I Want It Now by Kingsley Amis (1968)

Ronnie… sat on the opposite side of the deck with some people called Sir something and Lady Saxton and, a yard or two further off, Chummy Baldock, who was drinking a glass of beer and, to all appearances, sneering at the sea. Ordinarily, Ronnie despised the sea himself: it was a part of scenery and therefore a waste of time, and today it was at its most boringly smooth. But no element that caused Baldock to show so many of his top teeth and look down his flexible nose could be all bad. If he were to fall into it, then he, Ronnie, would be on its side. (p.67)

A return to familiar Amis territory after the strange experimentalism of The Anti-Death League. From that long, complex novel with a fairly large cast exploring multiple themes with unexpected sensitivity, this is a shorter (204 pages) novel with a smaller cast, focused on the picaresque adventures of one young randy ‘hero’, who is, in the time-honoured Amis manner, continually calculating how to manipulate and manage people using a variety of tones of voice and ‘faces’- which has a serious side and serious moments but which are pretty much swamped by his breath-taking cynicism and hilariously heartless commentary.

Even the title is a return from the mock portentous – The Anti-Death League – to the deliberately casual throwaway phrase which is Amis’s normal style. It not only sounds like the kind of phrase someone might say, it actually is a direct quote (compare One Fat Englishman, which is how one of his American lovers describes the fat hairy anti-hero of that novel). Here, on page 24, the young female lead, ‘Simon’, demonstrates her unbalanced egotism by suggesting to the hero at a posh house party that they have sex and when he says, Sure, come back to my flat, she says, No, ‘I want it now’, which epitomises her entire spoilt attitude to life.

Part one – London

35-year-old TV presenter Ronnie Appleyard is ferociously ambitious and relentless in his pursuit of success and sex. Fresh from humiliating a Cabinet minister on his current affairs show, he shares a cab with a hated rival – Bill Hamer – to a swanky party given by a top business lawyer where he meets a bohemian young woman who disconcerts him by asking him to take her upstairs for sex immediately. ‘I want it now,’ she says sulkily. This prompts an argument with the posh hostess who a) Ronnie had chatted up and has the fury not only of a woman spurned but spurned for a younger woman b) knows the girl’s mother and is therefore able to act doubly scandalised.

Having left the party under a cloud, and out on the street the girl, Simon Quick, catches up with him and insists on coming back to his flat where she is quick to hop into bed but where things go badly wrong. She is either a virgin or terrified or really disturbed but she freezes and (even) Ronnie can’t go through with the deed. He tells her to pack her stuff and clear out and strolls to the pub across the road to phone up his standby bird, Fat Susan.

But when he gets back to his flat Simon is still in his bed, so he forces her to get dressed and is on the verge of booting her out when she mentions how rich her parents are. Her mother has had several filthy rich husbands and is currently married to the well-known Lord Baldock. Ding! A lightbulb goes on in Ronnie’s mind. Money. Wealth. Power. He resolves to go out with the scrawny screwed-up Simon and ingratiate himself into the bosom of her family. [He is that heartless and calculating.]

So he walks her back to her parents’ swanky house in Eaton Square, where they walk in on a very grand evening party. There is a scene in the library where the red-faced, middle-aged man Simon had been talking with at the first party bursts in and shouts at Simon for rejecting him and then nearly hits Ronnie for taking his place, before being asked to leave by the very superior Lord Baldock.

(This has all taken place on the same evening, a typical Amis handling of time ie the continuous real-time description of events as they happen.)

Ronnie goes into overdrive to ingratiate himself with Lady Baldock, flirting more than a little with her but also presenting himself as the sensible, professional man who can look after her poor, wayward daughter. As reward he is invited to go and stay for a week or so with them on their ‘little villa’ on a Greek island.

Part two – Malakos [Greece]

The villa is, predictably, on an epic, luxury, Cleopatra scale, as are the guests and the ‘light meals’. By this stage I’m realising the book is as much if not more a satire about the rich, the international rich, who namedrop Princess Margaret and Onassis, as it is about one lowly TV presenter. Ronnie’s sexual predatoriness has been swallowed, as it were, by the bigger theme.

During this trip Ronnie’s relationship with Simon becomes deeper. One hot afternoons they go to bed and it is now he elicits from her the fact that, although she’s slept with numerous men, she has never enjoyed it, in fact it has traumatised her. So Ronnie, surprisingly, sets about a very slow process of ‘sexual healing’ ie beginning with just gentle touching in ‘safe’ areas, over a series of afternoons, designed to make her less uptight and ‘frigid’, as the 1960s terminology had it.

There are a number of humorous outings and lavish meals which all provide scope for Amis’s withering commentary on the selfishness, greed and petty rivalries of the rich. But t his section climaxes with a lot of the rich standing round at the drinks part of the evening while Lady Baldock systematically humiliates her daughter in front of them all. Ronnie now realises that Simon’s problem is she has been crushed and destroyed by her wicked mother who, all the time, pretends to ‘love’ and ‘adore’ her daughter. So he stands up to Lady Baldock, interrupting her diatribe and saying that, No, Simon is sensitive and caring. ‘Do you claim to know my own daughter better than I do?’ says Lady B in best Cruella de Ville mode, and a whole lot more, ‘I invite you to my house, I lavish food and blah blah and you stand there and insult me blah blah’. So Ronnie has to pack his bags and leave.

Part three – Fort Charles [USA]

Three months later and somewhat improbably, Ronnie has been invited by Lady B to her other house in the Deep South of America. Among other things, this gives Amis the opportunity to satirise the really revoltingly racist Deep South Rich who at any opportunity start spouting about the Glories of the Confederacy and the only way to manage the ‘negro problem’ is to ‘keep them in their place’ etc.

Ronnie has been invited because Lady B wants to make contact with his colleague, Bill Hamer, who has a higher-profile TV show than him. She wants to appear in the TV show Hamer has been planning about ‘the Rich’. This, again, is all rather improbable. In terms of plot, it allows Ronnie to meet up with Simon again, only to discover she has now been paired off by her evil mother with a particularly unpleasant Southerner of impeccable wealth which allows him to sound off as much racist twaddle as he likes to everyone, while taking another drink from the tray held by the black servants.

Ronnie realises that he has been invited not only to introduce Hamer, but also to rub his nose in the fact that Simon is now affianced to this Yank; and a little later realises it is also to rub Simon’s nose in the fact that she has lost him for good. Ie it has multiple levels of snub and malevolence, something the subtle rich are so good at.

More or less the same happens as in Greece, ie Ronnie is just getting somewhere with Simon again, despite the opposition of Lord and Lady B, as well as everyone else in their circle, when he completely blows it by not being able to stand yet another tirade by the ghastly fiancé on the Glory of the Confederacy and the degeneracy of black folks etc, and just tells him to shut the **** up, that he is talking unpleasant, offensive balls. Once again Lady B takes a high hand and insists he leaves. And once again Ronnie packs his bags and takes a cab to the airport but, rather surprisingly, they are nearly run off the road by a fast car which swerves in front of them and turns out to be driven by Simon. They transfer his luggage into it and she drives him to a cabin in some forest park hundreds of miles away.

She has realised, from Ronnie’s intervention and his sheer presence there, that he really does love her, and she has begun to see that her mother is not her protector but her oppressor and so, for the first time, they make love in something like the normal way and she almost enjoys it, or at least isn’t horrified and disgusted.

Unfortunately, she had left a hint where she was going with a relative to avoid a real panic occurring over her disappearance, and this was just enough for Lord B and the local police to track them down and burst open the cabin door. The cops and a smooth Southern lawyer point out that he has broken various Federal and State laws about carrying women over state borders for immoral purposes. Ronnie puts up a fight, but it is made clear that even if a good lawyer got him off, the publicity would end his career.

Within five minutes Lord B, the cops and Simon are gone and Ronnie drinks the rest of the bottle of whiskey and passes out. Next morning he catches his flights back to London.

Part four – London

Months later and Ronnie is back presenting his TV show as sparky as ever but, off camera, finds his mind wandering. He can’t get Simon out of his head. He has tried to track her down but her family move promiscuously to Cannes and Africa and America and all over.

The climax of the novel is also pretty improbable. Hamer tells Ronnie he has finally organised the TV discussion Lady B wanted him to organise. The guests will be some expert on the rich, her Greek billionaire friend and herself. But, Hamer explains to Ronnie, he’ll say the fourth member of the panel dropped out at short notice and that he asked his colleague Ronnie to help him out at the last minute – and together they’ll stitch her up. Why are you doing this, asks Ronnie. Because, explains Hamer, he in fact got to have sex with Lady B in America (!) but despite this, on several occasions, she described him as a filthy upstart and a jumped-up nobody. And also because she is evil.

And so Lady B appears on Hamer’s live studio discussion TV programme in which she is duly humiliated. Hamer allows Ronnie to make general comments about the selfishness of the rich which become obviously applicable to her and a number of her guests – unbearably posh characters we’ve been introduced to in earlier scenes – themselves speak out to confirm that, yes, she is a selfish manipulative bitch. Even the Greek billionaire, when appealed to, confirms the general opinion. Why did she want to appear on the show? It is only the sleight of hand of fiction which can conceal – while you’re reading it – the utter unlikeliness of such a smart calculating woman allowing herself to walk into such a trap. Also, in 40 years of watching, I’ve never seen a TV show which was obviously set up solely to humiliate one of the guests. I think it would be illegal, as well as career-ending for Hamer and Ronnie.

Lady B retaliates and starts getting pretty personal about Ronnie, ‘I welcomed you into my home but like the ungrateful reptile you are you seduced my daughter…’ and plenty more climaxing with – ‘and all the while you were just after her money.’ Which prompts Ronnie to finally lose his temper and say, Yes, he was after her money and social contacts to begin with, but he has fallen totally in love with Simon and doesn’t care if she’s cut off without a penny to her name, in fact it would be better for all concerned. The programme closes in uproar as the loud Confederate fiancé emerges from the audience to protect the honour of Lady B, and is manhandled by studio security. Punches are thrown, chaos ensues. — This isn’t like TV in the real world, it is a cartoon version.

Afterwards Hamer and Ronnie share a drink, the former happy with the ratings boost and the way the punch-up will put him back on the trend of ‘urgent’, ‘confrontational’ TV. Ronnie goes sadly home to his poky little flat and is just considering that he really must move when a car pulls up and there’s a knock on the door.

