Photo credit: Marja Giejgo
Alexander Wilson’s son Michael had been told by his mother Dorothy that his father died at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, a story he believed throughout most of his adult life. When researcher Tim Crook was asked to look into the history of Michael’s father in 2005, he discovered much, much more than either could have ever imagined. Read our Q&A with Wilson expert Tim Crook, author of The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, and get his thoughts on the shocking story of Alec Wilson.
MASTERPIECE: When you were first approached by Michael to research Alexander Wilson, what were you expecting to discover?
CROOK: I was expecting an easy and fast research profile where the death of a Lieutenant Colonel at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 would yield a proud and heroic War Service record and confirm the pride he had in his father’s legend since a child.
MASTERPIECE: What was your reaction to what you came to discover?
CROOK: It was astonishing and disturbing that he seemed to have no existence in the National Archives, neither a birth and entry into the world, nor a death and ending for his narrative. He was mystery, enigma, and phantom all in one. It was very difficult to reconcile the tangibility of his extraordinarily successful writing career (24 novels published between 1928 and 1940) yet a real-life identity without a beginning or end.
I became more and more worried for Mike when it became clear Mike had been the victim of a cruel deception by being made to falsely grieve for his father when a small child, and that his mother was implicated in this devastating discovery.
But the perplexing mixture of espionage, intelligence and crime was tempered by the discovery of relatives and a bigger family who welcomed and loved him.
MASTERPIECE: Why do you think Alison and Dorothy chose to conceal the truth (what they knew of it) from their children for so long?
CROOK: It was the love for their children. They wished to protect them from scandal and shame. The values of their time were so different from the present day. Secrets and lies to maintain the illusion of love and respect for their father. In a non-digital age such concealment was easier to achieve.
MASTERPIECE: Even after learning about Alec and his secrets, all of his children still seem to remember him as a good father. Can you describe his relationship with his children?
CROOK: He was a devoted father. He loved and adored them. He enchanted them with imaginative storytelling, moral guidance, respect for their mothers, and he invested in them confidence, dreams and ambition. The tragedy is that in taking on so many commitments to the women he loved and children he fathered, time and resources became divided into smaller parcels of commitment.
MASTERPIECE: Despite the many answers you found in your research, there are still questions left about Alexander Wilson’s work and history. What do you most wish you could find an answer to about Alec’s past?
CROOK: I would like to have access to everything about him in British state files and documents held by the Security Service MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, and Metropolitan Police Special Branch.
Ideally, I would like access to a personal diary he never wrote, and an interview with him he can never give, and, of course, the chance to speak candidly to Gladys, Dorothy, Alison and Elizabeth.
I believe the clue to his almost pathological desire to love too much and not so wisely lies in the autobiographical novel Confessions of a Scoundrel published in 1933.
He writes so truthfully in the first person about the trauma of a first true love for a woman called Clarice who was in an unfulfilled marriage with a gay man.
She and the narrator have had a terrible row caused by his jealousy. She decides to go to a back-street abortionist when pregnant with his child, and dies from septicemia.
I suspect only a man who has experienced this could write it so well. I wish I had access to documents and interviews in order to prove this to be the truth of Alexander Wilson’s past.
MASTERPIECE: Do you think, at any point, Alec felt any regrets about the secret lives he was leading?
CROOK: I am sure he did. I think he grieved terribly over having to die from the life of his son Michael. I believe he also grieved similarly in relation to his last son Douglas whom he never saw again after his mother took him to Scotland. I believe he must have felt that for too long in his life he was flying a flimsy First World War mono or bi-plane in high winds, and unable to manage or understand the controls, would inevitably crash to the ground ignominiously.
This is what he told a Lieutenant-General in 1940 had actually happened to him in 1914 in the first year of the Royal Naval Air Service. Whether what he said was true or not, it’s certainly a self-conscious metaphor and understanding of the flaws and failings in his own character.
Patriotism, love, and the lure and thrill of adventure would overwhelm him. Sadly, he was not the only person hurting. The women he loved and the children he fathered would also be casualties of his addiction to misadventure.
Tim Crook is the author of The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent. To learn more about Tim Crook, his book, and Alexander Wilson, visit alexanderwilsonauthorandspy.com.