Saturday, 5 July 2014

Guest post part 2 - The 'new' Horse Under Water

A horse, indeed, under water
I’ve always been very fond of Deighton’s novel, Horse Under Water. This despite the fact that I could never quite bring myself to believe that a submersible weather buoy from 1945 would still be working when Harry Palmer and Petty Officer Edwards scoop it out of the sea at the end of the novel.

It seems that no modern energy storage system, never mind a 1945 system, could allow such a device to surface every 12 hours. Len doesn’t go into details but I assumed that such a machine would be like a small submarine with a floodable chamber to make it sink and a compressed air cylinder to clear that chamber of water to make it surface again. The air cylinder would then have to be replenished, on the surface, ready for the next dive/surface cycle 12 hours later. So the system would need either a diesel engine or a large electric motor in order to recharge the compressed air tank. Either way the required supply of diesel, and/or battery power stretched my credibility.

However, the image of this tireless machine traveling twice a day from the sea bed up to the surface is really too striking to abandon. So it’s fun to speculate what the Horse in the ‘lost‘ Harry Palmer film would be like. So when was the book set? Having retrieved the thing they have to chisel a couple of bolts off, ‘but that’s only to be expected after more than a decade under water’. So, is there a way to keep a submersible weather buoy going until 1963, when the book was published?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Guest post: 'Divine mysteries' by Terry Kidd

The Deighton Dossier is pleased to share a perspective on Len Deighton's fiction from reader and correspondent Terry Kidd.

"There was a time when much of British fiction was about the upper classes. Working class people, when they appeared at all, were part of the furniture: servants, drivers, uniformed policemen. Even children’s comics, widely read by working class kids according to George Orwell, were filled with stories set in imagined public schools such as Billy Bunter’s Grayfriars and filled with the children of the aristocracy. British fiction eventually did change, but how did this happen?

The answer is alluded to in the opening section of Len Deighton’s novel, Bomber. In this section, the RAF characters are introduced. They are visiting the home of the parents of ‘Kosher’ Cohen. Sam Lambert is talking with Cohen’s father. The older man, referring to Britain’s new found martial vigor, suggests that, for the sake of victory, the British ‘will almost forgo their class system.’

By the time of the novels setting, mid-1943, the British public school system, which had long provided all the men needed to run both the British military and the empire, could no longer satisfy the enormously thirst for manpower required to sustain the war effort. To be selected as an officer it had been enough to have been a member of the cadet force of a public school. But, in the early war years, the British military had performed abysmally. Finally scientific selection testing was introduced and by the 1943 the services were recruited talented middle class kids as officers. In some exceptional cases even working class men attained commissioned rank following battlefield promotions. The changes that expediency forced on the British military eventually found a similar expression in wider British society, some twenty years later.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Lunch with Len .....

A very pleasant - unexpected - lunch yesterday with Len and his friend and fellow writer Mike Ripley in central London, at a very nice, tucked away Japanese restaurant.

Len was in town doing various bits and pieces, so we had a general chit chat about all manner of things regarding his books, the film industry, the new edition of Blitzkrieg and many other subjects over two hours. What I learned:

  • Len's not aware of any new developments regarding the outstanding TV/film options where rights have been agreed. Bomber is still held by the same company which bought the rights, but nothing's happened there.
  • Similarly, Game, Set and Match, the rights to which is held by Clerkenwell Films, no news. And the planned Horse Under Water, to be filmed in Spain, is similarly becalmed. So, frustrating, as it would be great to see these on screen. Having sold the rights, the ball's very much in the producers' courts
  • Len's the only englishman to have flown in a Dornier bomber marked up with Swastika, which he flew in to Siegen airbase in the seventies. Had to get special permission from the German Air Force
  • He had to battle with the 'creatives' at Harper Collins' non-fiction imprint to use the images of women in war for the new recent reissues of Fighter, Blitzkrieg and Blood, Sweat and Tears. They weren't sure it was the right approach for the genre.
  • In his research for Blitzkrieg, he established that the later generation of German tanks were too wide for many parts of the German and French rail network, meaning that the Germans had to run single trains on stretches of track avoiding passing traffic, slowing down their capacity to move materiel
Conversation covered a whole range of bases - the Holy Roman Empire, Stanley Kubrick, UKIP, Michael Caine's accent and the Japanese language. Readers can be reassured that Len remains in good health and pleased that there remains a lot of reader interest in his work.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Take note .... why authors never really stop writing

