays characteristic insouciance). The documentary Huston cobbles together is later banned by the US Army. Back in Naples Eric meets and drinks with Humphrey Bogart and his wife. Then flies back to England.

12: Ordered to make a film for British troops profiling the American war contribution, United States, voiced by Niven. Travels to New York to get archive footage. It’s well-received, Eric is promoted and put in charge of a series of educational films. He recounts making 95 of these in 1945, and lists the range of subjects. The issue of informing released POWs and demobbed soldiers. Rents a house in St Margaret’s Bay, near Noël Coward. Rediscovers the wellsprings of his novelist’s imagination. Eric describes the real-life sources for The Schirmer Inheritance and Judgement on Deltchev. His acquaintance with Somerset Maugham, who comes over as very difficult. The reminiscences end with a lecture Eric gave several times about the different frustrations and rewards of writing novels and writing screenplays.

The text is a smooth, untroubled flow of events and anecdotes. Who knows what real emotional crises, passions and affairs it artfully conceals. The anecdotes are amusing but rarely funny. There is very little about the actual process of writing. He refers once to ‘obsessive rewriting’ which certainly explains the pared-down and controlled tone of his novels. Only at the very end does he shed a little light on his collaborations with another novelist, Charles Rodda.

I am touchy, pernickety and possessive about work in progress… when writing for myself I never follow a set story line. I try things out, I rewrite and I change my mind about the characters as I go along. At the end, I make further changes. (p.227)

This certainly accounts for the sense of many of the characters winging it in the plots, and of the plots themselves hingeing on arbitrary and random cruces. Overall, Ambler’s novels lack a kind of depth of conception and inevitability of plot, a lack which prevents them becoming real ‘classics’, which explains why they almost all went out of print in the 70s and 80s, and why they will probably remain the preserve of a small but dedicated fan-base for the foreseeable future.

This autobiography has no index, which makes it difficult to look up references to the novels or films etc and makes the text appear more like a novel than a factual reference book. As, possibly, it is intended to be…

Related links

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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