Sunday, 12 July 2020

Snippets from the Ripster

Lockdown's been an odd experience. Even as some restrictions ease, it's going to be an odd summer.

I recently received a nice message from author Mike Ripley - who's a long-standing friend of Len Deighton, and of the Dossier. Judging by the pic he shared, he's coping fine with lockdown!

Mike Ripley suffering through lockdown!


Mike - who writes the always excellent 'Getting Away with It' column in the online Shots magazine is a great source for all the latest news in crime and thriller fiction, pointed me in the direction of two recent homages, if you will, to Deighton's wok.

In his newspy story Hammer to Fall, John Lawton includes this scene:

The hero spy returning from a mission to Finland in 1966 goes to the home of his boss to find that the boss’ wife - a notoriously bad cook – has left ‘a nice little bourguignon on the hob’ for them. The spymaster boss tells our hero:

“Ever since she discovered Len Deighton’s Cookstrip she’s been unstoppable. Calls it cuisine à la spook … her shorthand for it is spy-fry.”

Nice pun!

And in Mike's own new book Mr Campion's Seance, a visiting Interpol agent is waiting for Campion at Scotland Yard. When Campion arrives he finds him surrounded by a pile of newspapers. The setting is November 1962:

‘Your English is as annoyingly good as it always was.’ Campion pointed to the pile of Evening Standard newspapers on the chair and leaned over to peruse the one open on the desk. ‘Is that your secret? A close reading of the juicy stories in London’s evening papers?’

‘Superintendent Luke kindly gave me yesterday’s issue to read whilst I was waiting and I discovered this wonderful serial, a new spy story called
The Ipcress File. I simply had to know what had gone before and one of the constables found me copies of last week’s papers. It is really very good; you should read it.’

‘Are you sure it’s fiction? Our newspapers seem to be uncovering spy stories every week these days.’

‘This story reads like it is true, but it is fiction. The paper says there will be a book soon.’

Mike tells me he sent Len a copy of my book which (he said) he enjoyed, and told him about the John Lawton reference. He emailed Mike back: ‘How nice to hear that I am not forgot.’

Indeed.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The quest is over: the tale of the elusive SS-GB postcard

This is a post about collecting, and the thrill of tracking down big game.

In my case, the 'big game' was in fact small and rather insignificant - a postcard 4 inches by 6 inches. But bagging it bought to the end fifteen or more years of patient stalking.

This blog - and the Deighton Dossier main website - started as a means of documenting and sharing my collection of Len Deighton books and other items. It has since grown over a decade and more into a small but well-informed community of fellow collectors, readers and spy fiction fans, including over on the main Facebook group.

I'm still a keen book collector - not just of Deighton, but other authors too. Even though my collection is (according to a number of dealers) impressive, there are still odd gaps here and there. 

Most of these I would class as 'hyper rare' items of ephemera. This week, after keeping my eyes open online for fifteen years plus, I found what I'd been looking for.

It is this, a simple postcard, part of the marketing materials for the first UK edition of SS-GB:




Designed by Raymond Hawkey, it shows on the front the 'Siegesparade in London, 20 April 1941', divisions of Waffen SS marching confidently down Whitehall to mark the victory of the Nazis over the British which forms the central conceit of Deighton's famous 'alternative history' thriller, which was made into a series by the BBC.

The image was also used on the dust jacket of the UK first edition.

Friday, 27 March 2020

An organised shelf is a happy shelf

Like a large part of the world's population right now, I am in 'lockdown' mode as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, doing my part to help reduce the spread of the infection through the community where I live by working from home and staying indoors (unlike all those members of the community in vital jobs like medicine and food distribution who are the heroes of the moment).

It's tough at time, but as the aphorism goes, when you're given lemons ... . So, I've had much more time on my hands to spend with my books: not just my collection of Deighton books, but all the books on my shelves. And one way to use that excess spare time is to get round to dusting and, more importantly, re-arranging the books on my shelves.

Here's the result for bookshelf one, which was certainly an improvement on how it looked befor:



Taking all the books off the shelf, putting them into different category and size piles, then putting them back in a new way was a very satisfying thing to do. It didn't achieve anything or immeasurably improve my life, but I was glad I did it, so much so that I then proceeded to go through all my other shelves.

Why?

It got me thinking, why did I spend the time doing this, and not something else? Why did I choose one way of arranging my books, while other people choose alternative ways of arranging theirs.

