Sunday 18 October 2009

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (1)

Recently I managed to get hold of a full set of all nineteen Silver Jubilee paperback limited editions of all of Deighton's fiction books up to 1987. Produced by Grafton to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of Deighton's The Ipcress File, these editions - like the current new editions published in 2009 to mark the author's 80th birthday - contain an introduction by the author, each of which explains in some detail the origins and development of each book he'd written up to that point.

Some of the stories had been seen before in interviews and publicity material, but much of the insight was definitely new and gave the reader at the time a new perspective on familiar and much-loved stories: for example, Deighton confirmed that the main character in Spy Story - though it would appear from the text he is the same 'unnamed narrator' in the first four ('Harry Palmer') novels - is not the same character, though he bears some resemblance and works for the same organisation, W.O.O.C.P.

I thought I'd extract and reproduce below some of the most interesting vignettes from these forewords:

1. The Ipcress File
Deighton on his influences: 'At the time I wrote The Ipcress File I'd never read any of the James Bond books, and John Le Carré's Spy Who Came in From The Cold was still something to come in the distant future. My enthusiasm for Raymond Chandler, Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham is perhaps evident.'

On his roots as a working class Londoner and various critics' interpretation of the interplay of class and class envy in his characters: 'Memory plays tricks but it's probably true to say that the interplay between the characters was inspired by the brief period I spent working in a London advertising agency. [Deighton had been a designer and creative director after leaving the Royal Academy of Art, London] I was the 'technician' surrounded by clever witty young men who'd been to Eton together. I transplanted this scene, with added friction, into an intelligence agency office.

Some readers interpreted the book as a working-class crusade against private education. To some extent I was labelled. Later even my Bomber book was misinterpreted by some, and more recently the 'Game, Set & Match' trilogy has been seen as an attack on Oxbridge and all it stands for. This is not my intention and it never has been. I'd always had great sympathy for the people who'd had to put up with this intractable hero. Misunderstanding arises only if the reader accepts the hero's narrative as the objective truth. It is not the truth, there is not exact truth. What happened in The Ipcress File (and all my other stories recounted in the first person) is to be found somewhere in the uncertainty that the opinions of all characters provide.'

On the inevitable comparisons in the media between his 'unnamed spy' hero and Ian Fleming's James Bond character: 'At about the time that The Ipcress File was published the first James Bond film came out. My book got very generous reviews so that a friend of mine was moved to tell me that some critics has used me as a blunt instrument to batter Ian Fleming over the head.'

On his career switch from designer as a writer: 'I don't know exactly when I first felt myself to be a professional writer. When I looked back afterwards I found that even at college [St Martin's College and then the Royal Academy of Arts] my sketch books were getting more and more cluttered with written notes. Perhaps it was inevitable that I turned from drawing to writing. I am not sorry. No one ever gave an artist a chance to provide excuses for mistakes he made twenty-five years ago.'

2. Horse Under Water
On writing the difficult 'second book': 'Horse Under Water was my second book and I started writing it a month after signing the contract for The Ipcress File. I started it for the same reason that I started the rest of them: I was dissatisfied with my previous effort and I wanted to do better. Like most writers I become aware of a book's fault the moment it's taken away from me to go to the printer. By the time a book actually appears I dislike it more than any critic can.

A second book is widely believed to be the acid test of a writer, the one that decides if the first success was just a flash in the pan. My first book - The Ipcress File - still wasn't published by the time I went along to the publisher with the draft of my second one. The publisher wasn't encouraging. They sent me away with the book unread. It was their policy, they told me solemnly, never to even consider a 'second book' until they'd seen the sales of the first.'

