Saturday 26 December 2009

Writers on war

Back in the 1960s, the Vietnam War was the Cold War equivalent of today's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: American-led, hugely-divisive, expensive (in terms of money and lives on both sides), multi-national and contextualised - certainly on the American's side - as part of a wider geopolitical struggle. In the case of Vietnam, this was the effort to prevent the domino effect of south east Asian states toppling to communist rule. Vietnam was a major topic of debate and discussion by the elites and the wider public in the sixties, but one conducted in an era of communications before the Internet when debate was dominated by the printed page. It was a polarising conflict.

I recently came across a fascinating snapshot of contemporary opinion on Vietnam in a book entitled Authors Take Sides on Vietnam, edited in 1967 by US literary editors Cecil Woolf and John Bagguley. Prompted by the example of W H Auden in 1937 -  who invited one hundred and fifty British and American authors to say whether they were for or against the Republican government in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and published the results in a pamphlet Authors Takes Sides on the Spanish War - these two writers repeated the process with Vietnam, seeking opinion and viewpoints from many of the leading literary figures of the day. Each contributor was asked two simple questions:"Are you for, or against the intervention of the United States in Vietnam?" and "How, in your opinion, should the conflict in Vietnam be resolved?"

Len Deighton is one of those who gave his opinion in this book. His entry is reproduced below:

"The US intervention in Vietnam was neither benign nor clever. The present situation is morally wrong as well as exceedingly dangerous, but it would be a mistake to imagine that there is now any lasting solution that would be quick or easy, or one that can be described in a few words. There are men of bad will on both sides who wish the war to continue and public statements by individuals or groups often cynically utilised by such men. Antiwar sentiments of an oversimplified, ingenuous type can have the reverse effect of the one intended."

But Deighton's is only one of more than a hundred and fifty other voices from the cultural voices of the 'sixties, many of which are far more black and white in their expressions of support or disdain for the conflict. There are some fascinating contributions in the book from famous western writers: some tremendously insightful, some incredibly näive and misguided.

Graham Greene, for example, opposed the war and dismissed the link to an international communist threat: "The excuse of containing communism assumes that communism everywhere is evil. Anyone with any experience of Vietnam knows this is not the case."

Philosopher Bertrand Russell took a firmer stand, his comments echoing many of the sterner critics of George W Bush's foreign policy: "I regard the policy makers in Washington who preside over both the aggression and the atrocity to be war criminals, in the precise send laid down at the Nuremburg trials."

Daphne du Maurier, on the other hand, offered up a refreshingly straightforward and no nonsense response, as a novelist, to the realities of Cold War geo-politics: "Although I am in principle against the intervention of the United States or any other power in the war in Vietnam, I do not feel I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject to make a statement." (If only some of today's celebrity commentators were so self-aware!)

Poet Kathleen Raine too was equivocal: "I think America must hold the frontiers against communism, and Vietnam is at present the scene of a conflict which might become a great deal worse if America were to withdraw."

Fast forward to today. Replace Vietnam with Afghanistan and it could be argued that this range of assessment is broadly similar to what one would find today. Afghanistan has become a proxy for a wider political debate - particularly in the US - around the idea of a new cultural conflict between West and East, but this time the East is the East of Islam. Islam has replaced communism in much of the media discourse in the US as the archetypal 'other', the external threat to the status quo. But unlike the Cold War threat from communism, the 11 September attacks in 2001 and others since showed the potential for a 'hot' war of low-level conflict close to home. While al Qaeda may be seeking the destruction of the west, in the terminology of Cold War systems analysis its battle with the West is assymetric in the extreme.

The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts and the fight against the indicated threat from global terrorism too have attracted comment from writers, much like in the above book. Martin Amis, for example, in his book The Second Plane tackled the nihilism of the Islamist death cult and the threat facing America; Christopher Hitchens, while no friend of George W Bush, in the last decade became a vociferous and brilliantly incisive polemicist on the new global war, defending the principle behind the toppling of Saddam Hussein and taking issue with the cultural relativists who seem immune to the realities of life under the middle ages sensibility of the Taliban or the experiences of ordinary Iraqis under Saddam. Hollywood actors too like Sean Penn and Martin Sheen have been vocal opponents in the press and on TV of America's position.

What has changed is that the Internet has made volumes like Authors Take Sides on Vietnam largely superfluous in the modern age. Now, through global media, opinions are instantly communicated and with the explosion of blogging and social networking, everyone seems to want to express that opinion. Perhaps Facebook or Twitter is now the modern equivalent of the anti-war pamphlet? Opposition to the war can be expressed directly, instantly; it does not require an editor to collate and present it in book form months later. Commentary has been democratised. Whether this has improved the quality of the discussion within the political elites or among the cognoscenti, however, is debatable.

