Saturday, 26 December 2009

Writers on war

Back in the 1960s, the Vietnam War was the Cold War equivalent of today's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: American-led, hugely-divisive, expensive (in terms of money and lives on both sides), multi-national and contextualised - certainly on the American's side - as part of a wider geopolitical struggle. In the case of Vietnam, this was the effort to prevent the domino effect of south east Asian states toppling to communist rule. Vietnam was a major topic of debate and discussion by the elites and the wider public in the sixties, but one conducted in an era of communications before the Internet when debate was dominated by the printed page. It was a polarising conflict.

I recently came across a fascinating snapshot of contemporary opinion on Vietnam in a book entitled Authors Take Sides on Vietnam, edited in 1967 by US literary editors Cecil Woolf and John Bagguley. Prompted by the example of W H Auden in 1937 -  who invited one hundred and fifty British and American authors to say whether they were for or against the Republican government in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and published the results in a pamphlet Authors Takes Sides on the Spanish War - these two writers repeated the process with Vietnam, seeking opinion and viewpoints from many of the leading literary figures of the day. Each contributor was asked two simple questions:"Are you for, or against the intervention of the United States in Vietnam?" and "How, in your opinion, should the conflict in Vietnam be resolved?"

Len Deighton is one of those who gave his opinion in this book. His entry is reproduced below:

"The US intervention in Vietnam was neither benign nor clever. The present situation is morally wrong as well as exceedingly dangerous, but it would be a mistake to imagine that there is now any lasting solution that would be quick or easy, or one that can be described in a few words. There are men of bad will on both sides who wish the war to continue and public statements by individuals or groups often cynically utilised by such men. Antiwar sentiments of an oversimplified, ingenuous type can have the reverse effect of the one intended."

But Deighton's is only one of more than a hundred and fifty other voices from the cultural voices of the 'sixties, many of which are far more black and white in their expressions of support or disdain for the conflict. There are some fascinating contributions in the book from famous western writers: some tremendously insightful, some incredibly näive and misguided.

Graham Greene, for example, opposed the war and dismissed the link to an international communist threat: "The excuse of containing communism assumes that communism everywhere is evil. Anyone with any experience of Vietnam knows this is not the case."

Philosopher Bertrand Russell took a firmer stand, his comments echoing many of the sterner critics of George W Bush's foreign policy: "I regard the policy makers in Washington who preside over both the aggression and the atrocity to be war criminals, in the precise send laid down at the Nuremburg trials."

Daphne du Maurier, on the other hand, offered up a refreshingly straightforward and no nonsense response, as a novelist, to the realities of Cold War geo-politics: "Although I am in principle against the intervention of the United States or any other power in the war in Vietnam, I do not feel I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject to make a statement." (If only some of today's celebrity commentators were so self-aware!)

Poet Kathleen Raine too was equivocal: "I think America must hold the frontiers against communism, and Vietnam is at present the scene of a conflict which might become a great deal worse if America were to withdraw."

Fast forward to today. Replace Vietnam with Afghanistan and it could be argued that this range of assessment is broadly similar to what one would find today. Afghanistan has become a proxy for a wider political debate - particularly in the US - around the idea of a new cultural conflict between West and East, but this time the East is the East of Islam. Islam has replaced communism in much of the media discourse in the US as the archetypal 'other', the external threat to the status quo. But unlike the Cold War threat from communism, the 11 September attacks in 2001 and others since showed the potential for a 'hot' war of low-level conflict close to home. While al Qaeda may be seeking the destruction of the west, in the terminology of Cold War systems analysis its battle with the West is assymetric in the extreme.

The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts and the fight against the indicated threat from global terrorism too have attracted comment from writers, much like in the above book. Martin Amis, for example, in his book The Second Plane tackled the nihilism of the Islamist death cult and the threat facing America; Christopher Hitchens, while no friend of George W Bush, in the last decade became a vociferous and brilliantly incisive polemicist on the new global war, defending the principle behind the toppling of Saddam Hussein and taking issue with the cultural relativists who seem immune to the realities of life under the middle ages sensibility of the Taliban or the experiences of ordinary Iraqis under Saddam. Hollywood actors too like Sean Penn and Martin Sheen have been vocal opponents in the press and on TV of America's position.

What has changed is that the Internet has made volumes like Authors Take Sides on Vietnam largely superfluous in the modern age. Now, through global media, opinions are instantly communicated and with the explosion of blogging and social networking, everyone seems to want to express that opinion. Perhaps Facebook or Twitter is now the modern equivalent of the anti-war pamphlet? Opposition to the war can be expressed directly, instantly; it does not require an editor to collate and present it in book form months later. Commentary has been democratised. Whether this has improved the quality of the discussion within the political elites or among the cognoscenti, however, is debatable.

Did these interjections in the sixties from the artistic elite make any different to the course of events? Difficult to say, but clearly those who saw their job as making sense of and portraying the world around us - in fiction or non-fiction form - clearly felt the urge to contribute to the wider public debate. That is still valid now.

As an interesting postscript to this story, Deighton did in the 'sixties contemplate writing a spy thriller novel around the Vietnam theme (aside from Berlin, Vietnam was the other obvious totem of Cold War tensions in the sixties and seventies). However, the closest he got was a short story called 'First Base' in his collection of 12 short stories based around military themes, Declarations of War. The story follows two solders, Dutch and Des, who discover an abandoned US air base in the Vietnamese jungle full of stores meant for the conflict. After crashing their track on the base, Dutch is seriously injured, and the two men must wait in the base for what they hope will be their eventual rescue. It is fascinating to contemplate what a Deighton Vietnam novel would have turned out like - Harry Palmer in the jungle, or something more akin to Mamista?

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The inevitable end of year 'top ten' list

In today's Guardian food writer Nigel Slater has picked his top ten food books of the year.

In amongst them is Harper Collins' reissue of Len Deighton's Action Cook Book, the only cookery book any self-respecting chap needs to get him through life!


A journalist on The Bournemouth Echo also thinks that the reissue of the Action Cook Book is one of the coolest cookbooks out there.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The reissues (7) - Billion-Dollar Brain; soundtrack redux

First published in 1966 by Jonathan Cape, Billion-Dollar Brain was Len Deighton's fourth novel in the 'secret file' series featuring the unnamed spy, who would later become famous as Michael Caine's Harry Palmer. Set largely in the Baltic, Palmer - his career seemingly on the skids - is given a lifeline with a job by the mysterious Midwinter, whose computer 'Brain' apparently holds the secret to defeating communism. What follows is a lesson in the lengths to ideology and money can lead a man.

The new introduction
Readers will find some interesting new observations from Deighton in this new edition, with most anecdotes new rather than reproductions of stories from the jubilee editions (see last blog on the reissues). With this fourth novel, Deighton went far behind the iron curtain both thematically and in reality. The lengths to which Deighton legendarily went to research his books and get right the details which authenticate his narratives are recounted here, as he recalls the troubles he took to get to visit Riga in Latvia, where much of the action takes place. Back in the sixties, travel to the East was heavily controlled and outside the purview of most westerners. Deighton's impressions of Soviet Latvia seem now, in the twenty-first century, chillingly evocative of a recent history many of us have forgotten. Back in the sixties, it was all too real:

"This satellite of the Soviet Union, deep behind the iron curtain, and in a region the Russians considered strategically vital, was astonishing. The wartime England in which I'd grown up was a dismal and deprived place but visiting Riga at that time was like a giant step back in time. The people in wartime England had never lost their underlying optimism that one day the war would be won, and good times restored. But the city of Riga was a quite different environment; a large prison camp with an occupying Russian army arresting anyone who smiled." During his visits Deighton writes how he was accompanied at all times by an interpreter/guide and was closely watched until it was determined he was not a threat to the soviets!

