Where Authors Dare

At the height of his suc­cess, Alistair MacLean (1922–1987) was the world’s best selling author. You might have heard of HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and (the ori­gin­al screen­play) Where Eagles Dare. I remem­ber read­ing his books as a teen­ager, after my friend Edward picked up a copy of Fear is the Key from a loc­al, Cornish jumble sale. MacLean is inter­est­ing because — like Stephen King — he was sel­dom reviewed, and his work was dis­missed as driv­el. Doubly inter­est­ingly, the first per­son to dis­miss MacLean’s work as driv­el was MacLean him­self.

A couple of weeks ago, I was passing a car boot sale (‘jumble sale’ is so last cen­tury), and noticed a bio­graphy of MacLean. I snatched it up, partly because it meant I wouldn’t have to read any more of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (which is start­lingly unin­ter­est­ing, des­pite the plaudits; not in the God-awful Life of Pi league, but apply­ing for pro­mo­tion).

Alistair MacLean: A Life by Jack Webster is a superb read. Webster, des­pite his best efforts, does not sink into the back­ground; he remains a rather pom­pous tour guide who rolls out colo­ni­al-area thoughts on non-Anglo Saxons and women (you should read what he thinks about those who fall into both cat­egor­ies, like MacLean’s second wife, Marcelle).

I don’t want to spend too much time on a chro­no­logy of MacLean, so here is the bluffer’s guide: MacLean grew up a son of the manse (I still have no idea what this means), and his moth­er was a gold medal win­ner of the Mod (also no idea, but I’ll bet it trumps my bronze Water Safety). He had a tra­di­tion­al upbring­ing in which Gaelic was the house­hold lan­guage. As a young man, he put to sea on the notori­ous Russian con­voy route, where he manned the tor­pedo room of a des­troy­er charged with the defence of low-laden Russian cargo ships. This formed the basis of his first nov­el, HMS Ulysses. Following his dis­charge, he could not be described as demob happy. He was a tacit­urn, gaunt fel­low who often mumbled. He nev­er spoke of his war­time exper­i­ences. Before long, he became an English school teach­er — regarded as fair and quiet by his pupils. His heart was nev­er in the job (and, judging by this book, he nev­er found a place to put it). He tried his hand a short story com­pet­i­tion run by a loc­al news­pa­per and, to his sur­prise, won it. His style was so elec­tri­fy­ing that he was cour­ted by the pub­lish­er Collins (now HarperCollins) and then embarked upon a career that led to con­sid­er­able fame and for­tune, and a nomad­ic exist­ence that centred on Geneva but exten­ded to California and Yugoslavia. He died in 1987, aged 65, of a stroke, leav­ing a some­what frag­men­ted fam­ily and a con­sid­er­able for­tune. The man: largely unhappy, thought of him­self as a hack, and lis­ted his job on his pass­port as ‘Hotelier’.

Which brings me to MacLean’s fic­tion. Time and again, Webster returns, in his bio­graphy, to the notion that a page-turn­ing book does not have the same status (in terms of its appar­ent qual­ity) as a book that attempts to do more (on those oth­er fic­tion­al planes). MacLean bought into this, and Webster seems to as well. I’m not sure I do. In my own fic­tion, I tend to aim for these oth­er levels of mean­ing, but they must be sub­ser­vi­ent to the fun­da­ment­al ‘straight line speed’ of the book’s story. This abil­ity to pace, to pull the read­er along with ques­tions that they must know the answer to, is not one so eas­ily dis­missed. Frankly, very few authors can do it.

True enough, MacLean’s prose style is quite dif­fer­ent from that employed today. Like Walter Scott, he might not be read over­much in the com­ing years. But I remem­ber look­ing some­what scep­tic­ally at the cov­er to ‘Fear is the Key’, the book handed to me by my friend Edward at that jumble sale, and then I read the first page. It had me hooked. This was a story. MacLean may have hated his own stuff, but how many writers have read­ers who say, ‘This is a story’? Not so many.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

13 thoughts on “Where Authors Dare”

  1. Well, before look­ing in dictionary.com, I’d have said a son of the manse was a Presbyterian minister’s son, the manse being the equi­val­ent of a rect­ory or vicar­age.

    But, hav­ing now searched in dictionary.com, I’ve also dis­covered that it refers to a man­sion house, or, in the archa­ic usage, to the dwell­ings of a house­hold­er.

    Which sug­gests that a son of the manse is either a) from a poor clergy fam­ily, b) from a middle-income householder’s home, or c) the son of the man­or. Or in oth­er words, any­one.

    The bio­graphy of AM sounds v. inter­est­ing. I think you did the right thing to give up Brick Lane and turn to some­thing a bit dated instead.

  2. Thanks for your com­ment, James. To be fair, it was explained in the book some­where, but I for­got. Since MacLean was a minister’s son, that could well be it.

