Thursday 3 August 2017

In the days before flat whites and skinny moccachinos, there was .... chagga

'Oh really, Bernard ...!"

This post was inspired by an email from Deighton Dossier reader Morgan Davies, who sent a link to a shop in London which is referenced frequently by everyone's favourite buffoonish (or is he?) spy in the Samson series of books, Dicky Cruyer.

The shop in question is H R Higgins, purveyor of fine ground coffee in London to the great and the good. Morgan confirmed they are still selling the mysterious "chagga" coffee, which was part of Dicky's daily routine as Head of German Desk at London Central, where he (in theory at least) had full control over agents like Bernard Samson in East Berlin.

This minor detail in an otherwise massive nine-volume text I think illustrates how great writers like Deighton and others use details and moments to round out their characters and deliver subconscious signposting to help the reader understand each character's personality and outlook, and their relationships to others.

Here's some classic back-and-forth repartée between Dicky Samson and his employee, Bernard Samson, when we first meet them in Berlin Game:

'He [Cruyer] had his coffee served in a fine Spode china cup and saucer, and he stirred it with a silver spoon. On the mahogany tray, there was another Spode cup and saucer, a matching sugar bowl, and a silver creamer fashioned in the shape of a cow. 
He sipped his coffee and then tasted it carefully, moving his lips while staring at me as if I might have come to sell him the year's crop. 'It's just a shade bitter, don't you think, Bernard?' 
'Nescafé all tastes the same to me,' I said. 
'This is pure chagga, ground just before it was brewed.' He said it calmly but nodded to acknowledge my little attempt to annoy him. 
'Well, he didn't turn up,' I said. 'We can sit here drinking chagga all morning and it won't bring Brahms Four over the wire.

In the reader's first experience of Cruyer and Samson's relationship over 'chagga', key things are established.

The perceived class difference is hinted at, as Dicky's coffee habits and his use of the term fine to describe a good brandy were picked up at Oxford. If Dicky is all about fine dining, then Samson - with his reference to Nescafé - is more a supermarket than a white table cloth sort of guy.

This, in turn, hints at the power relationship between the two. Though Samson can josh and pick on Cruyer, he's his boss; he's well ensconced in London Central with coffee served fresh every morning, while it is his agents, such as Bernard, who are on the front line in East Berlin, doing the heavy lifting (or killing).

Fine Tanzanian chagga

Cruyer's character (or rather, Bernard's perception, as the narrator, of Cruyer - we establish in Spy Sinker that Samson is not always a reliable witness), is also hinted at strongly.

Self-confident, arrogant, a social climber, little routines like coffee become mini power plays at which he can demonstrate his power and status (and wealth) to his employees and, presumably, peers and superiors.

This is well demonstrated in this passage from London Match:

Dicky got up from his easy chair and fussed over the antique butler's tray which his secretary had placed so carefully on his side table. He emptied the Spode cups of the hot water and half filled each warmed cup with black coffee. Dicky was extremely particular about his coffee. Twice a week he sent one of the drivers to collect a packed of freshly roasted beans from Mr Higgins in South Moulton Street - chagga, no blends - and it had to be ground just before brewing.
'That's good,' he said, sipping it with all the studied attention of the connoisseur he claimed to be. Having approved the coffee, he poured some for me. 
'Wouldn't it be better to stay away from Stinnes, Bernard? He doesn't belong to us any longer, does he?' He smiled. It was a direct order; I knew Dicky's style. 
'Can I have milk or cream or something in mine?' I said. 'That strong black brew you make keeps me up at night.' 
He always had a jug of cream and a bowl of sugar brought in with his coffee, although he never used either. He one told me that in his regimental officers' mess, the cream was always on the table but it was considered bad form to take any. I wondered if there were a lot of people like Dicky in the Army; it was a dreadful thought.

So much to take in in a few short paragraphs. Through the coffee ritual, we learn of Dicky's military background, which probably explains why he's Head of German Desk and Bernard isn't.

In the cream we see a power challenge to a subordinate: by taking it, Bernard is allowing Dicky to reinforce his own self image as something of a strong man, a risk taker - he takes his coffee strong, and black!

The routine of the tray and the warmed cup, the particular style of cups used, all hints at a very particular, meticulous character - fussy, even - which, as we see in their relationship, Bernard can use to get under Cruyer's skin and goad him, often into giving way.

But as we learn of Dicky Cruyer's character in the final three books - Faith, Hope and Charity - we start to see that while these routines are part of his character, he is far more ruthless and in control than we might establish from Bernard's early conversations with him over coffee.

The Devil is in the detail, goes the phrase.

He's also in the coffee, too.


  1. Good post thanks Rob.

    Cruyer is a fantastic character and the interplay with Samson provides many of my highlights through the series.
    Deighton's expertise in creating such subtleties in the power-plays and general exchanges between characters is an aspect of his writing that keeps me returning to his books. Cruyer recognising Bernards attempt to annoy him and Bernard taunting Cruyer's sensibilities by requesting the cream. While Dicky establishes the class hierarchy, Bernard has the temerity to poke fun at it.
    If anyone caught any episodes in the second series of the TV drama 'The Fixer', I imagined Elliot Cowan's portrayal of an ambitious Mi6 officer to be modeled somewhat on Deighton's Cruyer (although plot lines lacked opportunity for such subtleties).
    Given modern society's preoccupation with aspirational tv cookery and finding the next 'exclusive' coffee roast etc. I wonder if Deighton's knowledge and use of (highbrow, as it may of been in the 60's and 70's) cuisine and coffee as a device would hold the same fascination today?...

    1. I think in all of Deighton's books, food and quality eating is an ever present, reflecting his own personal experiences and interests.

  2. Author MIKE RIPLEY has shared this anecdote with the DD in response to this article on chagga:

    "Shortly after starting to work in London in 1978, I discovered H.R.Higgins coffee merchant near Bond Street tube station.

    I was often served by the legendary Miss Higgins herself, who once invited me to join in a professional tasting session of a new crop of beans, which was conducted at length with great ceremony, whilst she was on the phone to the grower in Kenya!

    My particular vice was their Mocha/Mysore blend, sadly discontinued, ground in the old red grinder which also “pulverised” the beans. I would regularly phone through my order during the day and it would be waiting – wrapped in brown paper and tied with string – in the shop’s “Out” tray for collection on my way to the tube. I quickly realised I had picked the right coffee merchant when, one evening, I collected my order, which was one of three parcels in the Out tray. The other two were labelled: “The Duke of Edinburgh” and “Mr Len Deighton”.


  3. Interesting relationship with thriller writers and coffee! I have read about Ian Fleming's love of Blue Mountain Coffee, which he enjoyed in his Winter hideout in Jamaica where he typed all his James Bond novels.
    I have cultural ties with Mysore and have tasted Mysore Blend for years in my younger days.