The present government was the weakest in a century. It wouldn’t fight, it wouldn’t defend its interests, even oil. The people was soft and its government softer. Of course there were one or two men who weren’t, survivals from an age when England hadn’t been simply an American satellite.
William Haggard, The Powder Barrel (1965)
Our bread is made of rubber, our beer subdued by chemicals, but Haggard remains, from year to year, magnificently magisterial on the conduct of affairs, inimitably brisk with the subtleties of sex, supremely incapable of viewing things other than from the top.
HRF Keating, The Times (1972)
The writer known as William Haggard wasn’t a fan of the modern world. For a start, he’d probably object to the use of the word ‘fan’ – and quite possibly of ‘modern’ as well, preferring perhaps a faintly disdainful ‘modish’. Like his most successful creation, Colonel Russell, he would have been prepared to proclaim: ‘I’m an old-fashioned man but I’m not yet ashamed of it.’
Richard Henry Michael Clayton was the son of a clergyman, born in Croydon in 1907. He was educated at Lancing, studied history at Oxford, and became a civil servant in India in 1931. He was still there when war broke out, and he joined the Mahratta Light Infantry, involved with Special Operations in India and Burma and rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Returning to England after the war, he became a civil servant in the Board of Trade, where he remained until his retirement in 1969. He was, he said, ‘that rare thing, a happy civil servant’.
His debut book, Slow Burner, was published in 1958 under the pseudonym of William Haggard, a nom de plume he derived from his mother’s maiden name – she was said to have been related to H. Rider Haggard. It was the first of twenty-five novels to feature Colonel Charles Michael Russell, the head of the (fictitious) Security Executive, while a further eight books were similarly set in the world of the security services.
Haggard, disliking what he called ‘the plotless novels of our modern longhairs’, set out to provide middle-brow entertainments, based on plot rather than literary style and was pretty successful at it. His work, said the New Statesman, was ‘not so flash as Fleming, not so sad as Chandler, not as improbable as either’.
Others detected an older tradition. ‘Mr Haggard writes Bulldog Drummond for the sophisticated,’ noted The Times, a comparison also made by Dominic Le Foe in the Illustrated London News: ‘As hearty as roast beef and Stilton, he is, in my view, a direct blood link with John Buchan and Sapper; he certainly owes nothing to Ian Fleming.’
Those assessments, though, don’t paint the whole picture. Certainly the political and social attitudes in Haggard are akin to those of Buchan and Sapper, rendered even more reactionary by being located in the 1960s rather than the 1920s. But there isn’t much in the way of action adventure – there are few chase sequences or armed standoffs. ‘For thirty years,’ Haggard writes of Colonel Russell, shortly after the man’s retirement, ‘he’d controlled the Executive and seen violence perhaps six times and gunplay twice.’ Indeed Russell has ‘a thoroughly English mistrust of guns’. As he explains: ‘Security is mostly good office work.’
Consequently we don’t get to see secret agents shooting and screwing their way around the world. Rather we spend a great deal of time in offices and in the corridors of power. And the C.P. Snow allusion in the use of that latter phrase is deliberate – he was another writer with whom Haggard was compared by reviewers.
So, somewhere between John Buchan and C.P. Snow, then? Actually, that’s not far off the mark. Like both of those writers, he draws on a very narrow range of characters, who tend to be in positions of authority, even if some of them – to use Norman Lamont’s words – do rather ‘give the impression of being in office, but not in power’.
This is very much society seen from the top down. Typically, a problem arises in which there are competing concerns: a situation, for example, that presents both a threat to national security and a political embarrassment for the government. It falls to the Security Executive to find a way out of the seeming impasse. And sitting – like a slimmer and less eccentric Mycroft Holmes – at the intersection of everything that matters is Colonel Russell, always thinking one step ahead of his adversaries, calculating what their next move will be, and pre-empting their responses.
Russell is the key to the whole tone of Haggard, an explicit mouthpiece for his creator’s thoughts and feelings. There are novels in which he plays little active part – merely topping and tailing the story proper – but even then, the reader’s always aware that he’s there in the background, always keeping an eye on things, his very presence ensuring that society just about survives. Not that he has much faith in its survival.
He has no public profile, but in some circles – the ones that count – he carries enormous weight. Even when he visits Italy, he is greeted with awe, for ‘he had a formidable reputation, in his way he was a sort of myth.’
