Wednesday, 27 January 2010

He's the Mole from the Ministry*

Interesting article up on the BBC website this week about Stephen de Mowbray, former MI:5 agent who left the agency in 1979 after senior officials failed to take seriously his allegations of Soviet infiltration high up in the security service. He has come to the surface, so to speak, following last year's publication of the official history of the Secret Service, Defence of the Realm.

In the book, De Mowbray's claims are the subject of a chapter subtitled "Paranoid tendencies" which recounts his work as well as that of two colleagues, Peter Wright (author of the controversial Spycatcher) and Arthur Martin. The book quotes an MI5 director saying of the group: "Involvement in counter-espionage cases induces in some a form of paranoia." De Mowbray himself is referred to - although not by name - as "the leading SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) conspiracy theorist"; he is connected to the work of 'spycatcher' Peter Wright, whom the government sought to silence in the eighties for his embarrassing revelations about the service. The official line seems to be that in his search for infiltrators de Mowbray became over-zealous and prey to the exaggerations of the agents providing the information.

It's an interesting article which is definitely worth reading; gives another angle to the 'official' perspective offered in Defence of the Realm. Of course, infiltration in the secret service is a familiar subject in spy fiction - I mean, it forms the main plot theme for Len Deighton's Game, Set and Match trilogy, in which the main character Bernard Samson uncovers what he thinks is a Soviet infiltration at the highest echelons of 'the department'.

[* XTC fans may get in title reference to the track from the Dukes of Stratosfear's 25 o'clock album!]

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The reissues (8) - Funeral in Berlin

A little later than expected, I've got round to considering the new edition of Funeral in Berlin, my personal favourite of the first four novels of Len Deighton. It is a novel in which the city of Berlin is as much a lead character as the unnamed agent who narrates the story.

The plot of the book should be familiar to most readers. The W.O.O.C.(P). agent - who subsequently became the Harry Palmer character in the film adaptation - is required to travel to a divided Berlin to arrange the defection of a Soviet scientist code-named Semitsa, using the cover of a funeral transfer from East to West. The handover is brokered by Johnny Vulkan, a rogueish member of the Berlin intelligence community and someone who shares a murky, black market past with the protagonist. Despite the unnamed agent's initial scepticism, the deal seems to have the support of Russian security-chief - the lugubrious Colonel Stok - and the high-ups in the Home Office. The fake documentation for Semitsa needs to be precisely specified in the name of Paul Louise Broum. The twist comes in the shape of beautiful but deadly Israeli intelligence agent named Samantha Steel, who is also interested in the content of this fake identity, but for wholly different reasons. Add into the mix agents of the Gehlen network of former Nazis charged with exfiltrating the 'body' into the West and the machinations of the KGB, and the denouement leaves the reader - and the unnamed agent - questioning just who is on the side of whom in the Cold War in Berlin.

The new introduction
This is one of the longer introductions Deighton wrote for the eight new editions relaunched in 2009 and is the most revealing, detailing as it does the relationships he developed with East Berliners which ensured that his storyline - and his portrayal of the city - was as authentic as it could be given the obvious restrictions. Deighton has met an East German film director Kurt Jung-Alsen at the National Theatre and formed a friendship with him (Jung-Alsen died in 1976 and was famous in the East for films such as The Vengeance of Private Pooley, at the showing of which Deighton first met the director). Deighton recounts how, acting as guide for Jung-Alsen during his stay in London, they were having coffee together when news of the building of the Berlin Wall appeared on the news. A stroke of luck for the director, one might have thought, but Deighton recounts that, while no loyal communist, Jung-Alsen returned because all his possessions and his family were in the East, and he had a successful career there.

The following year, the introduction continues, Deighton made a return visit to see Kurt Jung-Alsen in Berlin, who clearly had a priveleged life by DDR standards:

"Kurt more than returned any favour I had done for him in London. He introduced me to many people and made me feel at home. As I said to him, no once buy many times, that of all my friends he was the only one who enjoyed the bourgeois benefits of domestic servants and a valuable art collection. And this was communism? I made a few forays into West Berlin and came back with all manner of desirables for Kurt and his friends. A child's wheelchair, asparagus, and ladies fahion magazines such as Burda was one consignment. The wheelchair was a tight fit in my car and I was grilled about it but Burda magazine was the only thing confiscated that time; I suppose the border guards had fashion-conscious wives."

While in the East, Jung-Alsen made Deighton a production staff member on a film which the former was making about the Spanish Civil War. This necessitated Deighton spending large amounts of time in East German cities like Leipzig and Weimar. In the Elephant Hotel in the latter, Deighton ended up staying in the room favoured by Adolf Hitler on his visits to that city! Clearly what this time in the East gave Deighton as a writer was a golden opportunity to tap into local sources of colour and history, to understand the city and its inhabitants, to feel the impact of the Berliner Luft on the soul. This is all clearly evident in some of the descriptive passages in the novel.

