Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Spectator on Fleming

If you haven't seen this article on The Spectator website, worth checking out (no subscription required). Interesting perspectives on the author of the Bond novels from the magazine, in which he and his books featured regularly and many of the staff of which he also new well. There's so much been written about Fleming it's always interesting to read slightly different perspectives.

Readers may then want to check out Len Deighton's recent e-book on Fleming and his (albeit minor) role in the character's on-screen development.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ohhhhh ....... Viennaaaaaaa!

Need a spy? Try here
If you've missed this on The Telegraph website this week, neat little article reporting that, one century on from the first world war, Vienna - the capital of Austria - remains a centre for world spying. The recent upsurge in violence in Russia has thrown a light again on the strategic tensions in eastern Europe and the Russian capacity to spread its influence beyond its borders.

In the ever useful The Len Deighton Companion by Edward Milward-Oliver in 1987, he writes this about the entry 'Vienna':
"Vienna. Although no longer the capital of an empire, Vienna is unchanging. Sachers is still serving the Sacher Torte cake it served at the turn of the century - an era notably depicted in the beginning of Winter, in which we find Veronica Winter in the first stages of labour as her husband is summoned to a meeting with the secret police chief, Count Kupka. Thirty-eight years later, Paul Winter returns to the city of his birth, to find the restaurants and shops filled with German tourists who've arrived within hours of the German Army crossing the front to enforce the Nazi Anschluss."

Right throughout espionage literature, Vienna's always had a central spot as a location for intrigue, threats, exchanges and murder. Worth a read.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Book recommendation - Sea of Gold by Nick Elliott

Nick Elliott
I've just read through a new book I've been sent by author Nick Elliott, entitled Sea of Gold. He's a self-professed admirer of Len Deighton - "I’m a fan of Len Deighton and relish the complexities of his tales," he's written in a blog post - and there's certainly a lot of twists and complex plot advances and location descriptions to suggest he's making a good stab at matching that complexity.

Nick is a new writer. He comes not from an intelligence background but from commercial shipping, and he's written a story based in a world he knows which, like any line of international business, can be complex, at risk of fraud, and open to corruption. You don't see any of this on 'Mighty Ships' on the TV, I'll tell you. Who knew international shipping was a nest of criminal vipers?

The book is relatively short - just under three hundred pages - and is definitely the sort of easy read that one can complete in a weekend or over a week on the train to work.

The main protagonist - a maritime claims investigator, unsurprisingly - is called Angus McKinnon. He makes connections between a number of fraudulent deals he uncovers in doing his job - the twist is that in doing so he plunges into a violent and ruthless world of he uncovers a ruthless conspiracy born of greed and the lust for power, with the background of the global oceans to support his efforts to uncover the truth. There's a classic story arc here of one man uncovering something big and taking the direct route to uncover the truth and, in a way, get redemption.

The plot - I won't give it away - does move quickly and every chapter seems to add something to the story and the narrative, well, there's not any fat here to be trimmed. In the book there are all the ingredients one looks for in a modern espionage thriller:

  • Secretive government agencies
  • Exotic locations like Thailand and India
  • Love tangles
  • Explosions
  • Sleeper agents, and other things.

It's about intrigue and there's a lot of work the reader is asked to do to make connections and fill out the bigger picture.

The dialogue at times I felt needed a little polishing, some vim and verve to take it out of the ordinary, as there were a couple of dialogues that felt a little clunky. There's a lot of shipping references, perhaps naturally, but the reader doesn't need to be a naval nut to enjoy the story.

As a main character, McKinnon has some credibility and signs of depth and he proves a stubborn and tough companion through the pages. There's potential here, one suspects, for Elliott to develop the character a little more and build him up into an agent/investigator to join the pantheon of some of the great characters of international thrillers.

A worthy first effort by Nick. It can be found on Amazon on both Kindle and paperback, where it's already got a five star rating. If you read it, do share your comments below.

Two quick snippets - cars and food

Blog readers, a short post picking up on two things relating to Len and his work & life which I've picked up. First is a short article on the Eye magazine blog. It's a very interesting design perspective on Len Deighton's Action Cook Book, the book which, in a sense, taught men to cook in the 'sixties. The piece by Patrick Bogle has some interesting perspectives on Len's creative relationship with his friend Ray Hawkey. He describes very well the "beautifully calm drama" of the cook strips.

Worth a look.

Second, courtesy of Len's son, is a fun web page concerning the provenance of one of Len's previous motor cars. In the spirit, perhaps, of Ian Fleming and James Bond, Len once owned an Aston Martin DB6 Mark II Volante - some car! Here's a little picture of it on the Aston Martin heritage website.

If you write about spies, you've gotta drive like one, surely!

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.