Russell is about the same age as Haggard himself, born in 1905, and therefore just old enough to have witnessed the end of everything that was important:
It was his private conviction that Europe as he understood the word had committed suicide when he himself had been nine years old. Everything that had followed had been merely the obsequies, the best one could hope for that they be conducted with decorum.
Nonetheless, when he was himself called upon to serve, in the Second World War, Russell of course did so with distinction. He received an award for bravery while fighting in the mountains of Greece, and saw service as well in India, though he didn’t exactly fall under the spell of the country: ‘He hadn’t enjoyed the East at all. It had put him in his place perhaps, but that place had been the West and he’d been glad of it. Colonel Charles Russell was an unrepentant European.’ After the war he remained in the service of his country, rising to the top of the Security Executive sometime near the beginning of the 1950s.
As such, he has a finger in almost any pie he chooses. This being the height of the Cold War, there are, obviously, possible defections to the Soviet Union. A Labour MP in The Power House (one of those normally to be found ‘screaming about colonialism, ranting against the Americans’) threatens to defect; so too does a nuclear scientist in Slow Burner – a man who’s ‘clever as a monkey, ambitious, Red Brick. Far, far to the Left’.
But there are also problems with a small Middle Eastern state that’s vital to Britain’s oil supply, in The Powder Barrel, and with industrial sabotage in Italy in The Hard Sell. And back home, there are criminal gangs: dealing in drugs in The Unquiet Sleep, and running casinos in The Power House.
As Russell reflects: ‘That was the hell of security but also its charm, its quite undeniable charm. Its frontiers ran nowhere: nothing was security and anything might be.’
Through it all, he remains unflappable and steadfast. ‘Colonel Russell admired two virtues beyond the rest. They were courage and loyalty, unfashionable, even suspect words.’ But the crucial point to understand about him is that he values these purely as personal qualities; he’s under no illusions about the morality of his work: ‘In the Security Executive moral judgements were irrelevant and he himself made them rarely and with distaste.’ From his point of view, it’s a professional job. ‘He had a sceptical, pragmatic mind and, though he loved his work, he never let it ride him.’
In the final analysis, the only thing that counts is power, and Russell’s duty is to protect not individuals, but the institutions of authority. ‘He knew the law, he respected the law, but he bent it unhesitatingly when his country’s interests dictated.’ And he respects those who understand that this is how the world really works.
He has, in particular, a high regard for his Soviet counterpart (known only as the Colonel-General), a feeling that’s reciprocated, the Russian displaying ‘an official and formal consideration which at moments came close to a private affection.’ They share ‘a relationship of power, of mutual profit’.
It helps, of course, that the Colonel-General is very much like Russell. Indeed he even sounds like Russell, speaking – in English, with an impressive grasp of idiom – in almost exactly the same manner: ‘We simply can’t afford that this tuppenny-ha’penny shaikhdom should escalate into another major confrontation,’ he explains, noting that the Shaikh himself has ‘made a bolt for it’. And like Russell he relies heavily on his instinct, paying special attention to the times when ‘I’ve a pricking of my thumbs’. It’s one of Haggard’s stock phrases.
The Colonel-General is all the more to be cherished, because Russell finds so few like him at home. In Britain, you’re much more likely to encounter ‘the typical Western intellectual, stuffed to the eyes with something called humanism, liberal and benevolent, poor. Not in money, he earned enough of that, but poor in all that made a man; he was poor in spirit.’
Even so, there are – amongst the deadwood and the rotting fruit – a few on his own side that Russell can count on. People like the businessman who gives the impression of being ‘a very good man in foursomes, the sort which didn’t miss putts under pressure. He looked like a wise and tolerant frog, an unmistakeably heterosexual frog.’ Or there’s the scientist who, having been knocked down in a hit-and-run, finds that his hat has been irreparably damaged and who therefore has to throw it away. Which means in turn that he has to get a taxi to his club, since ‘he was not a man to walk hatless in London’. He’s clearly a decent chap, as well.
There’s even occasionally a sound politician, such as a Labour minister who’s an old-fashioned trade unionist; as a bad news story breaks, the man laments the moral grandstanding of his trade: ‘Every prig in the House, every briefless barrister, will jump on my neck. The clever boys will put principle first. Principle! Thundering great leaders, snide little articles. Loaded questions to me as scapegoat minister. Principle! We can’t afford it.’ Russell sympathizes.
