Tuesday 4 February 2020

Samson, yes … but Delilah? [Guest post]

What are the parallels, if any, between Bernie Samson and his biblical namesake?

[This is a guest post by first-time contributor Seymour Maddison]

Caveat: While I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, a piece like this inevitably poses a risk for any of you still enjoying the Samson trilogies for the first time.

As much as I appreciate Len Deighton’s non-fiction and earlier novels, I experience an especial thrill every time I return to the Bernard Samson books, not least because of how they have influenced my own mystery writing. 

Not only do the three trilogies [Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match; Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker; Faith, Hope, Charity] and Winter showcase a fiction writer at the peak of his craft: I’d suggest they conceal a heavy dose of intrigue. 

This post is therefore an invitation to join me in trying to make sense of what lies below the surface.

In particular, I’d like to propose that the series contains some rarely-if-ever-discussed theories, capable of challenging Deighton novices and aficionados alike. Inspired by an earlier post, the first of these I’ve come to christen ‘The Samson & Delilah Hypothesis’ – and anyone squeamish should be warned that we’re going to need a copy of the Old Testament!

Have you ever pondered: why ‘Samson’?

The only association with the name Samson that I have is through the Bible story. You remember :
Strong man loses his powers when his hair is shorn while he sleeps … his missus is betraying him because … something to do with him continually beating up the Philistines … and then there was this lion … and he goes blind (Samson, not the lion) yet still manages to shove over a temple, in the process killing heaps of baddies … and so on.

Hopefully you paid more attention as a kid than I did! Which is why I was motivated to revisit the Book of Judges recently, in the process discovering multiple versions of the tale. And naturally, that was just some of the English language interpretations.

So … about that Samson & Delilah Hypothesis.

And I mean, in particular, this one: vested interests work to neutralise the significant threat that is (Bernard) Samson.

Sounds pretty straightforward.

Yet apparently, it’s not something discussed elsewhere. But if the theory holds water – and I’m claiming that not only does the Samson tale go to the heart of Deighton’s choice of the name, but can be mapped across the entire plot – does this not suggest a new lens through which you can view the series?

Doubtless you as a reader can recall more of the original story than I could. 

But on reflection, then, to what extent do you agree that a clear parallel seems to exist between Bernie and his biblical counterpart? That is to say: 
  • Both stride around, effortlessly taking out their opponents [Eastern Bloc intelligence or the Philistines] 
  • Yet, simultaneously, both stumble around their emotional landscape, unable to experience normal relations with the women in their lives 
  • Meantime, covert forces work to remove them from the conflict. 

So where is there crossover between the Book of Judges and Deighton’s labyrinthine plot?

To get you thinking, can I propose the following matches for some of the main locations mentioned :

  • Israel = The West
  • The Philistines = the Warsaw Pact countries [see Judges 14:4 - ‘at that time the Philistines lorded it over Israel’]
  • The camp of Dan = the British
  • Zorah = West Berlin
And for some of the supporting characters :
  • Manoah = Brian Samson [Bernard’s dad]
  • Father-in-law = David Kimber-Hutchison [Fiona’s dad]
  • Younger sister = Tessa

I’m sure readers will easily be able to suggest more … however, I’d caution against assuming, as I did, that just because Delilah always gets paired with Samson, then ‘Delilah’ must be Fiona!

You see, it turns out that in the Old Testament story (and this was exactly the kind of detail I’d forgotten or never knew), Samson was married before he met Delilah.

To the clear disappointment of his parents, he’d set his heart on ‘a woman … of the daughters of the Philistines.’ Unfortunately, this union, like all of Samson’s relationships, didn’t end too well!

Even by the time of their wedding, his bride had succumbed to coercion and was favouring her own people over him. Perhaps tellingly, the wife seems to drop out of the story before Delilah appears on the scene (we’ll return to this later I’m sure, in the comments). The account is quite salacious and only explained in part; though clearly some of the marital disharmony at least was caused by Samson’s father-in-law.