"Berlin was soon a second home to me. I became obsessed by Berlin. I studied its history and collected old photographs of its streets, street life and architecture. I talked to many who had served and many who had suffered under the Third Reich. I still can wander through its streets and alleys and see the past, even when there is little evidence of the past remaining. I learned about its electricity, gas and sewerage systems, much of which could not be divided and had to be shared; a fact kept secret by both sides. The whimsical way in which the town was divided made it even more bizarre. It was a microcosm of a divided world."

Deighton's knowledge of Berlin - and more importantly, Berliners - is part of what makes this novel a success and his plot twists and rich dialogue mean that, 45 years since publication, it still has a real zip and zing about it. Great stuff.

The new design
This is in my opinion the coolest of Arnold Schwartzman's new cover designs. Again the smoking and chessboard motifs are present, emblematic of Cold War Europe. As Schwartzman writes:

"Deighton had likened a spy story to a game of chess, which led me to transpose the pieces on a chessboard with some of the relevant objects specified in each book. Since smoking was so much part of our culture during the Cold War era, I also set-about gathering smoking paraphernalia."

The Cinzano ash tray is referenced in the text, and Schwartzman recounts how in its familiar triangle he saw an analogy with the three Allied powers occupying Berlin, the three cigarettes on the cover point at each other like the loaded barrels of occupiers' guns. The British Woodbines and the American Camel Zippo lighter represent the West; the KGB lighter and identity pass - sourced in Ukraine by Schwartzman - represent the Eastern bloc. The pack of Gauloises cigarettes - featured on all four covers as a semiotic pointer to the protagonist - and red pawn are, crucially, placed on the eastern side of the wall on the map, pointing to the character's frequent trips across the wall. The back of the jacket shows a US Army Berlin District badge, a DDR 5 Mark coin, and cigarette cards referring to key plot developments throughout the novel.

This design, like all the others, represents visually the complexity of Deighton's story construction and also the authenticity which he brings to both the plot but also the details of the dialogue and the character development. That's why, forty-five years or so after publication - and with the Wall now a distant memory - the book still possesses the capacity to enthrall.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Sun is on the case...eventually

Good to see that Natasha Harding, the book editor of the The Sun newspaper, the UK's top tabloid, has finally caught up with the big Deighton news of 2009, namely the reissuing by Harper Collins of Deighton's first four spy novels plus four other of his best-selling novels.

In a feature entitled Cold War writer who's still red hot - in the Friday 15 January edition of The Sun, in its Something for the Weekend section  - one of her reviewers reflects on the reissued books and in particular the lead character of the first four novels, "Deighton's chippy spy...and under-paid, under-appreciated anti-hero." The films are classics, the reviewer writes, but the books are even better and have been reissued by Harper Collins (only seven months behind the news curve, but qudos to The Sun for picking up the story - perhaps the press release slipped down the side of the editor's desk!).

The review is actually very complimentary of all the eight reissued novels, in particular the Harry Palmer quartet, and does well in identifying the characteristics that make a Deighton novel what it is, without necessarily adding anything new in terms of textual analysis:

"Deighton reinvented the spy novel in the sixties, giving it a rough, working-class edge. The tough, cynical humour makes his books closer to the American private eye novel than the world of 007.

...Deighton's a master of narrative and mood and his painstaking research means everything feels 100 per cent authentic. It's those qualities that make his non-Palmer novels a must-read too... The thing about Deighton is, he always seem to know something we don't."

The last line a good summation of the narrative hook that has made Deighton a global best-selling writer. However, the review is slightly spoiled by the art desk using the front cover of the 1995 HC edition of The Ipcress File rather than featuring the new cover with the great new design by Arnold Schwartzman.

This review does not seem to be up on The Sun's website yet, however.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Brian Duffy documentary on BBC Four

Just been watching a very interesting documentary on BBC Four tonight about the photographer Brian Duffy, entitled The Man Who Shot The 60s.

Duffy was one of the figures of swinging sixties London, a fashion photographer who along with David Bailey and Terence Donovan was one of the "black trinity" of photographers who helped make London and Soho in particular the centre of the fashion and arts worlds. Duffy worked for Nova, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Sunday Times. Famously, in the seventies Duffy destroyed all his negatives.

Duffy was an art school friend of Len Deighton and took a number of publicity shots of him as he became famous following the publication of The Ipcress File. They both shared a connection with photography, Deighton having learned photography as part of his work in RAF intelligence during National Service. The photo on this blog post is from a Life article 'Hot Spy Writer on the Lamb' from 1966, and shows Duffy with Deighton explaining his approach to taking shots for a fashion shoot. Writers dropping in on film shoots for glossy magazines sort of sums up Soho in the sixties, really.

Duffy and Deighton's connection extended further into showbusiness when, as Duffy recounts on the documentary, he and David Bailey went to see Oh! What a Lovely War at the theatre in London. Duffy was overcome by the play - "I was in tears" he says - and decided that they should make it into a film. As I've covered on the Deighton Dossier website, Duffy and Deighton set up the Accord Production company, which purchased the rights to the film and recruited Richard Attenborough to act as director. However, the production was pretty difficult by all accounts and Bailey recalls how, quite shrewdly, he sold his share in the production to Deighton for £49 for an easier life. The film was Attenborough's first directing role and, while he went on to great fame and worldwide attention, he proved a handful for the fledgeling producers. Duffy refers to him in the documentary as "unctious"! The shooting of the film was traumatic and stressful, leading Deighton to take his name of the production credits, though Duffy kept his credit. The film was an artistic success.

Deighton, Duffy and Attenborough had first worked together on the film adaptation of Only When I Larf, on which Duffy had a production credit. What comes across clearly in this documentary however is that on their second time working together, Attenborough was already showing signs of being an awful 'luvvie' and evidently put Duffy right off further adventures in film!

Brian Duffy recently had a major retrospective exhibition of his works in London, which was covered on his blog. He certainly created some of the sixties' most iconic images .

The programme will be rebroadcast a number of times over the week on BBC Four and should be available on iPlayer on the web for the next week. A real slice of sixties' London to watch out for.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Tales of Dutch derring do

With Len Deighton in semi-retirement and off the radar screens of the media and increasing numbers of book readers - sadly -  for fans of his writing there's precious little new out there to read and enjoy. In recent years, one of the ways Deighton has contributed by way of the literary world is through providing forwards to a number of books on topics close to his heart: military history. Over time, I've been hunting down more and more of these.

One such example I found over the Christmas period is In Pursuit of Life by dutchman Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, of whom I knew nothing until I picked up the first edition of this, his autobiography. I'm glad I did - he is evidently one of those characters from the wartime period (who sadly died in 2007) who combined a numerous careers and lives in one lifetime and undertook feats of courage and audacity which nowadays are unthinkable. He also personifies the bravery and cunning of the wartime military agents (particularly from the occupied countries) who risked everything to free Europe from tyranny of both kinds.

In many ways his story brings to mind to that of Merlin Minshall, a friend of Deighton's whose biography Guilt-Edged was published in the seventies and to which Deighton also provided the forward. Minshall was spy, adventurer, businessman, bon viveur, cad, Englishman, and he had a great story to tell. (A former colleague of Ian Fleming's in naval intelligence, Minshall was often cited as an inspiration for the James Bond character).

Hazelhoff too has some story to convey. Born in 1917 in Dutch colonial Java, during the second World War he was a soldier and freedom fighter who, after fighting in the Russo-Finnish war in the winter of 1939, found himself in London with the Dutch elite. In London, Hazelhoff and the General François van 't Sant, director of the Dutch CID (Central Intelligence Service) and Col. Euan Rabagliatti (of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service) set up a secret agent group known as The Mews, after Chester Square Mews where they lived in London. This group sought to connect with the Dutch resistance and prepare the ground for Dutch liberation; but MI6's networks in the Netherlands were pretty much broken by the Nazis and Hazelhoff escaped back to England. Later in the war he served with the RAF's elite Pathfinder Force and received the Dutch equivalent of the Victoria Cross before becoming an aide to Queen Wilhelmina and flying her back into liberated Holland.

His adventures in occupied Holland were subsequently filmed by Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven (who recently made the excellent Black Book). He turned Hazelhoff's war memoirs Soldaat van Oranje into the film Soldier of Orange, which starred Rutger Hauer as the character based on Hazelhoff and follows closely the exploits of The Mews. This is a title I've now added to my list of 'must see films'. It was, apparently, voted the second best Dutch film of all time.

The life he'd let up to that point achieved more than most men achieve but through reading his story it's clear that this was just the prelude to more achievement and success for Hazelhoff. Moving to the US after the war he was a writer and co-creator of NBC's Tonight show; in the fifties he became a director of Radio Free Europe working with the CIA. He was even at one point a tramp on the streets of New York!

Hazelhoff's writing is excellent, his story telling precise and rich in form and colour. He is a fascinating character, part of a breed of gentleman spy and adventurer for whom risk, danger and variety were the ingredients of a fulfilled life.

In his foreword to the book, Deighton highlights the qualities of a man who had lived "a hundred lives":

"Nothing stops him, whether it's a ticking bureaucrat or a ticking time-bomb. Erik the amateur pilot flying countless missions over wartime Germany or the short-sighted applicant surviving countless physical examinations in order to join the RAF's most élite Pathfinder Force. Equally gripping is Erik's postwar encounter with an American employment agency, and his misadventures in the jungles of Hollywood. But he always emerges apparently unscathed: like a plastic duck plunging over Niagara falls he surfaces and darts away to new waters.

"For if there is something enduring about him, it's the cheerful way in which he faces every trial. And his optimism is well founded. When someone asks him for a light it is likely to be a billionaire, when he shelters from bombs under a table he will meet a member of the royal family there. Penniless in Manhattan; hold on, here comes a school friend. There's no point in resenting his staggering good luck, it's just the way he is."

This book was a real find and adds another layer to my knowledge of the wartime intelligence fight in Europe.