Alan Williams obituary

Thriller writer and journalist who relished the excitement and drama of the cold war

In Michael Frayn’s Fleet Street novel, Towards the End of the Morning, a smartarse graduate trainee scandalises a bunch of beery hacks by asking for a Pernod on his first visit to the paper’s local. The smart-arse’s prototype was the thriller writer Alan Williams, who has died aged 84. Williams had just joined the Manchester Guardian from the Cardiff Western Mail. “I never really lived that pastis down,” he used to say.

Williams had already pushed his luck more than once. In 1955, returning by train from a youth conference in Warsaw, he helped smuggle out a Polish student on the luggage rack. The following year, while still an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, he delivered penicillin to Budapest during the Hungarian uprising, admitting afterwards that his real motive for going there was to witness a revolution at first hand.

He also found time to climb Mount Etna – “my only outdoor sport” – and gaze into its crater, the first of many such ascents. Why? I once asked him. “Because it’s so incredibly dramatic. Like a glimpse of hell.”

Predictably, Williams found provincial journalism rather tame, saying it was like “living on a plate of cold porridge”. In his spare time he wrote a thriller about the Algerian war, Long Run South (1962). To his surprise, since he had never been to North Africa, it became a bestseller. He left Manchester and “volunteered” to cover the Algerian war for the Daily Express.

Some of his experiences there found their way into Williams’s second novel, Barbouze (1963), which introduced readers to one of his most baroque characters, Charles Pol, the Machiavellian Michelin man-lookalike who specialises in dirty tricks. Pol, in a subsequent book, Shah-Mak (1976), devises an ingenious method of assassinating a supposedly invulnerable Middle Eastern despot: the insertion of a lethal suppository during some kinky foreplay.

Alan Williams’s christening in October 1935: foreground from left, John Gielgud; Alan’s father, Emlyn Williams; Miss Cook, the inspiration for the teacher in Emlyn’s play The Corn Is Green; Alan, being held by Noël Coward; and Alan’s mother, the actor Molly Shan.
Alan Williams’s christening in October 1935: foreground from left, John Gielgud; Alan’s father, Emlyn Williams; Miss Cook, the inspiration for the teacher in Emlyn’s play The Corn Is Green; Alan, being held by Noël Coward; and Alan’s mother, the actor Molly Shan. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

Barbouze was written on a Mediterranean tramp steamer. When it docked at Beirut he went straight to the St George’s hotel, where all the journalists hung out. There was a drunk asleep at the bar. “That’s Kim Philby, the Observer’s chap,” he was told. “Spends most of his time like that.” The ship then called at Syria and Cyprus, but returned to Beirut shortly after a coup in Iraq. Somebody said to Williams, “Why don’t you jump ship and cover it for the Observer – their man hasn’t been seen since you were drinking here last.” It was assumed that Philby had gone on a bender whereas, in fact, he had gone for good.

Williams did not replace Philby, but the double agent was the inspiration for arguably his best novel, Gentleman Traitor (1974), the climax of which has Philby, snugly ensconced in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, drop dead as he is about to finger the Fourth Man. As Anthony Blunt, a leading art historian, had yet to be publicly exposed, Williams could not name him in the book; but in the copy he gave me he wrote: “Don’t be caught with this by Sir Anthony Blunt.”

Before this, Williams had considered forging, with the help of a Russian chum, the diaries of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s depraved chief of secret police. Their plans were well advanced when the Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes scandal broke – Irving faked an autobiography of Hughes – whereupon Williams turned his scheme into a novel called The Beria Papers (1973).

At one point his English protagonist, a sardonic hack called Mallory (said to be based on Williams’s journalist friend Nicholas Tomalin), is ejected from the 40th birthday party thrown by a famous film star for his equally famous wife. This happened to Williams when he had the temerity to suggest to the actor Richard Burton that, since his party for Elizabeth Taylor was being held in Yugoslavia, it would have been polite to invite some Yugoslavs.

The elder son of the actor and playwright Emlyn Williams and his wife, the actor Molly Shan, Williams was born in London, and educated at Stowe school, Buckinghamshire, and the universities of Grenoble, Heidelberg and Cambridge. His younger brother Brook followed his parents into acting, and was a close friend of Burton.

Thrice married – “Women are an enigma as far as Grimes is concerned”, he would sigh, recalling the description of Evelyn Waugh’s immortal scapegrace in Decline and Fall – and for many years a heroic drinker, Williams could be difficult. Luckily his publisher, Anthony Blond, was tolerant of authors’ idiosyncrasies, which in Williams’s case included the need to try and live out his fantasies. Blond liked to relate how Williams had once defected to a rival imprint, only to return, “because there weren’t enough rows”. He later revealed that Williams was one of the few authors on his list who made any money.

Naturally Williams could not resist going to Vietnam, the setting for his fourth novel, The Tale of the Lazy Dog (1970). Despite witnessing some of the big set-piece battles, he found the fighting less remarkable than the people who were covering it. He thought there was scope for another Scoop, since “a bigger bunch of more certifiable maniacs it would be hard to imagine”. He also helped his friend Nicholas Bethell smuggle into the west the manuscript of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, Cancer Ward, fictionalising this exploit in The Beria Papers.

Writing fiction did not come easily to him. He used to complain of the awful difficulties involved in simply getting a character on and off the plane. Even so it was a surprise when, after 25 years on the job, he suddenly dried up. At about the same time he also, on doctor’s orders, stopped drinking. The link between drink and ink was never established. But according to Williams’s third wife, the literary agent Maggie Noach, it was the collapse of communism that silenced him for good. What was there left to write about once the cold war had been won?

Fortunately, Williams had a lucrative hobby. He built detailed working models of windmills and watermills, which were sold in the US for five- figure sums. He also inherited money from his father, which enabled him to meet his varied domestic commitments.

A short, wiry figure with a tousled look, Williams inherited a “stagey” voice from his father and a talent for mimicry that gave resonance to the anecdotes he never tired of telling about espionage and those who practised it. For many years after he and Maggie divorced, he divided his time between the Chelsea Arts Club and a tiny flat in Holland Park, west London, which he shared with a cat called The General.

Williams is survived by Sophie, his daughter with Maggie, Owen and Laura, the children of his second marriage, to Antonia Simpson, and three grandchildren, Roxy, Willow and Fox.

• Alan Emlyn Williams, writer, born 28 August 1935; died 21 April 2020


Michael Barber

The GuardianTramp

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