Cleeve, Brian Talbot (1921–2003), writer and broadcaster, was born 22 November 1921 in Thorpe Bay, Essex, England, second of three sons of Charles Edward Cleeve (1891–1966), businessman, and the first of his four wives, Josephine (née Talbot) (d. 1924), daughter of an Essex estate agent. He had three step‐siblings by his father’s second marriage, and a half‐brother by the third. Brian was a great‐nephew of Thomas Henry Cleeve (qv) (1844–1908), the Canadian‐born founder of the Condensed Milk Co. of Ireland; based at Lansdowne in Limerick city, by the early twentieth century the firm commanded a network of factories and creameries throughout Munster, and marketed processed dairy products throughout the UK and British empire. Brian’s grandfather, Frederick Cleeve (1851–1928), succeeded as the firm’s managing director on his brother Thomas’s death. Charles Cleeve, Brian’s father – who served in the first world war in the Royal Army Service Corps, was awarded an OBE (1916), was wounded, and rose to the rank of major – worked for the British branch of the family firm, ownership of which he retained after the collapse and liquidation of the Irish operation in the early 1920s, and which he managed for the rest of his career.
After his mother’s death in his early childhood, Brian Cleeve was reared till age eight by his elderly maternal grandparents in Southend‐on‐Sea. He was educated as a boarder at Selwyn House, a preparatory school in Broadstairs, Kent (1930–35), and at St Edward’s, a public school in Oxford (1935–8), spending school holidays with his father in London. In summer 1938, aged 16, he ran off to sea as a commis waiter on the Queen Mary, working six weeks on the Southampton–New York run. After working in domestic service in London, he enlisted as a private in the Cameron Highlanders (December 1938). Selected for officer training at Aldershot, he was commissioned second lieutenant (May 1940), and was assigned to the King’s African Rifles, attached to headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. In September 1941 he was court‐martialled on charges arising from his remarks critical of military authorities after witnessing ill treatment of black prisoners. Cashiered and sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, while in Wakefield prison he was recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) as a counter‐intelligence agent, on the supposition that his problematic military record would deflect suspicion. From September 1942 he worked as a merchant seaman, on ships plying the Irish Sea, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and south Atlantic, spying on suspected Axis agents in ports of call.
Moving to Dublin after the war (1945–7), he secured irregular employment (including brief involvement in black market trading), and wrote an unpublished novel. He married (September 1945, three weeks after his proposal on their second date) Veronica McAdie (d. 1999), a hairdresser; they would have two daughters. After living briefly in London and Sweden, he emigrated with his wife and infant daughter to South Africa, first sailing on an oil tanker to the West Indies, where he sold advertising to earn their passage money on a cargo ship to Cape Town, arriving in May 1948. He and his wife devised a successful enterprise, Destiny Perfumes – each bottle was sold with a horoscope appropriate to the customer’s astrological sun sign – which they continued after moving to Johannesburg, and retailed throughout the country. He was employed as sub‐Saharan representative by Skoda Works, the state‐owned Czech engineering firm (1951–3), which sent him on two extensive business trips, to east and to west Africa.
His first published novel, The far hills (1952), a roman à clef about his period in Dublin, portrays a motley assortment of lower‐middle‐class characters; the protagonists yearn to escape the shabby drudgery of post‐war Ireland. Published in the UK, the book was banned in Ireland for its mild sexual content. He followed with Portrait of my city (1953), set in Johannesburg, and including passages depicting the condition of the non‐white population. Birth of a dark soul (1954; US title, The night winds) dealt more extensively with apartheid, with explicit descriptions of police brutality against black prisoners, and a sexual relationship between a white businessman and a young coloured woman (inter‐racial sexual relations were illegal in the country). Already under suspicion by the authorities (owing to his associations with anti‐apartheid radicals, and his employment by an eastern bloc firm), Cleeve was deported as an ‘undesirable inhabitant’ (1954), one of the first immigrants to be expelled from South Africa after the introduction of the apartheid system.
Returning to Dublin, Cleeve worked as a sub‐editor on the newly launched Evening Press (1954–6), and as script writer for the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake sponsored programme on Radio Éireann (1956–60). Having completed a degree course at the University of South Africa before his expulsion (1954), he was awarded a Ph.D. at UCD for a thesis on the origins of the Hamlet story (1956). He was captain of UCD fencing club, and twice épée fencing champion of Ireland (1957, 1959). After writing three unpublished novels, he enjoyed considerable success placing short stories in general and specialist magazines. In the fifteen years from 1955 he sold some 100 stories, many of which were republished in other English‐speaking countries, and translated into other European languages. He found an especially lucrative market for such work when his story ‘Passport to darkness’ was published in the USA in the prestigious Saturday Evening Post (September 1956), the first of twenty‐seven of his stories published by the magazine till its demise; his last story for the Post, ‘Foxer’ (December 1965), received an Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America. Other chief publishers of his stories were the English weekly John Bull, and the English fantasy magazine Argosy. A selection of his Post stories was published as The horse thieves of Ballysaggert (1966).
When a Cold War spy thriller that he intended for magazine serialisation was rejected, Cleeve published it as a novel, Assignment to vengeance (1961). Thus encouraged to return to the novel form, he wrote two murder mysteries, Death of a painted lady (1962) and Death of a wicked servant (1963). He wrote a series of espionage novels around the character Sean Ryan, a jailed IRA man who accepts parole to work for British intelligence. In Vote X for treason (1964) Ryan infiltrates a neo‐Nazi organisation; Dark blood, dark terror (1966) involves South African politics; The Judas goat (1966) is based on the Profumo affair; Violent death of a bitter Englishman (1967) involves a right‐wing plot to incite racial violence in Britain. Emulating Graham Greene more than Ian Fleming, Cleeve aspired to write ‘a thriller that has a moral point of view; that makes a comment on society’ (quoted in Bruce, 166). His flawed anti‐hero operates in unglamorous, seedy locations, engages in messy violence, suffers bouts of fear, and grapples with moral dilemmas.
Cleeve continued to write in a range of genres. You must never go back (1968) and Exit from Prague (1970) are thrillers with political backgrounds. Cry of morning (1971; US title, The triumph of O’Rourke) is a blockbuster epic of mid‐twentieth‐century Ireland, with a vast dramatis personae representing the panoply of Irish society, and a plot scathing in its depiction of power structures and political corruption. His next three novels had Irish settings, and brooding protagonists suffering psychological alienation: Tread softly in this place (1972), The dark side of the sun (1973), and A question of inheritance (1974). Cleeve made a big splash in the lucrative international paperback market with a series of four historical novels, each with an eponymous heroine: Sara (1975), Kate (1977), and Judith (1977) are set in Regency England, while Hester (1978) is set in post‐1789 France. He co‐wrote several television plays produced by Irish and British stations; ‘Comeback’, which aired 4 February 1962, was the first play specifically written for Telefís Éireann. He adapted three of his novels into serialised radio plays for RTÉ and the BBC (1971–2).
Though an author of marketable popular fiction, Cleeve was an adept craftsman, who wrote with economy and wit, and eschewed cliché in plot, characterisation, resolution, and diction. His short stories tend to optimism, their protagonists finding unexpected strengths of idealism, heroism, and resourcefulness when faced with crises. His novels are in a darker mood, cynical in their depiction of human behaviour and motive. Despite their British and Irish characters and settings, most of his novels generated better sales, more favourable and prescient critical reception, and academic interest in the USA. In 1965 Cleeve, on request, donated his literary papers to Boston University, where they are reposited in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.
Cleeve’s Dictionary of Irish writers was published by Mercier Press (1967–72) in three volumes, successively treating writers of fiction, poetry, and drama in English; writers of non‐fiction; and writers in Irish. While a comprehensive selection of the living and the dead, the work allots more substantial treatment to the lesser known, about whom biographical information was less readily available. A second edition, written in collaboration with Anne M. Brady, was published in one volume as A biographical dictionary of Irish writers (1985). His other non‐fiction titles include W. B. Yeats and the designing of Ireland’s coinage (1972), and two works of popular social history and observation: 1938: a world vanishing (1982) and A view of the Irish (1983).