To his amazement it is Lord Baldock, the man who has spent the entire novel looking down his nose at Ronnie, sneering at him in company and insulting him in person. Now, with wild improbability, he claims that Ronnie’s declaration live on air that he doesn’t care about Simon’s money has converted him, made him see that Ronnie is the real thing after all. And so he has got Simon outside in the car, does he want to see her?

Ronnie rushes outside and he and Simon are reconciled on the spot. Over a quick snifter in the pub opposite Lord B explains his motives a bit more then says you’d better pack your bags, go somewhere secret and get married immediately. He clears off and Ronnie and Simon prepare to head off into the Happy Ever After.

Conclusion

I have got used to Amis novels being strong on individual sentences, comic and witty insights, outrageous characters, but weak on plot and plausibility.

The first half or so of this novel was the funniest stuff he’s written, I thought it was going to turn out the best book he’d done, I laughed out loud on almost every page. But the humour drained away a bit as the love affair with Simon became more serious, the psychological roots of her depression or despair became more real and earnest, and the satire on America and the rich became darker and from angrily humorous became just angry.

And then the whole plotline of Lady B inviting Ronnie to the States solely to meet Bill Hamer solely to appear on his television show, stretched the bounds of plausibility to snapping point and beyond, as did Lord B’s last-minute conversion from sneering toff to fairy godfather.

The first half is comedy gold which I’d recommend to anyone… but then the issues I’ve listed in the second half make it an increasingly problematic read, and I finished it feeling puzzled and unsatisfied.

Maybe I understand now why Amis was such a presence when I started reading novels in the mid-1970s – because his stroppy, tell-it-like-it-is tone of voice and his numerous comic tricks and techniques are so effective and infectious, because he churned out a novel every year or two plus scads of articles and reviews and media appearances and poems and anthologies – but also why it’s difficult to pin down just one or two definitive novels to give to someone and say, ‘These are his masterpieces’. Because all his novels are, like this one, flashing with brilliance, humour and insight but wildly erratic and wayward in structure and plausibility.

Related links

Panther paperback edition of I Want It Now

Panther paperback edition of I Want It Now

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Bang Bang Birds by Adam Diment (1968)

‘McAlpine,’ he grunted, ‘ why do you wear such godawful clothes. You look like a pacifist faggot beatnik hippie.’ (p.42)

The Bang Bang Birds – Great title, a really brilliant title.

The setting

This is Adam Diment’s third novel about his twenty-something hash-happy, dolly bird-hunting ‘spy’, Philip McAlpine, and finds our layabout spook lounging in the high rise offices of ‘Hun Sec 3’  in New York, seconded to a US Intelligence department run by 5 foot of crackling Marine energy, General Eastfeller. It’s told in the first person so we get the full frontal flavour of McAlpine’s scandalously sexist, insubordinate, stroppy attitudes.

Eventually, near the church, I found the club where they said they would be waiting for me. It was called, very appropriately but with little creative thinking, Stoned…I walked down the narrow stairs, painted day-glo orange and decorated by crude paintings of Pop cult figures. Through the baffle door and the sound hit me like ten road-drills… The club was not very large, maybe forty feet long by thirty wide, but it made the black hole of Calcutta look like a rest room…Great banks of smoke hovered over the floor like smog, writhing in the beams of light, and the smell of foreign tobacco, incense, and sweat nearly covered the sweet penetrations of hash… The girl at the desk wore a dress which looked as though giant, ravenous moths had been at it. A nipple poked coyly through one of the holes and I found myself preoccupied as to whether she was wearing panties… (p.126)

That gives you a good sense of the setting, the attitude and the style of the book – and note, not a word about spying anywhere in sight. As with the previous two novels, The Bang Bang Birds gets off to a slow start while it establishes McAlpine’s dossy lifestyle and prolonged love-ins with his rich, dim sexpot girlfriend, and this is where his writing really comes alive, in describing the swinging world of 1968. Quite often the whole spying malarkey feels like it’s tacked on to a potentially much more interesting memoir of the ‘scene’.

The plot

McAlpine is blackmailed and bullied (once again) into another undercover mission: this time he is to adopt the cover of Yankee playboy Lexington Sullivan in order to join a set of exclusive international clubs, the Aviary organisation, an elite version of the Playboy clubs, well stocked with booze, stunning bunnies and other ‘leisure facilities’. Why? Because a number of US politicians and scientists had been intoxicated, seduced and persuaded to spill the beans about all kinds of security and military and scientific secrets.

McAlpine’s mission: to infiltrate the clubs, work his way to the top, locate the microfilm or whatever all these secrets are stored on – and steal it back.

The setting then moves to Stockholm, because that is where the head of the Aviary clubs is currently based. Cue luxurious descriptions of the club, its hallucinatory décor, the compliant courtesans and their astonishing costumes, the raddled old Establishment politicians, generals and bishops seen flirting with them, and the pale, powerful pander, Henri Larceaux, Comte de Vitconne, who runs the whole thing. (There are a couple of pages giving us Larceaux’s backstory and rise from small-time pimping to his current empire, complete with some violent descriptions, reminiscent of the Nazi’s disturbingly hateful backstory in The Dolly Dolly Spy.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that McAlpine secures the microfilm – not without lots of sex with his girlfriend or convenient courtesans, not without a few shootouts, and not – of course – without being stitched up by his camp boss, Rupert ‘the swine’ Quine.

There is an amazing description of a really massive orgy which McAlpine makes all the more surreal by spiking the drinks with acid. It’s when everyone is completely incapacitated that he breaks into Vitconne’s safe and steals the microfilm. He makes his escape via the rooftop helicopter (of course), lands on a lake near a swinging party of stoned hippies and promptly steals one of their motorbikes to get away.

The great spy boom

These books are really to be considered in the company of 1960s TV series like The Man From UNCLE (1964-68), the crude spoof Get Smart (1965-70) or comedy spy movies like Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967), or the four Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin (1966-69) and featuring (apparently) girls with names like Lovey Craves It. Diment slips into line with these far-out parodies of the whole spy genre, their preposterously rugged heroes and the brainless dolly birds who fall into their arms like sweeties.

Au courant

1968 is a long time ago and the book is made poignant because the narrator is very aware of the speed and fragility of fashion, of the hurtling 1960s, the ephemerality of the moment. He makes a point of noting what’s in the newspapers and on the radio:

One of the local radio stations gave me the news. Another big drive had started in Vietnam. De Gaulle was being even more stroppy than usual about US troops in his Europe. The British pound was still weakening on the currency markets. Tomorrow would be hot and dry. (p.39)

Behind the texts is the strange story of Diment’s complete disappearance in 1971, vanishing from the scene after cresting the heady waves of fashionability. The books, in their Austin Powers preposterousness, don’t in the slightest hint at any of this, but their psychedelic braggadochio is shadowed by this later fate…

Let’s play

In this, his third novel, Diment is confident to play a little with the conventions.

  • On a superficial level, almost all the chapter titles are bad puns which include the word spy eg Spygetti, Spynless, Trespying, Spyniccer, Aspydystra lolz
  • The book is divided into three parts and each one starts with a one page anecdote, from which the ironical author then draws a moral. The first two are detailed accounts of screw-ups during World War II, so I thought they might have a subtle bearing on the plot, but the third one was an inconsequential anecdote about a journalist and a hippy and it turns out none of them had any relevance.
  • The opening chapter mentions no names and the omniscient third-person narrator describes a spy being ambushed and beaten up in a doorway, and conveys empathy for his plight. Only in chapter 7, page 129, do we see the same incident, this time reported by the first-person narrator, McAlpine who, it turns out, is the one doing the beating up. Aha. Playing with multiple points of view and teaser text.

In one of the last and bizarrest scenes, McAlpine is recaptured by the baddie and forced to face the self-same Russian agent he beat up, in an amphitheatre for the viewing pleasure of the jaded Aviary club members. For a second time we enter his mind and see the world from his point of view, as the short fight erupts and, once again, McAlpine gets the better of him, this time permanently.

In the last few scenes a new bitter tone emerges. McAlpine escapes (yet again), to rendezvous with his hated boss, Quine, before they are chased by a car of baddies who start shooting at them and McAlpine extemporises with a hastily made molotov cocktail which successfully explodes on the pursuing car and forces it off the road and into a fatal explosion. But not before McAlpine has seen the driver is a rather useless American agent he met in New York, and whose wife had hosted a nice dinner party for him.

Suddenly he feels world-weary and embittered. For what turns out to have been a shabby double cross, McAlpine has murdered two men. All the wind goes out of  his sails and the novel ends on a surprisingly sour downbeat.

Fun, not fine, writing

Whatever his other shortcomings, the boy can write. Erratically and slapdash, but often memorably. A vivid paragraph in The Great Spy Race described the setting sun reflected off the high rise buildings of London, and somewhere else he described the buds on the trees emerging into the weak London sunshine and diesel atmosphere. This time he’s in New York.

It had stopped raining and the clouds were forming a traffic block shifting out over the Atlantic. The sun slanted down between the buildings turning the whole long street into a zebra crossing of light and shadow. (p.35)

Quite a few of his sentences feel a mite clumsy and don’t unfurl or resolve as you expect, though that’s part of his wonky stoner charm. You get the sense he knocked them out and never reread them. But there is a consistent stream of verbal felicities and pleasures, small spangles illuminating the mind.

The Swedes tend to fits of gloom as a nation followed by bursts of unbridled drinking and debauchery. Maybe it is all those thousands of square miles of silent pine forests, the brooding quiet of unnamed, brackish lakes, or just the depressing thought of having the Arctic Circle in your country. (p.77)

‘Brackish’

The porter in the hall had summoned a maid who took me to the flat. She was one of those spry, wafer-thin Swedish ladies around fifty. (p.78)

‘Spry’

Similes

… are the currants in the Christmas pudding of prose, little bursts of flavour:

  • His voice, when he spoke, was flat as a jaywalking hedgehog and had the same prickly quality. (86)
  • He produced another of his laughs like a bulldozer going through a plate glass window. (125)

Related links

Bantam Books edition of The Bang Bang Birds

Bantam Books edition of The Bang Bang Birds

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.

The Great Spy Race by Adam Diment (1968)

It felt good to be alive – take a memo McAlpine – make sure you stay that way. (p.78)
The main attraction of being a layabout is watching the rest of the world rushed off its aching feet. (p.83)

This is Diment’s second novel featuring Philip McAlpine – a kind of lazy, dirty, dope-smoking twenty-something nephew to James Bond – who is back and reluctantly embroiled in another wildly improbable, comedy spy caper.

