Saturday 6 March 2010

Town: a day in the life of Len Deighton (1)

Despite the growth of the Internet as people's main source of news and information, the magazine market still seems to be hanging in there. Back in the 'sixties, magazines were in a boom period, with increasing numbers of titles published aimed at ever more specific sections of the population.

One such high-profile, but short-lived magazine from the sixties squarely aimed at the growing middle class male readership was Town. Originally titled Man About Town, the magazine provided the launch pad for the Haymarket Group. A spin-off consumer magazine from the trade title, Tailor and Cutter, the intention was to turn this quarterly into a glossy monthly for men. Men's fashion was at the margin of acceptability and men's magazines relied almost entirely upon their willingness to peddle soft porn. Town never made much money, but in the 1960's it was very high profile and one of the magazines to be seen in for writers, actors and other celebrities.

I've recently purchased a copy from August 1963. In among the profiles of actress Susan Hampshire and a fascinating article on the diamond fields of South Africa is a feature called A day in the life of Len Deighton.

Written just over a year after he achieved reknown with the publication of The Ipcress File, this self-penned article provides an interesting insight into Deighton's lifestyle, his promotion to the upper leagues of London society and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and research in the days before the electric typewriter and word processer/PC. The photos - by Adrian Flowers - also show Deighton in the kitchen, where time spent was as valuable as at the typewriter. Over the next few blog posts I'll reproduce much of the article to give readers a feel for a London lifestyle that's well and truly (and regrettably) passed and, where it's helpful, provide a little commentary.

[Note: Although subtitled 'by Len Deighton', this chronological piece is written in the third person; the journalist is not identified by a byline. I suspect it might be that the photographer Adrian Flowers is also the interviewer, but it's not clear.]


In an ugly little neo-Georgian flat near the Elephant and Castle the phone is ringing imperiously, but all is quiet for it has a whole packet of rayon blended household cotton wool screwed under its baseplate.
In response to continuous bell ringing, the door is opened by [sic] round-faced man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown. If he were in a slightly better condition Len Deighton could be called pudgy. As it is, he is undoubtedly fat. He shows me into the front room. It is dark in spite of the whitewashed walls, on one side of the room is a large black welsh dresser crowded with chipped antique porcelain. There is a severely wounded chesterfield, a stuffed warthog, a tea trolley laden with tubes of paint, brushes and jugs of dirty water and a Thonet rocking-chair in which three overfed cats jockey for position.
The reference to painting indicates Deighton's background as first and foremost at that time a designer and illustrator, who still did commissioned work for a while even after his first book came out.

I have heard the roar of the electric coffee grinder and the scream of a whistling-kettle and now the heavy aroma of rich coffee percolates through the flat. From the bathroom there is a steady thunder of the shower.
Len Deighton has emerged with two bowls of coffee. He has cut his chin shaving and there are specks of blood on the collar of the blue shirt with epaullettes and flap pockets. He sits down heavily and stirs his coffee in a distracted sort of way.
Drinking coffee from bowls is a French habit, one which I suspect Deighton will have picked up from time spent in France on holiday and studying French cuisine.

LD has finished his coffee. He phones his secretary who works in a different part of London. 'I also have an office in Russell Square', he says, 'but I've never sat down in it.'
'Why?' I ask.
'Because there are no chairs there,' he says, and gives a nervous giggle. He speaks to his secretary and dictates three letters over the phone. One is a complaint to BEA, who feel that they are not responsible for an hotel bill when they left LD stranded in Vienna with no planes flying. One is to The Times Literary Supplement, which has just published an article about The Ipcress File and the last one is to his literary agent about two new clauses in a contract for Finnish translation.
What is evident here is how much attention and cachet Deighton has achieved in just under two years as a writer: the multiple offices, the numerous foreign editions, the secretarial service, a high profile article in a major monthly magazine. While not an overnight success, it points to the way Deighton's prose style, his apparently anti-establishment approach to what was then a literary genre of gentlemen spies and Oxbridge-educated mandarins had grabbed the public's attention.

He runs fingers through his moth-eaten hair-cut and walks across the room. 'Like those?' he asks. He is pointing to two icons that hang above the fireplace. 
'Yes,' I say doubtfully.
'Made 'em out of balsa wood and paste' - as though he expected to surprise me.
The phone rings (LD has switched the extension bell on). It is the Observer. LD has a horror of answering telephones so his beautiful wife generally cases each caller. LD takes the phone. The Observer wants to know whether he can locate an anarchist for a lecture at a provincial university. He suggests a couple of cafés they can try. Capping the phone, he says to me 'Not so many anarchists about lately.' I nod. 'Used to be a lot about at one time,' he says. 'Really?' I say. LD replaces the receiver and walks across the room. He picks up a small prickly ball and throws it to me.
'Sniff that,' he says. I look at it. It is an orange stuck with so many cloves that you can't see the peel. I sniff it. 'Great, eh?' LD says. 'Yes,' I say.
LD goes into the kitchen. In front of him is a rough pencil draft of his cooking-strip for the Observer. 
'This is boeuf bourguignon,' he says. He is cutting up meat and carrots and hurling them into a frying-pan where butter is dissolving. 'Leg of beef is best,' says LD. 'It needs long cooking but the flavour is there.' He takes the pencilled draft and crosses the word 'brown' through. He writes 'sear' in its place. 'Sear cubes of 2lb leg of Beef,' the recipe now says.
'Did you work your way through all the recipes in the Action Cook-book [sic]?' I asked him.
'Have you read the Action Cook-book?' he said in a faintly surprised way.
'Cape's sent me a review copy,' I said.
'You'd better not use it,' LD said, 'the recipes in the review copies have got deliberate mistakes.' LD laughed a great deal as he said this, and the end of his tie went into the saucepan. The kitchen is about the size of a gigantic telephone box. Across one wall is a row of tarnished copper pans and under it a shelf where balls of string, pistachios, coffee, brandy, tinfoil and a dented red tin that says 'A Coronation souvenir June 1953' a picture of Balmoral Castle on it. By now there are four gravy spots down the front of his shirt. I point this out to him. He fingers the material proudly and says, 'Netherlands Air Force: 8s 6d.'
'Yes,' I say.
More of this fascinating article in future blog posts.


  1. Yikes! This makes me feel old. In the mid-60s I was part of Town's "growing middle class male readership" (actually I was more of a middle class growing male: late teens, newly arrived in London, gobsmacked by this strange new world, most of which I couldn't afford). Deighton was one of my heroes (for his Observer cook strips) along with Katherine Whitehorn (for her Cooking in a Bedsitter - food played a large part in my life then) and all those great b&w photographers in Town, Sunday Times Colour Magazine, etc.
    The Town article does have a feeling of being at least part-authored by Deighton: it's in the vein of those spoof dustjacket 'author biographies' he wrote for his books. (Did he ever really have his office in an old car?

  2. Very interesting comments. Yes, Deighton was one of the first people to do what's now called "mobile working". I've got an interesting article from The Sunday Times Magazine from the same era in which he talks about the various gadgets he had in his car (a Hillman I believe). I'd never seen Town before but it looks like a cool magazine