The rare - but fascinating - Billion Dollar Brain notebook
I was intrigued last week by this article on the BBC News website, about the habit of authors using notebooks to, well, make notes at any time of the day in a notebook, annotating their daily lives and noticing - and remembering - the detritus of everyday conversation and passing glances which, eventually, at some point, may end up in a book.

The context is the British Library putting up on its website a new collection of authors' notebooks - from such luminaries as Jane Austen and Jane Dickens - describing their roles as "junkyards of the mind". It is fascinating how authors will often speak of squirrelling away a snippet of conversation, an unusual name, a location, a street name or something insignificant in a notebook. Over time, it sits in the note pad, germinating, waiting, until its time is come and it serves its purpose in providing the genesis for a scene or perhaps a whole story.

I was prompted to post about this fascinating article as it reminded me that Len Deighton, the subject of this blog, is one of the great note-takers of modern writing. Indeed, I've seen it myself. The last couple of times I've met with Len in London for lunch, there it is, on the table - a little A6 note pad - something like a Moleskine or similar, bound at the top of the page, flip-over style - into which Len periodically wrote little notes with his ink pen with patented purple ink.

I remember once in a restaurant near Hyde Park, when we were joined by Len and his biographer/friend Edward Milward-Oliver, at certain points during the conversation Len would pause and make a short note in the notebook, in the same way as the author Laurence Norfolk describes in this BBC piece. Things that came up in conversation - I think we talked about the Cold War, satellites, French medieval history at times - every so often, Len would note something down. Indeed, a couple of times I've seen Len do some little sketches or drawings to annotate these notes (not surprising, given his training). It's clearly for an author an important discipline - to remember the little details of everyday life which, when reproduced in a descriptive passage or in some dialogue, add the authenticity and piquancy of real life which separates out the good writers from the great.

There's a great example of how Len has used notes for one of his previous books, Billion Dollar Brain, for which I've a page on the main Deighton Dossier website. This facsimile of his notebook, used when researching the book during trips to the Baltic states - then, part of the Soviet Union, of course - shows the sorts of details which Len noted which ended up in the book to help compel the reader to imagine "Harry Palmer's" investigations in the Baltic which end up with the final denouement with General Midwinter and his forces. It has drawings of machine guns, notes about Finnish policemen, street names, shop names, descriptions of various buildings. This was reproduced as part of a pack of ephemera which his publishers came up with to send out to booksellers to raise awareness of the book.

In some of the forewords to his new editions, too, Len talks about the process of gathering in information and researching his books, for which he's long been regarded as one of the most assiduous authors of his day for so doing. I know from discussions with him about the Samson novels that his writing office was filled with posters and wall-charts covered in notes and post-its and small cards - annotated with details and bits of information, such as above a particular hotel, say - which form part of his reference library of data which ends up in his books.

The lesson of this is clearly that nothing should ever go to waste as a writer, as you never know what snippet of conversation or glanced at figure might trigger your next novel.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Contributors welcome .....

No longer required in order to contribute an article
In the four years this blog has been running as the companion volume to the main Deighton Dossier website, it's become the main - only (?) - regularly updated presence for readers and fans of Len Deighton's work. Viewership is growing and I've noticed in recent months and increase in commentary on some of the blog posts.

In comparison to some of the main Ian Fleming/James Bond sites, of course, things are a little slower and smaller scale - but, nonetheless, important, given Len's contribution to the spy fiction genre and the continued enjoyment many thousands of blog readers get from them.

This post has a simple message: I'm happy to feature on this blog ideas and views about Len's work beyond just my own. If there are reviews, commentaries, questions which you as a blog reader want to contribute on here, and further the global discussion about all of Len's works, do please get in touch - I'd welcome new perspectives.