Only quotes can convey how incredibly up-to-date and achingly 1968 Diment is: the clothes, the slang, the mini-skirts, the birds, the Stones, Dylan, the cars, the groovy boutiques and dope-ridden parties.

London has always been crap

The miserable drizzle gathered itself into a frenzy of proper rain as I trudged up the short, concrete crazy-paving path to the little, jerry-built semi-detached. Why for God’s sake, I thought, hadn’t I worn a hat? Answer – I haven’t got a hat. (p.7)

Outside, the polar wind denied the sunny impression I had got through my office window. March in London with the mutant plane trees trying to push green buds through a coating of soot into the carbon monoxide. (p.14)

It was pissing with rain in London and we stood together, gazing at our meteorological heritage. (p.75)

Only bits of London are swinging, very small bits – nobody could delude themselves into thinking Barnet is swinging. (p.132)

Lots of English writers accurately describe how horrible, grey, rainy, bleak and shabby London is, but Diment doesn’t let it depress him. The subject is grim but the language is always alive and amused.

The sun was setting over the roof tops beyond Hammersmith and the windows of the juvenile skyscrapers along Euston Road were ablaze with reflected glory. A few black clouds were piling themselves up north of the city, which would probably mean rain later but it was, so far, a lovely spring evening. Even the other cretins blocking the roads with their rotting piles of low-carbon steel couldn’t spoil my mood. (p.28)

Spying

In both his novels virtually every character we meet – and certainly all our hero’s lovers – turn out to be secret agents, comically disillusioning our man. The ubiquity of spies in his fiction presumably is a kind of satire on the ubiquity of spies in films and fiction during the great Spy Boom of the mid to late 60s.

This espionage racket is spreading like mould, I thought. Soon I won’t have a friend left who’s not in the racket. Only last year I had been shocked out of my life when I discovered Lord Kilmarry, friend and titled ponce of this parish, worked for the same department as me. Now here was Timothy, cold-eyed as anything out of Le Carré, offering to flog me Kosygin’s telephone number or something. (p.18)

More smuggling – if they caught me at customs they’d think they had another Philby. (p.94)

‘Exactly what are you doing here and what do you do for a living?’ On occasions like this, according to the Stationary Office Manual for Spies, you are supposed to mutter that you work for the War Office, the Ministry of Defence or the frigging Atomic Energy Commission and your actual labours are of a classified nature. This is the polite, retiring British way of saying I’m a spy or counterspy so kindly mind your own sodding business or you’ll be pestered day and night by retired security men checking you for clearance, non-membership of the communist party, debt and perversion. But ever since spying got to be a fashionable job – like photography or interior decorating, this formula is guaranteed to whet your questioner’s interest even further. (p.117)

The plot

There’s a plot? Oh yes. Well, McAlpine is asked by his boss to fly to the tropical hideout of a retired superspy – Peters, ‘the last of the great spies’ – who lives with a fearsome assassin/butler and a half-naked dolly bird. He thinks it’s just a courier job, delivering money.

But once out on the terrace of Peters’ fabulous modern pad overlooking the bay etc, the wicked old man reveals he has set up a ‘spy race’ ie he has posted instructions to every espionage agency in the world to take part in his espionage Olympics. Upon paying a £20,000 deposit each of the contestants will receive a series of clues which will lead him (or her) to the ultimate prize: an entire breakdown of Red Chinese agents in the Far East (p.66). And McAlpine has just unknowingly handed over his deposit. He’s in the race!

It’s a great idea for a madcap chase movie in the spirit of the Beatles’ Help (1965) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) or even Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), and there’s enough tense confrontations, shootouts, flying, speedboating and car chases to gladden any boys’ heart.

The clues are addresses or numbers or locations, contained in bank vaults or known only to beautiful women who have to be seduced or which have to be blackmailed out of a gay boutique owner, which the spy (ie McAlpine) then has to interpret correctly.

But I’m not reading it for the story, I’m reading it for its attitude and devil-may-care style and the vivid depiction of London 1968, recognisably the London I got to know in the late 1970s – not the gentlemen’s clubs of Greene and le Carré or indeed Philby, but the dirty pubs and noisy bars and cheap boutiques and dodgy bistros and tiny flats and loud parties where swinging young people drink and smoke and posture.

‘Lend me your camera, man. I’m about to picture the biggest scene this century.’ I looped it off his neck and squeezed between two posturing lads, all bulging balls and manly deodorants, who blocked my way to the door. (p.86)


A dedicated follower of fashion

What people are wearing is very important to the narrator and one of the many markers or indicators situating the text historically and culturally.

‘By the way,’ he crooned, as I stood with my hands on the door button, ‘I just love your suit. But I don’t think the pink flowers on the tie quite go with your dolly little shirt.’ (p.25)

I dressed in bright green, high collared, military style suit with the regulation long-collared shirt and fertilised hot-house tie. Philip is wearing bright colours this spring. I clapped twenty quid into my American-style money clasp and ran the electric mower briskly over my virile stubble. (p.29)

He was hardly a man in the shadows. He wore a shirt covered in Arabic scrawl raised in gold thread on a green background. His hard lemon yellow trousers reminded me of ballet and feetwise he wore knee length, purple suede. (p.85)

Great party, man

And how refreshing, how funny, to have a party described, not a dinner part of the Le Carré or Deighton ilk, but a messy, noisy, dirty bash full of drunk randy young people.

The party was in a large studio flat over a boutique doing a strong line in old Wehrmacht uniforms. A tiny modelling girl, with long blonde hair and eyes like a bushbaby’s, led me into the room. Dark as the Western Front but not quiet, the cigarette fumes clotted the air like clouds of mustard gas while the very latest Stones’ LP gave a realistic sound track to the trench-warfare atmosphere. (p.30)

Sex…

McAlpine is leerily lecherous about almost every woman he meets. What makes it so 1960s is the way every woman he meets seems to be just as lecherous back, generally wearing the smallest of mini-skirts, no bras or pants, see-though dresses, topless sunbathing etc. It was the 1960s. Everyone experienced this as a tremendous liberation, apparently. And the lechery is not hateful, but is always heading in the direction of carefree consensual sex. The other thriller writers I’ve been reading rarely even mention sex or, like Graham Greene, only mention explicit details to convey more incisively their corroding despair and guilt.

Diment is a reminder sex can actually be fun.

‘We asked Josephine, seen here in a compromising position with gay man about swinging London, Philip McAlpine, whether she enjoyed the “New Morality”,’ I said slipping slowly into her plump, warm clingingness and she burst out laughing in happy passion. I like my sex to be fun – you can have old Lawrence’s deadly earnest copulations. She had a neat little trick of digging her heels into the base of your spine. Our activities ended successfully and added to the scar-tissue around my verebrae. (p.38)

Miss Sergeant looked much the same as she always did without clothes. I patted her generous behind and shuffled the clinging little thing over to the bed. Plump thighs flashing and little tits bouncing as she hit the springs… Rubbing against her flesh was like taking a bath in a vat of peaches. (p.98)

Mrs O took off her shades and looked at me, like a farmer appraising an untried bull, with her brown, slightly slant eyes. It sent a small tremor right down to my testes. Supercharger in, lads, I thought rather faintly. (p.109)

So many ‘serious writers’ come a cropper trying to describe sex which has led to the establishment of the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. Diment flirts with disaster but, I think, avoids it because he is happy and funny.

‘Mmm, you smell gorgeous. Masculine.’ She ran one hand through my hair and her nails produced a visible tremor right down my jellified spine. This girl was every carnal dream incarnate and still, I guessed, too young to vote. I took off my jacket which felt heavy as a suit of armour and dropped it on the floor. She rolled me out of my clothes like a stripper removing her nylons and led me over to the bed, gently, by my very aroused and totally uncontrollable member. ‘Unzip me,’ she said and turned round. Her hair, black and falling to the swell of her behind, covered a zipper which ran clear from the neck of her dress to the hem. I pulled it open and she stepped out of the dress and turned to me. There hung around her an aura (almost) a halo, of langorous sexuality. We rolled over on the bed kissing and feeling. (p.124)

I quote at length becuase this is the dominant note of the book, not the guns or cars or planes (which are also feelingly described). I suppose for some readers the relentless lechery might get a bit trying, and the book gives a strong sense of the attitude of male entitlement which the contemporary Woman’s Liberation movement was reacting against. 1968 was, apparently, the year when the term ‘sexism’ was first used and the first major protest was staged outside the annual Miss World competition.

… and drugs

The protagonist enjoys getting stoned, no melodrama, no big fuss, no Victorian moralising about drugs. He rolls ’em, he smokes ’em.

I flicked a joint out of the pack, the first and only manufactured packet of reefers I’ve ever seen – all little pink flowers and hearts, very psychedelic. ‘Got a light?’ … She came back with a gold Zippo lighter and I turned on. It was very good stuff that. In no time at all I was orbit high with my skin feeling lovely as I could sense every inch of it under the warm sun. (p.73)

… and Len Deighton

Taking a leaf from Len Deighton’s Ipress thrillers, the novel opens with a photocopy of what purports to be a ‘top secret file’ on McAlpine. Also each part (there are three) and each chapter, has an epigraph, as in Deighton’s novels – the difference is that, whereas Deighton’s were erudite allusions to the plot (for example the use of crossword clues in the chapter headings of Horse Under Water), Diment’s have the same irreverent attitude as his sparky young narrator. Eg:

Play up, play up and play the game.
WARCRY OF A CRUMBLIN’ EMPIRE

Love is better the second time around
POPULAR MISCONCEPTION


Similes

The text is well lubricated with a steady flow of cheeky, spur-of-the-moment comparisons:

  • The stars were like calculating lights on a huge cosmic computer. (88)
  • The American… was standing on the pavement looking bewildered and angry and talking to a dark-haired bird who balanced the extreme scantiness of her skirt with silver bells on her wrists. Every time she made a gesture she tinkled like a Himalayan monastery. (92)
  • I bounced out of Nice in my hired 2CV, Michelins crying on the curves and the engine buzzing like a chainsaw to keep the tinty tin can moving at forty miles an hour. (97)
  • She has a way of walking, that girl, like two soft ball bearings bouncing on a foam trampoline. (115)
  • Outside the sun hit me like a stadium full of electric fires. (127)
  • ‘Thanks man.’ I walked out across the apron to where the DC8 stood, like a great golden pterodactyl in the setting sun. (134)
  • [The pilot landed beautifully], cutting back the engines at the last moment and bringing her down like a casual mallard showing off for Peter Scott. (135)
  • In half an hour it would be broad daylight and if they had infra-red sights I was already staked out like a toad on a dissecting board. (136)
  • ‘Nearly there, nearly there,’ I said, skipping rapidly and moving like Chichester in a typhoon.’ (138)
  • My breathing steadied down as I went over the crest and my legs, like melting crème caramel on the beach, felt fine… I dropped the suede jacket and went on across the little plateau – I was going through clothes like the raviest of Mods. (148)
  • I slammed her into second which made the gearbox cogs emit a sound like breaking bottles. (151)
  • I went cold as fish fingers and bent over the quadrant of levers… Sweat stood out on my forehead like frosting round a lager glass. (159)
  • Sitting placidly in the cage, gun ready to hand, was my old enemy Miss Pringe. My heart dropped like a brick off the Post Office Tower. (169)

Great fun, but you can tell it won’t last. Diment’s novels make Modesty Blaise look like War and Peace. The only real character in them is the solipsistic narrator, sex mad and stoned – a very persuasive creation, this, but absolutely everything else about it, all the other characters, let alone the improbable plots, are as flaky as old paint. It’s a shame but you can see why Diment’s four novels have just about vanished without trace.

