Obituary: William Haggard
Tuesday 02 November 1993
LIKE so many of his kind, William Haggard had virtually lost his reason for being. He had become a dinosaur, a man of the middle years of the century only: a cartographer of a shadowy and infinitely complex terrain that did not exist before (roughly) 1930 and does not, really, exist now. Another country indeed, where they did things differently, a country of agents and double-agents, spooks and counter-spooks, bluff and double-, triple- or even quadruple-bluff. A secret and arrogant world where there are no moral certainties other than that you are right, the other side is wrong, and in between these two poles lies a multiplicity of grey areas, all shades.
William Haggard wrote spy and political fiction. He wrote very good, and very intelligent, spy and political fiction and he did it for over 30 years. His grasp of plot, pace, suspense and set-piece action was, especially in his earlier days, pretty nearly without flaw. He was very good indeed at the labyrinthine, the plot that twists, turns, coils and convolutes, then doubles back upon itself and eventually vanishes up its own jumping-off point. His tone was unmistakable and mandarin, far from demotic.
Therein lay a problem: not of tone, precisely, but surely of attitude. Politically Haggard wrote from the Right, for the Right. He was not a liberal. He did not seem to believe that the general populace was worthy of any fate other than to be ruled by an elite - worse, a secret and unelected elite to whom prime ministers, home and foreign secretaries, members of the Cabinet, were mere minions, a necessary irritant to be soothed, tolerated (as one tolerates particularly dim offspring), on occasion smacked down hard. Even in the 1960s, only a decade after he started writing, this could grate.
'William Haggard' was the pseudonym used by Richard Henry Michael Clayton, who was born in Croydon, Surrey, in 1907, and educated at Lancing, and Christ Church, Oxford (where he gained a BA). He was a career civil servant who, for over 15 years, laboured in the Indian subcontinent: from 1931 to 1939 in the Indian Civil Service (the only bureaucracy greater than its Whitehall progenitor), from 1939 to 1946 in the Indian Army. On his return home after the Second World War, he worked for the Board of Trade until he retired in 1969, at one stage having the even then somewhat archaic position of 'Controller of Enemy Property' (though such a post was of course immensely useful to his Hyde-side, the writer of thrillers).
Haggard began writing thrillers while still at the Board of Trade, his first, Slow Burner, being published to much acclaim in 1958 (a second thriller, The Telemann Touch, followed hard on its heels the same year). These and subsequent books were recognised as by someone who knew intimately the intricate workings of government. His main series hero, in well over 20 thrillers, was Colonel Charles Russell of the (fictitious) Security Executive, a body that could ride rough-shod over just about anyone, possibly (but only possibly) barring our Royalty.
Where Haggard scored heavily was that, as a civil servant in real life, he was an arch-pragmatist, a man for whom realpolitik was a necessity when all else failed. This gave his thrillers an authenticity, and a distinct edge over those of his peers. His contempt for the Left was real (in his 1966 novel The Power House there is an uncompromising disdainful portrait of a prime minister who bore more than a passing resemblance to Harold Wilson), but it was not blind contempt. He admired strong Communists (as opposed to wishy-washy socialists) with whom strong Conservatives could do deals to preserve the status quo.
With the dissolution of Communism as a major force in world politics, Haggard, like a good many other writers of a certain age and disposition, lost, virtually at a stroke, his livelihood - even, perhaps, his interest in life. Yet as an explication to later social historians of the paranoia of the middle years of the 20th century, his thrillers will be invaluable.
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