Sunday 28 August 2011

Desert island discovery

Through regular blog correspondent Bryan Graham, I've uncovered the list of tunes chosen by Len Deighton for his appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1976.

For anyone who doesn't know, this is a BBC Radio 4 series which has been running since the war, in which famous individuals are invited to select eight records which they would like to have with them, were they stranded on this mythical desert island, along with a luxury item and a book.

Len appeared on 19 June 1976. His choices were these:
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, Für Elise, Soloist: John Ogdon
  • Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars, Stars Fell On Alabama
  • Johnny Cash, There ain't no easy run
  • Gwendoline Brogden, I'll make a man out of you
  • Maurice Ravel, La Valse, Orchestra: Swiss Romande Orchestra
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No 11 in F, London Symphony Orchestra
  • Neil Diamond, Crackling Rosie
  • Gustav Mahler, Ich hab' ein glühender Messe (from Lieber eines fahrenden Gesellen), Halle Orchestra.
The latter piece Len picked as his favourite tune. His favourite book was The Art of Modern French Cooking - perhaps not surprising, as in his early twenties in Paris Len spent time in some of the great Parisian kitchens learning from top chefs. And his luxury was a photo darkroom, reflecting his early career as an RAF photographer and his long-standing interest in photography.

Friday 19 August 2011

Just Len...

Bang! Bang!
I have eagle-eyed reader of this blog Bryan Graham to thank for spotting this article on The Guardian's website. Len Deighton is one of 16 thriller and crime writers asked by the paper to pick their own favourite writers. The article appeared last month as crime writers gathered in Harrogate for the annual Crime Writing Festival.

Len's pick is Richmal Crompton, author of the Just William books. He cites young William Brown's undaunted opposition to authority - be it the school teacher or the village policeman - is one of the characteristics of Richmal Crompton's schoolboy character that entranced him and other readers. He sees the evidence of Crompton's writing in other characters:
"It is William's spirit of upbeat anarchy that distinguishes so many British crime stories from their tough-guy American counterparts. His pronouncements are social, political and philosophical but his adventures are catastrophic. William does not recognise catastrophe. Britain's wartime slogan "Keep calm and carry on" might have been his motto. Is William English, rather than British? I think so. Is he a male chauvinist pig? Undoubtedly. Did Richmal Crompton know what she was doing? Perhaps not: but what writer does?"
Also asked to pick their favourite writers as such crime and thriller writing luminaries as Lee Child, Frederick Forsyth, Nicci French and PD James.

Friday 12 August 2011

Concrete wall, iron curtain - Berliner Mauer, 50 years on

It would get bigger.
Fifty years ago, as Deighton writes in Berlin Game, the first people to know anything was wrong were the cab drivers of Berlin, who were unusually being stopped and searched when they crossed the boundaries between the allied zones and the Soviet zone, something that on every other night would be routine.

The uneasy existence of the four-power control of occupied Berlin was to become even more so with what followed. Over the next four nights, as barbed wire and breeze block fell across what were once busy streets, brother was separated from sister, grandmother from grandchild, friend from friend. There was little East Berliners could do but watch or, in rare cases, make a last bid for freedom.

The building of the Berlin Wall – which began not with an iron but rather a steel barbed wire curtain - ‘Stacheldraht’ in German – stretched across roads, parks, through buildings, even crossing rivers. The pompously named ‘anti-fascist protection rampart’ would not come to look like the Wall we all remember until the concrete version was put up in 1965, and improved in design in 1975.

It's completion and subsequent operation - it was, in effect, a 161 km long machine of torture and repression which required constant manning and maintenance - kicked off a deep freeze in the Cold War.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Holy Trinity

It's almost Stasi-like, the way watches my buying habits and knows what I like. I shouldn't listen to it, but it frequently - too frequently, judging by the amount of times I read its name on my bank statement - knows what I'll like to read.

Take Charles Cumming's The Trinity Six. This was recommended to me on Amazon and I took a punt and purchased it. I'm glad I did. This is a thriller that ties together old-school Cold War skulduggery and a modern-day conspiracy trope in a tense drama with many levels which, chapter by chapter, illuminates a twisting plot which delivers handsomely.

The plot centres around the discovery of the identity of the possible Sixth Man linked to the Cambridge Spy ring by Dr Sam Gaddis, Russian expert and biographer of the current Russian leader who sounds, and appears, libellously like Vladimir Putin. Gaddis is an academic, not a spy - think AC Grayling with a gun - and when given box after box of files with a 'story' in them by a journalist friend, who subsequently mysteriously dies, Gaddis slips out of academic mode and becomes a hunter of some very deeply buried secrets. The plot is as thick as a well-stirred béchamel sauce, as a conspiracy is uncovered which binds MI:6 and the Kremlin together in an unholy - and murderous - embrace.

The books reads easily, the dialogue is realistic and the descriptions and the procedure suitably authentic to give the reader the impression that they're at the heart of something big. It is written cleverly enough that when new plot lines are revealed, more are added so that you never know exactly what's been going on until the last few chapters.

It's positive that the novel has three strong female characters who rightly reflect the modern world of espionage and counter-intelligence - Tanya Acocella is the young agent who's given a task by C that she thinks is the path to fast career progression but instead - as she finds out how she's being hoodwinked - is a fast track to the murderous heart of British intelligence and the risk of being killed by President Platov's merciless agents. She is written with a lot of vim and vigour, Cumming cleverly plotting a slow realisation of the truth over the story that sees her move from watcher to partner of Gaddis, keeping him alive long enough to bring the truth to bear.

I like Cummings' style, and this was a worthwhile read, keeping me entertained on every chapter. At no stage did I contemplate not finishing the book; each chapter asked enough new questions to make me skip right on. His inside knowledge of British security services is obvious - he was recruited by MI:6, working for them for a year before turning to writing.

On the back of the hardback edition, the praise for Charles Cumming includes the following:

"The best of a new generation of British spy writers taking over where Le Carré and Deighton left off."

I wouldn't disagree. An enjoyable book and, at only £12 for the hardback edition by Harper Collins, good value for money in these austere times.

The only downside? The cover. Ach! Readers of Private Eye will know that the magazine is great at pointing out the lack of creativity in book covers these days, with publishing houses spotting a trend ..... and flogging it to death. This book is added to that little list of dishonour. A mournful, shadowy figure walking away into the middle distance makes its appearance on the cover of this novel, just like many other thriller novels. It's supposed, you know, to illustrate the life of the spy, always alone, on the run, being watched, having to ... ah, you know the rest. Subtle, it ain't.

Where are the Ray Hawkey's in publishing nowadays? You despair, sometimes.