Monday 19 April 2010

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (3)

This is the third blog post continuing my efforts to mine some of the nuggets of insight and intelligence provided by Len Deighton in his forewords to the rare Silver Jubilee editions of his first 19 major works of fiction, from 1987. Len rarely writes about his own work, so these new forewords provided one of the few opportunities for readers to hear the writer talk about how he approached each of his book and  find out some revealing tales. You can find the other blog posts so far in this series here and here.

7. Declarations of War (1971)

This is the only collection of shorter stories written by Deighton, and provides something different from his earlier spy novels. Written soon after Bomber, it too takes a wartime theme but this time from across the ages, from the Roman era right up to the present day. But, as Deighton states in the foreword, he does not refer to this as a collection of short stories:
"As I told my publisher, Declarations of War is not a book of short stories. Books of short stories contain old bits of writing culled from ancient magazines or newspapers, and assembled together with little more than their author in common.
Declarations of War (with the exception of one story that had been published elsewhere) was written in one go, from start to finish. I had always tried to write so that each chapter of any book could stand alone. I'd always believed a book should be a collection of 'short stories', written and arranged in such a way that that reader who reads it right the way through is left with a complete impression of the author's initial idea. It's not easy to do, of course, and I wouldn't claim that I have ever succeeded. But in Declarations of War I took the opportunity to try this in another more extreme way."
This connection in the narratives does come across in the collection. All the stories share the theme of heroism,and the stress and impact of war on humans; his characters respond in a number of different and unexpected ways to the challenge of warfare. As Deighton points out in the foreword, his heroes in the stories - a jaded firing squad commander, the out-moded general, the nervous young flyer among others - are not heroes in the conventional sense. The characters and stories arose through Deighton's extensive military history research and contact with experts and old soldiers alike; but, his reputation for thorough research let him down in one story:
"Only with the story 'It Must Have Been Two Other Fellows' did I go badly wrong. I believe it's the worst mistake in research I've made so far (and if you know a worse one be so kind as not to write and tell me). Choosing carefully the sort of armoured vehicle that a man could become obsessed with took time, and provided me with an excuse to talk to many ex-tankers. The Sherman Firefly fitted the bill beautifully. I was equally careful about the Italian background with its specific slang and jargon. But too late I discovered that the Sherman Firefly was developed for the Normandy campaign. They were never used in Italy. Ah, well."
Some critics have said that Deighton's penchant for research and detail - particularly in military materiel - sometimes got in the way of plot in some of his books; but I think each of these stories is pretty well balanced and benefits from the unifying military theme. One story - 'First Base' - is set in Vietnam and was, by all accounts, a candidate for developing into a fuller novel. A Deighton novel set in Vietnam opens up all kinds of possibilities, but in the end all we have is a glimpse of what might have been, with this story of a soldier and his injured comrade coming upon an abandoned airfield deep in the jungle.

8. Close-Up (1972)

This foray into the corrupt, cut-throat and competitive world of Hollywood film-making is perhaps - until Violent Ward - Deighton's most conventional thriller, and his first departure from the military/espionage milieu. It tells the story of english actor Marshall Stone who, advancing in years, sees the parts dry up but is desperate to remain at the top; meanwhile, dark secrets are revealed as his ex-wife’s husband starts researching a no-holds barred biography.  It's a clever exposition of the 'star machine' of Hollywood at its most venal and ruinous.

The narrative is a thriller recounting the money men, the back-stabbing, the hassles and inherent falseness of the movie-making world which, as Deighton recounts in the foreword, led to his giving up on cinema production after his experiences on Oh! What a Lovely War in the 'sixties. The experience, however, stimulated his creative thinking:
"It was a fascinating period of my life and although writers are the lowest form of animal life in the film industry, I wasn't a writer: I was a producer. My role of producer opened the door to everything that happened. You can't lock the producer out, he runs the show and signs all the cheques. (I learned more about the film industry by signing the cheques than from any other source)."
Deighton informs the reader that the story developed during a trip to California, having checked into the Beverley Hills Hotel and joining a party in Malibu, still jet lagged. He spent much of his time talking to movie executives and financiers to get the detail which would create a vivid picture of the film industry and the craft of movie making. But he didn't want to write about the side of film-making he'd experienced himself; he felt that his development of the narrative, bringing together a series of characters as are found on any movie, wouldn't be suited to the first-person narrative of his earlier novels:
"It had to be a story about an actor. I knew many actors ('Oh! What a Lovely War' was a line-up of the great names of English cineman), I'd seen them at their best, and at their oh so horrible worst. For the purposes of this book I'd read all the standard works on acting and even been to the Royal Academy, and other acting schools, in my anxiety about getting the actor right. I'd become as interested in actors and acting as I was in the film business; I certainly wasn't going to write a book about a producer.
It was only when I got to the end of drafting the story that the solution appeared. I'd have the first-person narrative and third-person too, in alternative chapters that are finally seen to be resolving and endless.
Oh, I know what you're going to say. It's a book about a writer writing a film script. You're right of course but perhaps every writer should be allowed one book about a writer, as a dog is allowed one bit. And at least this one's not hiding away in the country."
9. Spy Story (1974)