Related links

1968 Pan paperback edition of The Great Spy Race

1968 Pan paperback edition of The Great Spy Race

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.

My Silent War by Kim Philby (1968)

The old Turkey hands, of course, were aghast. But it is a good working rule, wherever you are, to ignore the old hands; their mentalities grow inwards like toenails. (p.191)

Strong sense of déjà vu about the story of Kim Philby, the greatest betrayer in British espionage history, because I’ve heard of the Cambridge spies all my life – attended the Alan Bennett play about Blunt, saw the TV play starring Alan Bates, read the sections of Graham Greene’s biography which describe GG working for him during the war – they’re as much a part of English 20th century folk lore as England winning the World Cup in 1966 or the Great Train Robbery.

And then, just in this volume, the outline of his story is told in the blurb on the back of the book, in a thorough summary on the inside page, then again in the introduction by spy historian Philip Knightley, alluded to in the brief memoir by his friend and colleague Graham Greene, and then repeated again in the author’s detailed foreward. The reader has read five summaries of his life before even getting to the main text. So what is the story?

Philby’s story

Talented young man from the core of the British professional upper middle classes, Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby went to prep school, Westminster school and up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he joined the Socialist society and then, in light of the collapse of the 1931 Labour government, the Communist Party. (His father was a noted Arabist, who converted to Islam; the nickname Kim comes directly from Rudyard Kipling’s novel, 1901, about a boy spy during the ‘Great Game’.)

Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1933 and spent the next 30 years feeding his Soviet controllers as much information as they wanted and he could provide. Initially this was from his activities as a Times journalist in Nazi Germany, then in Spain during the Civil War (1936-39) and then, when World War Two broke out, during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk.

It was only once he was back in London during the early part of the war that Philby was approached and offered a job in the Secret Intelligence Services (what became known as MI6) – so he was a Soviet spy well before he joined British Intelligence.

There followed 15 years or so of a brilliant career in Intelligence. Philby impressed everyone he met with his easy charm, command of the facts and ability to work hard and take firm decisions. Graham Greene worked for him during the war, when Philby was head of section V of MI6, managing Britain’s agents in the Spanish peninsula, and attests to his effectiveness and popularity.

After the war his obvious competence was rewarded with promotions within the service and he also deployed several schemes to bypass and eliminate rivals, with the ultimate aim of becoming head of MI6. All the time he was passing everything that crossed his desk back to his Soviet handlers, betraying all MI6’s agents in the field, all operational procedures and all information shared with us by sister services, especially the CIA.

However, several incidents intervened which prevented Philby’s rise to the very top.

His fellow Soviet spies, Burgess and MacLean, fled Britain May 1951. Philby had been a friend of the loud drunk Burgess, and had invited him to stay in the Philby household when he was posted to Washington. After the pair’s flight Philby was interrogated by MI5 and, although no hard evidence found against him, dismissed from MI6. He struggled to find work as a freelance journalist, while a slow-moving government enquiry found him, if not exactly innocent, then with no evidence to show his guilt. In 1955 an accusation was made against him in the House of Commons, forcing the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, to make a formal declaration of his innocence. In 1956 he went to Beirut to work as a journalist for The Observer and The Economist, and lost all touch with Soviet intelligence, though he probably continued to file reports for MI6 on a contractor basis.

Then, in 1961, a Soviet defector confirmed Philby as the ‘third man’. Suspicion mounted during 1962, a period – according to some biographies – when he was afflicted with depression and heavy drinking. He was formally confronted at the end of 1962 by an MI6 agent he had once worked with and finally confessed to being a Soviet spy. A formal hearing was set for a few weeks later, in January 1963, but he bolted.

On the evening 23 January 1963 Philby disappeared from the office in Beirut where he had been working as a journalist. Some months later he surfaced in Moscow, where the authorities made a formal announcement that he was a Soviet spy. The recriminations and investigations started, among his friends and colleagues in the services, their ministerial masters, in the FBI and CIA, and among innumerable historians, which continue to this day.

In Moscow Philby discovered he was not a KGB General, as promised. He was given a nice flat but not allowed much movement – civilised but watched and monitored. He received guests from the West and answered letters, requests for interviews and so on with the charm and breeding of an English gentleman. Depending on which account you read he was either terribly depressed by the reality of Soviet life and drank heavily, or lived happily with his fourth wife – a Russian he met in Moscow – reading The Times for the cricket and helping the KGB with analysis work.

Tinker, Tailor…

Apart from all his other achievements, and all the debate which has swirled around his name ever since, he gave rise to a literary classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, which is about the hunt to find a high-ranking mole inside British Intelligence, the overall storyline generally taken to be based on KP’s long and eminent career. The difference being, of course, that owlish anti-hero George Smiley succeeds in unmasking the mole before he can flee – the opposite of real life.

My Secret War

Philby tells us he worked on his own version of events intermittently after arriving in Moscow in 1963 and had completed it by 1967 – coincidentally when the boom of preposterously glamorous spy fiction was at its peak back home. He even mentions James Bond, as every spy writer is obliged to.

I was surprised that the book contains almost nothing about his actual spying activities, about his relationship with his Soviet minders, how he communicated with them and so on; there are only a few passing references to checking decisions with them, and only one bit of exciting ‘spy action’, when, after Burgess’s defection, he packs the camera he used to photograph top secret files into his car, drives out to an isolated stretch of road, walks some way into the woods, and buries it.

Instead the book is a detailed account of his career in the Secret Intelligence Service from 1940 to his abrupt departure, describing his part in the birth and early development of the SIS, and the years of bureaucracy, politicking, infighting, meetings and memos which followed.

Unpromising though that sounds, My Secret War is in fact very readable, funny, informative and thought-provoking.

Funny

In its descriptions of the upper class amateurishness abounding in the military in the early days of the war, it echoes Evelyn Waugh’s comic masterpiece, Men At Arms (1952), with umpteen public school twits coralled into uniform and running round like headless chickens.

Philby recounts various ripping yarns with boyish humour. He tells us Section D listed each of its members with a further letter, thus DA, DB, DC and that their secretaries or assistants were DA-1, DB-1 and so on. Burgess was DU and Philby, technically his assistant, should have been DU-1, but Burgess charmingly refused to give him this label, insisting on alloting him another letter, D. And the punchline to this anecdote: ‘Thus Guy launched me on my secret service career branded with the symbol DUD.’ (p.45)

As Adam Diment’s stoned spy hero would say, Funneee!

Similarly, ‘Guy, indulging his schoolboyish sense of fun’, has the wizard wheeze of setting up an establishment to train potential agents before dropping them into enemy territory – and, after running through a serious prospectus of its subjects and courses, he capped the plan by suggesting it be named Guy Fawkes College, as it would be teaching the arts of blowing things up and overthrowing foreign governments. Boom boom.

Philby quickly distinguishes army officers into ‘the sensible military type, as opposed to the no-nonsense military, the mystical military and the plain-silly military.’ (p.66) He paints a hilarious portrait of the staff at the training camp in Beaulieu: ‘There was a Buchmanite who unhappily marked me down for conversion. The end came when he gave me his views on sexual intercourse and I remarked that I felt sorry for his wife. After that, our contacts were limited to table tennis.’ (p.67) He takes the same drily witty tone throughout. Charming and entertaining.

The headquarters of the Turkish Security Inspectorate were at Ankara, presided over at that time by a bulging, toad-like bureaucrat whom we referred to as Uncle Ned. It was my misfortune to visit him on duty about once a month. (p.194)

The book abounds in brisk pen portraits of the numerous people he encountered, famous or not so famous, all treated with the confident urbanity which is the main gift of an expensive English public school education, and the tone of his class and age – a permanent attitude of indulgent superiority.

My first house in Washington was off Connecticut Avenue, almost directly opposite that of Johnny Boyd, the Assistant Director of the FBI in charge of security… Boyd was one of Hoover’s original gunmen in Chicago – ‘the guy who always went in first’ when there was shooting to be done – and he looked the part. He was short and immensely stocky, and must have been hard as nails before he developed a paunch, jowls and the complexion that suggests a stroke in the offing. He had no intellectual interests whatsoever. His favourite amusement was to play filthy records to women visiting his house for the first time. He had other childish streaks, including the tough, direct ruthlessness of a child. By any objective standard, he was a dreadful man, but I could not help growing very fond of him. (p.229)

This passage admirably conveys the lofty superiority of the English public school man, which is emphasised by his charming ability to condescend to make friends with even the most beastly native – though not before giving him a patronising nursery nickname, such as Uncle Ned.

It also epitomises the anti-Americanism of the Cambridge spies. In the final sections of the book, posted to Washington, Philby is awed by the resources and manpower available to the FBI and CIA, and appalled at the unfocused pointless overwork to which they’re put. In the Foreword he says his motives for betrayal were really very simple: ‘The simple truth, of course, crumbling Establishment and its Translatlantic friends’ (p.21). He repeats his dislike of the monster J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who he met, and emphasises that, for all his vast resources and epic paranoia, Hoover never actually caught any spies (p.227). Elsewhere he is cordially contemptuous of the post-war American tendency to take over everything (in Turkey) and make a hash of it – the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam. If he were alive today, he’d be saying ‘I told you so’ about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya.