Based on the above, I’m suggesting that Fiona is synonymous with Samson’s initial wife and that, because of the role she subsequently plays in Bernard’s life, ‘Delilah’ is in fact Gloria

Witness her [Gloria's] ongoing attempts to have him succumb to domestic bliss; and remembering the explanation that ‘Forces work to remove (Samson) from the conflict,’ what finer way to yoke a family (and man’s) man than by creating a home so inviting that it overrides all urges which would otherwise keep drawing him outdoors?

Did somebody order a haircut?

So far so good, although I’d also not rush to judgment about who ‘the lords of the Philistines’ are; they are regularly mentioned as pulling the strings which oppose Samson.

During his November 2012 interview with Len Deighton, you may have read Rob Mallows [Deighton Dossier editor] alluding to Silas Gaunt as ‘the mastermind behind everything.’

According to the transcript, however, the author didn’t confirm this assertion outright. Rather, as he went on to explain his planning process before beginning to write:

'I started off with a wall chart outlining a series of twelve [sic] books … In the chart Silas was the master-mind. At the end of writing Berlin Game I wasn't sure if it would all work out as planned.’

So if Uncle Silas isn’t necessarily the ultimate puppet master, who else can you think of who may be in the frame?

I myself have one idea to share, however, I would be very interested to hear other readers’ perspectives at this point: either something you’ve discerned from one or more of the books or, in the spirit of scientific endeavour, maybe you have evidence which blows out of the water my starting hypothesis, perhaps one of the identifications, etc?

But hang on, that’s right. You were promised more than one thought-provoking theory, weren’t you?

Well. What if Deighton’s plotting goes deeper still?

What if the enemy isn’t only running defensive operations ‘to neutralise the significant threat that is Samson’? What if the author has helped them penetrate London Central itself?

We can of course get into these and other mysteries in the comments section. But I would set out a challenge Deighton Dossier readers: what’s your reading of my Samson & Delilah Hypothesis?

What impacts would you say the biblical story has had on Deighton’s series?

The Deighton Dossier thanks Seymour for his contribution. So, what do you think, Dossier readers? Carry on the discussion either in the comments section, or on the Dossier Facebook page.

Sunday 2 February 2020

Marketing military history - Fighter and Battle of Britain

While globally he is known for his spy fiction and as one of the premier spy fiction writers of the twentieth century, Len Deighton also demonstrated his status as something of an auto-didact and polymath, having commercial success in the fields of cookery - his Action Cook Book for example was picked by The Observer a few years ago as one of the top cookery books of the century - and history, particularly military history.

Research in the British Library archives recently - specifically, further highlights from rummaging around The Bookseller archives - threw up some interesting examples of how the books were marketed to the trade and how his publishers, and booksellers, cross-marketed his status as an established fiction author into the non-fiction market.

Len Deighton was not a trained historian; indeed, he left school and went pretty much straight into National Service (having been too young to be called up in World War Two) in the RAF, flying as a photographer in RAF intelligence. So, its perhaps understandable that he developed here a love of flying and aeroplanes, and an interest in military history.

While not a professional historian, he became a particularly effective amateur one. What seems to have been essential to the publishing success of Deighton's history books - especially Fighter: the true story of the Battle of Britain; BlitzkriegBlood, Sweat & Tears; and Battle of Britain - was playing up the same secret of his success for his fiction work: diligence, attention to detail, months (even years) of background research, and a capacity to tell a complex, multi-layered story with multiple characters, that he had developed since the early sixties through his fiction.

Clearly, being an internationally famous spy fiction author of top rank was helpful to Deighton in opening doors and giving him access to the people who could best tell the story (those who had fought), not just on the allied side but on the German side too. I think that see-both-sides aspect to much of the history that Deighton wrote does make for a more balanced and comprehensive understanding for the reader of why things happened the way they did, which ultimately is what you want as a reader from any history book.

This image and caption from 1977 (lower right) - in The Bookseller - is from a flight in a Heinkel bomber undertaken by the author as part of his research for Fighter: the true story of the Battle of Britain. What's interesting is what you read in the caption: first, his international renown gave him access to Luftwaffe aces who could give him first hand feedback on the; and second, that there was six years of research behind the book.

