Article by David Craggs.
As a sexagenarian espionage aficionado who had first-hand experience of the 1960s, this particular ‘Field Agent’ has long been as obsessed with the literary phenomena brought about by ‘Bond Mania’.
As with most things ‘60s, you had to have been there to appreciate it. The absolute tsunami of literary spies that hit the book shelves and spinner racks after the big screen success of DR.NO was truly something to behold and the only thing that has come remotely close since has probably been the wizard mania provoked by Harry Potter.
In the cultural revolution that was the ‘60s, fictionalised versions of MI6 and MI5 became the biggest literary job creation schemes going. Authors adopted pseudonyms and changed genres to participate. First timers arrived by the Bentley load and quicker than you could say ‘my name is Bond’ there was a new spy around every corner.
A non-exhaustive list included the likes of Adam Hall’s Quiller, John Gardner’s Boysie Oakes, John Munro’s John Craig, James Leasor’s Jason Love, Andrew Yorke’s Jonas Wilde and Adam Diment’s mod protagonist, Philip McAlpine. A veritable slew of new spies all taking advantage of 007’s notoriety.
Her Majesty’s Government had never had so many agents willing and able to defeat all manner of dastardly villains. All trained to shoot and shag their way out of trouble at a moment’s notice and without a head hair moving out of place!
Of course, many of them were the literary equivalent of the one hit single. Just pale Bond imitations that benefited from a booming market before sinking without trace. Others like John Le Carre’s Smiley went on to have long and illustrious careers. Beyond his own activity, Fleming certainly launched a huge market that went on to segment into two quite distinct categories. Both of which are still with us to this day.
One became known as the ‘ANTI-BOND’. A descriptor for novels that were seen as being more serious, offering a more realistic portrayal of the spy game and often perceived as having greater literary merit. The other became a vogue for action thrillers that amped up the Fleming cocktail of sex, violence and glamour to a level that probably drew more inspiration from the Bond movies than the books. This resulted in a category of writers that tried to ‘OUT – BOND BOND’ and beat Fleming at his own game.
In this, the first of two articles, this scribe will go down memory lane and look at these two development through the optic of the authors who were principally responsible for this segmentation and who themselves paved the way for a whole generation of spy writers. Between them they secured the future of espionage fiction way beyond the end of the cold war and long after Ian Fleming’s tragic early demise. I will also try and examine to what extent, if any, they were directly influenced by Fleming.
First let’s take a look at the development that became known as: The Anti-Bond.
Picture this, on Tuesday October 2nd 1962, Bond movie producer Harry Saltzman is having lunch at Pinewood Studios with a first time author to discuss the screen rights for a book that was not due for release until November 12th.
The first Bond film Dr. No had only opened just a day or so earlier and the lunch was interrupted when one of Harry’s staff came to report on its reception.
‘They are laughing,’ he told Harry.
‘At us or with us?’ Harry asked.
Harry nodded, ‘That’s all right,’ he said.
Harry had been a lone voice in asking that an element of comedy be introduced into the script. In this respect and in much else, Harry Saltzman created the mood for the ‘cinematic’ Bond.
In offering to buy the screen rights to his guest’s yet to be published novel, Saltzman was making a remarkably bold decision: there was no way to be sure that Dr. No was going to be the start of the James Bond legend, or that the Bond franchise would go on to make him one of the richest and most famous film producers in the world. Showing the confidence that was a huge part of his character he turned to the author and said: ‘I am the only person in the world who won’t try to make your working-class anti-hero into some kind of James Bond.’
Such was Harry Saltzman’s vision that he already saw the need for a cinematic counterpoint to his own Bond franchise. The first time author he was addressing was none other than Len Deighton and the screen rights they were discussing were for The Ipcress File. A book that would go on to be hailed for creating a new type of hero who would become known as the Anti – Bond and which would herald a new apparent realism in the espionage stakes that some critics would use to disparage Ian Fleming.