Informative

Philby really goes into detail about the early days of MI5 and MI6, tracing its roots back to the Great War, covering the inter-war years, and then describing the shambles he encountered when he joined. There is a lot of detail about how the intelligence services grew, how they were organised and about the key personnel. And a great deal about setting up and running networks, about payments to agents, about how intelligence was gathered from radio interceptions, from purloining diplomatic bags, from threatening opposition agents, and so on. Fascinating stuff.

It also has detailed insight into the office politics and inter-departmental sniping and conspiring which dog the intelligence services as much as any other large organisation, and Philby gives fascinating accounts of the personalities and power plays, the scheming and politicking which dominated the highly bureaucratic world of ‘intelligence’.

And the Old Boy Network. Philby mentions it dismissively a couple of times as if he himself hadn’t breezed from Cambridge into a job with The Times and then had a very casual ‘interview’ which led him into a twenty-year career in British intelligence, as if approximately 5% of the British population hadn’t arranged for themselves and their chums to share out all positions of responsibility in the government, civil service, armed forces, BBC, universities and anything else which needed running. Whenever things are a bit dull, old Banjo from school was bound to turn up and save the day – the rest of the population, the other 95% of the hoi polloi, fading into the background.

So, on the transatlantic voyage to take up his post in Washington in 1951, ‘The first thing I saw on the foggy platform at Waterloo was an enormous pair of moustaches and behind them the head of Osbert Lancaster, an apparition which assured me of good company on the voyage… Finally, a case of champagne was delivered to my cabin with the card of a disgustingly rich friend.’ (p.211) Tough job, this spying.

The middle section of the book is cluttered with the names of the chaps who began taking over various sections of MI6 and MI5 as they expanded through the war years, and the names alone are like the ringing of the Old School bell across an ivy-wreathed quad: Colonel Valentine Patrick Terell Vivian CMG CBE (vice-chief of SIS in the 1920s and 30s), Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, KCB KCMG DSO MC (Head of SIS 1939-53), Sir David Petrie, KCMG, CIE, CVO, CBE, KPM (Director General of MI5 1941 to 46), Sir Percy Joseph Sillitoe KBE (DG of MI5 1946 to 1953), Sir Roger Hollis KBE CB (Director General of MI5 1955-65) and so on.

Thought-provoking

Setting Europe aflame There’s an interesting passage early on where he says the biggest problem the early SOE faced throughout the war was trying to promote British Foreign Office strategy when there wasn’t one. Basically, the Foreign Office wanted Europe to return to the status quo ante Hitler ie a lot of weak right-wing monarchies propped up by Britain and France. But there was just no way the populations of the countries SOE operated in (Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece etc) – particularly the politically aware, highly motivated fighters who made it all the way to Britain to receive SOE training – would accept that. They wanted to kick the Nazis out of their countries and then have a revolution. This insight, again, throws light on Philby’s Choice: he rejected not only Britain’s ‘crumbling establishment’ but also its rotten Foreign policy. He wanted the nations he was helping to be truly liberated and not to fall back into the British-backed clutches of corrupt monarchies.

Russian saviours It is always chastening to be reminded of the USSR’s key role in winning the Second World War and the scale of the losses she suffered (an estimated 20 million dead). For all its wickedness before, during and after the war, Russia bore the brunt and took the lead in defeating Hitler. And Philby’s enduring loyalty to communist Russia assumes a slightly different colour when seen from this perspective. He was consistently on the side of the most important anti-Fascist power, even when many in the British Establishment wanted to make peace with the Nazis. It’s certainly how Philby saw it:

It is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito. It is a matter of great pride to me that I was invited, at so early an age, to play my infinitesimal part in building up that power. (p.28)


Apparently, according to the ‘experts’, the book is evasive and incomplete in key areas. Surprise. Any autobiography is a highly selective and censored document – take Eric Ambler’s amiably misinformative autobiography, Here Lies. And what would you expect from a high-ranking spy?

There are umpteen books about Philby and the other Cambridge spies which the enthusiast can consult to cross-check and identify the shortcomings of his version of events – although the problem seems to be that they all disagree with each other, as do the numerous people Philby met and worked with or had affairs with, lots of whom have published their own conflicting accounts and memoirs.

In fact, books about the Cambridge spies comprise a genre of their own, a very English cottage industry, like a racier version of the Bloomsbury Set, with the same mix of high-minded ideals and disappointingly low behaviour. Which is oddly paradoxical, because all we can really be sure about is that we, as a nation, do not come out very well from any version of this story.

Related links

Force 10 From Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1968)

Now it had come, Mallory knew. He looked at Andrea and Miller and Reynolds and Groves and knew that they knew it too. In their faces he could see very clearly reflected what lay at the very surface of his own mind, the explosive tension, the hair-trigger alertness straining to be translated into equally explosive action. Always it came, this moment of truth that stripped men bare and showed them for what they were. (p.118)

The plot

Of Maclean’s 28 novels, this is the only sequel. Immediately following the events of The Guns of Navarone, the surviving heroes – New Zealand mountaineer Captain Keith Mallory, American explosives expert ‘Dusty’ Miller – have only just come aboard a Royal Navy ship before they are despatched right back to Navarone to interrupt the wedding of the indomitable Greek partisan, Andrea Stavros, and take him to an airstrip from which they are collected and flown to Italy. So far, so preposterous.

Here, in Allied HQ Italy, ‘the splendidly piratical figure of Captain Jensen, RN, Chief of Allied Intelligence, Mediterranean’, tells them they are to have no rest but are to be parachuted into Yugoslavia, along with three hand-picked commandos, to link up with the anti-German partisans.

The strategic background is that the Allies are pinned down in Italy at the Monte Cassino line. If the Allies can foment trouble in Yugoslavia, the Germans will have to send divisions there, weakening the Italian line. ‘The whole future of the War is at stake’ – as usual. In particular, two German divisions have surrounded a force of some 7,000 partisans in an area called the Zenica Cage, to the west of the narrow gorge of the river Neretva.

Our heroes parachute into the mountains near the Zenica Cage. They are met by Yugoslavs, but who turn out to be Chetniks and who hand them over to the occupying Germans, led by Major Neufeld. To the puzzlement of the three young commandos, Mallory has foreseen this. Mallory spins the Germans a yarn about them being criminals and deserters which – amazingly – convinces the Germans. Mallory then persuades them to let Mallory et al cross through the lines into the Trap to rendezvous with the partisans, on the pretext of gaining valuable intelligence information from them.

So off Mallory, Miller and Andrea plus the three commandos go, to  meet the partisans and exchange genuine information, finding out about their troop deployments, about where the German armoured divisions really are. Then MM&A return to the Germans but, this time, they hold the Germans up at gunpoint, and force them to take our heroes to the cabin in the woods where the Krauts are holding four English prisoners of war.

Our heroes take the POWs up the hillside and over across to a high plateau where the snow is being trodden flat by hundreds of partisans so that a Wellington bomber can land. But, minutes after they left them tied and bound, a German patrol comes along and releases the imprisoned Germans, who follow them up the hillside and witness, from a distance, nine figures (our five heroes, plus the four released men) climb into the Wellington, which then takes off again. The Germans congratulate themselves. All along they knew our heroes were not the criminals they claimed to be, but were ‘enemy agents’: they allowed themselves to be captured, they allowed themselves to be locked up, they allowed our heroes to release the POWs, and they allowed them all to fly back to Allied HQ, because they had deliberately given them false information about the location of the two German armoured divisions.

Except that: Mallory knows the Germans know who they really are, he knows the Germans have planned to let them go; which is why he hasn’t flown off with the plane; the POWs were on it with a message to Jensen back at HQ, but the other five figures were lucky partisans impersonating our heroes.

The whole thing was a ruse and a sideshow. When our heroes met the real partisans, they learned about the German divisions’ true disposition and the German plan to attack the 7,000 partisans by crossing the Neretva bridge. This is the information they have sent back to Allied HQ.

Now the famous five go back down the hill to the same German hut they liberated the English POWs from half an hour earlier and where Major Neufeld is congratulating the Chetnik leader, Droshny, on their cunning plan – and once again hold up them up at gunpoint, this time to liberate Maria and her blind singer brother, Petar.

Who are they? We first met them in the Chetniks’ camp pretending to be baddys. They have an elaborate backstory – Maria’s is that her family were killed by partisans so she defected to the Chetniks and wanders freely everywhere accompanied by her blind brother, the minstrel singer. (But it won’t come as a surprise to readers used to MacLean that she turns out to be a double agent, working for the Allies all along, and that the blind singer turns out to be the head of Allied counter-espionage in the Balkans! and that they aren’t brother and sister, but are married).

Echoes of Eagles These plot twists and turns, and the way the truth is known only to the officer in charge, who only explains it bit by bit to his sidekick (here, Mallory to Reynolds) is a copy of the structure of Where Eagles Dare, in which only Major Smith knows every wrinkle of the plan, and only feeds it out to Lieutenant Schaeffer as required. Maria, the double-agent who is vital for keeping our heroes informed of Nazi intentions, is reminiscent of the Mary who, in Where Eagles Dare, is our girl on the inside. And in both novels the radio operator is murdered in sinister circumstances.

This book is full of echoes of its predecessor.

To cut a long story short: the remaining five heroes lead an attack on the Neretva dam. The German Colonel Zimmerman, who is in charge of the two armoured divisions, believes his Hauptman Neufeld has successfully sent the British agents off with misleading intelligence about the location of his tanks. The Allies play up to this misconception by elaborately bombing an area filled with wood mock-ups of tanks. So he thinks he and his divisions are safe. Little does he know that he has Captain Mallory, Dusty Miller and Andrea Stavros to contend with! Thus, Colonel Zimmerman confidently gives the go-ahead for his tanks and lorries and troops to start crossing the bridge across the river Neretva.

Which is a bad idea because, after much hand-to-hand fighting, shooting, chucking grenades, dodging patrols and a break-neck climb across a sheer cliff face, the heroes Mallory and Miller blow up the immense Neretva dam and the resulting torrent of water destroys the bridge, Zimmerman and most of his two divisions. More dead than alive our heroes stand exhausted by the edge of the gorge, watching the destructive waters gush past them, thinking tough guy thoughts.