Deighton recounts how with this book he was settling into his stride as an author and carving out his own writing and characterisation techniques which would pay dividends through the rest of his career, but which ran up against literary norms of the time. "This was my fourth book and I needed to keep a close watch on the characters, some of whom had appeared in other books and might take part in future ones. Writing has always been hard work for me but I was beginning to enjoy the fun that made the hard work worthwhile. I am not a natural writer; I am a natural reviewer and rewriter and rewriter. Editors and publishers ... pressed me to conform to the orthodox methods of 'popular fiction'. For instance, they were united in expecting a full description of each character at the first entrance. I resisted all this fiercely."

Deighton made a decision to re-introduce and build up the character of Harvey Newbegin, who had made a brief appearance in Funeral in Berlin, as a counterpoint to the unnamed spy character, in the manner that Conan Doyle's Watson provided a story telling device for the Sherlock Holmes character (Deighton was a Holmes fan), a character who can keep the plot moving along through dialogue and retelling, and draw out new aspects of the lead character. Dawlish was a London man, not the sort of character who would share adventures with the lead character deep in Soviet Russia; for this, Deighton needed someone more adventurous, a more rogueish and mysterious figure. "But few readers will hold hands with Harvey in the way that they would with Doyle's Watson or my Dawlish. So who was there to like? The reader had only the hero. But as it turned out, I needn't have worried. Despite his many faults the reader like the hero."

Overall, this is one of the more interesting new introductions by Deighton. Though only five pages long, with the scarcity of previous articles and biographical by and about Deighton in the last few years, it's interesting to find some new perspectives you haven't read before.

The new design

In the sixties, Deighton's publishers had sent to booksellers an envelope containing a letter and various bits of ephemera from Finland and Riga which were symbolic of some of the key locations and scenes in the book, as part of the marketing push. Included in this envelope (see picture) was a facsimile of a notebook by Deighton, in which he records some of the details and images which would make the narrative such a compelling read.

Arnold Schwartzman's theme of the chessboard decorated with associated ephemeral items associated with the characters brings that to mind. Again, he's created another iconic front cover, for which he provides some interesting notes in this edition. Colonel Stok is a significant character in this novel again, at the heart of Soviet efforts to defend communism from General Midwinter, and elements of the front cover point to his character: "KGB officer Colonel Alexeyevitch Stok's relish for caviar is matched only by his scholarly passion for the works of Robert Burns. A portrait of the poet sits beside a pack of Russian cigarettes illustrated with a map of the Soviet Union. The pack provides a haven for the "Red" pawn." The bronze bust of Lenin rests on a box of computer punch-cards and a cen

The (new) soundtrack

Less immediately catchy than the John Barry soundtrack to The Ipcress File with its haunting zither theme, Richard Rodney Bennett's rousing score to Ken Russell's adaptation of Billion Dollar Brain certainly has much to commend it. Label Kritzerland has just released a 1000-copy limited edition of the soundtrack and it's well worth a listen.

Bennett uses a full orchestra, with up to three pianos and a lot of brass. This strident tone comes across well with the theme for the scenes in the church and in the opening title sequence around King's Cross when 'Harry Palmer' walks to his office above a shop and receives the telephone message from the computer, offering a new freelance intelligence job.

Interestingly, the tracks on the album are out of sequence with the associated scenes in the film, but it doesn't detract from an album that does capture the nordic iciness and the insanity of General Midwinter's headlong rush to bring down communism in the Baltic States. It is also the only album I know of which uses an instrument called an Ondes Martenot, a keyboard instrument rather like a Theremin; this gives the wispy refrain associated with Anya, the Soviet agent who tracks Harry Palmer to Helsinki, and the trips they make by skidoo to the island house where Palmer meets old friend Harvey Newbegin.

Friday, 11 December 2009

A new perspective on Fleming and Deighton

007 Magazine's latest edition, now in its thirtieth year, has in its latest edition a very interesting article - accompanied by some great press photos taken for the Daily Express - of the time when Len Deighton, creator of 'Harry Palmer' and Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, met over lunch.

In 1963, when The Ipcress File was riding high in the sales charts - Fleming had chosen it as one of his books of the year - Deighton was very much the arriviste in the spy fiction world. Peter Evans of the Daily Express brought the two authors together over lunch in The White Tower restaurant on Charlotte Street (together with designer Raymond Hawkey, though he is rarely mentioned in the subsequent article). This is quite a famous interview, which appeared in For Bond Lovers Only in 1965, along with the images reproduced in the magazine.

The magazine's editors have got quite a coup by getting Len Deighton to write a few words of recollection about this interview. Fans of both Deighton and Bond will be fascinated to read the new detail about this auspicious meeting. Sample quote from Deighton's new contribution:

"He [Fleming] was fussy about his food and wine and he knew I was writing about food in The Observer newspaper. I seem to remember we talked a lot about the menu before ordering the meal."

The magazine retails at £9.99 online. Well worth a look.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The André Deutsch archive

André Deutsch was one of the most familiar names in British publishing until its independent status was lost when it became part of the Carlton Imprint. Started by Hungarian emigré Deutsch in 1952, the company went on to publish works by some of the most seminal writers of the second half of the twentieth century, writers like Jack Kerouac, Margaret Attwood and Norman Mailer.

Len Deighton, recent graduate of St Martin's School of Art and the Royal Academy, was one of Deutsch's go-to designers for both book covers (Deighton famously designed the front cover for the UK first edition of Jack Kerouac's On the Road) and other marketing work for the company between 1956 and 1963, after which he turned full time to writing.

Much of his design work is still unknown and rarely seen. A recent visit to the UK André Deutsch archive at Oxford Brookes University led me to uncover the full range of covers which Deighton designed for the André Deutsch book catalogues, all of which demonstrate his distinctive use of black outlining and contrasting colour.

A selection of them is reproduced below:

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The reissues (6) - Horse Under Water

I've been a bit tardy in following up on my plans to review the next four of the new reissues by Harper Collins of Len Deighton's first four novels. So, to rectify that, here's the spec on the new edition of his second ever novel, Horse Under Water, the only one of the Harry Palmer novels not filmed (more's the pity).

The new introduction
The story is, unlike The Ipcress File which precedes it, a less familiar part of the popular culture of the sixties thanks mostly to the aforementioned lack of a film adaptation (as a result of the lacklustre reception to the - in my opinion rather good actually - Ken Russell film of Billion Dollar Brain). Nevertheless, Deighton repeats the successful formula of the 'Harry Palmer' series in this book, which transports our working class, sardonic, wise-cracking un-named agent to the shores of Salazar's Portugal, where he finds a heady cocktail of hard drugs, money and neo-Nazis.

In his new introduction, much is - in fact - well, not new. More....recycled. Many of the anecdotes are familiar to those who have the 25th anniversary editions, but re-told and re-worded. Deighton in his publicity and his retelling of his career is wont to repeat old favourites, shall we say. Perhaps, in retirement, one can forgive the old man the chance to embellish, rather than start from scratch!

Deighton recalls how his decision to use a sunken submarine as a central motif sprang from his lifelong love of military machinery (about which he has written extensively). So, here he re-tells the tale of his time spent in the Imperial War Museum looking at newly released German maritime records on advances in undersea warfare, and spending so much time with them he ended up cataloguing them. He goes on: "At the time, I had no idea that the notes I made would be used for anything other than my interest in history. It was during my stay in Portugal [on holiday], when I was asking local people about German activity there during the war, that I recalled all that underwater material. The book's plot fell into place and I started writing."