Did these interjections in the sixties from the artistic elite make any different to the course of events? Difficult to say, but clearly those who saw their job as making sense of and portraying the world around us - in fiction or non-fiction form - clearly felt the urge to contribute to the wider public debate. That is still valid now.

As an interesting postscript to this story, Deighton did in the 'sixties contemplate writing a spy thriller novel around the Vietnam theme (aside from Berlin, Vietnam was the other obvious totem of Cold War tensions in the sixties and seventies). However, the closest he got was a short story called 'First Base' in his collection of 12 short stories based around military themes, Declarations of War. The story follows two solders, Dutch and Des, who discover an abandoned US air base in the Vietnamese jungle full of stores meant for the conflict. After crashing their track on the base, Dutch is seriously injured, and the two men must wait in the base for what they hope will be their eventual rescue. It is fascinating to contemplate what a Deighton Vietnam novel would have turned out like - Harry Palmer in the jungle, or something more akin to Mamista?

Saturday 19 December 2009

The inevitable end of year 'top ten' list

In today's Guardian food writer Nigel Slater has picked his top ten food books of the year.

In amongst them is Harper Collins' reissue of Len Deighton's Action Cook Book, the only cookery book any self-respecting chap needs to get him through life!


A journalist on The Bournemouth Echo also thinks that the reissue of the Action Cook Book is one of the coolest cookbooks out there.

Sunday 13 December 2009

The reissues (7) - Billion-Dollar Brain; soundtrack redux

First published in 1966 by Jonathan Cape, Billion-Dollar Brain was Len Deighton's fourth novel in the 'secret file' series featuring the unnamed spy, who would later become famous as Michael Caine's Harry Palmer. Set largely in the Baltic, Palmer - his career seemingly on the skids - is given a lifeline with a job by the mysterious Midwinter, whose computer 'Brain' apparently holds the secret to defeating communism. What follows is a lesson in the lengths to ideology and money can lead a man.

The new introduction
Readers will find some interesting new observations from Deighton in this new edition, with most anecdotes new rather than reproductions of stories from the jubilee editions (see last blog on the reissues). With this fourth novel, Deighton went far behind the iron curtain both thematically and in reality. The lengths to which Deighton legendarily went to research his books and get right the details which authenticate his narratives are recounted here, as he recalls the troubles he took to get to visit Riga in Latvia, where much of the action takes place. Back in the sixties, travel to the East was heavily controlled and outside the purview of most westerners. Deighton's impressions of Soviet Latvia seem now, in the twenty-first century, chillingly evocative of a recent history many of us have forgotten. Back in the sixties, it was all too real:

"This satellite of the Soviet Union, deep behind the iron curtain, and in a region the Russians considered strategically vital, was astonishing. The wartime England in which I'd grown up was a dismal and deprived place but visiting Riga at that time was like a giant step back in time. The people in wartime England had never lost their underlying optimism that one day the war would be won, and good times restored. But the city of Riga was a quite different environment; a large prison camp with an occupying Russian army arresting anyone who smiled." During his visits Deighton writes how he was accompanied at all times by an interpreter/guide and was closely watched until it was determined he was not a threat to the soviets!

Deighton recounts how with this book he was settling into his stride as an author and carving out his own writing and characterisation techniques which would pay dividends through the rest of his career, but which ran up against literary norms of the time. "This was my fourth book and I needed to keep a close watch on the characters, some of whom had appeared in other books and might take part in future ones. Writing has always been hard work for me but I was beginning to enjoy the fun that made the hard work worthwhile. I am not a natural writer; I am a natural reviewer and rewriter and rewriter. Editors and publishers ... pressed me to conform to the orthodox methods of 'popular fiction'. For instance, they were united in expecting a full description of each character at the first entrance. I resisted all this fiercely."

Deighton made a decision to re-introduce and build up the character of Harvey Newbegin, who had made a brief appearance in Funeral in Berlin, as a counterpoint to the unnamed spy character, in the manner that Conan Doyle's Watson provided a story telling device for the Sherlock Holmes character (Deighton was a Holmes fan), a character who can keep the plot moving along through dialogue and retelling, and draw out new aspects of the lead character. Dawlish was a London man, not the sort of character who would share adventures with the lead character deep in Soviet Russia; for this, Deighton needed someone more adventurous, a more rogueish and mysterious figure. "But few readers will hold hands with Harvey in the way that they would with Doyle's Watson or my Dawlish. So who was there to like? The reader had only the hero. But as it turned out, I needn't have worried. Despite his many faults the reader like the hero."