However good he is at his job, though, Russell knows that it’s all doomed to failure. He’s doing his bit to hold back the final collapse of Western civilization, but he doesn’t doubt that it will ultimately be in vain. Consequently, as Arthur Balfour once noted: ‘Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.’ Russell holds ‘the sincerely considered conviction that all human events were folly. The world was a monstrous flywheel, humanity a preposterous fly presumptuously taking a ride on it.’
It’s important to Russell’s sense of identity that he’s not British, but an Anglo-Irishman, set slightly apart from those with whom he mixes in Whitehall and Westminster. ‘He was a pillar of the establishment but its values were quite alien. It could make him laugh sardonically lest otherwise he weep, and it could often make him angry.’ This is why he has accepted no civilian decorations; ‘though he could tell himself by now that he had mastered the social intricacies of the English professional class, he had never accepted its symbols of status.’
Insofar as he has a personal commitment to the cause, it seems primarily to be one of taste rather than principle, a deep dislike of … well, of lots of things really. He has, to start with, no time for ‘the fellow-travellers, the progressives and permissives, the professors of literature who wrote so unsyntactically, the tedious female broadcasters with voices that set your teeth on edge.’
And if that seems a trifle specific, then there are similar opinions to be encountered elsewhere.
He has, for example, a marked animus against modern dramatists. ‘He was a considerable theatregoer; he took one Sunday newspaper solely to read its theatrical critic. Then he made a list of his recommendations and carefully avoided them.’ There used to be plays with servants as the minor roles, ‘but today that was very old hat. Russell rather regretted the butler and the parlourmaid, for theatrically they hadn’t been less effective than a woman scrubbing frying pans or, in the really advanced school, a defecating drunk.’
There are intriguing hints about Russell’s life dropped throughout the course of the books. He has never married, though he does sometimes enjoy the company of high-class prostitutes. ‘He wasn’t a rich man but nor was he poor and he managed investments shrewdly.’ He has an ‘admirable moustache’ and he keeps in shape: even at the age of sixty, ‘his waist was still as trim as a boy’s’.
He used to compete in motor races, and is still to be found ‘driving fast but without a hint of risk’. As a golfer, he also entered the Amateur Championship (in his fifties, he plays off a handicap of two) and he’s equally serious about bridge. Indeed, he’s serious about everything that has an element of competition: ‘Charles Russell played to win and wasn’t ashamed of it.’
He is ‘a man of catholic musical tastes’. Mostly he hums snatches of opera to himself, but occasionally he’ll branch out into some Cole Porter. He seldom touches whisky before six o’clock, but he’ll drink sherry at almost any time of the day. ‘He drank a medium dry sherry because he liked it. He knew that the very dry ones were more fashionable, but he wasn’t a man to be swayed by fashion.’ In this context, it probably doesn’t need pointing out that ‘Charles Russell loved wine but detested winemanship.’ That balance is absolutely central to who he is: class without affectation. As the foreign secretary tells him: ‘You’ve a refreshing disrespect for pretentious persons.’
These details are significant. Because for Russell – and presumably for Haggard too – what matters is a person’s character, and that can be revealed in a thousand ways, from gait to diet, and in the choice of everything from carpets to cigar cases. The smallest slip can expose one entirely: ‘The flowers were arranged in the manner of a woman quite without feeling for them, but one who had taken an expensive course in flower arranging.’
Russell favours action over academia, psychology over psychiatry, decency over intellect. His closest confidante is Chief Superintendent Pell of the Metropolitan Police. We know he’s a sound chap, incidentally, from the kind of breakfast he enjoys: ‘no nonsense about black coffee and a roll with the starch out, but porridge, eggs and bacon and plenty of toast and marmalade.’
All this is delivered with a mostly straight face, because Haggard is, in general, quite a dour writer. There are, however, some fine flashes of humour.
Sometimes this is an inadvertent by-product of his grumpiness: ‘Since the English had taken to central heating they’d been absurdly overdoing it,’ Russell grumbles, in near self-parody. But sometimes the jokes are deliberate. At a very respectable Pall Mall club, Haggard explains: ‘You read The Times, or better the Guardian, or, with the faint air of patronage which the members soon acquired, the Daily Telegraph.’ At an establishment party: ‘white-coated waiters from North London fought through the crowd with trays and what they imagined were Italian accents.’
Mostly, though, he unleashes his comic sarcasm in his pictures of time-servers. ‘All management corrupts and absolute management corrupts absolutely,’ he notes, and he has no time for weak men.