In choosing to use again the unnamed character from his first novel, Deighton recalls that he recognised then the advantages that could bring him as an author. Again, a subject touched upon in his previous commentary on the book, but here with some subtle changes: "I had not named the hero of The Ipcress File. A Canadian book-reviewer said it was symbolic and pretentious but in fact it was indecision. Now, writing a second book, I found it an advantage to have an anonymous hero. He might be the same man; or maybe not. I was able to make minor changes to him and his background. The changes had to be minor ones for the W.O.O.C.(P). office was still in Charlotte Street and Dawlish was still the hero's 'chief'. There were very few modifications but I realised that (although Deighton is a Yorkshire name, and I had lived briefly in the city of York) identifying him as a northerner would make demands on my knowledge that I could not sustain. It would be more sensible to give him a background closer to my own." There are, certainly, in a thorough reading of the character, autobiographical elements of Deighton which come through.

Finally, he writes about his - now legendary - approach to researching the subjects of his novels and getting as much practical as well as historical knowledge under his belt: "Having no underwater skills, knowledge or experience, I went to the Royal Navy and asked for help. Everyone at the Admiralty was one hundred per cent helpful. They sent me to the Royal Navy's diving school and this experience is described here more or less as it happened. It was only when I was half-way through the course, and up to my neck in water on the ladder of the diving tank, that I confessed I could not swim. They were shocked and apprehensive about it on my behalf, but as I said: 'What is the point of wearing all this scuba gear if you can manage without it?'"

The design
Continuing his chessboard theme set with the first novel in this series, Arnold Schwartzman OBE RDI again presents a fascinating smorgasbord of ephemeral items, each of which points to a story motif. So, on the front cover the readers finds a cornucopia of clues which whet the appetite. A tin of sardines (empty) represents the Portuguese coast, as does a cigarette card of said sardine. But, as Schwartzman notes: "Finding a contemporary, key-opened Portuguese sardine tin became virtually impossible. Discovering the illustration of a sardine on a cigarette card and crested souvenir spoon form Lisbon became much easier, thanks to eBay!"

As he has told me in correspondence about these designs, much of his time was indeed spent sourcing numerous items from around the world, in his search for authentic items which would capture the sixties feel he wanted in the design. The 1960s Times newspaper, open at the crossword, links to the fact that the protagonist is regularly completing such a puzzle; indeed, in the sixties, first editions of the book came with a laid-in crossword puzzle which readers could solve based on clues in the book.

As with the four other books in this reissue series, the spine image is of a postage stamp which picks out a core theme in the book. On this cover, it is a U-Boat. On the back, there is another nautical clue. As Schwartzman explains: "The group of cigarette cards on the back of the cover spells out in semaphore K.U.Z.I.G. and Y. The nautical interpretation of these letters is referred to in the book as 'Permission granted to lay alongside.'"

A fantastic cover worthy of sitting alongside the original Ray Hawkey cover from the sixties, I think. Schwartzman put a significant amount of work into this commission from Deighton, and it works in making the novel appear contemporary to the average book browser, even though the story is now over forty years old.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Looking down the back of the literary sofa...

Friend of this blog and one of the UK's top thriller writers Mike Ripley has a brand new venture out which seeks to resurrect long-lost literary gems from the archives.

Ostara Publishing’s new imprint Top Notch Thrillers aims to revive Great British thrillers which do not deserve to be forgotten. A recent news release informs me that each title has been carefully selected not just for its plot or sense of adventure but for the distinctiveness and sheer quality of its writing. Mike - author of the award-winning ‘Angel’ comic thrillers and former crime fiction critic of the Daily Telegraph - will be the series editor. He currently writes the Getting Away With Murder column for the e-zine Shots which is linked to on this blog.

Says Ripley, of this new venture: “There is a staggering variety of style and breadth of imagination in British thriller writing which is in danger of slipping from popular memory. I think of the Sixties and Seventies as a Golden Age for British thrillers, much as the 1930s were for the detective story. The big names are still remembered, if only just – writers such as Alistair Maclean, Len Deighton and Gavin Lyall – but many are unjustly forgotten. It is a labour of love for me to bring back some of the favourite titles of my youth and put them before a new generation of readers before it’s too late.

The first four Top Notch Thrillers, published this month, are Snake Water by Alan Williams, The Terrible Door by George Sims, Night of Glass by Philip Purser and A Clear Road to Archangel by Geoffrey Rose. Eight more titles are expected in 2010.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Callan is no more...

Sad to hear of the death of TV actor Edward Woodward at age 79. He was best remembered for The Whicker Man and as David Callan, secret agent and hitman performing assassinations for the UK secret service in Callan, first shown on ITV in the 1970s but repeated a number of times.

Apropos of nothing, my mother apparently sat next to Woodward in class when at school!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Competition - win a copy of Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer

Below on the blog is my review of Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, whose work is marketed as appealing to fans of Len Deighton books.

His publishers Elliott and Thompson have kindly given me a brand new paperback copy of the book to give away to Deighton Dossier blog readers who can answer this simple question:

What is the latin genus of the common grey squirrel? [Read the relevant link to the Telegraph story in the review to understand the squirrel link!]

The contest is open until 30 November 2009. Entries are by email through the main Deighton Dossier website or through this blog (via my profile) or via deightondossier [at] me [dot] com.

No other prize is available
The site owner's decision is final
No correspondence will be entered into concerning this competition
Only one entry per person
Winner will be notified by email

Spy fiction review: Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer

I blogged recently about a new book which I'd been sent by the publisher - Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, author and enemy of squirrels everywhere - which had an intriguing strapline, "One man left behind in East Berlin" and publishing blurb which said any fan of Len Deighton's work would enjoy this book. Well, there's a challenge. I've reviewed the book below and included a brief Q and A session which Rod Brammer kindly provided for me after an interesting - and revealing - interview over the 'phone.

Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, Elliott and Thompson £7.99, ISBN 978-1-9040-2772-0

This is the second book following the exploits of Royal Naval intelligence officer Keith Finlay. Set in the sixties, twenty-six year old Lieutenant Finlay is charged by his Admiralty bosses with going over the wire into East Berlin - or in this case, struggle under it - through the....frankly...shit of the Berlin sewer system, to meet up with a scientist who can provide British intelligence with a copy of a new type of Red Army bullet capable of cutting through Britain's tank armour.

Having read Jeremy Duns' excellent Free Agent earlier this year which also goes back to the an unknown corner of the Cold War in the sixties for inspiration, I saw parallels with this book. In the case of Dismissed Dead, the unknown corner is the soviet republic of Turkmenistan in central Asia, where Keith Finlay is held in a Soviet army hospital having been captured during a firefight at the East German border in which, selflessly, his comrade-in-arms Major Patrick Canavan helps him get the bullet back to the British forces on the other side of the fence, but is subsequently killed. The guilt lays heavy on him. Finlay is presumed killed in action - his personnel file marked "Dismissed Dead" - and, out of sight and out of mind from the British secret service, he has to win a battle of wills with the lead KGB interrogator and the attentions of the luscious - but duplicitous - female KGB spy/nurse Daria.

Naturally - like all good secret agents should - he succumbs to her sexual charms before - through a UK mole in the hospital staff - contact is made with the secret service which must exfiltrate him, disguised as a shepherd travelling anonymously through the dangerous hillsides of Afghanistan - so, nothing changes there - and get him back to the UK where, psychologically scarred, Finlay has to assess his motivations as an agent and re-establish relations with his family who - his aunt aside - already consider him dead.

The majority of this book takes place not in Berlin, as the title and cover would suggest, but in the Turkmen hospital where Finlay has to deal with the psychological terrors of Soviet torture. So, that was a bit of a surprise - I think Berlin is always a great character in itself in any Cold War spy novel - but Brammer does nevertheless create a convincingly claustrophobic  atmosphere in the KGB hospital.

It's obvious from reading this part of the book that much of the harsh reality of the treatment of enemy agents - and the moral and physical strength required to sustain hope thousands of miles behind enemy lines - comes either from Brammer's own direct experiences as an agent or is based on real operations undertaken by British agents at the height of the Cold War. Rather like Len Deighton's novels, the story is augmented and supported by realism and demonstration of believable detail. You can sense the anguish and pain Finlay goes through.