So, feel free to get in touch if you've got ideas about themes like:
  • The casting for the planned TV mini-series of Game, Set and Match
  • Which of Len's books you've meant to read, but never have
  • Tales from the bookstore .... stories of collecting
  • How would you make the missing Harry Palmer movie, Horse Under Water?
  • Was Len right to withdraw broadcast/DVD rights to the 1988 Granada adaptation of Game, Set and Match?
  • What would be in a prequel to Berlin Game?
  • Which writers would readers of Len Deighton's work also enjoy?
  • Do you agree with Len's take on the conduct of the Battle of Britain, in Fighter?
... and many other possible ideas.

This is, then, an open invitation to readers to share your views. Please get in touch if you've got something you'd like to put up (subject to editorial review to conform to the terms and conditions of the site, etc).

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Review - New edition - "Blitzkrieg" by Len Deighton

Technology & humanity
Blitzkrieg: from the rise of Hitler to the fall of Dunkirk is the third of the recent reissues by Harper Collins' non-fiction arm, William Collins, and a great looking edition it is too. It is one of the books that added to Len's reputation not just as a great storyteller but a top-rate historian, who drew on his fascination with detail and technology to look at the impact of armaments and new weaponry on the conduct of war.

This book, originally published in 1979, is clearly a labour of love by Len who, as a figure of some note in the post-war period, was able to use his status as a writer to get access to top research material and speak with some of the individuals who were involved in the conduct of the German Blitzkrieg technique. So, for instance, the book still retains the foreword by General Nehring, Guderian's Chief of Staff and someone who was closely involved in the development of 'lightning war'. It's fascinating to read in this foreword how the German's sought to develop the "art of surprise" in warfare, and Guderian comes across as a driven man who was keen to exploit the speed of the Blitzkrieg technique but was often frustrated by the decision of senior staff, not least Hitler.

General Nehring in 1979 seemed convinced in his foreword that Hitler, "the amateur", made a great mistake in calling a halt to the Blitzkrieg attacks in northern France that allowed the British to evacuate from Dunkirk and retain sufficient forces which could be used again in 1944. The Germans, he thinks, were "robbed of an easy victory.

What I've always enjoyed about this book, which looks at the attacks on the west in 1940 in great detail, is the illustrations that accompany the text. These were not done by Len himself - though I think his training would have permitted him to do so - but rather by another illustrator, Denis Bishop, who is referenced at the end of the book in the acknowledgements. The best illustration in the book is right at the start: a two-page illustration of a "typical Panzer division". The reader can see on the page each type of tank, the number in each regiment, how the regiments lined up as a division, and also all the accompanying forces which made any tank division run effectively: the engineers, the motorcycle divisions, the reconnaissance teams, and the signallers. All there on one page: the collective might of a Panzer division, which led by military geniuses like Guderian, were such an effective fighting force in the first half of the Second World War.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Len on BBC1 this morning - OWALW - redux

Sir John Mills as General Haig
[Updated content]

Watching BBC Breakfast at 0740h this morning while eating my cornflakes I was interested to see a short three minute segment on Oh! What a Lovely War and the wider controversy around the depiction of the First World War in the hundredth anniversary year.

The feature looked in particular on the 45th anniversary of the release of OWALW and its continued capacity to challenge exiting views of the experiences of the war. Len was one of the brief talking heads in the slot, and if I'm right they used part of the interview which Len gave to BBC South East last year when filmed at the Imperial War Museum. He references the fact that the key to the impact of the film and the play is that it draws upon what many of the troops at the front were saying and writing.

Also featured were short clips from interviews with Vanessa Redgrave - Sylvia Pankhurst in the film; Edward Fox - the aide de camp - who talked about the Englishman's capacity to mock tragedy and make light of it, hence the appropriateness of using song and dance to tell the story; and Sir Richard Attenborough, who talked about how the final scene, when Jack Smith walks along the cliff top and finally, realising he's back where he started at Mons, takes up his place in his grave, as a scene which still has the power to make tears well in his eyes.