The above sequence of events is described in greater depth in Len Deighton’s 2012 Kindle short: James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father and is part of one of the most fascinating stories in publishing history. At just 33 years of age, Deighton is selling his film rights, has secured a serialisation deal with ‘The Evening Standard’ and has garnered the sort of advance reviews that any author would have longed for and all before he has sold a single copy.
The critics were almost uniformly gushing. To quote the New Statesman; “There has been no brighter arrival on the shady scene since Graham Greene started entertaining.” The Daily Sketch said; “I spy a man to put Bond out of business.” The Observer opined; “Most promising debut. A spy story with a difference.”
Deighton had started to write his book in 1960 as a diversion from his work as a graphic artist and although I’ve never read anything to suggest that his decision to write a spy novel was influenced by Fleming, there is absolutely no doubt that Bond paved the way for Len’s unnamed intelligence agent in a similar way as The Beatles did for The Rolling Stones. They weren’t the same thing but arguably one wouldn’t have been quite as possible without the other.
Legend has it that Deighton was inspired to write his novel when his real-life Marylebone neighbour Anna Wolkoff, a white Russian emigre was arrested by MI5 for spying for Germany in World War II. It was his vivid memory of this incident that determined that his first book would be an espionage thriller.
When The Ipcress File is published on November 12th 1962, it hit the shelves in Raymond Hawkey’s innovative monochrome wrapper – a design that set new standards in the art of book illustration – the phrase ‘You can’t tell a book by its cover’ has never been less true. The design portrayed the contents perfectly and had an impact that elevated thriller cover designs to the level of fine art.
Indeed it is interesting to compare Hawkey’s Ipcress cover with Chopping’s first Fleming, From Russia with Love. Both are fine pieces of work that represent their titles perfectly. Chopping sums up the romanticism and escapism of Bond whilst Hawkey’s work is stark and hard-boiled and portrays danger lurking within the mundane. There is also no doubt as to which decade they belong to. Chopping’s work is ground breaking and has a distinct ‘50s feel to it whilst Hawkey’s bares all the hallmarks of ‘60s modernism.
Hodder & Stoughton’s first run of 4000 sold out within 24 hours and one of them went to yours truly for 18s net. According to Deighton this was largely due to The Evening Standard serialisation albeit it would be disingenuous not to credit Fleming with having created the wave that Deighton surfed.
The aforementioned good marketing withstanding, what was it that lay between the covers that created such a sea change in spy fiction and the birth of the anti-Bond phenomena?
Visitors to this site will doubtless be well versed in the fiendish Ipcress plot to kidnap and brain wash scientists. Some, Kingsley Amis included, found it convoluted and difficult to follow. Personally I found it a good yarn that made you concentrate. That said, this fan feels that beyond the story itself there were three key reasons why the book took the market by storm:
Firstly, Ipcress was written as a ‘Spy Procedural’. In his interview in Edward Milward-Oliver’s 1987 book, The Len Deighton Companion, Deighton explained; “There’s a style of writing known as a ‘Police Procedural’, which I find very good and sound, and certainly works well against what we read in the newspapers. It has an authenticity, and you believe the author knows exactly how, for instance, the New York police operate, right down to the paperwork. It’s probably true to say that I had an instinctive desire to write a ‘Spy Procedural’, and that’s probably what I still write today”.
With The Ipcress File and the ‘unnamed’ spy books that followed, Deighton used this technique skillfully and created a sense of realism that was absent in the more escapist Bond.
Unlike today, the secret world still was secret in 1962. Ex-heads of MI6 weren’t expressing opinions on Brexit and former bosses of MI5 weren’t writing their own spy novels or motoring reviews. Nor was MI6’s HQ a tourist attraction and few had even heard of GCHQ.