Keith Finlay - welcomingly politically incorrect and womanising (though Guardian readers would call him sexist!) and in the mould of a Harry Palmer character - but from the hunting rather than the football classes - is a tough, no-nonsense agent who regularly rubs up authority the wrong way and does things his own way (it would be a poor spy story in which any agent followed the rules and health and safety guidance!). He has the stomach to not only survive but escape Soviet capture and regain his freedom and his mind. At times, the character felt very autobiographical - perhaps a little too much with some of the family back story and figures of speech - and his 1960s view of the world, while authentic, may jar a little with modern readers. But, there's real scope for development with this character, who is both apparently an extraordinarily effective agent but also full of doubt about whether the role he performs is right.

Heir to Deighton? Well, no. And I don't think the author would necessarily say so either; that's the marketing team talking. Nevertheless, he has the benefit of some fantastic experiences - and characters - from his own career to fall back on in developing this character. His book is a good straightforward spy story, a plane or train thriller that has enough to sustain it.

I finished with some questions about gaps in the understanding of Finlay's character, but that is probably a function of my not having read the first book and the fact that - as the author indicates below - this is a story over a number of books in which the full impact of Keith Finlay's career choice - and the competing pulls of family and country - play out.

Q and A with Rod Brammer, author

Having read the book, Rod was kind enough to chat to me over the phone and give some insight into his career as a naval intelligence officer and to help me understand the extent to which his life and career has nourished the character and stories of Keith Finlay, naval intelligence operative. Much of what Rod told me about his life in naval intelligence I cannot probably safely reveal, but he did spin magnificent tales of the times he met Ian Fleming - of course, himself a former naval intelligence officer - and the genesis of the James Bond character, another agent who was known to Rod. Anyway, I asked Rod to respond to a number of questions which occurred to me upon reading this, his second book:

Deighton Dossier: How much of the character Keith Finlay is based on yourself?
Rod Brammer: This is the most frequently asked question about the books. My answer is invariably the same: as much as you yourself want it to be. The detailed portrayal of the world of sixties' Whitehall, and the disdain the main character shows for the non-service personnel, is easily explained. In the main, civil servants have neither the education, vision, breadth of knowledge or the training to think laterally, everything is therefore done in straight lines. They simply "follow the yellow brick road.”

DDThe torture scenes in the book, when Finlay is interrogated by his case officer Gregor, were pretty convincing. Were they drawn from any particular experiences or true stories?
RB: That particular section of Dismissed Dead was actually written thirty years ago, and was largely taken from the original de-briefing notes. These notes are held in a solicitors safe, in Winchester, Hampshire, to be given to my family after I pop my clogs. In fact, I cannot now remember what I wrote in that section of the book -  I have never read it since it was printed. I refused to proof read it or even look at it. Well, would you want to go back there?

The character of Keith Finlay is sixty seven now. The physical scars are mainly faded - the mental ones not. The next book, Too few to mention, covers some aspects of torture visited on a colleague of his, who was sent home in a body bag. In my books I am keen that the reader knows the true cost sometimes visited on intelligence agents, in order that the population at large can sleep safe in their beds.

DD: One of the trends in modern spy fiction I see is that the lead characters are often flawed individuals, whose hang-ups and personal life frequently help define the tone and direction of the plot. How would you describe Keith Finlay's flaws?
RB: Character is defined in childhood. If you read A Flag on the Abbey [the first Keith Finlay adventure] you will see that his upbringing was unconventional by today’s standards. He probably thought - if in fact he ever thought about such things - that his life was entirely normal. Using the vernacular of the period, Finlay’s family are “landed gentry”, certainly not nouveau riche. He was raised by a doting, autocratic aunt, an extremely beautiful lady of outspoken attitudes, who described the Prime Minister of the time as a “dreadful little oike.” Finlay was created as outspoken and bluntly to the point. He has the capacity to offender, but his attitude to those in authority or in his life whom he offends is pretty disdainful. Finlay has been described as being as "politically correct as a cluster bomb". He had - and still has - a weakness for girls in jodhpurs.

DD: Though the front cover portrays Berlin, the bulk of the story takes place in central Asia. Why did you choose to develop this theme in the plot, where Finlay plays the long-game in central Asia while captive in a KGB hospital.
RB: In my experience, when an operation goes wrong - as Operation Kingstone does in the book - it is much the same as throwing a bucket of milk on concrete. It runs everywhere and cannot be controlled. So an agent has to adapt to it, rather than fight against it.

DD: When compared with modern agents like those portrayed in BBC's Spooks series, your character of Finlay is a middle class, middle England, public school, womaniser. In this politically correct, sanitised age, is there still demand for such an old-school character from modern readers?
RB: I am glad you asked that question. Finlay would answer with malicious glee when he talks about what he thinks of the Foreign Office and MI6.  He would describe FCO and MI6 staff as a 'bunch of pansies'; to be fair, in my experience these types would often in turn refer to members of the recce group as 'knuckle draggers'. In the fifties and sixties the only place where a boy could get a decent education was a public school. Finlay would not hold in high regard the middle class types who are now running things.

DD: What next for Finlay?
RB: There are going to be eight books in the Finlay series. Already completed are
A Flag on the AbbeyDismissed Dead and The Corncrake Man. Book three, currently titled Too few to mention, is almost completed. It details Finlay’s homecoming and his one year’s sick leave which in fact doesn’t happen. In four months he is called back, dealing with the beginnings of the IRA campaign in the UK. This is a disaster for the section, as two men are brought home in body bags from France. They had been working on the anti drugs job; their deaths were horrible. A short interlude is called for - Finlay deals brutally with the drug barons. He is no longer the happy-go-lucky operative he was, not after Kingstone.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner...

...of the Deighton Dossier's Berlin Wall anniversary competition.

Ari-Pekka Sihvonen was picked out of the hat from those who provided the correct answer to the length of the Berlin Wall (155 km). He wins a copy of the DVD telling the history of the wall and the many escape attempts across it.

Thanks to everyone who entered.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Twenty years ago today....

The more one reads about the history of the GDR and its huge security and espionage apparatus, the more one marvels at the manner of its demise: part people's revolution, part bureaucratic screw-up.

Twenty years ago today, GDR Politburo member Günter Schabowski gave his famous press conference in which he read out a statement concerning changes to the state law regarding travel outside the GDR for its citizens:

"Privatreisen nach dem Ausland können ohne Vorliegen von Voraussetzungen (Reiseanlässe und Verwandtschaftsverhältnisse) beantragt werden. Die Genehmigungen werden kurzfristig erteilt. Ständige Ausreisen können über alle Grenzübergangsstellen der DDR zur BRD beziehungsweise zu Berlin (West) erfolgen."

[Simple translation] "Private travel into foreign countries can be requested without conditions. Permission will be granted instantly. Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR into the FRG or Berlin (West)."

He jumped the gun, however, the commencement of the new travel law not being scheduled until the following day and the border guards and Stasi not in a state of readiness to deal with the consequences. Unsure of what the schedule was, he improvised. Never did an ad hoc decision - to advise the media the law was effective immediately - has such a stupendous effect on modern history. The law was in effect straightaway - "ab sofort".

This was an unprecedented change by the SED, and was clearly a major measure in response to the months of street demonstrations and meetings by citizens proclaiming "Wir sind das Volk (we are the people)." From a country that has spent the last twenty-nine years investing enormous sums of money in keeping its people in, to now hear proposals for a loosening of travel restrictions brought utter astonishment, not least to the journalists listening to Günter Schabowski's hasty press conference.

The people didn't hestitate for further clarification, and the system which upheld the Cold War was fatally flawed.

Sometimes, fact is definitely more dramatic than fiction. I'm not sure if any of the great spy fiction writers could have drafted such a dramatic denouement.