On the value of extensive research to create believable characters and story lines: 'For me, the best part of doing the job is doing the research. The best research is done by talking to people but inevitably one sooner or later has to go to a library. For Horse I spent many hours in the library of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. It was within walking distance of where I was living [Deighton had a flat in 29 Merrick Square near Borough, south London]. To add to my pleasure the library was being completely reorganised and the library staff provided me with a table and chair in the middle of all the chaos. It was wonderful! These unusual circumstances gave me a chance to go along the shelves finding documents and books that I didn't know existed. Some of the underwater warfare material had only just been downgraded to declassified and often they had trouble getting me to go home at night.'

On the decision to make the main character - who subsequently became known as Harry Palmer in the movie version - anonymous: 'After this second book was published I was frequently asked why the hero had no name. One Canadian reviewer told his readers that I'd claimed it was symbolic. There was nothing symbolic as far as I was concerned but I did have a hang-up at the idea of the author's name being different to the name of the narrator. This was an absurd reason but I couldn't dismiss it and by the time I got to the end of my first book I still hadn't named the hero. I was relieved to find that the publishers of The Ipcress File were happy to leave him unnamed, so I kept him anonymous.

There were advantages to having an anonymous hero. He might or might not be the same man. [Subsequently, in book like Yesterday's Spy and Spy Story, many readers assumed that the narrator, also unnamed, was the same hero from the first four novels. Deighton subsequently confirmed this was not the case, but his use of anonymisation created this sense of ambiguity and tension with the reader which gave him dramatic licence to hint at connections which may, or may not, be there.] This gave me a chance to make minor modifications as and when I wanted them. Looking back now it was capricious to say that he was from the northern town of Burnley. I had picked the place at random having remembered it on parcels I'd sorted for the post office while on vacation jobs from college. Burnley I found to be a lively, noisy town with delightfully friendly people. But the man from my story couldn't have come from here: could he? [In the film of the book Harry Palmer was played by a cockney, Michael Caine, and in hindsight it's surely the case that the character wouldn't have worked so well with a broad Lancashire accent].

3. Funeral in Berlin

On encountering the realities of Communist security in his research trips for this, his third novel: 'I'd already decided to drive to Czechoslovakia and use Prague as a setting for a book, now I decided to drive north from there and stay a little while in Berlin. It was a fateful decision, for Berlin has played a part in my life ever since.

If I tell you that I was taken to police headquarters in a remote part of Czechoslovakia's Tatra mountains and a week later picked up by a Russian Army motorway patrol and taken to their military police barracks, you might think I go around looking for trouble. I am the sort of innocent to whom things happen. In Czechoslovakia I'd provided myself with a visa to go camping. It gave me the sort of freedom of movement I always liked to have. I didn't want to book a series of hotel rooms and plan my journey in advance.... Alas the Czechoslovakian authorities were not flexible in such matters. If I had a camping visa, why was I staying in hotels? It was too cold for camping. Yes, but...! Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, these are all varying triumphs for the bureaucrat. But the Czechs treated me with great courtesy and when I showed no hurry to escape their clutches I was even showed round their extensive premises.'

On the lengthy delays experienced with the Russian border patrol guards on entering East Berlin, when problems with his visa for Berlin were identified - the destination had not been filled in by Czech officialdom - leading to his being held at the border; and his unusual approach to thawing East-West tensions: 'I will always remember the young Russian officer who spent an hour alternately questioning me and telephoning on a rather primitive phone that was obviously the army's old network still strung up from wartime. He finally stared at me for a long time, smiled and made a phone call in halting German explaining that it had all been a mistake. Now that he had looked closely at the visa it did say Berlin. Everything was in order. He would send an army vehicle with me to see that I found my way to the Adlon [East Berlin's swankiest hotel right by the Brandenburg Gate, hang-out of senior Nazis and diplomats during the war, and Communist generals thereafter]. He hung up the phone, smiled again, and gave me my passport. 'Alles in Ordnung' he told me. Luckily I had a bottle of brandy that I'd got from a duty free shop on the border. I gave it to him feeling that we'd delivered a minor setback to the international bureaucrats who are taking over the entire world.'

The next blog in this series, when it's up, will provide extracts from the forewords from Billion-Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place to Die and Bomber.

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