As is the modern way, I went online and did an search on the internet for 'the psychology of tidy bookshelves'. And wouldn't you know it: page after page of blog posts, magazine articles, social media post, all about why people have, or don't have, tidy shelves (general, and book).

This article, for example, in House Beautiful magazine (not, I might add, a regular read, but just one of the search results I clicked on) suggests that the way you stack your books tells you something about who you are and how you think. While I don't give much credence to the psychological and intellectual underpinnings of House Beautiful, the broad idea is right. Indeed, how your or I perform any activity - tying our shoes, buying clothes, doodling on a blank page - is likely to offer some insight into how you think and approach life.

So, as a book collector, who enjoys reading, looking at, handling, admiring and searching for books - especially, given the nature of this site, the works of Len Deighton - it made me pause for thought over coffee about what my books shelf style says about me, and why - in this current global pandemic - spending quality time with your books can be helpful and fulfilling. (Though, of course, while fun, it's no replacement for the current lack of human contact many of us around the world face!)

Your books are an important part of your life
They're not as important as family, health, mental well-being, no, of course not. But books of whatever kind - spy novels, cook books, picture books, coffee table books - serve to nourish the soul and stimulate the mind. I know on each of the seven book shelves I own that, having curated every book on them, I know that in times like the present, when I have more time in the house, I'll find something I want to read and will feel comfortable losing myself in.

Tidying a bookshelf can throw up surprises.
By tidying up four bookshelves of various books, I discovered I had duplicate copies of three first editions of books (one a Deighton, but two from other collections). I wouldn't ordinarily buy two copies of a book if I didn't need to, so I wondered: why had I done that. A few thoughts: as one gets older, clearly, the mind doesn't remember as much as when you were 15. So, simple forgetfulness.
It might also point to the fact that, prior to this tidying up, my shelves were disordered, and these duplicates - which I might have spotted if the collection were logical and ordered - would have come to light earlier. I also pondered on another source: the modern ease with which buying books, especially collectable books, can create a degree of laziness in the collector and encourage purchases where you just 'might not be sure' you have the book, without first actually checking if you do. If nothing else, that's money I could be saving right there in those three books (value about £55).

The de-cluttering phenomenon can apply to books, too
2019 was the year the Marie Kondo effect became a world-wide revolution, apparently. "Tidying can transform your life." I wouldn't go that far, but certainly I can see how a concentration on a specific task, the creation or order and harmony (for example, having all the book spine titles reading the same way) can de-stress and generally bring a smile to your face. Ms Kondo has created ire among book collectors for her throwaway approach to books and generated a meme war. Like all things on social media, it's more heat and light but was certainly funny for the most part. I don't get the impression she is anti-book, perhaps more anti keeping books just for the sake of keeping them.

But is that what collectors do? I don't think so. There is purpose to their collecting (their certainly is to mine, which is personal to me, specific, not motivated by monetary value, and tied to specific, long-standing interests which I intend to continue pursuing). However, I have known collectors who - through having any strategic focus to their collecting - perhaps might benefit from a little of Ms Kondo's teaching. But, only a little.

I certainly found it satisfying to re-group all my Bernard Samson ennealogy books together - UK, US and German first editions - on a shelf at eye level, as these are my favourite books and, on reflection, it felt odd that they had been scattered on different shelves. Now, there is a nice degree of orderliness and finality to it: these books, and others in different collections, just should be together.



People like to show off
I admit: I like people to look at my bookshelves, and my different collections. Books, I guess, send positive signals to friends, partners, acquaintances that you have something about you, you have some heft, you're, as the phrase says, 'well read'.


With social media, this has become something of a phenomenon - and indeed, perhaps this post is ironically emblematic of the growth in 'humblebragging', using memes like #Showusyoushelves,where people post up images of their bookscases, as I have done, online. 

What does it mean? Is it bad? I don't think so. Is it showing off? Probably. Does it harm anyone? No. It could be all these things and many more. I'm sure I get a frisson of pleasure when someone makes positive comments about my shelves, my collections, my choices, my interests. Who wouldn't.

Tidying helps protect your books from damage
I spotted a number of my Deightons - especially one or two with the red ink on the spine, red being especially vulnerable - were showing signs of fading, so I moved them down to a shelf more out of the light. But it's not just spines; it's only when books are taken out and inspected that you can spot signs of partial fading, where the extent of the fade is determined by the books immediately contiguous to that particular book. This can lead to some unfortunate effects.