    Better get back to Brick Lane, then…

  3. Your com­ment at the end about the value of story reminds me of an anec­dote told about Tolkien. A plumb­er doing some work in Tolkien’s old col­lege — very dusty, very august, very Oxford aca­deme — noticed the bust of Tolkien sit­ting on its ped­es­tal among all the oth­er dis­tin­guished pro­fess­ors, went up to it, put his arm round its shoulders and said “Thank you, Professor! You’ve writ­ten a rat­tling good yarn.” I think Tolkien would have been pleased with that, and MacLean should have been too.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always under­stood ‘son of the manse’ to mean a Scottish Presbyterian minister’s fam­ily. I have no clue what a Mod is, gold or oth­er­wise.

    I haven’t read either ‘Brick Lane’ or ‘Life of Pi’, phil­istine that I am, but I did like ‘HMS Ulysses’, and the first pages of ‘Ice Station Zebra’ were used by our school English teach­er as an example of how to write a grip­ping begin­ning.

  4. Thanks for your com­ment, Carla. I think we’re slowly com­ing to a con­sensus on the ‘son of the manse’ issue! Ice Station Zebra cer­tainly has a great open­ing…

  5. I adored Alistair Maclean at age 15 and read the lot. I remem­ber I was doing my GCEs as they were called then, and I just had to stay read­ing until 2 am, I was totally hooked!
    I think he did go off later on, after about “Force 10 from Navarone” but before that he wrote a dozen fant­ast­ic books, I thought they were far bet­ter than James Bond, Modesty Blaise and all those oth­ers of the genre being pub­lished at that time. There is one you don’t men­tion which I enjoyed a lot, about some people on a jour­ney some­where very cold and icy — not ice sta­tion zebra, but one where someone was a secret bad­die, someone was ill, the food all ran out, etc. Forget the title but it was brill (to a 15 year old any­way).

    Of course I had com­pletely for­got­ten my addic­tion until I read your post.

    Interesting to read your com­ments on Pi and BLane, two more books on my book­shelves I need not feel guilty about not hav­ing got around to read­ing yet! My Dad really enjoyed Brick Lane, though, he is 80 and read it a couple of years ago.

  6. Thanks for your com­ment, Maxine. I’m not sure which is the oth­er icy one — you’re right, though, MacLean’s nov­els cer­tainly trail off in the late 1960s.

    I’ll try to qual­i­fy my com­ment on Brick Lane with a later review post. That is, if I get round to read­ing it!

  7. I think MacLean should have taken a page from Mickey Spillane, who was happy to admit that he wrote for the money and nev­er wanted to be called an author (pre­ferred “writer”).

    I just picked up my old copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, and at the start of sec­tion 2, he talks about how people nev­er ask pop writers about the CRAFT, or the lan­guage. It’s funny how many people don’t real­ize the tal­ent in the writ­ing when the author is so pop­u­lar.

    Doesn’t seem to both­er King much though… There was a bene­fit read­ing by King, John Irving and J. K. Rowling last night in NY, and King said, “they pay me to make this up… and it’s the BEST JOB in the WORLD.”

    Like Maxine, I was a MacLean addict as a teen­ager, and had for­got­ten about this addic­tion until read­ing your post. Thanks for remind­ing me!

  8. Hi nrkii — glad to remind you of MacLean again. Enjoy his books. Great post on the King/Rowling/Irving night, by the way.

  9. I am writ­ing from mid­w­est America. Last night we saw a Hollywood movie named Heartbreak Pass from 1976 star­ring Charles Bronson. Book and screen­play both by Maclean.
    Took place late 1800’s in American West, most of the action on a troop train going to Humboldt, Nevada. Lots of action. Very sus­pense­ful. You just nev­er knew what was really going on or what was going to hap­pen. Very good end­ing shot. (He did not get the girl.) I remem­ber hear­ing about Maclean years ago. Will have to look him up. Am a nov­el­ist myself, maybe I should read the begin­ning of Ice Station Zebra. Louise PS: I hated Life of Pi. Lots of self-indul­gence and a screwy story.

  10. Thanks for your com­ment, Louise. I heard that the later films weren’t quite up to the stand­ard of the earli­er ones, but Heartbreak Pass sounds inter­est­ing. Ice Station Zebra is a great story, if you can get over the prose style. Let me know what you think.


  11. Mr. Hocking,

    Although I read/listen to a range of lit­er­at­ure on audio books, I am very fond of MacLean, for above all being fun. Nor is he mean-spir­ited, as oth­ers, like Fleming (who is non­ethe­less good, but in a much dif­fer­ent way.) are. MacLean’s prose it thought­ful, his dia­logue may be dated but remains vastly enter­tain­ing, and his char­ac­ters worth root­ing for. As you say, he writes a good story. His self-efface­ment brings to mind the con­tinu­al debate as to why Beowulf is con­sidered art, but Tolkien is not. I remain, des­pite my post-gradu­ate edu­ca­tion, a fan.

  12. Thanks for your com­ment, Anon. I expect MacLean is great on audiobook — doubt­less a good author will make a lot of his (often) first-per­son nar­rat­ive.

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