‘Like all government press officers he was quite without weight with journalists, in whose hard world he had conspicuously failed,’ Haggard writes of one hapless victim. ‘He was personally disliked and privately despised.’ Another is dismissed in half-a-sentence: ‘there was no safer niche for a left-wing woolly than a job in the civil service.’
One of my favourites is the final phrase in this description of Seneschal, yet another slippery politician driven by ambition:
Robert Seneschal put an arm round his colleagues’ shoulders. He did it briefly but with expertise, for it was something he had practised. It didn’t pay to acquire the reputation of a cold intellectual. So Robert Seneschal put an arm round his colleagues’ shoulders. He also used Christian names a lot, and sometimes he got them right.
Most noted of all was one of the characterizations in The Power House. The 1966 review in The Times concluded that the novel was ‘chiefly remarkable for an acid portrait of a prime minister which is very difficult to get out of one’s head’. And there was little doubt that the character of Harry Fletcher was based on Harold Wilson, all the way down to him smoking a pipe in public and cigars in private. This is his speaking style:
On television he was incomparable, the awkward question so smoothly ducked, a different one answered convincingly. And his years with his union had taught him speech without meaning. He could talk for an hour, promising all things to all men, offending no interest but those of acknowledged enemies. Words like dynamic, contemporary, progress helped a lot. He gave marvellous performances in a style which by now was admired and widely imitated, but there was one thing against it and to Russell it was an important one: as a means of conveying instructions it didn’t rate. Wuffle!
It’s probably worth bearing in mind that in real life Haggard worked under Wilson when the latter was successively secretary for overseas trade and then president of the board of trade.
In 1968 HRF Keating (of Inspector Ghote fame) claimed that Haggard’s words had made an impression: ‘It is not unreasonable to surmise that his wholehearted contempt for the prime minister he created in The Power House two years ago contributed more than a mite to the present widespread low opinions of Mr Wilson.’
That may be overstating his influence a little, but by the middle of the 1960s Haggard was certainly a big name in terms of both sales and profile. The High Wire won the Crime Writers’ Association silver dagger award for 1963 (jointly with John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Nicolas Freeling’s Guns before Butter); his work was being reprinted in paperback by first Penguin, then Pan; and in 1968 The Unquiet Sleep was dramatized by the BBC in the Detective strand, with Russell portrayed by Roland Culver.
He was also being feted by the critics. Even in the early days he’d got good notices – ‘Thoroughly recommended light reading,’ said the Observer of Slow Burner – but these became ever more enthusiastic as the Russell saga developed through the 1960s. Francis Iles (a pseudonym used by the veteran crime writer Anthony Berkeley Cox) was one of several who saw Haggard’s stories of political calculation as an authentic account of powerbroking behind the scenes: ‘though one has no idea whether it is so, this does seem like the real stuff.’
This, though, was the high point. No other screen adaptations followed The Unquiet Sleep, and Colonel Russell retired from the Security Executive at the end of the decade (along with Haggard), to the great disappointment of his fans.
Francis Iles, for example, was less than enthusiastic about Haggard’s next publication, The Doubtful Disciple (1969), a novel without the unifying figure of the earlier work. ‘The trouble is that this rather scrappy book,’ wrote Iles, ‘lacks a focal point; Laver, the successor to the excellent Charles Russell, is too vague and ineffectual a figure.’ Perhaps Haggard heard the criticisms, for the following year Russell was back – albeit still retired – in The Hardliners, and Iles was again celebrating ‘as convincing a security executive as any in fiction’.
But Anthony Berkeley Cox was from the old school – he was born in the nineteenth century – and a rising generation was less impressed by Haggard than he had been. Thriller writer Jessica Mann’s 1979 verdict on Russell was unflattering: ‘self-confident, self-sufficient and self-righteous.’ And Matthew Coady was presumably not intending to be complimentary when he wrote in the Guardian of The Mischief Makers (1982) that ‘Mrs Thatcher would enjoy it.’
Whether Margaret Thatcher did ever read Haggard, I have no idea, but Mann at least had a point. Russell can indeed get a bit tiresome in his smug self-righteousness. ‘He was a townsman and unashamed,’ we’re told, and that’s the third quote I’ve included in which he is ‘unashamed’. He’s ashamed of nothing. On the contrary, he’s really very, very pleased with who he is; even more satisfied with himself than he is dissatisfied with the state of modern Britain. He never reproaches himself for anything because he never makes mistakes.