One of the first persons recruited to the Irish television service, Telefís Éireann, Cleeve was an interviewer on the nightly current affairs magazine programme ‘Broadsheet’ (1962–3). He scripted and narrated ‘Discovery’ (1964–6), a series of weekly half‐hour documentaries, each exploring a facet of contemporary Irish life, usually within a particular institution, workplace, or location: Dublin airport, a fishing trawler, the Liffey from source to sea. He won a Jacob’s television award for his work on the programme (December 1964). During the second season the programme veered toward treatment of social issues: inside Mountjoy prison, life in a travellers’ caravan. In January 1966 he was abruptly dropped as narrator, ostensibly because his speaking voice was deemed unsuitable – a reason interpreted by the press as criticism of his ‘public school’ accent; the Irish Times queried whether it was no longer acceptable to speak like Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) or Erskine Childers (qv) (1870–1922). Attempting clarification, the station explained that Cleeve’s voice was too light in tone for off‐camera narration.
Cleeve was one of the first three presenters of the controversial political and current affairs programme ‘Seven days’, launched in September 1966. When responsibility for the programme was transferred to RTÉ’s news division (February 1968) – seen as a manoeuvre designed to curb the programme’s autonomy – Cleeve joined fellow staff in refusing to work on further editions. The following month he resigned from the programme, regarding the negotiated resolution as a capitulation, not a compromise (the transfer proceeded, but the programme’s staff remained separate from news division staff).
Cleeve fronted several programmes in the documentary series ‘Into Europe’ (1968), examining life and attitudes in various European countries against the background of Ireland’s application (ultimately unsuccessful) for EEC membership. Though he remained under RTÉ contract till 1971, and was employed freelance on specific projects till 1973, after 1968 his work with the station was irregular, marginal, and transitory; in March 1973 he was informed that RTÉ had no further work for him. His last programme for the station to be broadcast, a documentary on the poet Francis Ledwidge (qv) entitled ‘Behind the closed eye’ (February 1973), subsequently won two awards at the Prague International Television Festival.
Cleeve had converted to Roman catholicism while on shore leave in Boston as a merchant seaman in 1942. From the mid 1950s he regarded his convictions as agnostic. Suffering acute depression, anguish, and despondency, in summer 1977 he had the first of many mystical experiences, which substantially altered the direction of his life and career. He resumed catholic belief and practice (temporarily – he ceased practice when the church failed to investigate what he regarded as the ‘murder’ of Pope John Paul I), and modified aspects of his lifestyle. He published three books of mystical spirituality: The house on the rock (1980), The seven mansions (1980), and The fourth Mary (1982). Their critical reception was a mixture of perplexity, incredulity, and cynicism. Cleeve claimed guidance by a ‘presence’, with whom he communicated in an inner dialogue, and who by degrees guided him to direct communication with the feminine personification of God’s Will. Written in question‐and‐answer format, The house on the rock is a record of Cleeve’s purported conversations with the Will of God; the title spent several weeks atop the Irish non‐fiction bestseller list after Cleeve’s appearance on RTÉ television’s ‘Late, late show’. The three books attracted a cult following, with whom Cleeve maintained a copious correspondence, purporting to guide people along the spiritual path of obedience to God’s Will. Cleeve’s ideas are a highly individualistic amalgam of a heterodox Christianity, conservative council‐sceptic catholicism, a Gravesean devotion to a feminine deity, and millenarian prophecy. His last book, Invitation to a spiritual life (2001), was published on the internet.
From 1957 Cleeve lived in a converted mews coachhouse at 60 Heytesbury Lane, Ballsbridge, Dublin; in the early 1970s he purchased a holiday home in Co. Wexford. After his wife’s death in 1999, he lived in Shankill, Co. Dublin. He married secondly (2001) Patricia (Pat) Diamond, a recently widowed legal secretary who, along with her husband, had been one of his spiritual correspondents. He died 11 March 2003 in St Columcille’s hospital, Loughlinstown, Co. Dublin. A memoir, Faithful servant, by Jim Bruce, includes a comprehensive list of his published and unpublished writings.