In a brief epilogue they are received back at Allied HQ in Italy where they learn the Germans have had to send divisions to Yugoslavia to make good the gap, and the Allied attack – timed to coincide with this weakening of the German line – has been successful. Well done, chaps.

The book ends on a comic note as the ‘splendidly piratical’ Captain Jensen starts to mention that there’s just one more teeny, tiny job he’s got lined up for the boys. Cut to the expression of horror on Dusty Miller’s face – cue end credits and heroic war movie theme music.

Background

The Guns of Navarone, published in 1957, was Alistair MacLean’s second novel. Already it is rich in war-thriller clichés – the immensely strong partisan (Andrea) loyal to the clever Anglo-Saxon (New Zealand mountaineer-turned-commando Keith Mallory), the comically reluctant American demolitions expert ‘Dusty’ Miller, the earnest young Lieutenant Stephens, keen to prove himself and who, once he’s obviously dying of gangrene, volunteers to stay behind to hold the pass and sell his life dearly; and the Greek partisan who turns out to be a traitor, tsk tsk.

The novel was turned into the very successful 1961 movie, starring Gregory Peck as Mallory, David Niven as a non-American Miller, and Anthony Quinn as Zorba the partisan.

In the mid-1960s, so the story goes, MacLean was living near to Richard Burton, both in tax exile in Switzerland. Burton asked MacLean to write him a cracking wartime adventure yarn, something he could take his son to see. Six weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay for Where Eagles Dare, a classic war movie starring Burton and the young, charismatic Clint Eastwood. Impressively, MacLean wrote the novel in tandem with the screenplay. Both have the classic MacLean characteristic, which is terrific pace, gripping the reader from the opening scenes in the plane flying over wartime Bavaria.

Force Ten From Navarone was not only the sequel to the original bestselling novel and movie, it was also written on the back of the book and movie success of Where Eagles Dare. It is, therefore, no surprise that it, too, has a stripped-down, no-nonsense narrative drive from the opening pages, that the scenes are often only a few pages long, that the characterisation is paper thin and that the twists, turns and revelations fly fast and furious.

But there’s something else at work which I think comes from MacLean’s close involvement with movies, and that is humour: he had seen that tough guys in the movies often have the snappiest one-liners, that in films like The Great Escape (1963) or The Dirty Dozen (1967) the tough, all-male, ready-for-anything atmosphere is reinforced by jokes, wisecracks, all-male banter.

The MacLean formula

Coming from reading Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Graham Greene and Hammond Innes four things strike me about this novel and Alistair MacLean in general:

  • Pace. Nothing gets in the way of the hurtlingly fast forward momentum of the story. There is no love interest and certainly none of the leisurely philosophical lucubrations which cloy a Greene novel.
  • Suspense. The linear narrative is studded with unexpected twists and turns, double crosses and revelations – all of which maintain an atmosphere of boyish excitement and suspense.
  • Paper-thin characters. It’s all men, almost all soldiers, and they are all a) tall, gaunt, war-weary b) supremely competent with guns, knives, explosives and all the other ‘Action Man’ paraphernalia.
  • Terrible style. Not only are the characters tough guy stereotypes and the plot built of clichés, but the style includes hackneyed phrases, lots of repetitition of stock situations and feelings (defeat, despair, exhaustion), and prolonged, heavy-handed attempts at humour. MacLean is on record as saying he found it difficult to write, and it shows.

The superfluous adjective

A tell-tale sign of MacLean’s lack of subtlety is the excess adjective and thumping over-emphasis. ‘Indeed’ is a favourite word, used repeatedly to ram home the damn seriousness of a thing or situation.

The room was pleasantly redolent with the smell of burning pine, the source of which wasn’t difficult to locate: one could have roasted a very large ox indeed in the vast and crackling fireplace at the far end of the room. (p.25)

By this time… the darkened waters of the Neretva dam were clearly visible to the west and the railway track was now running very close indeed to the edge of what appeared to be a dangerously steep precipice. (p.153)

The brilliant illumination from the arc lights made it very clear indeed just what had happened. (p.213)

Repetition, comic There’s a type of repetition which emphasises the machine-like, clockwork efficiency of the heroes – Mallory, Miller, Andrea – and the fear and obedience they command. But it also emphasises that the text is operating in a particular kind of male territory of power and control. And the repetition is kind of humorous, like a gag, like a joke.

[Andrea shoves a Luger in Droshny’s face] ‘Please don’t tempt me.’ Droshny didn’t tempt him…

[If the hostages make a false move Mallory assures them Miller will shoot them.] ‘Please try to believe me.’ They believed him. (p.120)

‘Do exactly as you’re told,’ Neufeld ordered. The sergeant did exactly what he was told. (p.123)

Mallory said ‘Find out how to stop the damn thing.’ Miller looked at him coldly and set about trying to find out how to stop the damn thing. (p.153)

‘Drop those guns,’ he said. They dropped their guns. (p.217)

The text is jokily knowing about its own masculinity. It ironises its own dead-pan attitude.

Comedy It is one thing when the characters speak humorously, Dusty Miller in particular specialising in the wry, deadpan comment. But the text is in serious trouble when MacLean makes his (frequent) attempts at humour.

[Miller] ran forward and [gave the locomotive] several violent and well-directed kicks which clearly took into no account the future state of his toes… (p.150)

Miller made the descent to the ledge without incident, principally by employing his favourite mountain-climbing technique of keeping his eyes closed all the time. (p.157)

Comic writing has to be slick. It’s an art. And it is not MacLean’s forte. Some of the clunkier efforts are like watching your Dad do his party tricks. Morecambe and Wise  Dad’s Army or are not far away.

Repetitive repetition And then there’s just repetitiveness, of conception and of phrasing. Apparently it took MacLean about a month to write each novel and the speed and slapdash approach to prose shows on every page.

Miller took one brief glance at this terrifying prospect, stepped hurriedly back from the edge of the cliff and looked at Mallory in a silently dismayed incredulity. (p.156)

Reynolds looked at Mallory in an almost dazed incredulity. (p.166)

There are also half a dozen references to bad characters’ ‘wolfish grins’, several of the corpses are described as being in that distinctive huddled shape; there are the usual repeated assertions that all the heroes are tired, weary, exhausted etc. In other words, MacLean’s prose features habits of phrasing which recur (and are to increase in frequency in the later novels).

Bad And there are plenty of simply ham-fisted sentences, long and rambling and badly phrased.

The others rose and followed him, Groves and Reynolds exchanging glances which indicated more clearly than any words could possibly have done that they could have been even more wrong about Andrea than they had ever been about Mallory. (p.146)

Hundreds of long sentences like this which make their point clumsily.

Over emphasis As the climax approaches, the style becomes feverishly over-excited, with MacLean throwing buckets of dark adjectives at the wall to see what sticks.

The contrast was almost too much to be borne, the suddenly hushed silence strangely ominous, deathly, almost, in its sinister foreboding. (p.206)

The movie

Almost all MacLean’s novels were turned into movies and this one had the added appeal of being a sequel to the much-praised and commercially successful Guns of Navarone (1961). However, the movie of this book wasn’t made until 1978, and something went very wrong with film-making culture in the 1970s. Compare and contrast Roger Moore’s Bond films with Sean Connery’s. In 1969 Guy Hamilton directed the unquestionable classic The Battle of Britain, and he went on to direct Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun – each worse than its predecessor as the Bond franchise went steadily downhill. At least part of the reason for this was the producers’ and Roger Moore’s wish to make the films humorous – with dire consequences.

It was Hamilton who directed the 1978 movie version of Force 10, and it represents a measurable falling-off in comparison with the 1961 Navarone film: the parts of Mallory and Miller are played by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox – a come-down from Gregory Peck and David Niven. There is no love interest in the novel but one is created for the movie and played by Barbara Bach, hotfoot from stripping off in the Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. And, in the biggest travesty, the role defined by Anthony Quinn in the first movie is inhabited by Richard Kiel, Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Related links

Original hardback jacket illustration of Force 10 From Navarone, by Norman Weaver

Original hardback jacket illustration of Force 10 From Navarone, by Norman Weaver

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Only When I Larf by Len Deighton (1968)

‘Look, caterpillar,’ said Silas. ‘I’ve been around a long, long time, and one thing I’ll tell you true; there isn’t a man, woman or child in this world who can say they have never conned someone out of something. Babies smile for a hug, girls for a mink, men for an empire. No one, I promise you; no one, caterpillar.’ (p.147)

This, Len Deighton’s sixth novel, marks a decisive switch from the five elliptically-written and dazzlingly confusing spy novels which made his name. This is a plainly written, easy-to-read comic novel about three confidence tricksters: Silas, ex-Army major and the boss; Liz, good-looking young woman in love with him; Bob, young working class chancer.

Introducing our heroes

Part one describes a sting to extract a cheque for $250,000 from two American businessmen, by hiring an empty suite in a high-rise and pretending to be CEO of a multinational which needs just a little investment. The two ‘marks’ – or victims – hand over a cheque then wait while the boss pops out to meet some vice-presidents and in fact slips down in the lift, meets his assistants who have already cashed the cheque and packed the money into a briefcase, they all take a taxi to the heliport, on to JFK and the flight to London. Ta-dah!

Interwoven first-person narratives

Each chapter is a first-person narration by one of the three. In the previous two novels, Deighton had begun to experiment by interleaving the unnamed narrator’s first-person narrative with a third-person narrator’s sympathetic view of several other key figures. So this book represents a continuation of these experiments with narrative: interweaving three first-person narratives, frequently giving their different perspectives on the same events. This allows for lots of dramatic irony, in small details, or set pieces like chapters 10 and 11 which describe the setback at the Magazarian embassy, first from Silas’s point of view – wherein he is the hero who saves the day and pledges his love for Liz – then from Liz’s POV, as she deflates Silas’s exaggerations. Comparing the characters’ often sharply differing takes on events is one of the book’s many pleasures.

Back stories

Each of the three has a back story and/or interests which colour their sections:

  • Silas’s memories of his war years, the high point of his life
  • Bob’s interest/obsession with ancient history and archaeology – at the drop of a hat he’s talking about Mohenjodaro or the Babylonians
  • Liz’s rather more diffuse emotions and feelings about her two accomplices and this odd job she’s ended up in

As with all hobby horses since Tristram Shandy, the recurrence of these familiar trains of thought become prompts for humour, like mechanical catchphrases of popular TV – ‘Don’t panic!’, ‘And now for something completely different’.