Reproduced below is the text of that press conference. It makes for fascinating reading:

Friday, 6 November 2009

Another Cobra in the nest*

Armstrong Sabian over at Mister 8 has advised that we have another new member of the CO.B.R.A.S. stable (Coalition of Bloggers wRiting About Spies). The Illustrated OO7 is Peter Lorenz' blog looking at all thing Fleming and Bond-related from a design and book history perspective - he's clearly an avid collector. I'd encourage readers of this blog to take a trip over to Peter's and check out some of the great images that are up there.

* ...that's assuming Cobras live in nests!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Deighton File on Radio 4 again

Today on BBC Radio 4 The Deighton File - the 30 minutes radio documentary about the life and work of Len Deighton first broadcast in May 2009 - was re-broadcast. It will be available for another week to listen to on iPlayer. It's worth listening to to hear some new angles on familiar stories and understand how Deighton developed some of his key characters.

This was an excellent piece of storytelling by the producer Patrick Humphries, who as well as interviewing Deighton - his first broadcast interview for a few years - talks to Edward Milward-Oliver, novelist Jeremy Duns and Sir Max Hastings among others about the significance of Deighton's works and their impact on popular culture.

The illustrator's art - Penguin

One of the lesser known aspects of Len Deighton's world is his pre-Ipcress File career as a designer and illustrator of note. In the fifties, Deighton - along with a number of contemporaries who went on to define the sixties avant garde and supported the massive cultural changes centred around Soho - was a graduate of the Royal Academy and for a time a freelance illustrator. One of his commissions was from Penguin publishers, for whom he went on to produce a number of covers for novels such as The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.

I recently purchased a book by the Penguin Collectors Society called Penguin by Illustrators, which is an interesting review of Penguin's place in the development of the book cover from the perspective of the designers and illustrators who maintained and developed the distinctive Penguin brand. Contributors to the book include design luminaries such as Quentin Blake, Jan Pienkowski and Alasdair Gray, as well as Deighton himself. The book itself charts the development of the distinctive Penguin design, from the horizontal striped design to the switch to a vertical design, and the shift from black & white line designs to full colour illustrations in the sixties and seventies. Flicking through it are some familiar covers for authors such as George Orwell, Roald Dahl and E. M. Foster.

Deighton's two-page contribution covers his role as consultant, anthologist, designer and illustrator for Penguin. Here's an extract:
"Long, long ago I lived in Central London. I was easy to reach. I delivered on time, and had never been known to turn away a paid job. I became an artist of last resort and often faced ferocious deadlines: 'I know it's Friday afternoon, Len, but we need it Monday morning so I'll get the proof round to you tonight ... or maybe first thing in the morning.' At Penguin, my drawings were seldom modified by orders from above - maybe they should have been. Not enough time, I suppose.
The result was a mixed bunch of covers; from them I recall John Wain's Hurry on Down, my Budd Schulberg cover for The Disenchanted and Iris Murdoch's Under the Net as being reasonably successful. The colour bands went from horizontal to vertical to make more room for cover drawings, many of which were hurriedly produced and not good enough. While money and time were lavished upon typographic perfection the artist was the last in line when it came to fees.
The advantages of using commissioned illustrations comes from the artist's skill and experience. While cover illustrations and books can vary immensely, photographs will always resemble other photographs. What photographs can equal the drawings by Paul Hogarth for Graham Greene and George Orwell, the ones that David Gentleman did for C.P. Snow's books, Romek Marber's cover for Simenon?
The cover should bring a subtle and intimate promise of what the writer has contrived: not a display of pyrotechnics."
For anyone interested in the contribution that illustrators and designers make to the success of any book, this book offers an excellent insight.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Heirs to Deighton? (2) - Rod Brammer

With each generation there come onto the scene writers in any genre of fiction who seek to mark out their own literary literary, take the genre down fresh pathways and give the reader something new to enjoy. But inevitably - and most would admit this - their writing is also influenced to a lesser or greater degree by the writers they themselves have read, devoured and been inspired by.

The publishing industry - recognising the marketing value of making links back to established icons of a genre - will often refer to an author as "the new XX" in their blurb. Clearly, most new writers want to be the new themselves but it's flattering and a great marketing boost to be compared to one of the acknowledged masters of a genre.

In the case of Len Deighton - now enjoying semi-retirement, and why not! - the question for fans of his books and the spy fiction genre more generally is: where do we turn for the same sort of thrill. Who can we consider an "heir to Deighton"? We already know that new writer Jeremy Duns - he of the excellent Free Agent novel published earlier this year - has been compared to Deighton; indeed, such a fan is he of Len's work that Jeremy contributed to the Deighton 80th birthday documentary on Radio 4.

I've been made aware of another contender to this crown. Elliott and Thompson publishers have alerted me to Rod Brammer, whose second novel Dismissed Dead was published just recently. A former naval intelligence officer, Rod has written a Cold War spy thriller set in East Berlin (that's already a plus), Russia and the UK. Brammer follows in the long line of Le Carré and Maugham and other intelligence operatives who have used their inside knowledge to create storylines that bristle with authenticity.

Brammer's agent hero, Keith Finlay (who featured in Brammer's first novel A Flag on the Abbey, a book I haven't enjoyed yet) is caught up in the world of espionage with a mission to meet a German professor who will help him smuggle a secret bullet prototype out of Berlin (echoes of Funeral in Berlin or Bullet to Beijing?). Captured by the Russians and subjected to brutal interrogration, and presumed dead by those back home, Finlay faces his toughest challenge yet.

Sounds fascinating. A review copy of the book is on the way and I aim to have a review of it up here on the Deighton Dossier blog. It already sounds to have all the ingredients of a great Cold War thriller and I'm sure Brammer's intelligence background will add tonnes of authenticity.

His publishers, in their marketing spiel, say this of Brammer: "Thrilling and suspenseful throughout, Dismissed Dead will appeal to lovers of the work of John Le Carré, Len Deighton and those intrigued by the mysterious world of Cold War espionage."

If anyone's read the book already and has thoughts on it - and how well it compares to Deighton's and Le Carré's novels - do leave comments on the blog. I'll share my thoughts when I've got through the book. Be interesting to hear anyone's opinion on what differentiates the work of the spy-turned-writer from that of the regular fiction novelist.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Der Mauerfall/The Berlin Wall's fall - a competition

"Like a skewer through a shish kebab" was how Len Deighton described the Berlin Wall in Berlin Game, bisecting the city and dividing the two sides and creating a permanent open wound between the two Germanies which kept the Cold War 'hot' for 29 years. The Wall also became a leitmotif in popular spy fiction and in the movies and its symbolic presence still resonates through the genre, even if only fragments remain of the original wall and memories among Berliners fade.

The 9th November is the anniversary of the Mauerfall, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its fall led to the swift demise of the East German regime, no longer able to keep its population from fleeing to the West. I thought I'd run a little competition for readers of this blog to mark this momentous event. The prize is a region-free DVD entitled The Berlin Wall: escape to freedom [run time 50 minutes, produced by Pegasus DVD] which documents not just the building of the wall - with some impressive graphic representations of its construction and operation - but also the many heroic attempts to cross it.

To win this DVD, answer this question:

To within the nearest 2 kms, how long was the Berlin Wall?

The prize will be drawn on or after 9 November 2009.

Entries can be sent to me at deightondossier-at-me-dot-com (you'll obviously need to convert that to standard format) or via the Deighton Dossier website.

Good luck.

No other prize is available
The site owner's decision is final
No correspondence will be entered into concerning this competition
Only one entry per person
Winner will be notified by email

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The reissues (5) - The Ipcress File

As previously mentioned on this blog, Harper Collins is drip feeding onto the book market a steady series of re-issues of all of Len Deighton's fiction output. The process began in May with XPD, Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse and SS-GB, all editions carrying a new introduction by Len Deighton himself and sporting new front covers by his friend and associate, designer Arnold Schwartzman.

