Tuesday 11 August 2009

The reissues - new insights into the writing process - SS-GB

As set out the last blog entry, at the end of May Len Deighton's publishers Harper Collins re-issued the first four books from his catalogue, each of which now has a fantastic new cover by Deighton's long-standing friend and creative partner (they worked on Airshipwreck together in the 'seventies), Arnold Schwartzman. The new books each have a short introduction by the author explaining his writing process behind each book and the genesis of the story, and much of what is there on the three or four pages of each introduction is new information which gives the reader a new insight into these familiar books.

While for obvious copyright reasons - and because you really should by these books in paperback again if you haven't read them for a while - I'm not going to reproduce at length what we learn in these new introductions (the most recent writing Len Deighton's produced) I'll offer up some hints.

First up, is SS-GB, his celebrated novel using the 'what if...' historical re-imagining approach. Schwartzman has created for it a wonderfully shocking image of a smugly satisfied Hitler opposite Parliament after the Wehrmacht has conquered London (in reality, it looks like Schwartzman's used the famous shot of Hitler when he'd entered Paris in 1940 and was photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower). It's a cover that definitely is there to grab the reader's attention.

So, what of the new introduction from Len Deighton? The catalyst for the book was he writes a late-night drink with his editor at Jonathan Cape Tony Colwell and designer friend Raymond Hawkey, following a discussion about the book they were working on at the time, Fighter. 'No one knows what we might have happened had we lost the Battle of Britain', Tony Colwell said. That was the spark. There's a sense here that no sooner had Len put one book to bed, he was already thinking ahead to his next project (or more likely, projects!).

Deighton reveals how this remark led him to look at the official German documentation and publications, which indicated that much of the military planning for an invasion and occupation of the UK had already been made in 1940 and was in the archives. He'd already talked to a number of German veterans and officials for his acclaimed World War Two histories and novels, so there was already a deep understanding of what such an invasion and occupation would have entailed.

A diligent researcher and note-taker, Deighton gives an insight into how he fleshed out this kernel of an idea - a detective thriller in which a British policeman working under the SS is the hero as he uncovers a Nazi plot to grab the UK's atomic weapons secrets while the King is in prison and the government in exile - from scratch to create the labyrinthine plot and authenticity which it needs to be believable as re-imagined history:

"Using the German data I drew a chain of command showing the connections between the civilians and the puppet government, black-marketeers and quislings, and the occupying power with its security forces and its bitterly competitive army and Waffen SS elements. My old friend and fellow writer Ted Allbeury had spent the immediate post-war period in occupied Germany as what the locals called 'the head of the British Gestapo'. Ted's experience was very valuable indeed and I used his experiences and anecdotes to the full."

Deighton has long argued that one of the keys to his novels is getting the details right; from that, everything flows. Papers and histories only give you one perspective; to make characters and plots realistic and believable, you've got to go to the source - the participants, the observers, the eye-witnesses, the experts. This is what he did with SS-GB certainly. He gives a detailed explanation for example of his research into the Old Scotland Yard off Whitehall - one of the main locations for the novel - to understand the workings of the Metropolitan Police during the war, and drew upon the direct experiences of a former detective from the period who gave him a guided tour around the old nick. That sort of research comes across in the novel as Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer becomes embroiled in a tussle between two competing SS officers in command of occupied London.

SS-GB was always a book that begged to be filmed. London felt the touch of the Nazi hand through the Blitz bombings but - due to the bravery of the fighter pilots or Hitler's failure to see through the defeat of British forces at Dunkirk and his subsequent excursions in Russia, whichever theory you believe - we escaped occupation. This novel is the closest you can probably get to understanding what it might have been like!

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, SS-GB would make a great movie.
    Some of the stuff Deighton does in this book is staggering and heartrending. I think he really lived in his head what it would have been like if London had been occupied.
    The scene where we visit the veterans being fitted with artificial limbs never fails to make my eyes leak!
    (I was outraged to read one review where so fool described it as a pot-boiler thriller, it's anything but)