Sudden transitions One of the most interesting features of the prose is the way these themes, especially Silas’s war memories, kick in with no warning: one moment he’s larking about with Bob, the next sentence he’s with his men in the Desert War again, then, just as you’re getting into the wartime scene, he’s putting his drink back on the bar in ‘the present’. The abruptness of these transitions is pleasingly disconcerting.

The Desert War As the book continues Silas’s memories of the Desert War intrude more and more frequently, with no warning, as gruesome counterpoints to current events. And as they progress, they begin to reveal a truth completely at odds with the established version. Turns out he knows Liz because he served with Colonel Mason in the War, and Liz was Mason’s little daughter. Silas was the only survivor of a sudden Jerry attack which knocked out the colonel’s tanks. He claimed the colonel was killed trying to save his driver and on his evidence the colonel was awarded a VC. However, the flashbacks slowly reveal another story: seems Silas was stealing some tankers full of petrol won from the Italians and was driving them in convoy to a middleman they knew near Cairo, when they quite literally ran into the British tanks, parked across the road without lights. The whole lot exploded, killing Silas’s companions and many of the tank crews. Seems Silas was so solicitous of Liz and her mother because he knew he was responsible for Colonel Mason’s death. One more, and a rather upsetting, deception.

This slow revelation changes your opinion about Silas, about Liz, and makes you question the nature of conning, of tricking and deceiving people: how it can be a habit, a necessity, an art, a joy and a cruelty. Behind the flashy effects and larky skits, the novel becomes subtly thought-provoking.

The con tricks

Magazaria After the prologue in New York a good deal of the first half is taken up with a plan to con the Defence Minister of a (fictional) African country (Mr Ibo Awawa of Magazaria) by selling him crates of what will be labelled Army scrap. Awawa will be led to believe the crates really consist of nearly-new weaponry siphoned off by crooked ‘Brigadier’ Silas, and he is benefiting from the scam. However, the crates really will contain Army scrap, the gang will have collected their money and be long gone by the time he finds out.

Unfortunately, there is a coup in Magazaria and, in a macabre scene, when Silas and Bob are next invited to the embassy, they are wined and dined by new hosts before being shown Mr Awawa bound and gagged inside a packing crate which is about to be shipped back to their country. The terrifying African host reveals that he knows all about their cheap scam, and has them thrown off the premises.

Swinging Sixties There is a prolonged interlude where the trio live it up in Swinging London. Bob, as the working class cockney, hooks up with an old mate from the Scrubs – Spider – who happens to be a waiter at the hotel they’re staying in, and they take the Rolls Royce Bob bought with his money from the New York job and cruise round Swinging London, one evening in Soho picking up a couple of brightly dressed tarts from Liverpool – a prolonged scene of low comedy.

Lebanon Spider puts them on to a posh boy, Gerald Spencer, and they work out an elaborate scam to con him out of nearly a million: Bob pretends to be an international financier who is himself going to do a fraud, handing over counterfeit bonds worth a million pounds to ten banks in the Lebanon, getting the cash (total £10 million) in exchange, then fleeing. He doesn’t want to deal with each bank in person so offers Spencer the opportunity of being the person to hand over the bonds and take the cash, for a cut of 10% ie £1 million. The hook is that Spencer will have to seed the scam with his own money – and it’s this money the trio plan to disappear with.

The final chapters deal with the con in Lebanon in considerable detail, as well as Silas’s memories of his wartime experiences there. They also describe the shifting relationship between the three, as Liz falls out of love with Silas – who feels himself old and possibly past his prime in this game – and in love with cocky young Bob who, for the first time, takes the lead in organising this con.

Comedy

Only When I Larf is clearly intended as a comedy but, although good humoured, not that much is actually funny, and long stretches describing the practical arrangements of the cons are more like the action sequences you see in heist or sting movies ie slick and impressive, but not funny. Hence its categorisation as a comedy-thriller.

What did make me laugh out loud are the sequences when Silas and Bob, though they cordially dislike each other, fall into schoolboy sketches and impersonations while Liz looks on like a long-suffering mother: for example, the sequence in which they were racing their Rolls Royces through the countryside and Bob drove his into a ditch and Silas pulled up alongside and they both immediately began calling to each other in the Scottish accents of Clydeside engineers lamenting the poor quality of your modern steam-driven ship as compared with the merits of traditional sail.

And I particularly liked the one where Silas pretended to be the pilot of a damaged bomber returning from a WW2 raid and ran round their London flat making engines-on-fire noises while Bob held a pretend microphone to his mouth and talked him down until Silas did a chancy landing across the sitting-room rug and crashed into the fireplace with a broken wing.

I’ve rarely if ever read anywhere else prose which really captures the feel of funny lads larking around, putting on voices and ad libbing extended sketches. The climax of the novel requires Silas to put on fake tan and an Arab costume, and he is continually whipping it off, in front of the others, or even on his own, and declaring to his mirror: ‘Good God, Colonel Lawrence, it’s you!’. Very fresh, very funny.

Prose

In order to convey the character’s discursive thoughts the prose is generally more relaxed and flowing than the taut, elliptical Ipcress novels, and thus often a bit nondescript. Nonetheless Deighton’s prose periodically becomes tauter, tighter, as it describes action sequences (especially Silas’s war memories, or the thriller sequences of the cons in action) and is still sprinkled with lovely turns of phrase.

The wind came down the railway tracks like an express train and we had to go stepping over the rails and trying to avoid the puddles that wore thin crusts of grey ice and snapped like dinner plates under foot. (p.117)

A slight wind stirred along the valley trying to get home before nightfall, and along the rim of the second mountain range – the anti-Lebanon – the last sun drilled the rocky molars and gave them gold fillings.’ (p.250)

Africa in thriller fiction

The Nigeria-Biafra War broke out in May 1967 and lasted until January 1970. Some one million Nigerians died during the conflict, mainly due to the appalling famine. I don’t know whether there’s a direct link, but it is from this period onwards that African coups and civil wars became a location for thriller writers. Eric Ambler’s Dirty Story, published in 1967, is set during a small border conflict over minerals featuring two fictional African countries. Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, about a coup in an African state was published in 1974.

The movie

The novel was made into a rather cheap-looking 1968 movie, directed by Basil Dearden and starring Richard Attenborough, David Hemmings and Alexandra Stewart. You can’t currently get it on Amazon or even on Ebay, which suggests it has sunk without trace.

(The movie version was produced by Deighton himself. It was the prelude to Deighton buying the film rights to Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop’s stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! for which he wrote the screenplay of the film version which was released in 1969.)

Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

The Vivero Letter by Desmond Bagley (1968)

‘This sounds like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and a detective story,’ I said.

Quiet accountant Jeremy Wheale’s life is turned upside down when his brother is shot dead on the family farm in Devon, and a lot of people are suddenly showing interest in a family heirloom, a brass tray which turns out to be the clue to a fabulous Mayan treasure.

Manuel de Vivero was taken prisoner by the Mayans during the Spanish invasion of Central America early in the 1500s but wrote a letter from captivity in the Mayan city of Uaxuanoc to his two sons, accompanied by two presents. The set-up is that a) the city was overflowing with gold – buildings and temples and treasure and everyday utensils made from gold b) the two trays, when combined, give the clue to the location of this lost city.

The idea of a set of physical artefacts which need to be combined to give the location of lost treasure is slightly reminiscent of the founding adventure story, Treasure Island (1883) but reminds me more of the Tintin adventure, The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) where the maps found in three model boats must be combined to give the location of the treasure.

Thriller or adventure?

Like The Golden Keel maybe this isn’t a thriller at all, it’s more straight adventure story with some thrilling scenes at the end. According to Wikipedia, ‘Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: fearful excitement. In short, if it “thrills”, it is a thriller.’ For two thirds of the text this book, like Keel, does not thrill. It moves slowly and leisurely as the protagonist, in perfect safety, finds out about the Vivero Letter, the importance of his ‘tray’, persuades the rival archaeologists to collaborate and accompanies them to their luxury house in Mexico City, then to base camp on the Yucatan peninsula, then helps with the prolonged and rather boring excavations to find the ruined city.

Only in the last fifth or so of the text does the gear shift as baddies try to muscle in on the dig to steal the excavated treasure. Only at this point do we enter ‘thriller’ territory ie enter the atmosphere of tension and jeopardy and reach full throttle in the last thirty pages which combine an armed attack on the base, the arrival of a tropical hurricane, a tense escape to an underwater cavern, and then a nail-biting duel with machetes!

Coincidences

The tale is told by Wheale as first person narrative, and his ignorance of archaeology, history and so on help to smooth over a series of improbable coincidences and unlikely events – that the tray/treasure clue ever came into his family’s possession, that a couple of American archaeologists both just happened to read an article in the local Devon papers about it (!) and that brings them both to his door, that Wheale can persuade the rivals (who both know about the letter and its secret) to work together on a joint treasure hunting expedition in Mexico, and so on.

Ordinary man protagonist

But the main oddity of the story is that Bagley goes out of his way to make Wheale a boring non-entity, a timid accountant. This is established in the opening scene at a ‘swinging 60s’ party where he overhears his with-it girlfriend describe him as deadly dull, ‘a grey little man in a grey little job’. His on-impulse decision to force the two collectors to take him on the treasure hunt is supposed to be his response to this hurtful jibe. This ‘I am not a hero’ theme runs very self-consciously throughout the text:

Jemmy Wheale, New Elizabethan, adventurer at large – have gun, will travel. The thought made me smile, and the man in the mirror smiled back at me derisively. I didn’t have a gun and I doubted whether I could use one effectively, anyway. I suppose a James bond type would have unpacked his portable helicopter and taken off after Jack Gatt long ago, bringing back his scalp and couple of his choicest blondes. Hell, I didn’t even look like Sean Connery. (Ch 5, I)

And yet he is the hero. He is foolhardy enough to go to Mexico with the archaeologists, he is man enough to stand up to the bullying one, Halstead, and to provoke him by flirting with his wife. He turns out to be an advanced scuba diver, capable of organising and running a sustained joint dive to the bottom of the giant well in the abandoned city where most of the treasure is found. And then, when the baddies move in, he is tough enough to survive a helicopter crash and several days in the jungle before coming to the rescue of the other goodies, shooting dead about four of the attackers, he organises the armed resistance, getting rid of the treasure, saves the girl in the underwater cave and turns out to be an expert fencer (that’s fighter with a sword). I know a few boring English accountants. They couldn’t do all this.

