Tuesday 30 March 2010

Where do you put the carbon paper?

Interesting little story in The Daily Telegraph this week which shows up quite how much the Internet revolution of the last decade is changing the world of espionage ... and consequently the environment for spy fiction.

MI:5 is reportedly making some significant staff changes to get rid of a number of more 'senior' staff who, the paper reports, are finding it tough to get to grips with the Interweb and, consequently, are less able to act as effective modern spying operatives. Reference is made to a "James Bond generation" of spies who cannot cope with the speedy advance of online communications. Hopefully, the HR bods in the service will check that in their efforts to get aligned with modern employment trends and make every spook web-savvy, they don't lose the collective knowledge and experience these agents will undoubtedly have.

While accepting that MI:5 and MI:6 no doubt must remain effective and adapt to all the advantages modern technology offer, one can't help wandering that the spy game 2.0 lacks a little of the 'art' and guile of the classic espionage world of Deighton, Le Carré, Ambler, Fleming et al, with its 'data centres', hidden cameras, short wave radios, secret drops, trefs and one-time pads. Real scope for cracking action, intrigue and suspense, in a time when secrets were secret ... at least, most of the time. The modern spy, with his iPhone and encrypted wireless, is faced with a world of information where little, it seems, is now "top secret".

But, of course, the great spy characters reflect the age in which they operate, and the best authors will reflect this and create stories that weave this information-rich world seamlessly into a breathless narrative.

I can't help thinking what 'Harry Palmer' or Bernard Samson would make of this modern incarnation of the spy business .... and laughing.

Friday 26 March 2010

Bomber misses its target

News comes in today that Bomber by Len Deighton did not make the short-list for the  Lost Booker Prize, which is to be awarded for the best book of 1970, covering the year when the famous prize was not awarded.

Bomber's inclusion was somewhat of a surprise. Military fiction has never been that well regarded in literary circles, even though Bomber is much more than simply that. The Guardian has a report on the final short-list, which includes Muriel Spark and Mary Renault.

[Stop press] In a piece in today's Observer (online at the Guardian website), one of the judges Rachel Cooke describes the process of whittling down the long list to a short list, and her feelings towards the disparate novels she read.

On Bomber, she writes:
"I have just read 21 novels, all of which were published in 1970, and while a few could be described as polite, none was actively dull. Two – Bomber by Len Deighton and I'm the King of the Castle by Susan Hill – were so exciting, I read them at one sitting."

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Boozy lunches and canapés

Had a very interesting evening tonight courtesy of Penguin Books' crime and thriller department. Thanks for the evening go to the author Mike Ripley, editor of the Shots Mag website, who got me the invite. Clearly, the 'blogosphere' is now a target audience.

In between glasses of white wine, the effervescent Ripley told me of his lunch with Len Deighton today in London, during which he got some books signed, caught up on news with Len and spent ages sharing stories about second world war military intelligence.

Sounds like a fun lunch!

Sunday 14 March 2010

Upcoming Canadian radio documentary on Deighton

I've spent the day with Philip Coulter, radio producer on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation programme Ideas. He is interviewing Len Deighton next week for a documentary on his work; less autobiographical, more about looking at how his fiction reflects the changing public perceptions of espionage and paranoia, and also the themes of betrayal, trust and loyalty.

We went on a walk around London visiting some of the locations in the Game, Set and Match series of novels, and I talked about their significance, how they contributed to the plot and character development and - to add some colour - read some key passages from the books in these locations. Fun to do; Coulter's a real fan of Deighton's writing and this trilogy in particular, and rates him a far better writer than Le Carré, for example.

Should be an interesting radio documentary when it's all finished - I'll post up details about when it's going to be broadcast. Hopefully, it'll be on the web too so we can listen along with the Canucks.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Town: a day in the life of Len Deighton (2)

Below is the second post looking at the article 'A day in the life of Len Deighton' from the August 1963 of Town magazine, then one of London's premier glossy men's magazines.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Town: a day in the life of Len Deighton (1)

Despite the growth of the Internet as people's main source of news and information, the magazine market still seems to be hanging in there. Back in the 'sixties, magazines were in a boom period, with increasing numbers of titles published aimed at ever more specific sections of the population.

One such high-profile, but short-lived magazine from the sixties squarely aimed at the growing middle class male readership was Town. Originally titled Man About Town, the magazine provided the launch pad for the Haymarket Group. A spin-off consumer magazine from the trade title, Tailor and Cutter, the intention was to turn this quarterly into a glossy monthly for men. Men's fashion was at the margin of acceptability and men's magazines relied almost entirely upon their willingness to peddle soft porn. Town never made much money, but in the 1960's it was very high profile and one of the magazines to be seen in for writers, actors and other celebrities.

