Saturday 24 October 2009

The reissues (5) - The Ipcress File

As previously mentioned on this blog, Harper Collins is drip feeding onto the book market a steady series of re-issues of all of Len Deighton's fiction output. The process began in May with XPD, Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse and SS-GB, all editions carrying a new introduction by Len Deighton himself and sporting new front covers by his friend and associate, designer Arnold Schwartzman.

October has seen the launch of four more reissues, perfectly timed for the Christmas market - a Deighton novel is one images an easily marketable gift item. The first of the reissues covered on this blog is The Ipcress File, Deighton's first novel.

The new introduction
The story is familiar and, thanks to the film adaptation, firmly part of the canon of modern spy fiction. This is the book which introduced to readers the working class, sardonic, wise-cracking un-named agent who thanks to Harry Saltzman and Michael Caine has become universally recognised as 'Harry Palmer'. The milieu in which much of the book is set is swinging sixties London, particularly Soho and Victoria. In his new introduction, Deighton writes he drew heavily upon his time in London in creating the backdrop to the agent's work in the capital: "After completing two and a half years of military service I had been, for three years, a student at St. Martin's School of Art in Charing Cross Road. I am a Londoner. I grew up in Marylebone and one art school started I rented a tiny grubby room around the corner from the art school. This cut my travelling time to five minutes. I got to know Soho very well indeed. I knew it by day and by night. I was on hello, how are you? terms with the 'ladies', the restaurateurs, the gangsters and the bent coppers. When, after some years as an illustrator I wrote The Ipcress File much of its description of Soho was the observed life of an art student resident there." It becomes clear in the retelling of the creation of the Harry Palmer character just how much of Deighton's own life and experiences shaped it, except in one way. In the book, the character comes from Burnley (in the film, naturally, with Caine he became a Cockney). Deighton adds: "I suppose that intervention marked on tiny reluctance to depict myself exactly as I was. Perhaps this spy fellow is not me after all." He also replicated in the office banter with colleagues in W.O.O.C.(P). the atmosphere of his time as an art director in a Soho advertising agency, exchanging barbs with Eton-educated colleagues in their plush private members clubs.

Deighton gives some interesting perspectives on the books that he read which fuelled his creativity and drew him towards the written word and away from design: "At school, having proved to be a total dud at any form of sport - and most other things - I read every book in sight. There was no system to my reading, nor even a pattern of selection. I remember reading Plato's The Republic with the same keen attention and superficial understanding as I read Chandler's The Big Sleep and H.G. Wells' The Outline of History and both volumes of The Letters of Gertrude Bell. I filled notebooks as I encountered ideas and opinions that were new to me, and I vividly remember how excited I was to discover that The Oxford Universal Dictionary incorporated thousands of quotations from the greatest of great writers."

Interestingly, when I read this new introduction it felt familiar, and indeed shares much in common with the last Deighton introduction for a special edition, that for the silver jubilee edition in 1987. This reflects a frequent tendency of the author when recounting of his career and his writing to give away little new information in articles, books, forewords or interviews, and draw instead on a store of existing anecdotes which do often bear re-telling anyway.

The design
Harper Collins and Deighton pulled off a masterstroke in asking Arnold Schwartzman, a major international design figure, to create new front covers for these reissues. Ever since Raymond Hawkey stunned the book and design world with his cover for The Ipcress File - the use of large amounts of white, the use of B&W photography, the striking visual design and innovative typography were symptomatic of the new design wave in the UK led by Deighton and his art school contemporaries - Deighton's books have often represented innovation in book cover design. These new editions follow in that tradition.

The covers of all four 'Palmer' reissues have two central themes: the chessboard, the classic metaphor for the 'game' of espionage and counter-spying (which Deighton uses to full effect in Horse Under Water), and smoking, which was an essential element of popular culture during the Cold War.

Schwartzman provides an insight into his approach to the design for The Ipcress File. Each design element on the front cover points to a key theme in the book: "In seeking an appropriate ashtray, to carry through the 'smoking' theme, I accidentally came across a unique piece shaped like a hand gun, so I aimed it at a red chess pawn, which represents Ipcress's 'Red' Cold War antagonist." It's great fun looking across the design to identify the meticulous approach to symbolism that Schwartzman's employed: the Aquarius cigarette lighter is a reference to Deighton's use of the protagonists' horoscope to introduce each chapter; the syringe with made in the GDR obviously point to the use of psychotropic drugs to induce the psychosis central to the antagonist's plans to brainwash British scientists; the Savoy Hotel coat ticket references his and Deighton's shared affection for the famous London hotel. The fingerprints are Schwartzman's own, taken by a police sergeant in the 1970s as part of a design commission for The Sunday Times.

The pattern of shared symbolism across all four novels continues on the spine, where each of the four books has a stamp motif - in this case a Russian 4 kopek stamp commemorating the former Soviet spy Richard Sorge. Cigarette cards on the back cover depict military insignia from National Service, harking back to the protagonists background in the Army where he was involved in the black market, prior to being press ganged into W.O.O.C.(P).

He acknowledges Raymond Hawkey's original, iconic cover with the use of the gun-shaped ashtray mirroring the gun used in the original, and the retention of the wooden type font logotype used. Overall, the design elements capture perfectly the development of the consumer culture in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and serve as an excellent visual smogasbord to the complex - sometimes over complex - plot which Deighton weaves in the text.

The Ipcress File, Harper Collins 2009, RRP £7.99, ISBN 978-0-586-02619-9.

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