After a number of years writing military and conventional thriller fiction - and mixed results from a sojourn into the movie business - Spy Story marked Deighton's return to the espionage arena into which he's burst successfully in the sixties. In the period since The Ipcress File, not only had Deighton's life and writing style developed - the Cold War had moved on too, become decidedly frostier as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction required the western Allies and Soviets to develop ever more sophisticated military strategies. It was clear, Deighton writes in the foreword, that he couldn't just replicate the approach of the first five ('Harry Palmer') spy novels:
"By the time I started writing I had worked out some things that I particularly wanted to do. First and foremost I wanted an associate for the hero. But I didn't want a Watson [note - Deighton was a significant scholar of Conan Doyle]. I wanted an abrasive superior who could give as much as he took. Colonel Schlegel was a creation that came to me from my time with the fighter pilots of the USAF and feel enough affection for him to want to bring him back some day.
The war game theme was one that I'd been toying with for a long time. I'd always been interested in war games. Even as far back as the fifties I remember watching a most interesting naval battle. It was organised by  a war games club. The opposing battle fleets were superb models sailing across the floor of a large meeting hall in a London suburb. The fleet commanders and their respective staffs were locked away elsewhere and only visitors and referees saw the battle in its entirety. It was this game above everything else that prompted me to write Spy Story."
A letter from a war game enthusiast who had programmed the attack sequence from Bomber on to a computer and played it out according to different scenarios prompted Deighton to take this initial setting and develop a conventional espionage story, in which his character Patrick Armstrong  joins the fictional Studies Centre in London and uncovers a plot to derail disarmament talks between East and West Germany. This novel was, he recounts, one of the easiest and best writing experiences of his life so far; the return to the espionage arena clearly benefitted his creative thinking, though this didn't extend as far as the title:
"I hadn't written a spy story for years, now I had written one again, so why not call it Spy Story, and everyone will know what they are getting. But it wasn't so easy. After years without arguments about titles (even The Ipcress File was accepted without question) I suddenly found that someone in a publisher's sales department had other ideas. Didn't I think 'Red Admiral' was better? No. That would sell more copies. I didn't care. Spy Story it remained. The title seemed to do no harm."
Spy Story. Does exactly what is says on the tin!

Wednesday 14 April 2010

The Londonist on Deighton

I've been remiss on not posting about a series of weekly blogs by the great little website The Londonist, which is a quirky but very popular site about London in all its varied glory.

The people behind the blog describe themselves thus:
"Londonist is a website about London and everything that happens in it. That means news, reviews and events; the history and future of London. We celebrate the quirks, eccentricities, hidden and surprising bits that make up the alternative side of the city.
Upbeat and eclectic, Londonist is created by an incredibly talented and diverse team of contributors who share a passion for the city with our readers. We're a bunch of London obsessives who live the city and share our best discoveries".
Over the last eight weeks, Kevin Mills has been summarising chapters from Len Deighton's classic from the 'sixties, Len Deighton's London Dossier, which painted one of the most accurate pictures of London in all its swinging glory, a city which, sadly, is now much of a memory but which comes alive again through Deighton's writing and that of his London pals at the time, each of whom writes about a different aspect of London: food, travel, photography, children's London, slang and shopping and many other topics.