I've recently purchased a copy from August 1963. In among the profiles of actress Susan Hampshire and a fascinating article on the diamond fields of South Africa is a feature called A day in the life of Len Deighton.

Written just over a year after he achieved reknown with the publication of The Ipcress File, this self-penned article provides an interesting insight into Deighton's lifestyle, his promotion to the upper leagues of London society and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and research in the days before the electric typewriter and word processer/PC. The photos - by Adrian Flowers - also show Deighton in the kitchen, where time spent was as valuable as at the typewriter. Over the next few blog posts I'll reproduce much of the article to give readers a feel for a London lifestyle that's well and truly (and regrettably) passed and, where it's helpful, provide a little commentary.

[Note: Although subtitled 'by Len Deighton', this chronological piece is written in the third person; the journalist is not identified by a byline. I suspect it might be that the photographer Adrian Flowers is also the interviewer, but it's not clear.]


In an ugly little neo-Georgian flat near the Elephant and Castle the phone is ringing imperiously, but all is quiet for it has a whole packet of rayon blended household cotton wool screwed under its baseplate.
In response to continuous bell ringing, the door is opened by [sic] round-faced man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown. If he were in a slightly better condition Len Deighton could be called pudgy. As it is, he is undoubtedly fat. He shows me into the front room. It is dark in spite of the whitewashed walls, on one side of the room is a large black welsh dresser crowded with chipped antique porcelain. There is a severely wounded chesterfield, a stuffed warthog, a tea trolley laden with tubes of paint, brushes and jugs of dirty water and a Thonet rocking-chair in which three overfed cats jockey for position.
The reference to painting indicates Deighton's background as first and foremost at that time a designer and illustrator, who still did commissioned work for a while even after his first book came out.

I have heard the roar of the electric coffee grinder and the scream of a whistling-kettle and now the heavy aroma of rich coffee percolates through the flat. From the bathroom there is a steady thunder of the shower.
Len Deighton has emerged with two bowls of coffee. He has cut his chin shaving and there are specks of blood on the collar of the blue shirt with epaullettes and flap pockets. He sits down heavily and stirs his coffee in a distracted sort of way.
Drinking coffee from bowls is a French habit, one which I suspect Deighton will have picked up from time spent in France on holiday and studying French cuisine.

LD has finished his coffee. He phones his secretary who works in a different part of London. 'I also have an office in Russell Square', he says, 'but I've never sat down in it.'
'Why?' I ask.
'Because there are no chairs there,' he says, and gives a nervous giggle. He speaks to his secretary and dictates three letters over the phone. One is a complaint to BEA, who feel that they are not responsible for an hotel bill when they left LD stranded in Vienna with no planes flying. One is to The Times Literary Supplement, which has just published an article about The Ipcress File and the last one is to his literary agent about two new clauses in a contract for Finnish translation.
What is evident here is how much attention and cachet Deighton has achieved in just under two years as a writer: the multiple offices, the numerous foreign editions, the secretarial service, a high profile article in a major monthly magazine. While not an overnight success, it points to the way Deighton's prose style, his apparently anti-establishment approach to what was then a literary genre of gentlemen spies and Oxbridge-educated mandarins had grabbed the public's attention.

He runs fingers through his moth-eaten hair-cut and walks across the room. 'Like those?' he asks. He is pointing to two icons that hang above the fireplace. 
'Yes,' I say doubtfully.
'Made 'em out of balsa wood and paste' - as though he expected to surprise me.
The phone rings (LD has switched the extension bell on). It is the Observer. LD has a horror of answering telephones so his beautiful wife generally cases each caller. LD takes the phone. The Observer wants to know whether he can locate an anarchist for a lecture at a provincial university. He suggests a couple of cafés they can try. Capping the phone, he says to me 'Not so many anarchists about lately.' I nod. 'Used to be a lot about at one time,' he says. 'Really?' I say. LD replaces the receiver and walks across the room. He picks up a small prickly ball and throws it to me.
'Sniff that,' he says. I look at it. It is an orange stuck with so many cloves that you can't see the peel. I sniff it. 'Great, eh?' LD says. 'Yes,' I say.
LD goes into the kitchen. In front of him is a rough pencil draft of his cooking-strip for the Observer. 
'This is boeuf bourguignon,' he says. He is cutting up meat and carrots and hurling them into a frying-pan where butter is dissolving. 'Leg of beef is best,' says LD. 'It needs long cooking but the flavour is there.' He takes the pencilled draft and crosses the word 'brown' through. He writes 'sear' in its place. 'Sear cubes of 2lb leg of Beef,' the recipe now says.
'Did you work your way through all the recipes in the Action Cook-book [sic]?' I asked him.
'Have you read the Action Cook-book?' he said in a faintly surprised way.
'Cape's sent me a review copy,' I said.
'You'd better not use it,' LD said, 'the recipes in the review copies have got deliberate mistakes.' LD laughed a great deal as he said this, and the end of his tie went into the saucepan. The kitchen is about the size of a gigantic telephone box. Across one wall is a row of tarnished copper pans and under it a shelf where balls of string, pistachios, coffee, brandy, tinfoil and a dented red tin that says 'A Coronation souvenir June 1953' a picture of Balmoral Castle on it. By now there are four gravy spots down the front of his shirt. I point this out to him. He fingers the material proudly and says, 'Netherlands Air Force: 8s 6d.'
'Yes,' I say.
More of this fascinating article in future blog posts.