Overall, this is one of the more interesting new introductions by Deighton. Though only five pages long, with the scarcity of previous articles and biographical by and about Deighton in the last few years, it's interesting to find some new perspectives you haven't read before.

The new design

In the sixties, Deighton's publishers had sent to booksellers an envelope containing a letter and various bits of ephemera from Finland and Riga which were symbolic of some of the key locations and scenes in the book, as part of the marketing push. Included in this envelope (see picture) was a facsimile of a notebook by Deighton, in which he records some of the details and images which would make the narrative such a compelling read.

Arnold Schwartzman's theme of the chessboard decorated with associated ephemeral items associated with the characters brings that to mind. Again, he's created another iconic front cover, for which he provides some interesting notes in this edition. Colonel Stok is a significant character in this novel again, at the heart of Soviet efforts to defend communism from General Midwinter, and elements of the front cover point to his character: "KGB officer Colonel Alexeyevitch Stok's relish for caviar is matched only by his scholarly passion for the works of Robert Burns. A portrait of the poet sits beside a pack of Russian cigarettes illustrated with a map of the Soviet Union. The pack provides a haven for the "Red" pawn." The bronze bust of Lenin rests on a box of computer punch-cards and a cen

The (new) soundtrack

Less immediately catchy than the John Barry soundtrack to The Ipcress File with its haunting zither theme, Richard Rodney Bennett's rousing score to Ken Russell's adaptation of Billion Dollar Brain certainly has much to commend it. Label Kritzerland has just released a 1000-copy limited edition of the soundtrack and it's well worth a listen.

Bennett uses a full orchestra, with up to three pianos and a lot of brass. This strident tone comes across well with the theme for the scenes in the church and in the opening title sequence around King's Cross when 'Harry Palmer' walks to his office above a shop and receives the telephone message from the computer, offering a new freelance intelligence job.

Interestingly, the tracks on the album are out of sequence with the associated scenes in the film, but it doesn't detract from an album that does capture the nordic iciness and the insanity of General Midwinter's headlong rush to bring down communism in the Baltic States. It is also the only album I know of which uses an instrument called an Ondes Martenot, a keyboard instrument rather like a Theremin; this gives the wispy refrain associated with Anya, the Soviet agent who tracks Harry Palmer to Helsinki, and the trips they make by skidoo to the island house where Palmer meets old friend Harvey Newbegin.

Friday 11 December 2009

A new perspective on Fleming and Deighton

007 Magazine's latest edition, now in its thirtieth year, has in its latest edition a very interesting article - accompanied by some great press photos taken for the Daily Express - of the time when Len Deighton, creator of 'Harry Palmer' and Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, met over lunch.

In 1963, when The Ipcress File was riding high in the sales charts - Fleming had chosen it as one of his books of the year - Deighton was very much the arriviste in the spy fiction world. Peter Evans of the Daily Express brought the two authors together over lunch in The White Tower restaurant on Charlotte Street (together with designer Raymond Hawkey, though he is rarely mentioned in the subsequent article). This is quite a famous interview, which appeared in For Bond Lovers Only in 1965, along with the images reproduced in the magazine.

The magazine's editors have got quite a coup by getting Len Deighton to write a few words of recollection about this interview. Fans of both Deighton and Bond will be fascinated to read the new detail about this auspicious meeting. Sample quote from Deighton's new contribution:

"He [Fleming] was fussy about his food and wine and he knew I was writing about food in The Observer newspaper. I seem to remember we talked a lot about the menu before ordering the meal."

The magazine retails at £9.99 online. Well worth a look.

Friday 4 December 2009

The André Deutsch archive

André Deutsch was one of the most familiar names in British publishing until its independent status was lost when it became part of the Carlton Imprint. Started by Hungarian emigré Deutsch in 1952, the company went on to publish works by some of the most seminal writers of the second half of the twentieth century, writers like Jack Kerouac, Margaret Attwood and Norman Mailer.

Len Deighton, recent graduate of St Martin's School of Art and the Royal Academy, was one of Deutsch's go-to designers for both book covers (Deighton famously designed the front cover for the UK first edition of Jack Kerouac's On the Road) and other marketing work for the company between 1956 and 1963, after which he turned full time to writing.

Much of his design work is still unknown and rarely seen. A recent visit to the UK André Deutsch archive at Oxford Brookes University led me to uncover the full range of covers which Deighton designed for the André Deutsch book catalogues, all of which demonstrate his distinctive use of black outlining and contrasting colour.

A selection of them is reproduced below:

Wednesday 2 December 2009

The reissues (6) - Horse Under Water

I've been a bit tardy in following up on my plans to review the next four of the new reissues by Harper Collins of Len Deighton's first four novels. So, to rectify that, here's the spec on the new edition of his second ever novel, Horse Under Water, the only one of the Harry Palmer novels not filmed (more's the pity).