Kevin uses each of the chapters from the book to juxtapose Deighton's London with the modern version - it's an interesting little series which sums up the website's approach to this great city of ours. Last week's blog looks at chapter 8 of the book - children. The chapter in the original books was written by Drusilla Beyfus, and records a different London when kids could play on the streets happily and be satisfied with an ice cream at the end of a visit to the capital's museums. Here's a sample from the Deighton book:
"Whatever a child's hobby or interest, the chances are that London has a densely variegated supply of items which bring a sense of treasure tracked down. This is as true of stamps and butterflies as of conjuring tricks, false noses, fireworks, camping equipment, Batman gear, model soldiers, trains, cars and boats. British soft toys for babies and nursery use are imaginatively designed and made in long-lasting luxurious materials. Bicycles, scooters, tricycles and dolls' prams are usually good value. A recent improvement has been in the range and quality of cheap playthings. Hamley's of Regent Street and Selfridge's of Oxford Street have a good stock of cheap toys that work. The games counters include the best from abroad and it is possible to see the world's latest diversions and distractions that come packed flat in a box."
Not a PlayStation in sight!

A link at the bottom of the page lets you explore the first seven chapters. This week's blog post (pictured) - chapter nine - looks at London through the eyes of the photographer. In the original book, this chapter was written by Adrian Flowers.

This could run and run. There are thirty-three chapters in the original book. Worth checking out.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Bomber to finally make it to celluloid?

After missing out on the 'Lost' Man Booker Prize for 1970 with his novel Bomber, might there be some compensation in the world of films?

An interesting article in today's Daily Telegraph online edition suggests so.

Banker and businessman Bob Wigley is looking to bring Bomber to the cinemas, which is great news. It's a stunning novel - one of the most accurate and even-handed depictions of the confusion and bravery of war - and would make an epic film. In the early nineties, there were plans to bring it to the cinemas but the production was switched by Michael Caton-Jones to Memphis Belle, primarily - if I recall correctly - on account that there were more skyworthy US Flying Fortresses at the time for filming than Lancasters, which feature in Deighton's novel.

The article quote Mr Wigley: “My job is to help raise the money. All €15m (£13m) of it. It may not be obvious why a banker is involved in films but it’s amazing how many commercial ideas you have.

Wigley is chairman of both the directories business Yell and the property group Sovereign Reversions, as well as head of the Conservatives’ Green Investment Bank Commission. The film is close to his heart. His father was a RAF navigator on a Lancaster bomber during the war. The cast for Bomber is apparently being assembled now.

I've written an email to Mr Wigley to see if I can get more information about his plans for the film. Sounds intriguing. Keep an eye on this blog for more news?

Monday 5 April 2010

Keith Richards. Guitar god, spy fiction fan, wannabe librarian

Funny little item in the weekend's Sunday Times. Advance serialisation of the new autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards indicates that the guitar hero is a closet librarian and book collector, as well versed with the Dewey Decimal system as he is with barre chords and the Locrian mode.

This story suggests he has considered professional Librarian training to manage his thousands of books - not surprisingly, many of them on the history of rock and the blues. He's also perhaps a Len Deighton fan, the text revealing he has a habit of "lending out copies of the latest Bernard Cornwell or Len Deighton novels to friends without much hope of getting them back."

The story's covered in the Daily Mail today too. One interesting postscript in the comments section from Terry in Brighton: "I'm glad that someone still likes Len Deighton. For all you kids out there try his first four 'Harry Palmer' books and understand what hip, rock 'n roll writing really means."

Easter weekend's always a slow news day!

Friday 2 April 2010

Town: a day in the life of Len Deighton (3)

Part three of the reproduction in full of a fascinating article looking at Len Deighton's life in sixties' London by way of a detailed diarised account of a single day spent with him. You can find part one and part two elsewhere in recent blog posts.