In some cases, I've simply turned the books spine inwards. It makes them hard to identify, but until I can come up with a long-term solution, that's my play.

It reminds you of long-forgotten gems
Just through the simple process of tidying, I've put aside two or three books I've not looked at in years, to reacquaint myself and be reminded why I purchased it in the first place. Rare is it that I will look upon a book and think, 'why am I keeping that?'

All in all, there is no science to a book shelf, It's an extension of a person's personality, so it will always be flawed, erratic, and incomplete.

Ms Kondo's tidyness extremism isn't for this collector, but the general lesson I took from this morning of tidying was that it's always good to spend time with your books!

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Samson, yes … but Delilah? [Guest post]

What are the parallels, if any, between Bernie Samson and his biblical namesake?

[This is a guest post by first-time contributor Seymour Maddison]

Caveat: While I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, a piece like this inevitably poses a risk for any of you still enjoying the Samson trilogies for the first time.

As much as I appreciate Len Deighton’s non-fiction and earlier novels, I experience an especial thrill every time I return to the Bernard Samson books, not least because of how they have influenced my own mystery writing. 

Not only do the three trilogies [Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match; Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker; Faith, Hope, Charity] and Winter showcase a fiction writer at the peak of his craft: I’d suggest they conceal a heavy dose of intrigue. 

This post is therefore an invitation to join me in trying to make sense of what lies below the surface.

In particular, I’d like to propose that the series contains some rarely-if-ever-discussed theories, capable of challenging Deighton novices and aficionados alike. Inspired by an earlier post, the first of these I’ve come to christen ‘The Samson & Delilah Hypothesis’ – and anyone squeamish should be warned that we’re going to need a copy of the Old Testament!

Have you ever pondered: why ‘Samson’?

The only association with the name Samson that I have is through the Bible story. You remember :
Strong man loses his powers when his hair is shorn while he sleeps … his missus is betraying him because … something to do with him continually beating up the Philistines … and then there was this lion … and he goes blind (Samson, not the lion) yet still manages to shove over a temple, in the process killing heaps of baddies … and so on.

Hopefully you paid more attention as a kid than I did! Which is why I was motivated to revisit the Book of Judges recently, in the process discovering multiple versions of the tale. And naturally, that was just some of the English language interpretations.

So … about that Samson & Delilah Hypothesis.

And I mean, in particular, this one: vested interests work to neutralise the significant threat that is (Bernard) Samson.

Sounds pretty straightforward.

Yet apparently, it’s not something discussed elsewhere. But if the theory holds water – and I’m claiming that not only does the Samson tale go to the heart of Deighton’s choice of the name, but can be mapped across the entire plot – does this not suggest a new lens through which you can view the series?

Doubtless you as a reader can recall more of the original story than I could. 

But on reflection, then, to what extent do you agree that a clear parallel seems to exist between Bernie and his biblical counterpart? That is to say: 
  • Both stride around, effortlessly taking out their opponents [Eastern Bloc intelligence or the Philistines] 
  • Yet, simultaneously, both stumble around their emotional landscape, unable to experience normal relations with the women in their lives 
  • Meantime, covert forces work to remove them from the conflict. 

So where is there crossover between the Book of Judges and Deighton’s labyrinthine plot?

To get you thinking, can I propose the following matches for some of the main locations mentioned :

  • Israel = The West
  • The Philistines = the Warsaw Pact countries [see Judges 14:4 - ‘at that time the Philistines lorded it over Israel’]
  • The camp of Dan = the British
  • Zorah = West Berlin
And for some of the supporting characters :
  • Manoah = Brian Samson [Bernard’s dad]
  • Father-in-law = David Kimber-Hutchison [Fiona’s dad]
  • Younger sister = Tessa

I’m sure readers will easily be able to suggest more … however, I’d caution against assuming, as I did, that just because Delilah always gets paired with Samson, then ‘Delilah’ must be Fiona!

You see, it turns out that in the Old Testament story (and this was exactly the kind of detail I’d forgotten or never knew), Samson was married before he met Delilah.

To the clear disappointment of his parents, he’d set his heart on ‘a woman … of the daughters of the Philistines.’ Unfortunately, this union, like all of Samson’s relationships, didn’t end too well!