A Spy Story mystery....solved?

The American edition of Spy Story which I've just purchased, says this on the dust jacket cover:
"He is back after five years' long absence, the insubordinate, decent, bespectacled English spy who fought, fumbled, outwitted and survived his outrageous way through the best-selling Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and the rest of those marvelous, [sic] celebrated Len Deighton spy thrillers. One again, he finds himself a reluctant habitué of that nightmare world of espionage where a triple cross is as commonplace and regular as the daily paper at the breakfast table. Nothing's changed!"
On a first reading  - and this was the case with me first-off - it's easy to think that this is the same no-nonsense, anti-authority tough-guy spy who took on the Gehlen network and Colonel Stok in the 'sixties thrillers which initially brought Deighton to the public's attention.

There are textual clues that he's the same man: he works for W.O.O.C.(P)., the same department as 'Palmer'. He narrates the story. He's something of a ladies' man. Early on he meets Dawlish, the boss from the earlier stories; Dawlish tells him, "New name, new job, the past gone forever...But you can't wipe the slate clean. You can't forget half your life." The character is described as in his late thirties, which fits with what we know of the unnamed spy. So, all pretty clear cut.

However, despite what publishers Harcourt Brace Jovanovich chose to put on their dustcover, something had changed.  The character of Patrick Armstrong in the book was not the same unnamed spy who had appeared in Deighton's first spy novels. In the introduction to the Jubilee edition, Len Deighton confirms that, despite much speculation at the time, it is not the same unnamed spy:
"Patrick Armstrong is not the man from The Ipcress File, although he's obviously a close relative."
Edward Milward-Oliver, Deighton's sometime biographer, in his book The Len Deighton Companion, also writes:
Armstrong, Patrick. Work name of the narrator of Spy Story, who if not our overweight friend from The Ipcress File, is certainly a close relative.
So, why is the reader teased in the text to a different conclusion? And why do the US publishers present quite the opposite? Even in their efforts to address ambiguity, Deighton and Milward-Oliver leave open the hint that it might be the original hero. What does "close relative" mean? Is that literal or figurative, i.e. he's derived from the same character? What is a 'work name'? Deep cover, perhaps, for his role?

A number of answers suggest themselves.

First, ambiguity helped the characterisation. In having the hero as the narrator, we understand his character from what he says and does and how others interact. Without a third person narrator giving context, there is ambiguity; the reader is asked to question whether the character is all he seems to be, and if everything he reveals about himself is true.

This was true with Deighton's character Bernard Samson, who is revealed in Spy Sinker - narrated in the third person, not by Samson - to be not as clued-up and as expert a judge of character as he himself thought. So, in having the 'Patrick Armstrong' character draw some dotted lines back to the first hero, without explicitly demonstrating he is that character, Deighton is able to draw on the best dramatic aspects of the former character but adapt it for a new story and a new milieu.

Second, marketing purposes. The 'Harry Palmer' character was a huge hit, both in the book and film markets. He broke Deighton in the US market and would have been regarded as a banker. By playing on the character's ambiguity in the text, the publishers could be assured that - directed that way - readers would assume it was the same successful character, and give sales a boost. After all, would the market that lapped up the first five books be up for the introduction of a new character?

Third, simple screw-up. I've no information about the contract for the US rights for the book or the marketing plan, but certainly there's nothing in the UK marketing which plays up the 'is he, isn't he?' aspect of the main character as blatantly as the US version. The dust-jacked of the UK first edition says nothing other than presenting review quotes from earlier books. It might well be that on reading the book, the marketing people at HBJ thought, 'hey, let's give the public more of the same,' and ran with it.

Of course, thirty five years or more after the event nothing's absolutely certain; but, we should probably take the author at his word and conclude that it's not .... exactly the same character. But plenty of journalists, reviewers and bloggers have been taken in nonetheless.

So, mystery solved? I'd be interested what readers of this blog think.