We are back at LD's flat, having called into the Imperial War Museum on route to make a sketch of a photograph of a type of XXI u-boat. He goes into the workroom and sorts through a pile of newly arrived magazines. There is What's On, Soldier, RAF Review, Admiralty News Summary, British Model Soldiers Society Bulletin and China Reconstructs. 'I should take the Daily Worker, really,' he says.
'Why?' I ask.
'Because if you write spy books you are writing about politics - you've got to spend a little time reading everyone's point of view. If I write dialogue spoken by a Communist it must be real, accurate and convincing, not a crude parody of mustachioed villainy. We are all far beyond that now. I hope we are anyway.'
LD has explained how the next section of the book he is writing depends upon a certain amount of ww2 research. 'This character is a very old man, a Nazi general...'
'You always seem to have Nazi generals in your books,' I say.
LD grins. 'That's a bit unfair. But I do use the characters as symbols, I know. But once I have chosen them I try to make them as realistic as possible. I don't make them speak or act as symbols but the initial choice is symbolic.
Anyway, I have this old guy who is a Nazi general. I'll need some research.'
We go into the next room. Dominating it is a big brass double bed. Under the bed there are box after box of newspaper clippings filed under names like 'Travel', 'Transport' and 'Crime'. A lot of the cuttings consist only of photographs. 'A lot of my reference is just visual,' he says.
I admire the brass bed. 'My uncle Wal has a junk shop at Clapham Junction,' he says. 'He gets us things.'
The far end of the bedroom is a mass of bookshelves and potted plants. 'Wonderful plants,' I say.
'My wife drew them for The Sunday Times colour supplement, but don't tell The Observer.'
'No,' I say.
'We finally got so used to having them here - my wife works very slowly - that we paid for them and kept them.' He dives head first into this great long-barrow of printed paper and for two hours he quietly makes notes in tiny, neurotic handwriting. He shows me the notes he has prepared for a book on military history. 'Seven years' work there,' he says, 'perhaps half a million words.'
It's not clear which this work is referring to, but it could well be the early parts of Blitzkrieg, his history of the German military victories of 1939-41.

From the kitchen there is the steady tinkle of work as Mrs Deighton, who has supplied large cups of strong coffee all day, prepares the evening meal. I ask how much cooking LD does. 'It varies,' he says. 'We don't have any system.' I can quite believe it.
Guests begin to arrive. 'There will be quite a crowd,' LD says. I can quite believe that, too, for he has asked to super almost everyone we have met all day. In the living-room there is a big coal fire and the guests help themselves to a drink. LD acts rather like one of the guests; he makes no attempt to take anyone's coat or pour them a drink, but it all seems to work out very well since the visitors know where everything is.
The guests are still arriving, but LD is sitting in the workroom behind his electric typewriter. One of the guests - an advertising man - puts his head round the door. 'Are you working or watching No Hiding Place!' he asks. The TV set has been operating since Tonight came on the air.
LD says, 'Both, and what's more I'm recording a string quartet at the same time.' I look toward the tape-recorder and find he is doing exactly that.
We are sitting round two ramshackle card-tables being served with a clear beef soup, roast beef broccoli, a vast cheese board, fresh peach and brandy soufflé with brandy and cigars to finish.
The conversation is about narcotic-taking. LD says it is like pulling the bedclothes over your head and refusing to get up.
'Don't you ever pull the bedclothes over your head and refuse to get up?' someone asks him.
'Nearly all the time,' he says with a giggle.
The conversation is about advertising, food, travel and art, in which most of the fourteen people there are well versed. There is surprisingly little talk of houses or motor cars. As most of the guests have to go to work by next morning, they have all left by 2.10 am. LD goes back into the workroom and shifts a very fat tortoiseshell cat out of his chair in order to sit down at the typewriter. He flips the switch on the tape-recorder and the sound of a Brahms string quartet floats gently across the room. LD reads through the stuff he has written that day. He takes a pair of wallpaper scissors and snips it to pieces then begins to build it together again with Copydex.
'Great stuff, Copydex,' he says.
'Yes,' I say. Outside the milk lorries roar past, chinking a clattering over the uneven roadway.
He phones Aircall (his car phone service) and asks if there are any messages. The operate says there is a man who wants to sell him some information about confidence tricks, and will be in Central London tomorrow. He'll phone in at midday. LD says okay and hangs up. 'For some reason the people who want to sell you stories never have much to say - it's the ones who are prepared to tell you for nothing that really make you hair curl. I'm doing a screenplay about confidence men you see. Weird mob.'
This is a reference to his development of the story of Only When I Larf, which he developed simultaneously as a film script which he subsequently produced as a film - one of only two he ever produced (the other was Oh! What a Lovely War) before throwing in the towel on the producing game.

LD wanders into the hall and picks up a yoghurt from the floor. He opens the cap and eats it with a tiny spoon. 'I think I'll have to go to bed now,' he says. 'Have you got all the copy you need?'
'Yes, thanks,' I say.
A fascinating article which paints a terrifically vivid picture of life in London in the sixties which acted as the seedbed for many of Deighton's early novels and greatest characters.