Wednesday 27 May 2009

Len Deighton speaks

Yesterday morning at 1130h on Radio 4 we heard the first public comments from Len Deighton for quite a while, on the programme The Deighton File, which can be heard for the next week on BBC iPlayer. I guess the Deighton Dossier's been taken as a title!

Anyway, this was a mini biography marking his eightieth birthday, taking the listener on a whistlestop tour from his birth in London and childhood among the Upstairs Downstairs reality of wartime London as a working class kid, through to his semi-retirement in America and his enjoyment of finally putting down the pen. In truth, only about 10% of the broadcast was Deighton, though I suspect there might have been much more on the tape that wasn't used. Much of the content and the colour came from other contributors - Edward Milward-Oliver, his bibliographer (though described in the programme as his biographer); Jeremy Duns, the novelist who's been described as having Deighton-esque qualities; historian Max Hastings and food writer Henrietta Green, all describing different aspects of Deighton's life which together create the rounded polymath and man of the world who brings all this to bear on the page.

What we heard of Deighton was of interesting, including some subjects not covered in previous interviews. His 'exciting' experiences of World War Two as a child, and his finding 20 people dead in an air raid shelter during a bombing which he says 'put things in proportion'. The most fascinating insight into his approach I felt was his description of how he came to write the Action Cook Book for men. He realised that you had to attract men to cookery with a scientific, laboratory approach. So, when describing how to make a dish, you didn't write about the ingredients. You asked the reader to imagine the difference between putting a hand into a hot over at 250 degrees, and putting his hand into a boiling pot of water at 100 degrees - "the relationship bettween heat and temperature is the key to all cookery" were Deighton's words of wisdom.

Later on, listeners heard stories about Deighton inviting Paul McCartney to dinner to try and persuade the Beatles to star in Oh! What a Lovely War in the sixties, and his finding in the last few years that - having abandoned his typewriter - he rather enjoyed not having to write and could enjoy other aspects of his life.

Jeremy Duns, summing up, got it right. He described Deighton as the 'spy novelist, as spy' - a writer who gives the reader the feeling that they are a direct observer of the espionage world, giving you the inside track about things you're not supposed to know.

An excellent programme. A transcript can be downloaded from The Deighton Dossier website - just click on the link on the front page.

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