There are other flaws to the books. Whenever Haggard introduces a new character, it’s immediately apparent whether we’re supposed to like them or not; there are seldom any hidden depths waiting to be revealed. Russell’s unerring ability to predict every move means that the plot of a novel like The Hardliners resembles structurally nothing so much a P.G. Wodehouse romp. And there are an awful lot of road accidents – car crashes are as important to his narratives as sprained ankles are to the work of Terry Nation.
The failings become more intrusive as the series progresses. But there’s much that’s very good in here too. Despite the reactionary reputation and that Guardian jibe about Thatcher, there are even elements that would be seen as progressive by the kind of people Russell most disliked: he creates strong female characters, for example, and the treatment of racism in The Doubtful Disciple is surprisingly sound for the time – so that’s the gender and race boxes ticked.
The early books, in particular, really are worth reading. They are, at their best, good old-fashioned thrillers. And, Lord knows, William Haggard wasn’t ashamed of writing that kind of book.
P.S. In his obituary of Haggard in the Independent, Jack Adrian wrote: ‘as an explication to later social historians of the paranoia of the middle years of the 20th century, his thrillers will be invaluable.’ He was referring, I think, to the anti-communist tone, but reading the books now, what’s really striking is the extraordinary range of descriptions of national and cultural characteristics. Here’s a selection, starting with the Irish:
The local farmers drink like fish, and people from Dublin are mostly pederasts.
I know little about Swedes except that that they always seem either to be on top of the world or just on the point of suicide.
Russell had always thought that Italian tailoring made a thickset race look even squatter than it was, good shoulders and heavy torso uneasily balanced on ugly legs.
Englishmen had a fairly general impression of Italians: they were wildly unreliable, you could never finish a sentence, they were tricky about money, calculating. All this was true but there were other things too. They had, for instance, delicacy, the natural aplomb of an ancient and invariably surviving race.
Greeks were earth’s toughest race. For centuries they’d had to be and they were so still. Greeks could look after themselves.
Switzerland was bogus. Four and a half centuries of formal independence and what had emerged was the civilization of the watch, the yodelling club, the numbered bank account. The watches weren’t bad but, pace elaborate publicity, no better than other watches. And the smugness, the complacency!
It was Professor Wasserman speaking. He struck the table with a hairy hand. The gesture had an opulence which the others would not have permitted themselves. They looked on him with tolerance. He wasn’t entirely English, they were thinking privately – a Jew in fact; an exuberant creature but immensely able.
Sikhs were a race with a martial reputation but Mortimer had his reservations. He’d seen them fight and he’d seen them run shamelessly. And they weren’t easy men to handle.
And this is a citizen of an unnamed East European country:
His people could boast of two well-known composers, but neither of unquestioned first rank, no major painter, no writers but the depressingly earnest. They were really the Celts of central Europe, the people you pushed remorselessly westwards – Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isles. Since that hadn’t been possible they’d been quietly encircled, sometimes ignored and more often exploited, surrounded by races more gifted and gayer or simply by peoples much better at war.
Not many escape unscathed, but there are a couple:
This revulsion from sensible and self-regarding action, from the values of the market place – only Arabs and Spaniards had it still, and perhaps an Anglo-Irishman. Like Russell himself.
Like Russell himself. Well of course, like Russell himself.
Bibliography (taken from Wikipedia)
Slow Burner (1958)
The Telemann Touch (1958)
Venetian Blind (1959)
Closed Circuit (1960)
The Arena (1961)
The Unquiet Sleep (1962)
The High Wire (1963)
The Antagonists (1964)
The Hard Sell (1965)
The Powder Barrel (1965)
The Power House (1966)
The Conspirators (1967)
A Cool Day for Killing (1968)
The Doubtful Disciple (1969)
The Hardliners (1970)
The Bitter Harvest (1971)
The Protectors (1972)
The Old Masters (1973)
The Kinsmen (1974)
The Scorpion’s Tail (1975)
Yesterday’s Enemy (1976)
The Poison People (1977)
Visa to Limbo (1978)
The Median Line (1979)
The Money Men (1981)
The Mischief Makers (1982)
The Heirloom (1983)
The Need To Know (1984)
The Meritocrats (1985)
The Martello Tower (1986)
The Diplomatist (1987)
The Expatriates (1989)
The Vendettists (1990)
also available in the neglected novelists series: