Monday 16 May 2011

Q&A with Len Deighton - part three

Following yesterday's second blog posting, below is the third and final part of the exclusive Deighton Dossier Q&A with author Len Deighton, in which among other things the author recounts his first steps to discovering what Cold war life was like, behind the Iron Curtain. The questions in this Q&A are either my own or suggestions from blog readers. A full .pdf copy of this interview will be put up on the main Deighton Dossier website.

Len Deighton Q&A - part three

All text (c) Pluriform 2011

DD: You considered a novel in the 'seventies around the Vietnam War, and indeed you started down that route in a sense with the short story First Base in Declarations of War. But you didn’t complete it. Did you just run into a narrative cul-de-sac in finding the right story angle on this conflict?

LD: No, I had the story roughed out when I asked the Pentagon to let me join a fighter squadron in Vietnam. Acclimatization first, they said. I spent many happy weeks with the fighter pilots. They dressed me in a flight suit and assigned me to Bentwaters, an American airbase in East Anglia, England. Living with the pilots for several weeks I made many good friends. I learned the jargon, enjoyed the laughs and chit-chat of the ready room and lingered in mess halls, offices and workshops. I flew back-seat in Phantom fighters, dropped bombs and refueled in mid-air. And I learned about casualties too when during my time with them a mid-air collision brought sad losses.

The glacial speed of Washington bureaucracy ensured that, as permission was finally given for me to go to where the fighting was, the peace talks in Paris began and the war fizzled out. My notes went into a box on the shelf. I must not be too resentful of the pen-pushers. Washington wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of male Jane Fonda.

My time with the US Air Force was a valuable basis for the research that eventually led to Goodbye Mickey Mouse, a story of American fighter pilots in World War Two. My wife and I kept in touch with Captain Johnny Jumper, the pilot who had been burdened with me and my endless questions. At intervals we visited him and his family as he went from one assignment to the next. Eventually Johnny was promoted to become the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force: the man at the very top of the tree.

DD: You used a lot of bird imagery in An Expensive Place To Die, for example in the names of the characters Byrd and Loiseau. What did you hope to achieve by this metaphorical device?

LD: Yes, I did. I am sorry. I am self-conscious about employing links and symbols of this sort but in my defence I can only say this affectation didn’t last long. On the plus side: I was gratified to be able to prise my way into the Paris police system and see some of the raw underworld. I don’t think I could have done it through official channels but (as I was told by an English expert on the Paris police) the French are notable for having laws and regulations that are customarily ignored. He said that if the police, in all their many manifestations, obeyed the regulations the whole of Paris would come to a sudden messy halt. I never saw Paris in the same way again; and if any of my shock and horror came through in the book I am happy with that result.

DD: ...and the secret dossier slipped into the first edition of the book: who's idea was that, and is the story about someone being arrested in New York as a result of having a copy of this dossier true, or apocryphal?

LD: At Jonathan Cape [DD: Deighton’s publishers] Tony Colwell told me that strange story and insisted that it was one hundred per cent true. Ray Hawkey designed and produced a beautiful little dossier containing facsimile documents from the White House etc. as a promotional enclosure for An Expensive Place to Die. It was all very convincing except that the documents were in miniature. Nevertheless, an enterprising Canadian of Russian extraction made contact with a Soviet Embassy official (presumably in Ottawa) and offered to sell it. The story becomes blurry after that. One version says that the Russian paid a large sum of money but others say the Canadian was collared by the Mounties as he kept the appointment. Tony was one of the most honest people I ever met so we can be reasonably sure that it was not a publicity stunt.

DD: You mentioned having built up a number of contacts in East Germany and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. To what degree did they help inspire story ideas and characters and encourage you to depict authentically life behind the Iron Curtain? As a reader, the city (and residents) of Berlin in the Game, Set & Match series, for example, is a character in itself, so well do you describe it.

LD: It all started well after midnight, when I was driving north from Prague towards Berlin in an ancient grey VW Beetle that was so basic that it was only sold in the domestic market. It had a crash gearbox and I liked it because few others could master it. As I neared Berlin a Russian military policeman stepped out and brought me to a halt waving one of those lighted batons that the Germans use. It was cold and he was buttoned to the neck in a heavy overcoat and spoke only what I assume was Russian but he made his instructions clear. A couple of command cars boxed me in while I drove a couple of miles to a big army depot nearby. I spent a couple of hours waiting for a Russian officer who could speak English.

In the interim the noise of heavy trucks, and the sight of brawny drivers signing a large book as they arrived or departed told me that this was a check point and barracks for Berlin-based Russian army trucks. The officer arrived unshaven and appeared to have dressed hurriedly. He took my passport, which had all the right signatures and rubber stamps for Czechoslovakia but – due to an incompetent civilian clerk in Prague - lacked the one for the East Berlin checkpoint. The officer told me to drive back to the Autobahn and take the road to West Germany. It was a long way and I explained that I had not got petrol enough to do it.

He took me outside to check my car and take its registration number. Berlin night air can drop to lethal temperatures and that night was very cold. While we were looking into the car he saw tucked under my suit-bag a bottle of Laphroaig. I explained that this single malt was a very rare and expensive drink that few foreigners had ever tasted. I had visited the distillery on the isle of Islay so my enthusiasm was informed and contagious. In view of the cold, we withdrew to his office and tasted this smoky restorative.

Benefiting from a more mellow atmosphere I suggested that I buy some petrol from his army depot, spend the night in his barracks or pour the rest of the whisky into my gas tank. He gave me a grim and knowing smile and did what many another administrator has done in trying circumstances; he picked up the telephone, called his superiors and said that, now that he had examined them carefully, the Englishman’s paper were all in order. You may ask me how I understood his Russian. I don’t know but I recognized the tone of voice. He hung up, gave me my passport and a conspiratorial salute. I left the whisky with him.

But all of this is leading up to the fact that my first experience of Berlin was East Berlin (the Russian Sector) to which the road led. Dawn was breaking. I knew no-one in Berlin – East or West – except for a film director named Kurt Jung-Alsen. He was a friend I had first met at an East German film festival in London. He showed no surprise at being awakened in the early hours (I suppose he was relieved to see it wasn’t some sort of policeman). He persuaded the Adlon Hotel to find me a room in what little remained of its ruined premises, and straightened out all sorts of formalities – such as what is this strange Englishman doing here in our communist country? His answer always was that I was a part of his film making. He gave dinner parties so I could meet his amusing and somewhat subversive friends. For a time, I knew only people living in East Berlin. I began all these new friendships by declaring that I was a capitalist not a communist or socialist. I had been told to do this by an experienced newspaperman and it was the best advice I could have had. Most writers learn how to become self-effacing and I wallowed in that strange society which had the fraternal social cohesion that senseless tyranny bestows.

DD: Your military histories are perhaps your most praise-worthy accomplishments and on a par with many other analyses of the period. Did you get a good reaction to your ideas and conclusions from professional historians and, more importantly, the veterans on both sides?

LD: Professional historians – and I must add, most critics – have been kind to me over the years. Of course I was equipped with a priceless gift: a monumental inferiority complex. It was this that made me check out everything three or four times and then check it again. I lacked the formal systematic basis of study that professional historians enjoy but I compensated for this by seeking out eyewitnesses and participants. There were many high-ranking people still alive at the time I began my researches and the war was fresh in their minds. I discovered a great deal of material that never went into the history books. I enjoyed talking to people from both sides; not only military people but also technicians and civilians. I kept my mind open, if not to say blank, and this encouraged revelations and indiscretions.

I had a great deal of material prepared before I ever thought of it being published. It mostly concerned Europe in 1940 and of course I had my own experience as a basis. A.J.P. Taylor was a particularly important person in my life and it was he who convinced me that my sort of ‘amateur history’ was just as valid as any other sort providing it was accurate. The result was three history books: Blitzkrieg and Fighter and eventually Blood Tears and Folly.

DD: Finally, who are the authors that you have particularly enjoyed and admired over the years?

LD: There are so many that I find it difficult to start. A.J.P. Taylor demonstrated a sardonic directness that I admired. I also learned from Taylor’s detractors that irony and provocative humour are sometimes taken at face value and totally misunderstood. John Ellis has produced some engaging and unsurpassed works of both statistics and social history e.g. Brute Force and The Sharp End of War. Roger A. Freeman, while running a farm, compiled such books as The Mighty Eighth and became the world’s greatest authority on the US 8th Air Force. Published in illustrated magazine form, the ‘After the Battle’ series under the direction of Winston G. Ramsey is in detail and accuracy the largest and finest record of World War Two.

Apart from war history books I like reading reference books of all kinds; from books about art and graphic design to ones about photography and cookery. I avoid literary novels as I find them too cryptic. At present I am reading The Penguin Book of Hollywood a 600 page anthology by Christopher Silvester and Some Sort of Epic Grandeur – The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a 700 page biography by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I find both books gripping and I have Volume One of the diaries of Christopher Isherwood (1,000 pages) on the shelf waiting for me.

DD: Len, thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, thanks for this excellent interview.

    I can't wait for LD's new book on aircraft engines, LD has such an excellent grasp of technology, his knowledge of the period and the forces driving the development promise a book that promises to be a peerless treatment of the subject.