October has seen the launch of four more reissues, perfectly timed for the Christmas market - a Deighton novel is one images an easily marketable gift item. The first of the reissues covered on this blog is The Ipcress File, Deighton's first novel.

The new introduction
The story is familiar and, thanks to the film adaptation, firmly part of the canon of modern spy fiction. This is the book which introduced to readers the working class, sardonic, wise-cracking un-named agent who thanks to Harry Saltzman and Michael Caine has become universally recognised as 'Harry Palmer'. The milieu in which much of the book is set is swinging sixties London, particularly Soho and Victoria. In his new introduction, Deighton writes he drew heavily upon his time in London in creating the backdrop to the agent's work in the capital: "After completing two and a half years of military service I had been, for three years, a student at St. Martin's School of Art in Charing Cross Road. I am a Londoner. I grew up in Marylebone and one art school started I rented a tiny grubby room around the corner from the art school. This cut my travelling time to five minutes. I got to know Soho very well indeed. I knew it by day and by night. I was on hello, how are you? terms with the 'ladies', the restaurateurs, the gangsters and the bent coppers. When, after some years as an illustrator I wrote The Ipcress File much of its description of Soho was the observed life of an art student resident there." It becomes clear in the retelling of the creation of the Harry Palmer character just how much of Deighton's own life and experiences shaped it, except in one way. In the book, the character comes from Burnley (in the film, naturally, with Caine he became a Cockney). Deighton adds: "I suppose that intervention marked on tiny reluctance to depict myself exactly as I was. Perhaps this spy fellow is not me after all." He also replicated in the office banter with colleagues in W.O.O.C.(P). the atmosphere of his time as an art director in a Soho advertising agency, exchanging barbs with Eton-educated colleagues in their plush private members clubs.

Deighton gives some interesting perspectives on the books that he read which fuelled his creativity and drew him towards the written word and away from design: "At school, having proved to be a total dud at any form of sport - and most other things - I read every book in sight. There was no system to my reading, nor even a pattern of selection. I remember reading Plato's The Republic with the same keen attention and superficial understanding as I read Chandler's The Big Sleep and H.G. Wells' The Outline of History and both volumes of The Letters of Gertrude Bell. I filled notebooks as I encountered ideas and opinions that were new to me, and I vividly remember how excited I was to discover that The Oxford Universal Dictionary incorporated thousands of quotations from the greatest of great writers."

Interestingly, when I read this new introduction it felt familiar, and indeed shares much in common with the last Deighton introduction for a special edition, that for the silver jubilee edition in 1987. This reflects a frequent tendency of the author when recounting of his career and his writing to give away little new information in articles, books, forewords or interviews, and draw instead on a store of existing anecdotes which do often bear re-telling anyway.

The design
Harper Collins and Deighton pulled off a masterstroke in asking Arnold Schwartzman, a major international design figure, to create new front covers for these reissues. Ever since Raymond Hawkey stunned the book and design world with his cover for The Ipcress File - the use of large amounts of white, the use of B&W photography, the striking visual design and innovative typography were symptomatic of the new design wave in the UK led by Deighton and his art school contemporaries - Deighton's books have often represented innovation in book cover design. These new editions follow in that tradition.

The covers of all four 'Palmer' reissues have two central themes: the chessboard, the classic metaphor for the 'game' of espionage and counter-spying (which Deighton uses to full effect in Horse Under Water), and smoking, which was an essential element of popular culture during the Cold War.

Schwartzman provides an insight into his approach to the design for The Ipcress File. Each design element on the front cover points to a key theme in the book: "In seeking an appropriate ashtray, to carry through the 'smoking' theme, I accidentally came across a unique piece shaped like a hand gun, so I aimed it at a red chess pawn, which represents Ipcress's 'Red' Cold War antagonist." It's great fun looking across the design to identify the meticulous approach to symbolism that Schwartzman's employed: the Aquarius cigarette lighter is a reference to Deighton's use of the protagonists' horoscope to introduce each chapter; the syringe with made in the GDR obviously point to the use of psychotropic drugs to induce the psychosis central to the antagonist's plans to brainwash British scientists; the Savoy Hotel coat ticket references his and Deighton's shared affection for the famous London hotel. The fingerprints are Schwartzman's own, taken by a police sergeant in the 1970s as part of a design commission for The Sunday Times.

The pattern of shared symbolism across all four novels continues on the spine, where each of the four books has a stamp motif - in this case a Russian 4 kopek stamp commemorating the former Soviet spy Richard Sorge. Cigarette cards on the back cover depict military insignia from National Service, harking back to the protagonists background in the Army where he was involved in the black market, prior to being press ganged into W.O.O.C.(P).

He acknowledges Raymond Hawkey's original, iconic cover with the use of the gun-shaped ashtray mirroring the gun used in the original, and the retention of the wooden type font logotype used. Overall, the design elements capture perfectly the development of the consumer culture in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and serve as an excellent visual smogasbord to the complex - sometimes over complex - plot which Deighton weaves in the text.

The Ipcress File, Harper Collins 2009, RRP £7.99, ISBN 978-0-586-02619-9.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Interesting video series on Guardian Unlimited

The Guardian newspaper's website Guardian Unlimited has been running an interesting series of interviews and videos about the Berlin Wall and its demise in 1989, the anniversary of which is coming up soon. Can it really be 20 years since der Mauerfall?

There are an interesting range of videos on offer, all about five minutes; today's is about the night the wall came down and is full of interesting anecdotes from Berliners on both sides of the wall, on the night when the Cold War to all intents and purposes ended. Other videos give a revealing insight into what it was like to live in the shadow of the Wall on both sides of "the bleakest most brutal and inhuman bits of masonry ever built."

Fascinating stuff.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (2)

This blog continues my efforts to mine some of the hidden nuggets of insight and intelligence provided by Len Deighton in his forewords to the rare Silver Jubilee editions of his first 19 major works of fiction from 1987. A key point here is the phrase in Grafton's publicity 'major works'. There is one key omission - the book Only When I Larf, which was not reproduced in this set even though it was a significant seller (perhaps this was because it didn't appear in the US until 1987?). It should by rights come after An Expensive Place to Die.

In any case, here are the next three books. For each, I've picked out some of the most interesting things we learn from these forewords.

4. Billion-Dollar Brain (1966)
His fourth novel, continuing the story of the unnamed narrator ('Harry Palmer' in the movie adaptations) who, having moved on from W.O.O.C.P. is now freelancing as an agent for the Midwinter organisation (before being 'required' to work for the organisation again) which was set up to bring about the downfall of communism through running agents into Latvia. This is a complex story of intrigue, double crosses and the nascent impact of computer technology on the espionage world and society more broadly. It's success in the sales charts grew upon the impact of the three earlier novels and also the first film, aided by an innovative marketing campaign by the publishers Jonathan Cape involving the sending from Helsinki of hundreds of letters to the press and booksellers, purporting to be from Deighton and containing a notebook outlining his research behind the book and ephemera associated with Helsinki, the main location for the story.

Deighton, on a book defined as much by its locations as its characters: " I have always believed that the setting of a book must control the action. Typically, television uses its locations as an afterthought: a story using American characters in a typically American plot is outlined, and then someone says how about setting this one somewhere really exotic. The result is inevitably banal. For this reason I have always drafted my stories after going to see the proposed location.

And the settings I chose for this story were dramatic. The history of the Baltic communities has always interested me. At the time not many tourists visited the Soviet Republic of Latvia, and the ones who went did not choose to travel in the depths of winter. But I found it all rather staggering; the sight of a frozen sea with cars driving upon it was a sight I shall never forget. And the city of Riga was a world apart.

Having lived in New York City [Deighton had worked there as an advertising executive, albeit for a short time] I was pleased for an excuse to go back and see it again, and Texas hospitality is always exemplary. The story was planned to squeeze maximum value from the claustrophobia of the big city, and exploit the wide feeling of the cattle country, as well as the obvious contrast of heat and cold."