That's reflected in many of the reviews the book got, such as the review "In their flying machines" by the late Clive James, in the New Statesman:
"The weakness of Bomber lay in its characters. Deighton invented a representative battle and staffed it with what he fancied were representative types. Actually they weren't as clumsily drawn as you might think. Deighton is not quite as bad at character as the critics say, just as John le Carre is not quite as good. A book like Yesterday's Spy, one of Deighton's recent fictions, is not only stronger on action than le Carré's later work, but features more believable people. The cast-list of Close-Up is indeed hopelessly makeshift, but the characters flying around in Bomber, though divided up and labelled in what looks like a rough-and-ready way, are deployed with some cunning to bring out the relevant tensions. You could be excused, however, for not connecting them to the real world. In Fighter there is no way out of it. The Battle of Britain really happened. Not just the machines, but the people too, really existed. And Deighton has managed to give the whole event a clarity which it lacked even at - especially at - the time.

According to Deighton (and he is very likely right) the Battle of Britain was never won, but there was sufficient reason for triumph in the fact that it was not lost. Dowding's whole effort was to ensure that Fighter Command should survive as a force. He could not realistically hope to destroy the Luftwaffe, but on the other hand he could hope to go on denying it command of the air, thereby rendering invasion impossible. Dowding was a percentage player. He was under relentless pressure - especially from one of his own immediate subordinates, Leigh-Mallory - to gamble his strength in mass actions. He resisted the pressure, guarded his resources, and fought a protracted battle with great patience as well as consummate skill and daring.
Fighter would be valuable if it did nothing more than help correct the popular impression that Leigh-Mallory's "big wing" theory was a possible alternative to Dowding's penny-packet tactics. The big wing theory was widely publicised after the war in Paul Brickhill's best-selling biography of Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky. Even retrospectively it is an appealing notion, and at the time must have seemed like simple common sense to the pilots of Leigh- Mallory's 11 Group, kept in reserve by Dowding's order until the battle was almost over. Bitterly frustrated, they could be forgiven for thinking that if they swooped en masse and shot down a whole raid the Germans would throw in the sponge. But Deighton has the facts and figures to prove that Dowding couldn't take the risk. If his number of trained pilots fell below a certain point, there could be no making up the loss. So he set his face like flint against the rage of his own young heroes. In the long run (or, rather, the disgracefully short run) that was probably one of the things which cost him his job."

Of course, that's six years (approximately from 1971 to 1977) during which time not only was Deighton researching one of the definitive stories of the Battle of Britain; he was also writing and successfully publishing:

  • Declarations of War
  • Close-Up
  • Spy Story
  • Yesterday's Spy
And, one would imagine, also making notes for other history books and novels. Yet having multiple projects on the go in the seventies did not, as evidenced by positive sales, result in any evident diminution of quality. His publishers, Cape, must have seen significant sales potential in this new output from their author, judging by the not inconsiderable weeks of marketing behind the book, and the different point of sale and other materials which were produced, to back up their investment. 

Of course, in marketing any book, a clear hook or anniversary is always handy for catching the public's imagination and making a sale. So when, in 1980, Jonathan Cape published Battle of Britain - a companion volume to Fighter which was essentially an illustrated history - they played up the fortieth anniversary of the actual battle as part of the marketing and PR push

Here's an example of the advertising that would have appeared in magazines and shops around that anniversary (again, copyright The Bookseller):

It's a great example of how good marketing covers all the bases and ensures that the public, the potential target consumers - largely, I'd imagine, middle-class people aged maybe fifty and above who remembered the battle - are bombarded with images, reviews, recommendations and stories wherever they look that encourage them to open up their wallets, walk down to the local bookstore (no Amazon in those days, or course) and buy a copy of the book.

You'll see the advert reference advanced serialisation in The Sunday Times magazine. Here's some of the images from that resulting article. The PR is all about reinforcing Deighton as chronicler ad of the battle, but putting the actual men who fought in it front and centre of the story telling at a time when there would have been national commemoration of the battle, and a good many of them were still alive.

2020 of course, marks the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain. I would imagine that Deighton's publishers are probably considering the chance to re-issue both Fighter and Battle of Britain for that anniversary in new editions or formats, as the reader market will likely be super receptive to any product or book that allows them to learn more about an aspect of British history that's never far from the collective memory.