Even by the time of their wedding, his bride had succumbed to coercion and was favouring her own people over him. Perhaps tellingly, the wife seems to drop out of the story before Delilah appears on the scene (we’ll return to this later I’m sure, in the comments). The account is quite salacious and only explained in part; though clearly some of the marital disharmony at least was caused by Samson’s father-in-law.

Based on the above, I’m suggesting that Fiona is synonymous with Samson’s initial wife and that, because of the role she subsequently plays in Bernard’s life, ‘Delilah’ is in fact Gloria

Witness her [Gloria's] ongoing attempts to have him succumb to domestic bliss; and remembering the explanation that ‘Forces work to remove (Samson) from the conflict,’ what finer way to yoke a family (and man’s) man than by creating a home so inviting that it overrides all urges which would otherwise keep drawing him outdoors?

Did somebody order a haircut?

So far so good, although I’d also not rush to judgment about who ‘the lords of the Philistines’ are; they are regularly mentioned as pulling the strings which oppose Samson.

During his November 2012 interview with Len Deighton, you may have read Rob Mallows [Deighton Dossier editor] alluding to Silas Gaunt as ‘the mastermind behind everything.’

According to the transcript, however, the author didn’t confirm this assertion outright. Rather, as he went on to explain his planning process before beginning to write:

'I started off with a wall chart outlining a series of twelve [sic] books … In the chart Silas was the master-mind. At the end of writing Berlin Game I wasn't sure if it would all work out as planned.’

So if Uncle Silas isn’t necessarily the ultimate puppet master, who else can you think of who may be in the frame?

I myself have one idea to share, however, I would be very interested to hear other readers’ perspectives at this point: either something you’ve discerned from one or more of the books or, in the spirit of scientific endeavour, maybe you have evidence which blows out of the water my starting hypothesis, perhaps one of the identifications, etc?

But hang on, that’s right. You were promised more than one thought-provoking theory, weren’t you?

Well. What if Deighton’s plotting goes deeper still?

What if the enemy isn’t only running defensive operations ‘to neutralise the significant threat that is Samson’? What if the author has helped them penetrate London Central itself?

We can of course get into these and other mysteries in the comments section. But I would set out a challenge Deighton Dossier readers: what’s your reading of my Samson & Delilah Hypothesis?

What impacts would you say the biblical story has had on Deighton’s series?

The Deighton Dossier thanks Seymour for his contribution. So, what do you think, Dossier readers? Carry on the discussion either in the comments section, or on the Dossier Facebook page.



Sunday, 2 February 2020

Marketing military history - Fighter and Battle of Britain

While globally he is known for his spy fiction and as one of the premier spy fiction writers of the twentieth century, Len Deighton also demonstrated his status as something of an auto-didact and polymath, having commercial success in the fields of cookery - his Action Cook Book for example was picked by The Observer a few years ago as one of the top cookery books of the century - and history, particularly military history.

Research in the British Library archives recently - specifically, further highlights from rummaging around The Bookseller archives - threw up some interesting examples of how the books were marketed to the trade and how his publishers, and booksellers, cross-marketed his status as an established fiction author into the non-fiction market.

Len Deighton was not a trained historian; indeed, he left school and went pretty much straight into National Service (having been too young to be called up in World War Two) in the RAF, flying as a photographer in RAF intelligence. So, its perhaps understandable that he developed here a love of flying and aeroplanes, and an interest in military history.

While not a professional historian, he became a particularly effective amateur one. What seems to have been essential to the publishing success of Deighton's history books - especially Fighter: the true story of the Battle of Britain; BlitzkriegBlood, Sweat & Tears; and Battle of Britain - was playing up the same secret of his success for his fiction work: diligence, attention to detail, months (even years) of background research, and a capacity to tell a complex, multi-layered story with multiple characters, that he had developed since the early sixties through his fiction.

Clearly, being an internationally famous spy fiction author of top rank was helpful to Deighton in opening doors and giving him access to the people who could best tell the story (those who had fought), not just on the allied side but on the German side too. I think that see-both-sides aspect to much of the history that Deighton wrote does make for a more balanced and comprehensive understanding for the reader of why things happened the way they did, which ultimately is what you want as a reader from any history book.


This image and caption from 1977 (lower right) - in The Bookseller - is from a flight in a Heinkel bomber undertaken by the author as part of his research for Fighter: the true story of the Battle of Britain. What's interesting is what you read in the caption: first, his international renown gave him access to Luftwaffe aces who could give him first hand feedback on the; and second, that there was six years of research behind the book.