More background

Information from Edward Milward-Oliver confirms that the piece was from one of series of short reports by BBC South East Today on the First World War, that were screened 22-25 April. South East Today is the regional programme for Kent and East Sussex, and Brighton - the location for much of OWALW filming - fits within that footprint.

The reports on the Tuesday and Friday were about the making of OWALW in Brighton, incorporating scenes from the film, interview clips with Len and with Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox, extras from Brighton who were in the film, and Max Hastings who provided some context.

According to Edward: "Recently, South East Today hosted a private screening of OWALW at Brighton's Duke of York's cinema – the oldest continuously operating cinema in the UK. The audience of about 200 comprised guests of the BBC, local people who had some involvement with the production in 1968 (eg. extras), and viewers of South East Today who applied for tickets. The evening kicked off with a live 20-minute broadcast from the cinema as part of South East Today's nightly 30-minute programme. For the screening they ran an original 35 mm widescreen print of OWALW, which was a rare treat.

This was followed by a short discussion and Q&A with three of the cast: Angela Thorne, Maurice Roëves and Charlotte Attenborough. The team from South East Today, in particular Vicki Berry, Polly East and Robin Gibson, organised and presented a superb event marking a film that on the evidence of Monday evening continues to have a powerful impact on cinema audiences."

Edward has let the blog reference three images from that event:

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Review - New Edition - "Blood, Tears & Folly" by Len Deighton

This new UK edition of Len's 1993 history of the major military strategies of World War Two is big in concept, scope and physical size. At nearly 800 pages, this is perhaps one of Len's most personal books, reflecting his long-standing research as an amateur historian and enthusiast for all things military material.

This book is not a complete history of the conflict. Rather it focuses on the early years of the war and the set piece battles that set the stage for the latter half of the conflict. In the same vein as Fighter, Len seeks to offer a perspective on the war - "an objective look" is in the subtitles - but also to challenge established tropes about the conflict. So, in looking at the early years of the war, he is not averse to directing criticism at Churchill for his botched Norway invasion, or the relative debacle that was the BEF's experiences in facing defeat during the Blitzkrieg and being forced to evacuate via Dunkirk.

Len spends a lot of the book looking at the origins in the pre-war alliances and appeasement that allowed Hitler the space in which to re-arm and prepare the Blitzkrieg strategy which proved crucial in the first couple of years of the war in shaping Germany's multiple military victories. This is very much a view of the war through set-piece battles: there are chapters on 'The Battle of the Atlantic', 'The Mediterranean War' and 'Barbarossa: the attack on Russia', all of which are looked at by Len with his customary eye for detail and interesting twist.

The rather nice thing about this book has been the use of illustrations to accompany the text, perhaps reflecting Len's former career as an illustrator. They provide a visual commentary that helps the reader understand the complexities of strategy and the advances in technology propelled by the war.

The introduction by Len
As an internationally renowned writer and historian of some note, Len was advantaged in this book by having had access to some of the major protagonists in the war. His introduction references conversations with Montgomery's Chief of Staff, the Luftwaffe Chief Adolf Galland, and Walter Nehring, Chief of Staff to tank ace Erwin Rommel! Fascinatingly, Len recalls also meeting Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect and later Armaments Minister, a man who was less than open after the war with his views on his role in Nazi Germany. With resources like that to draw on, Len was always going to present a story that looked at things from all sides, in detail.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Review - New edition - "Fighter" by Len Deighton

While readers may not have the opportunity to read new books from Len, Harper Collins is doing its best to give readers the next best thing: new editions of old favourites.

Following the successful relaunch of all of Len's fiction works by Harper Collins' fiction team, the process of updating and reissuing his non-fiction historical works has been completed. The publisher's non-fiction team has recently published three new editions of Fighter, Blood, Tears & Folly and Blitzkrieg.

For each book, the content stays the same; however, each has a new introduction by Len and his son, Antoni, who has taken over the role from Arnold Schwartzman of designing the new covers for these three books. In reviewing these new books, that is what I'll focus on mainly.

Fighter: the true story of the Battle of Britain
The shortest of the three new books, this was originally published in hardback in 1977 by Jonathan Cape. It is a book in which Len draws on heavily his interested in the technology of war to give a new and, arguably, balanced perspective on the most famous air battle in history.

