Ted Allbeury is a favourite writer of mine. I have been reading his novels regularly for many years. Whenever my wife and I visited London, which we did frequently, an important task was to buy his latest novels. In an odd way I have always been attracted to the special humane atmosphere in his stories.
Theodore Edward le Bouthillier Allbeury was born in Stockport, Cheshire, England 24 October 1917 and he died in Tunbridge Wells, Kent 4 December 2005. He was married five times (see footnote). He had one son and three daughters.
Ted Allbeury had an eventful but not an easy life. His father, an officer in the Black Watch, was killed in the First World War a few days before the Armistice in 1918. With his mother and sister Ted moved to Birmingham, where he was educated at King Edward’s grammar school in Aston, Birmingham. His first job on leaving school was in the drawing office of an iron foundry, his early talent for drawing having been recognised by a neighbour who worked for the company.
He attended evening classes to become a junior draughtsman, later a tool designer. In his spare time he also taught himself French and German. When war broke out he attempted to join the Royal Air Force but because he was in a reserved occupation he was barred from entry, prosecuted and fined. Without income he spotted an advertisement in the Personal Column of The Times for “linguists for work with the Army” and applied.
Becoming an intelligence officer
In a barber shop back-room in Trafalgar Square he went for an interview for – as it turned out to be – a job in army intelligence. He passed the test, and to avoid bureaucratic complications the Army put down his occupation as “labourer” and paid his fine.
He worked as an undercover intelligence officer with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) from 1940 to 1947 when he left with the rank of lieutenant-colonel having served in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Italy and Germany.
On more than one occasion Ted’s life was nearly snuffed out, but fate intervened. Such events were to instil his work not only with a sense of foreboding but also of release – for in Allbeury’s world twists of fate can also turn people’s lives around. He was parachuted into Nazi Germany and remained there until the Allied armies arrived. He was appointed to a senior and played an important intelligence role for the occupying army.
During the cold war, Ted was running agents across the border that divided communist East Germany from the west. His luck ran out and the Russians left him nailed to a kitchen table in a farmhouse. Practised torturers, they made sure he had a chance to survive and take the story back to his fellow agents.
After leaving SOE he took a number of jobs in sales management and advertising. He enjoyed a successful career, serving as creative director at Walter George in London from 1950 to 1957 and managing director of his own agency W.J. Southcombe between 1957 and 1962. But in 1962 he gave it all up to farm chickens and breed Alsatian dogs for two years. However, this turned out to be too boring. Then he founded his own public relations and marketing firm, Allbeury, Coombs & Partners (where he worked part time until 1981). By that time he had obtained a well-recognised ability as a copywriter and photographer, which he regarded as his lifeline if his books suddenly should fail to sell.
In 1965 Ted Allbeury also became involved in the blooming pirate-radio business. He became managing director of King Radio, which he renamed Radio 390 after its wavelength, broadcasting from one of the offshore forts (Red Sands) in the Thames estuary. His formula was middle-of-the-road music aimed at housewives and this was an instant success. He even had his own show, Red Sands Rendezvous, on Sunday nights. This ended only when an irritated government’s Marine Offences Act became law in August 1967.
Then Allbeury tried, but failed narrowly, to get into Parliament for the Liberal party. So he returned to advertising and PR.
Allbeury’s private life was often irregular, on occasion mildly chaotic – including more broken marriages. In 1970 a personal tragedy struck: his four-year-old daughter, who was carried off by her aggrieved mother, remained missing for years.
Becoming an author
It was in this period that Allbeury started writing. In his own words: “I didn’t start writing until I was fifty-five. I had never thought about being a writer nor particularly wanted to be one. My start didn’t come out of sudden inspiration but out of an entirely negative situation. Something happened in my private life that depressed me deeply. Enough to end up taking those green pills to get through the day and the purple ones to get through the night. I gave up work and the world and retreated into the lethargy and despair that go with depression. For some unknown reason I wrote four chapters of a book. Its central thrust was based on my experiences as an intelligence officer in Occupied Germany. The four chapters were shown by somebody to a literary agent who phoned me a few days later to say that he had sold my book to St Martin’s Press in New York and was selling it to a British publisher the next day. Would I get a move on and finish it? As all would-be writers know, it’s not this easy to get published – but that’s how it happened. It sure was a cure for my depression because the pretty Polish girl from the typing agency who came to type the manuscript is still around. We got married.
Since then I’ve written thirty-one novels, some short stories and a number of radio plays and serials for the BBC. And, naturally, you learn a few things in the course of all that writing. When I first started writing I worked out a plot and bolted on the characters, but by about book number seven I realised that what I liked writing about most was the people. Their problems and their relationships. It also dawned on me that nobody was stopping me from writing any way I wanted to. So I start now with the people and the plot allows them to work out their destinies. I think that I now write novels that just have espionage as their setting.” From the Introduction of “Other Kinds Of Treason” (1990).
The pretty Polish girl who came to type the manuscript was Grazyna Felinska. She became the love of his life and they were happily married until her death in 1999.
Throughout his years as an author Allbeury was able to keep in touch with the intelligence community.