That's reflected in many of the reviews the book got, such as the review "In their flying machines" by the late Clive James, in the New Statesman:
"The weakness of Bomber lay in its characters. Deighton invented a representative battle and staffed it with what he fancied were representative types. Actually they weren't as clumsily drawn as you might think. Deighton is not quite as bad at character as the critics say, just as John le Carre is not quite as good. A book like Yesterday's Spy, one of Deighton's recent fictions, is not only stronger on action than le Carré's later work, but features more believable people. The cast-list of Close-Up is indeed hopelessly makeshift, but the characters flying around in Bomber, though divided up and labelled in what looks like a rough-and-ready way, are deployed with some cunning to bring out the relevant tensions. You could be excused, however, for not connecting them to the real world. In Fighter there is no way out of it. The Battle of Britain really happened. Not just the machines, but the people too, really existed. And Deighton has managed to give the whole event a clarity which it lacked even at - especially at - the time.

According to Deighton (and he is very likely right) the Battle of Britain was never won, but there was sufficient reason for triumph in the fact that it was not lost. Dowding's whole effort was to ensure that Fighter Command should survive as a force. He could not realistically hope to destroy the Luftwaffe, but on the other hand he could hope to go on denying it command of the air, thereby rendering invasion impossible. Dowding was a percentage player. He was under relentless pressure - especially from one of his own immediate subordinates, Leigh-Mallory - to gamble his strength in mass actions. He resisted the pressure, guarded his resources, and fought a protracted battle with great patience as well as consummate skill and daring.
Fighter would be valuable if it did nothing more than help correct the popular impression that Leigh-Mallory's "big wing" theory was a possible alternative to Dowding's penny-packet tactics. The big wing theory was widely publicised after the war in Paul Brickhill's best-selling biography of Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky. Even retrospectively it is an appealing notion, and at the time must have seemed like simple common sense to the pilots of Leigh- Mallory's 11 Group, kept in reserve by Dowding's order until the battle was almost over. Bitterly frustrated, they could be forgiven for thinking that if they swooped en masse and shot down a whole raid the Germans would throw in the sponge. But Deighton has the facts and figures to prove that Dowding couldn't take the risk. If his number of trained pilots fell below a certain point, there could be no making up the loss. So he set his face like flint against the rage of his own young heroes. In the long run (or, rather, the disgracefully short run) that was probably one of the things which cost him his job."

Of course, that's six years (approximately from 1971 to 1977) during which time not only was Deighton researching one of the definitive stories of the Battle of Britain; he was also writing and successfully publishing:

  • Declarations of War
  • Close-Up
  • Spy Story
  • Yesterday's Spy
And, one would imagine, also making notes for other history books and novels. Yet having multiple projects on the go in the seventies did not, as evidenced by positive sales, result in any evident diminution of quality. His publishers, Cape, must have seen significant sales potential in this new output from their author, judging by the not inconsiderable weeks of marketing behind the book, and the different point of sale and other materials which were produced, to back up their investment. 

Of course, in marketing any book, a clear hook or anniversary is always handy for catching the public's imagination and making a sale. So when, in 1980, Jonathan Cape published Battle of Britain - a companion volume to Fighter which was essentially an illustrated history - they played up the fortieth anniversary of the actual battle as part of the marketing and PR push

Here's an example of the advertising that would have appeared in magazines and shops around that anniversary (again, copyright The Bookseller):



It's a great example of how good marketing covers all the bases and ensures that the public, the potential target consumers - largely, I'd imagine, middle-class people aged maybe fifty and above who remembered the battle - are bombarded with images, reviews, recommendations and stories wherever they look that encourage them to open up their wallets, walk down to the local bookstore (no Amazon in those days, or course) and buy a copy of the book.

You'll see the advert reference advanced serialisation in The Sunday Times magazine. Here's some of the images from that resulting article. The PR is all about reinforcing Deighton as chronicler ad of the battle, but putting the actual men who fought in it front and centre of the story telling at a time when there would have been national commemoration of the battle, and a good many of them were still alive.





2020 of course, marks the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain. I would imagine that Deighton's publishers are probably considering the chance to re-issue both Fighter and Battle of Britain for that anniversary in new editions or formats, as the reader market will likely be super receptive to any product or book that allows them to learn more about an aspect of British history that's never far from the collective memory.