Back in 1977, this book touched many raw nerves, coming only 37 years after the battle at a time when many of the pilots who fought in it were still alive. Deighton seeks to explore the information and records from both sides, crucially, to puncture some of the stories and mythologies about the Battle that have grown up, and comes to the conclusion that the RAF survived as a fighting force largely because they made fewer mistakes than did the German Luftwaffe did!

Naturally, perhaps, this conclusion raised eyebrows with the aces who protected the memory o fthe pilots who fought in the battle. His allegations in the book that during the bombing of RAF Manston tmany RAF ground crew remained in their air raid shelters and refused to come out to carry out their duties, drew criticism. Surprisingly, as Len's normally a stickler for details, he did not provide any evidence for this.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Deighton on TV redux - "The Lively Arts"

Len Deighton, The Lively Arts
If readers haven't discovered it yet on the BBC's archives, I'd encourage you to watch the 1977 interview of Len Deighton by broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, as part of the BBC's Lively Arts programme.

I've been doing a little web surfing this afternoon and came across it and watched it again. You can find the video on the BBC's website here.

Very interesting interview - one of the few Len's given at length to the BBC, the other being five years ago for BBC 4, marking his 80th birthday.

Filmed around the publication of Bomber, it's interesting to hear Len explain how he came to writing and how his lack of being a professional writer in his thirties shaped his approach to his first books. So, when he talks about writing The Ipcress File as a story, he had no idea what it would become and treated it just as a bit of fun. It was left in a draw, indicating to him that he had no ambition to be a writer until a chance meeting with an agent.

Fascinating to hear Len talking about the English class system, which "everyone seems to enjoy!", and how he got into cooking through his mother, who indulged her son in the kitchen.

If you've not watched it, certainly worth checking out.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Not yet a writer ....

I found a little curiosity in a 1963 edition of House & Garden (not a regular read of mine!).

In an article on what makes a great dinner party, the party organiser Luke Prior was asked by the magazine to approach some of London's great and the good - the main party-givers - to find out what makes an evening go with a swing.

One of those interviewed is Len Deighton's first wife Shirley, an artist. In the brief comments under her picture, it's clear that in 1963 Len was not yet widely referred to as a 'famous writer'; rather, his fame, such as it was, was as a food writer and creator of the cook strip. With the launch of The Ipcress File and Horse Under Water on the slipway, this was probably the last time that Len was referred to as anything but a top author.

Interesting little curio...

Shirley Deighton on the fun of dinner parties

Monday, 24 March 2014

Oh! What a Lovely War - history as entertainment and entertainment as history

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” - Aldous Huxley

History is made up of two things: facts, and everything else. 2014 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War, the ‘Great War’ as it came to be known, and there are thousands of new facts emerging about the war every year still. Always a source of fascination for historian and layman alike, the destructive nature of the conflict, the inconclusive nature of its origins and the tectonic impact it had on later twentieth century Europe has always pushed people to seek to answer the question: why?

If only things were that simple to answer. The huge numbers of books on WWI now appearing in the shops, the myriad of BBC programmes looking at different aspects of the conflict - including the excellent 37 Days looking at the origins of the conflict - and the multi-million pound government plan to commemorate the outbreak of war across the country all have at their heart a desire to understand and make sense of a senseless conflict.

Because of the savagery of this first global conflict, and its impact on the British psyche and British historiography thereafter, the anniversary provides another opportunities for long-established opinions to be be resurrected and picked over by politicians, historians and media alike. Was it worth going to war in 1914? Were the Germans solely to blame? Was General Haig the buffoon so often portrayed by his critics?

Since the start of the year there has been a noted upswing in the media’s propensity to chew over long-established WWI memes and seek, in this anniversary year, to come up with the answer to the unanswerable question of why the war happened. In doing so, it has also become a hot political and media potato, the war’s origins being a useful prism through which to view the world and defend your own and attack your opponent’s political point of view. This article by Frank Furedi hints at the reasons why WWI has such modern resonance.