On the organisation of his research and character notes in preparation for writing, in the days before word processors and the Internet made collating everything together a doddle: " I was always looking for some new system which would allow me to write more efficiently and more quickly. Perhaps it was as well that I didn't know that it would never get any easier or quicker. For this book I decided that a file index system would help me organise my plot and I equipped myself with many large filing cards of various colours, a big box into which they fitted and a lot of tabs that would help me find the one I wanted. Although this contraption seems comical to me now, it was a help to have a filing card with cross references for research, and a card or card for each character, especially now that some of the same characters (Harvey Newbegin, Colonel Stok and the hero) had appeared in other books."

On the ambiguity inherent in continuing to use his unnamed spy hero as narrator, and the benefits this gave him in plot and character development: "The reader was not supposed to believe everything this first person narrative said, the reader was expected to judge it to some extent, as we judge the veracity of our friends when talking to us. I had started writing The Ipcress File with this idea and all the similar books after it employ the same device, and demand the same interpretation from the reader.

Although a Dr Watson was not essential to this sort of story, I was working towards the idea that a figure close to the 'hero' provides a simple and effective measure of explaining the plot through dialogue. Also I was beginning to wonder if the hero figure in my books was too unusual and eccentric for readers to identify with.

In some of the earlier books Dawlish - the hero's boss - had been a figure of sanity, a normal intelligent character who says the things that have to be said. In Billion-Dollar Brain, Harvey Newbegin (a minor character from Funeral in Berlin) provides the second half of a double act for explanatory purposes. But Harvey is not a character with whom many readers will identify, and Dawlish is now a long way away. For the time being the problem remained: the reader had to put up with the hero. But, as it turned out, the problem was solving itself. Despite all those built-in faults, readers actually liked him."

5. An Expensive Place to Die (1967)
Deighton's fifth novel continues with the device of an unnamed narrator; the reader is drawn into thinking by textual clues that this is the same narrator from the first four novels, though this is always implied and never explicitly stated. Such ambiguity was a feature of these books and it extended to some of the later novels with unnamed narrators which readers assumed were the same character, such as Spy Story and Yesterday's Spy. They were not, but in the foreword for this book Deighton confirms that An Expensive Place to Die was the "fifth and last in a sequence that began with The Ipcress File."

On setting the novel in Paris, a city he'd first visited as a teenager just after the Second World War: "I'd been to Paris many times before, of course. My first visit was back in 1946 when the black market was running wild and everyone was telling me that you could get exactly half a pound of finely ground coffee into a Lee Enfield rifle. That was the first time I'd been out of Britain. I was very young and my memories are vivid. I was staying in a squalid hotel in Place Blanche, and wondering if everywhere 'abroad' was like this. In those days I got mixed up with a good-natured gang of crooks, and my first acquaintance with Paris was the underworld. Many years later I met a Paris cop from the vice squad who took me back to all the places I knew, and quite a few more. It was this second tour of the seamier parts of Paris that made me start to write An Expensive Place to Die."

On his first abortive attempt to use Paris as a setting for a new story: " My first idea for a book about Paris was that it should be about the 'collections'. I'd once been a photographer and I knew many photographers [Deighton's photographic career began in RAF intelligence, taking photos from a Mosquito plane]. So I went with my photographer friends to Paris, to get the inside story of the fashion business. It was fascinating stuff - beautiful women and exquisite dresses, and the most cosmopolitan workforce imaginable. Many other writers could have used that wonderful opportunity to write a story. But I could not get it worked out satisfactorily. I abandoned the small gilt chairs of the 'collections' and went back to find my old Paris."

6. Bomber (1970)
Many readers and critics regard this as Deighton's magnum opus; it was chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of his top 100 works of fiction of the twentieth century and was turned into a landmark radio play by the BBC which was broadcast in real time on Radio 4 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war.

On the origins of writing Bomber as a work of fiction, Deighton's first thought being to write a non-fiction work about the wartime bombing raids over Germany and developing a narrative drawing on is long-standing passion for aeroplanes and the importance of the fast developments of technology in shaping the outcome of the Second World War, about which he'd written in a series of articles for the Sunday Times Magazine: "It was a chance remark by a fellow-writer, Julian Symons, that triggered the idea that took me back to writing again [after Deighton has spent a couple of years writing and producing the anti-war film Oh! What a Lovely War.] He told me that I was the only person he could think of who actually liked machines. I had been saying that machines are simply machines. When the bank tells you that their computer made a mistake, they are not telling the truth: machines cannot make mistakes (and to say they do imbues them with human qualities they patently don't possess) - the computer simply has a fault. Few such faults deduct a neat ten pounds fifty pence from your balance, more likely it spews a hundred zeros or prints gobbledygook. If there is an error it's been put into the computer by a careless operator. In that respect, I'll defend machines.

That conversation set me thinking again about the bombing raids. And about writing a book about them. The technology was complex but not so complex as to be incomprehensible. Suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation fought the machines of another? The epitome of such a battle must be the radar war fought in pitch darkness. To what extent could I use my idea to depict the night bombing war? Would there be a danger that such a theme would eliminate the human content of the book?"

On the crucial importance of lengthy and in-depth research to getting the technical aspects of the planes and the raids right, as this was important for framing the development of the large cast of characters whose lives were interlinked by the technology: "One large room in my home was almost entirely devoted to the project. I collected everything I could find: photos, books, letters, reports and tape recordings of interviews. One wall was almost covered with an aeronautical chart of northern Europe upon which the whole raid was plotted. Also there were target maps, air photos, briefings, teleprinter order and very big sectional drawings of the three different aircraft types.

I spent a long time talking to German in the region where my fictional raid was set - Westphalia - and also met many German ex-servicemen: night fighter pilots, controllers, commanders and flak gunners. The Dutch let me visit a military airfield, still in use but virtually unchanged since 1943. I'd flown in Lancasters and Mosquitos during my time in the RAF and I knew many, many veterans of Bomber Command. The BBC let me listen to recordings of aircrew. (This was very useful for getting the dialogue right and checking the wartime slang and syntax). The Imperial War Museum gave me all sorts of help and ended up showing me a roomful of German instructional films which I could look at without charge, providing I catalogued them. (This provided me with wonderful instructional films about the Junkers 88, which proved vitally important in the writing of the book.)

The next three books in this Silver Jubilee edition series are Declarations of War, Close-Up and Spy Story.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Competition, finally? Well, not quite...

I've come across this website on the Internet.

It purports to be a fansite about Len Deighton. It has very little original content in it and seems primarily just to be a series of links.

I suspect that, given the url - - someone's been very clever and could be cyber-sitting the website url.

Nothing much for the Deighton Dossier to fear here.

Spy Fiction and Spy Fact - the connections

Interesting article in The Times from May 2009 by friend of this blog Jeremy Duns, who has re-tweeted about it (?!). He demonstrates that the creation of the MI-5 service in the UK - about which I'm reading currently in the excellent Defence of the Realm book - was in part influenced by the mania before and during the First World War for spy fiction, particularly stories about the threat of German espionage. Colonel James Edmonds was friends with William Le Queux, a writer who'd written a novel about the existence of German spy rings in the UK in a novel called The Spies of the Kaiser.

Duns goes on to recount how the path of spy fiction's growth mirrored closely the real-life development of the secret service during the thirties, when Somerset Maugham (himself an agent) and Eric Ambler set the scene for the genre to develop further as a form of fiction. Bringing his review into the sixties, Duns writes about the twist in the genre, with the uncovering of the Cambridge spy ring leading to a trend for stories about 'moles' by Deighton and others in the sixties and seventies. Despite the ending of the Cold War leading to the 'retirement' of some spy fiction authors, Duns notes a renaissance in the genre with in particular the Bourne films and the books of both Alan Furst and, of course, his good self, with the great reception for his Free Agent book.