Ted Allbeury was a tall, imposing man, with an alert mind and an ease with languages. He was not a renowned drinking companion and didn’t like social gatherings large or small. His life was given to his family and his work. Ted had a quick wit that did not match his hesitant and thoughtful responses. He had the easy confidence that comes with strength of mind and body, and could have been mistaken for the foundry worker he had once been.
He became so prolific – at one point producing four novels a year – that he also wrote under two pen names, Richard Butler and Patrick Kelly. Allbeury was consistently one of the authors most borrowed from public libraries, and always received the maximum payment under the public lending right.
His style was direct and fast-moving. Unlike other spy writers, his principal concern was with characters. The gadgets were there, but only ever in a supporting role. His descriptions of the countries in which the action took place always had the ring of authenticity, and readers were amazed to learn that he had never been to most of the places he wrote about.
His research technique was simple and effective. He studied in great detail the places he was intending to set a novel in, studying books, maps, diaries and memoirs. He used radio and satellite receivers to watch the domestic programmes of the countries concerned, and was helped in this by his ability to learn foreign languages readily. He could get by in French, German, Russian and Italian as well as Swahili and Amharic. He made few notes, committing his research to memory. He wrote all his novels in longhand using a pencil.
For his humanity and depth of characterisation Allbeury may be considered the spy-story writer’s spy-story writer. He could handle technology, hardware, introspection, excitement, convoluted plots, and his dry sense of humour shines through when least expected. He evidently viewed espionage as something of a cockeyed world, wryly noting at one point in his immensely entertaining, though all too brief “Memoirs of an Ex-Spy” (published in Murder Ink: the mystery reader’s companion, 1977) that when he was recruited he “went through the usual medical checks, the urine being examined for Communist infiltration”.
Like Somerset Maugham he asked the most uncomplicated, yet important of questions: To whom do I belong? Whom do I serve? At the end of No Place to Hide (1986), a tale of a state killer having second thoughts, the protagonist is asked: “Tell me what we have to do?” He simply replies: “We have to live our lives so that we are never tempted to do anyone any harm. We give up all forms of aggression as individuals. Greed, ambition, indifference are all kinds of personal aggression. We just have to live quietly and lovingly.” Ted did just that with his family and friends.
Many of his works were translated – to 23 different languages including Russian.
Ted Allbeury’s conclusion
Ted Allbeury should have the last word: “It’s obviously never too late to start writing. If I can start from scratch at age fifty-five so can anyone else. I strongly recommend that you write while you still have a full-time job. I did, and this meant writing until two in the morning and all day Saturdays and Sundays. I’m a strong believer that anyone can do anything if they want to do it enough. And it’s the last part that is the test. Do you really want to do it enough?
Every country has its own Intelligence services and certainly ours and the Americans’ do a good job of work. Sometimes things have to be done that are not “kosher” but if the nation wants protection from foreigners’ interference these things have to be done. The men who work in these services are, admittedly, specially trained to do their jobs. But they are perfectly ordinary men with mortgages, families and responsibilities. Like the rest of us they can be lonely and perhaps cynical, but on the whole they behave like you and I would behave doing their job. And what I have said about men applies equally to the women in the services.
It seems a terrible thing to say, but for young men like me from the less posh suburbs of Birmingham the war was our university. A broadening of our vision and the exercise of our minds and imaginations far beyond what would have happened if we had not been involved. Irrational though it may be, I still feel an affinity with those men and women who were in the services rather than those who were not. Shakespeare’s Henry V’s speech at Agincourt about “gentlemen in England now a-bed” is still valid for me.” From the Introduction of “Other Kinds Of Treason” (1990).
Here is some detail on TA’s marriages obtained from the publicly available BMD (Births Marriages Deaths) indexes for the UK (e.g. Ancastry.co.uk or the LDS Family Research site):
– Josephine Grant, March 1940, Birmingham
– Katharine Bandinel, Sep 1945, Birmingham
– Kathleen Moss, Dec 1957, Surrey
– Susan E Halls, Jan 1971, Wandsworth
– Grazyna M Flenska, Jun 1972, Maidenhead
I thank Mr. Iain Noble, UK for providing this information.
Said about Ted Allbeury:
A truly classic writer of espionage fiction. — Len Deighton
The best cold war espionage novels never really lose their punch: Allbeury, like le Carré, is a master of the genre. — Publishers Weekly
The most consistently inventive of our novelists of espionage, the one that other thriller writers point to as the finest craftsman among them. — Guardian
He is certainly the most skilled narrator of what goes on behind the scenes of the undercover spy world, and – what is so splendid and welcome – he does it all with a superb economy of words. — The Bookseller – Eric Hiscock
Allbeury’s novels have won a reputation not only for verisimilitude but for crisp, economical narration and high drama…there’s no better craftsman. — Chicago Sun
Mr Allbeury is a writer of espionage novels that soar far above the genre. — New Yorker
Certain things are constants, and Ted Allbeury is one. Book after book, the prolific British writer of espionage tales has maintained a superior level. – New York Times
Ted Allbeury is one of the best half-dozen writers of adventure and spy fiction. — Ted Willis
One of the masters of espionage novels. — Sunday Telegraph
A writer of stylish, confident and convincingly detailed spy thrillers. — TLS
Ted Allbeury is one of our best spy thriller writers, quiet, thoughtful and menacingly compelling. — Nottingham Post