The new introduction
The story is, unlike The Ipcress File which precedes it, a less familiar part of the popular culture of the sixties thanks mostly to the aforementioned lack of a film adaptation (as a result of the lacklustre reception to the - in my opinion rather good actually - Ken Russell film of Billion Dollar Brain). Nevertheless, Deighton repeats the successful formula of the 'Harry Palmer' series in this book, which transports our working class, sardonic, wise-cracking un-named agent to the shores of Salazar's Portugal, where he finds a heady cocktail of hard drugs, money and neo-Nazis.

In his new introduction, much is - in fact - well, not new. More....recycled. Many of the anecdotes are familiar to those who have the 25th anniversary editions, but re-told and re-worded. Deighton in his publicity and his retelling of his career is wont to repeat old favourites, shall we say. Perhaps, in retirement, one can forgive the old man the chance to embellish, rather than start from scratch!

Deighton recalls how his decision to use a sunken submarine as a central motif sprang from his lifelong love of military machinery (about which he has written extensively). So, here he re-tells the tale of his time spent in the Imperial War Museum looking at newly released German maritime records on advances in undersea warfare, and spending so much time with them he ended up cataloguing them. He goes on: "At the time, I had no idea that the notes I made would be used for anything other than my interest in history. It was during my stay in Portugal [on holiday], when I was asking local people about German activity there during the war, that I recalled all that underwater material. The book's plot fell into place and I started writing."

In choosing to use again the unnamed character from his first novel, Deighton recalls that he recognised then the advantages that could bring him as an author. Again, a subject touched upon in his previous commentary on the book, but here with some subtle changes: "I had not named the hero of The Ipcress File. A Canadian book-reviewer said it was symbolic and pretentious but in fact it was indecision. Now, writing a second book, I found it an advantage to have an anonymous hero. He might be the same man; or maybe not. I was able to make minor changes to him and his background. The changes had to be minor ones for the W.O.O.C.(P). office was still in Charlotte Street and Dawlish was still the hero's 'chief'. There were very few modifications but I realised that (although Deighton is a Yorkshire name, and I had lived briefly in the city of York) identifying him as a northerner would make demands on my knowledge that I could not sustain. It would be more sensible to give him a background closer to my own." There are, certainly, in a thorough reading of the character, autobiographical elements of Deighton which come through.

Finally, he writes about his - now legendary - approach to researching the subjects of his novels and getting as much practical as well as historical knowledge under his belt: "Having no underwater skills, knowledge or experience, I went to the Royal Navy and asked for help. Everyone at the Admiralty was one hundred per cent helpful. They sent me to the Royal Navy's diving school and this experience is described here more or less as it happened. It was only when I was half-way through the course, and up to my neck in water on the ladder of the diving tank, that I confessed I could not swim. They were shocked and apprehensive about it on my behalf, but as I said: 'What is the point of wearing all this scuba gear if you can manage without it?'"

The design
Continuing his chessboard theme set with the first novel in this series, Arnold Schwartzman OBE RDI again presents a fascinating smorgasbord of ephemeral items, each of which points to a story motif. So, on the front cover the readers finds a cornucopia of clues which whet the appetite. A tin of sardines (empty) represents the Portuguese coast, as does a cigarette card of said sardine. But, as Schwartzman notes: "Finding a contemporary, key-opened Portuguese sardine tin became virtually impossible. Discovering the illustration of a sardine on a cigarette card and crested souvenir spoon form Lisbon became much easier, thanks to eBay!"

As he has told me in correspondence about these designs, much of his time was indeed spent sourcing numerous items from around the world, in his search for authentic items which would capture the sixties feel he wanted in the design. The 1960s Times newspaper, open at the crossword, links to the fact that the protagonist is regularly completing such a puzzle; indeed, in the sixties, first editions of the book came with a laid-in crossword puzzle which readers could solve based on clues in the book.

As with the four other books in this reissue series, the spine image is of a postage stamp which picks out a core theme in the book. On this cover, it is a U-Boat. On the back, there is another nautical clue. As Schwartzman explains: "The group of cigarette cards on the back of the cover spells out in semaphore K.U.Z.I.G. and Y. The nautical interpretation of these letters is referred to in the book as 'Permission granted to lay alongside.'"

A fantastic cover worthy of sitting alongside the original Ray Hawkey cover from the sixties, I think. Schwartzman put a significant amount of work into this commission from Deighton, and it works in making the novel appear contemporary to the average book browser, even though the story is now over forty years old.