An excellent article by Jeremy. Hat-tip to him, as the custom is nowadays (though few bloggers, in my experience, actually wear hats).

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (1)

Recently I managed to get hold of a full set of all nineteen Silver Jubilee paperback limited editions of all of Deighton's fiction books up to 1987. Produced by Grafton to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of Deighton's The Ipcress File, these editions - like the current new editions published in 2009 to mark the author's 80th birthday - contain an introduction by the author, each of which explains in some detail the origins and development of each book he'd written up to that point.

Some of the stories had been seen before in interviews and publicity material, but much of the insight was definitely new and gave the reader at the time a new perspective on familiar and much-loved stories: for example, Deighton confirmed that the main character in Spy Story - though it would appear from the text he is the same 'unnamed narrator' in the first four ('Harry Palmer') novels - is not the same character, though he bears some resemblance and works for the same organisation, W.O.O.C.P.

I thought I'd extract and reproduce below some of the most interesting vignettes from these forewords:

1. The Ipcress File
Deighton on his influences: 'At the time I wrote The Ipcress File I'd never read any of the James Bond books, and John Le Carré's Spy Who Came in From The Cold was still something to come in the distant future. My enthusiasm for Raymond Chandler, Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham is perhaps evident.'

On his roots as a working class Londoner and various critics' interpretation of the interplay of class and class envy in his characters: 'Memory plays tricks but it's probably true to say that the interplay between the characters was inspired by the brief period I spent working in a London advertising agency. [Deighton had been a designer and creative director after leaving the Royal Academy of Art, London] I was the 'technician' surrounded by clever witty young men who'd been to Eton together. I transplanted this scene, with added friction, into an intelligence agency office.

Some readers interpreted the book as a working-class crusade against private education. To some extent I was labelled. Later even my Bomber book was misinterpreted by some, and more recently the 'Game, Set & Match' trilogy has been seen as an attack on Oxbridge and all it stands for. This is not my intention and it never has been. I'd always had great sympathy for the people who'd had to put up with this intractable hero. Misunderstanding arises only if the reader accepts the hero's narrative as the objective truth. It is not the truth, there is not exact truth. What happened in The Ipcress File (and all my other stories recounted in the first person) is to be found somewhere in the uncertainty that the opinions of all characters provide.'

On the inevitable comparisons in the media between his 'unnamed spy' hero and Ian Fleming's James Bond character: 'At about the time that The Ipcress File was published the first James Bond film came out. My book got very generous reviews so that a friend of mine was moved to tell me that some critics has used me as a blunt instrument to batter Ian Fleming over the head.'

On his career switch from designer as a writer: 'I don't know exactly when I first felt myself to be a professional writer. When I looked back afterwards I found that even at college [St Martin's College and then the Royal Academy of Arts] my sketch books were getting more and more cluttered with written notes. Perhaps it was inevitable that I turned from drawing to writing. I am not sorry. No one ever gave an artist a chance to provide excuses for mistakes he made twenty-five years ago.'

2. Horse Under Water
On writing the difficult 'second book': 'Horse Under Water was my second book and I started writing it a month after signing the contract for The Ipcress File. I started it for the same reason that I started the rest of them: I was dissatisfied with my previous effort and I wanted to do better. Like most writers I become aware of a book's fault the moment it's taken away from me to go to the printer. By the time a book actually appears I dislike it more than any critic can.

A second book is widely believed to be the acid test of a writer, the one that decides if the first success was just a flash in the pan. My first book - The Ipcress File - still wasn't published by the time I went along to the publisher with the draft of my second one. The publisher wasn't encouraging. They sent me away with the book unread. It was their policy, they told me solemnly, never to even consider a 'second book' until they'd seen the sales of the first.'

On the value of extensive research to create believable characters and story lines: 'For me, the best part of doing the job is doing the research. The best research is done by talking to people but inevitably one sooner or later has to go to a library. For Horse I spent many hours in the library of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. It was within walking distance of where I was living [Deighton had a flat in 29 Merrick Square near Borough, south London]. To add to my pleasure the library was being completely reorganised and the library staff provided me with a table and chair in the middle of all the chaos. It was wonderful! These unusual circumstances gave me a chance to go along the shelves finding documents and books that I didn't know existed. Some of the underwater warfare material had only just been downgraded to declassified and often they had trouble getting me to go home at night.'

On the decision to make the main character - who subsequently became known as Harry Palmer in the movie version - anonymous: 'After this second book was published I was frequently asked why the hero had no name. One Canadian reviewer told his readers that I'd claimed it was symbolic. There was nothing symbolic as far as I was concerned but I did have a hang-up at the idea of the author's name being different to the name of the narrator. This was an absurd reason but I couldn't dismiss it and by the time I got to the end of my first book I still hadn't named the hero. I was relieved to find that the publishers of The Ipcress File were happy to leave him unnamed, so I kept him anonymous.

There were advantages to having an anonymous hero. He might or might not be the same man. [Subsequently, in book like Yesterday's Spy and Spy Story, many readers assumed that the narrator, also unnamed, was the same hero from the first four novels. Deighton subsequently confirmed this was not the case, but his use of anonymisation created this sense of ambiguity and tension with the reader which gave him dramatic licence to hint at connections which may, or may not, be there.] This gave me a chance to make minor modifications as and when I wanted them. Looking back now it was capricious to say that he was from the northern town of Burnley. I had picked the place at random having remembered it on parcels I'd sorted for the post office while on vacation jobs from college. Burnley I found to be a lively, noisy town with delightfully friendly people. But the man from my story couldn't have come from here: could he? [In the film of the book Harry Palmer was played by a cockney, Michael Caine, and in hindsight it's surely the case that the character wouldn't have worked so well with a broad Lancashire accent].

3. Funeral in Berlin

On encountering the realities of Communist security in his research trips for this, his third novel: 'I'd already decided to drive to Czechoslovakia and use Prague as a setting for a book, now I decided to drive north from there and stay a little while in Berlin. It was a fateful decision, for Berlin has played a part in my life ever since.

If I tell you that I was taken to police headquarters in a remote part of Czechoslovakia's Tatra mountains and a week later picked up by a Russian Army motorway patrol and taken to their military police barracks, you might think I go around looking for trouble. I am the sort of innocent to whom things happen. In Czechoslovakia I'd provided myself with a visa to go camping. It gave me the sort of freedom of movement I always liked to have. I didn't want to book a series of hotel rooms and plan my journey in advance.... Alas the Czechoslovakian authorities were not flexible in such matters. If I had a camping visa, why was I staying in hotels? It was too cold for camping. Yes, but...! Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, these are all varying triumphs for the bureaucrat. But the Czechs treated me with great courtesy and when I showed no hurry to escape their clutches I was even showed round their extensive premises.'

On the lengthy delays experienced with the Russian border patrol guards on entering East Berlin, when problems with his visa for Berlin were identified - the destination had not been filled in by Czech officialdom - leading to his being held at the border; and his unusual approach to thawing East-West tensions: 'I will always remember the young Russian officer who spent an hour alternately questioning me and telephoning on a rather primitive phone that was obviously the army's old network still strung up from wartime. He finally stared at me for a long time, smiled and made a phone call in halting German explaining that it had all been a mistake. Now that he had looked closely at the visa it did say Berlin. Everything was in order. He would send an army vehicle with me to see that I found my way to the Adlon [East Berlin's swankiest hotel right by the Brandenburg Gate, hang-out of senior Nazis and diplomats during the war, and Communist generals thereafter]. He hung up the phone, smiled again, and gave me my passport. 'Alles in Ordnung' he told me. Luckily I had a bottle of brandy that I'd got from a duty free shop on the border. I gave it to him feeling that we'd delivered a minor setback to the international bureaucrats who are taking over the entire world.'

The next blog in this series, when it's up, will provide extracts from the forewords from Billion-Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place to Die and Bomber.