In contrast to Fleming and some of his other contemporaries, Deighton only once gave any indication that he might have been involved in that world. That said, he clearly had contacts and did meticulous research but it was really the fruits of his fertile imagination relayed through the procedural technique that allowed him to portray a secret world that had the complete smell of authenticity. This gave the impression of being the real deal. It had ‘Secret File No.1’ on the cover and ‘Downgraded to Unclassified’ on the back. When you opened the pages, you really did feel like you were breaking the official secrets act. It was refreshingly different and lead The Evening Standard to proclaim; “Something entirely new in spy fiction; never before has a secret agent’s work been described in such convincing detail.” Another critic said; “It’s as with Raymond Chandler has stolen a Home Office file.”
Secondly, Deighton’s principle character was really a hero for the sixties generation. Many Bond fans discovered literary 007 after seeing the movie Dr. No. Ironically and bizarrely this led some to criticise Fleming for not being faithful to the movie! Ridiculous as this may seem to literary aficionados who knew that the movie was already a reimagining of a ‘50s hero for The Beatles generation. It was a common complaint amongst my circle of friends. Many of my teen and twenty acquaintances liked the Bond movie but not the books.
Literary 007 was their father’s hero whereas Deighton’s irreverent, state educated, Gauloises smoking spy from Burnley was just down their street. Like them, he hated his boss, liked to optimise his expenses, was a little anti-establishment and although his taste in classical music was probably not theirs, the fact that he knew his food, cooked for his women and wore horn rimmed spectacles was fare out.
In short, the unnamed agent was über cool and so was Len Deighton. Such was his appeal with the in crowd that Life magazine would go on to remark that “next big soft girls will read Deighton aloud in jazz workshops”.
Len’s cool factor is well illustrated by his hero’s humour and cynicism. Most writers develop good dialogue over the course of their careers. Deighton started with excellence. He came straight out of the gate with the most marvelous expressions and exchanges that were to die for.
Classic examples are easy to find:
‘The lunch hour in central London – the traffic was thick and most of the pedestrians the same’.
Or this iconic dialogue between our hero and his boss:
‘You are loving it here of course,’ Dalby asked.
‘I have a clean mind and pure heart. I get eight hours sleep every night. I am a loyal, diligent employee and will attempt every day to be worthy of the trust my paternal employer puts in me.’
‘I’ll make the jokes,’ said Dalby
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘I can use a laugh …..’
Dalby tightened a shoe-lace. ‘Think you can handle a tricky little special assignment?’
‘If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.’
Not a discussion that you could ever imagine taking place between Bond and M! It was fabulous stuff that played straight to the zeitgeist of a generation that was rebelling and starting out on a cultural revolution.
Last but by no means was least the location. Although, unlike the film, the book took you out of England to Beirut and Tokwe Atoll in the Pacific, it remained quintessentially a London novel, and what a great job it did in encapsulating the atmosphere of our capital city on the cusp of the swinging sixties.
Deighton London well; he’d grown up in Marylebone, gone to St Martin’s School of Art and had lived in Soho. His London was as Dickens would have described it he had been writing in the ‘60s. His tale took us from Whitehall, through a bohemian Soho with its smoke-filled Italian coffee bars and sleazy strip clubs to Fitzrovia and Shoreditch. He really captured the essence of a London that was changing fast and shrugging off post war doom and gloom.
Deighton’s London, had none of the hauteur of Fleming’s. Albeit Ipcress did feature a lunch in Wilton’s. Instead it rather communicated the ambience of a town that was about to embark on a modernists revolution that would see Carnaby Street and King’s Road become the world’s centre of fashion. A position that it would go on to hold for more than a decade. In short, Deighton was achingly cool. If he’d been a movie star he’d certainly have played Terence Stamp to Fleming’s David Niven and for the Carnaby Street and Chelsea cognoscenti, a copy of The Ipcress File was as much the accessory du jour as Chet Baker’s latest album.
When the movie version came out in 1965, Deighton’s luck more than held. The Sidney Furie helmed project starred the brilliantly cast Michael Caine as its protagonist, who was christened ‘Harry Palmer’. It remained largely faithful to the book, was beautifully and creatively shot with many intriguing camera angles and featured an amazing jazz infused downbeat score by John Barry that was a million miles away from the pulsing excitement of his James Bond theme.
Harry Saltzman had kept his word. He hadn’t turned Deighton’s hero into James Bond. Instead he’d empowered Sidney Furie to create a movie that is rated by the BFI as one of the 100 best British movies of all time!
Looked at from Fleming’s perspective it would have been easy to be jealous of all of this. Ian was 52 years of age, had just suffered his first heart attack, and was in failing health after having spent nine years building a literary career that, after ten novels and God knows how many false starts, is finally seeing his hero hitting the big screen when this new kid, Deighton, arrives on the block. Is immediately heralded as his successor, clinched a film deal with his producer and is serialised by The Evening Standard. Furthermore, the critics are using him as a stick to beat him with.
Yes, it would have been easy for Fleming to be jealous but if he was, he certainly didn’t show it. Instead he chose The Ipcress File as his book of the year for 1962 – thus giving it the ultimate endorsement.
Furthermore, Ian Fleming, Deighton and Raymond Hawkey were to dine together the following year and unlike Le Carre, Deighton never disparaged Bond. Their lunch encounter is recalled in the 1965 book For Bond Lovers Only (the book was a collection of essays and was edited by Sheldon Lane). In it Deighton provided a record of his only meeting with Fleming and it is notable in drawing out the evident differences in outlook between the Eton-educated ex-intelligence officer and the self-made Deighton. Some sample dialogue from the book illustrates this:
“You were in intelligence yourself, weren’t you?” Mr. Fleming put the question across like an angry schoolmaster who has caught one of his schoolchildren dozing.
“Yes, air intelligence,” admitted Deighton.
“I guessed as much,” said Mr. Fleming, a look of satisfaction seeping over his face like a blush. “You get pretty near the knuckle in some parts, I must say. Anyway, I realised you knew what you were talking about – as indeed I do.”
The exchange is also interesting insomuch as it is the only mention I can find of Deighton ever alluding to having any direct experience of the secret world. In fact, to my knowledge, in everything before or since he has always emphatically denied having worked for any of the intelligence services. Whether he said it to level the playing field with Fleming or whether it is actually true remains an open question?
Deighton may have only met Fleming once but his relationship with Bond didn’t end there. He went on to make contributions to two film treatments for Bond movies. The first being From Russia With Love at Harry Saltzman’s behest and the second being for rogue Bond producer Kevin McClory who, following his contentious law suit with Fleming, won the right to use the disputed Thunderball storyline. For different reasons Deighton’s contribution to neither project saw the light of day but the fact that he did the work after he was already firmly established says something about his attitude to 007.
The Ipcress File itself was to prove to be the start of one of the last century’s most illustrious and varied literary careers that was to go on to span more than thirty years. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Deighton’s output transcended genres and his output included his beloved cookery books, Histories of the Second World War, an alternative history, SS-GB, and some great standalone novels.
But Len never lost his affection for the spy world and in the ‘80s returned to the genre to bring us three incredible trilogies that featured a new protagonist, Bernard Samson. In my not so humble opinion, these are the greatest spy thrillers ever written – I know, a bold statement on a Fleming fan site. Like his unnamed hero in his earlier books, Samson is cynical and has a disrespect for his superiors and any ambitious colleagues. The nine novels serve not only as another fine example of ‘The Spy Procedural’ but are unprecedented in the genre both in terms of scope and execution.
Beyond his own success, if Fleming created fertile ground for Deighton, Len himself opened up the whole sub-genre of the ANTI-BOND or serious spy thriller that continues to prosper on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no doubt that authors like Le Carre, Adam Hall, Robert Little, Charles McCarry, Olen Steinhauer, Mick Herrron, Robert Harris and Charles Cumming owe Deighton a huge debt.
The publicity shy Deighton is now 87 years of age and I hope his life is full of health and happiness. He certainly enriched mine and wherever he is, I bet he’s the coolest octogenarian in town.
The BBC are producing a five-episode miniseries, SS-GB, adapted from the novel by James Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Due out next year.
Read more from David Craggs