This primitive world of kill or be killed was a long way from Cannon Street and the bowler-hatted boys. What the hell was a grey little man like me doing here? (Ch 10, I)

In fact the ‘ordinary joe’ schtick is a routine, part of Bagley’s brand, making him stand out distinctly from Le Carré’s spies, from the special agents who feature in MacLean’s 1960s thrillers and, of course, from the great dominating figure in this field, Commander Bond.

Maybe Sheila had been correct when she had described me as a grey man but only in a circumscribed way. She expected Sean Connery disguised as James Bond and what she got was me – just a good, old-fashioned, grey, average type. (Ch 1)

But asserting something in a fiction is not the same as dramatising it. Wheale doesn’t actually think or behave anything like the boring accountant the author keeps telling us he is. In Landslide Bagley keeps repeating that Bob Boyd is a man who (due to the car crash he was in) does not know his true identity and that this plunges him into some kind of existentialist crisis – but it doesn’t; it doesn’t make any difference to the way the character actually thinks or behaves. Same here with Mr grey accountant Wheale. Despite the author’s assertions to the contrary, both these characters behave like the standard Bagley hero, tough, resourceful, unafraid, physically fit and strangely attractive to the only nubile woman in the vicinity who he ends up carrying off into the sunset.

Well-researched

As usual, half the pleasure of reading Bagley is for the encyclopedia-style information which not only decorates the text but which the story is in fact premised on. A reader of  this book learns a lot about the (two) Mayan empire(s), about the geography of the Yucatan Peninsula, a lot about scuba diving to depths of 120 feet or so, there is a neat exposition of how a helicopter works (to explain how one is sabotaged), as well as some introductory facts about the Mafia in case you hadn’t heard of them before.

As in The Golden Keel (which is stuffed from start to finish with detailed information about yacht design, building and sailing) the dense factuality of Mayan history and archaeology takes the place of the ‘thrill’. As in Keel we are introduced to the possible baddy Metcalfe fairly early on, but it is only in the last 50 pages that he becomes an explicit enemy in the exciting sea race across the Med – so in this book we are introduced to the Mafia boss John Gatt fairly early on as a possible instigator of the murder of Wheale’s brother, only for him to be forgotten in the detail of diving and digging which takes up the next 150 pages, and only for him to reappear in the last 50 pages leading the attack on the archaeologists (and their treasure).

Thus the majority of the text of these books is not thrilling. It is taken up with lengthy descriptions of the interplay between fairly mundane characters, in Vivero between the accountant-turned-adventurer Wheale, the multi-millionaire archaeologist Fallon, his embittered rival Halstead, Halstead’s dishy and deluded wife Katherine, Fallon’s savvy investigator Harris (who provides the factual info about John Gatt and the mafia), as well as the factual background listed above as well as plenty of detail about how to set up a camp in a tropical rainforest, and so on.

All of this stuff is interesting, and the low-level drama between the characters is amusing in a kitschy Dallas kind of way, but thrilling it is not. A sober, factually-based adventure story with a thrilling finale is what it is.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems (1968)

Poetry is best encountered like a complete stranger who starts talking to you on the Tube, in the sauna, at the school gates, who in fifteen minutes adds something completely unexpected to your day, a new thought, a new insight, a new sensation – and then vanishes.

I picked up this old volume for £1 at the Salvation Army bookstand and read it on the train home.

Herbert (1924-98) was the outstanding Polish poet of the 20th century. After fighting in the Polish resistance he became a subtle dissident against the communist regime.  The short introduction is by Al Alvarez and neatly pulls out the political nature of Herbert’s work. ‘Most of Herbert’s work is concerned with reasons for not being convinced.’ After such a holocaust of an upbringing, what was there to believe in? His poetry ‘is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition’. An admirable stance.

Herbert’s verse is classic, precise, ironic, characterised by a scientific detachment. Romantic styles and forms, rhyme and lushness and rhetoric, have all been burned away by the Nazi atrocities and decades of communist oppression, along with punctuation, capital letters, all the rest.

There are just phrases, lines, each trying to be as honest as possible.

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

– Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

You can see how Ted Hughes was influenced by the unsentimental objectivity of these East European poets, who he helped to publish and publicise. He has a poem about a pebble turning red in the heat of the sun which I must track down…

But it’s not all about natural objects. This volume has a series of prose poems which combine the feel of European folk story retold for the era of the fridge and the party functionary.

From Mythology

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leapt, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

The crisp translations are a collaboration by the just-as-famous Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott. ‘Permanently and warily in opposition.’

Related links

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (2nd edn 1968)

Chapter 8 – Teutonic Mythology (pp 245-280)

Almost without exception the legends which were told among the ancestors of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons have not been handed down to us. Hence in any account of Teutonic mythology the Scandinavian traditions must of necessity form a major part. (p248)

The Eastern Goths converted to Christianity on contact with Byzantine civilisation in the 4th century. Hardly anything survives of their language or pagan religion. The Goths of central/northern Germany also left few records. Believe it or not the most thorough account we have of their beliefs is in the ‘Germania’ of the Roman historian Tacitus from the first century AD. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain began converting to Christianity in the 600s and were so thoroughly Christianised that from the 690s they began sending missionaries to Germany, whose work was later reinforced by Charlemagne (742-814), very effectively obliterating any records of Teutonic pagan beliefs. Thus it is in Iceland, at the remotest furthest point of Europe, only settled by pagan Norsemen from the 870s and only Christianised as late as 1000AD, that a relatively free, surprisingly well-educated population lovingly preserved all the stories, myths and legends stretching back centuries of their ancestors from the Continent, as well as composing numerous sagas of more recent Scandinavian and Icelandic heroes. This astonishing abundance of material, of sagas, poems, histories, directly or indirectly gives us a wealth of information about the beliefs of the various tribes and cultures who inhabited north Germany, Anglo-Saxon Britain and Scandinavia in the so-called Dark Ages.

The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains all this very lucidly before embarking on a detailed anthropological account of the Teutonic gods, pointing out the sociological and economic origins of different deities, referencing their counterparts in Roman or Greek or Indian mythology, but also telling the main adventures in straightforward narrative. The illustrations are good. I can’t find anywhere in the internet pictures which show in their entirety the narrow tall porch reliefs showing scenes from the adventures of Sigurd from the wonderful stave church at Hylestad in Norway.

Creation

  • In the beginning was the yawning void, Ginnungagap: vast glaciers and ice lakes from which crystallised a giant frost ogre named Ymir
  • Ymir slept, falling into a sweat, and under his left arm there grew a man and a woman, the first of the Frost Giants
  • Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she exposed a man’s hair in the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri and he begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.
  • Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin, Vili and Vé. These three brothers promptly murdered the primal giant Ymir. From his wounds came such a flood of blood that all the frost ogres were drowned except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a tree trunk (the Norse avatar of the universal myth of a few survivors of a world flood). From this couple sprang the families of frost ogres.
  • The sons of Bor carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from his corpse. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.
  • Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. They acquired human understanding and the appearance of men although they lived in the earth and in rocks. They are the dwarfs.
  • From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides. Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.
  • The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds. Then they took the sparks and embers that were flying out of the fire region of Muspelheim and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to be the stars and sun and moon.
  • The earth was surrounded by a deep sea around which coiled an immense serpent.
  • To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold and named it Midgard or Middle Earth.
  • While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman. Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask and the woman Embla. From Ask and Embla have sprung all the races of men who lived in Midgard.
  • Odin (Woden, Wotan) married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. These early gods are the members of the Æsir. They built themselves a stronghold named Asgard, the house of the Æsir. In Asgard was the great throne Hlidskjálf where Odin sat looking out over the universe, when he was not riding through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, or roaming Midgard, the world of men, in disguise. On his throne report of all the doings in Midgard was brought to him by his two ravens Huginn and Muginn, meaning Memory and Thought.
The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • For being the father of gods and the father of men, Odin is known as the All-Father. Odin sought wisdom throughout the world. Most famously he asked to drink from the spring of Mimir among the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil; but the price was his eye. Thereafter Odin is always depicted as a one-eyed man with a wide flat hat and magic spear, Gungnir.
  • The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor (Donar, Donner, the thunder god). Thor is next most powerful god to Odin. He wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, and rides a chariot drawn by two goats,  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Many Thor hammer amulets have been found across Scandinavia. I like the idea that pagans wore the in Christianised areas as a gesture of defiance.
  • The gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst which is known as the rainbow bridge. At the top, defending the entrance to Asgard is the god Heimdallr, ready to blow his horn as a warning to the gods of any attack by their immemorial enemies, the giants.
  • The nine worlds of Norse mythology subsist within the vast overarching structure of the heaven-tree, Yggdrasil. On its peak sits an eagle. Watering its roots are the three Norns, equivalent to the Greek Fates who tell the past, present and future.  Every day the Norn Urd draws water from her well to water the roots of the tree. Chewing one of its roots is the dragon Nidhoggr. Scampering up and down it is the gossipy squirrel, Ratatoskr.

The Vanir

Interestingly the Teutons have two races of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are gods of power – the AllFather Odin, the thunder god Thor, the god of war Tiu. The Vanir, by contrast, are gods of fertility, originally a group of wild nature and fertility gods and goddesses, considered to be the bringers of health, youth, fertility, luck and wealth, and masters of magic. The Vanir live in Vanaheim. There were many of them but the two principle ones were the twins Freyr, god of fertility, and Freyja, goddess of love.

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

The Nine worlds of Norse mythology

  1. In the first level was Asgard, the home of the Aesir.
  2. Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir.
  3. Alfheim, the home of the Light Elves.
  4. In the middle was Midgard “Middle Earth”, the home of the Humans.
  5. Jotunheim, the home of the Giants.
  6. Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves.
  7. Nidavellir, the home of the Dwarfs.
  8. Niflheim was to the north, inside somewhere under the ground were Helheim home of the dead was.
  9. Muspelheim was to the south, it was the home of the fire Giants and Demons.
The nine worlds of Norse mythology

The nine worlds of Norse mythology

There is no spirituality in Norse culture, no religious feeling. There is fighting, deal-making, and laconic understatement which puts a brave face on the fact we will all fail and all die. The entire cycle of stories lives in the shadow of the foretold and inevitable Last Battle between Gods and Giants when the world will go down in flames: Ragnarök. Until then men and gods alike face their doom with stoic defiance.

“The Germanic gods were never thought of as more than men of superior essence; and like men they were mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.” (p252)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Wikipedia Commons)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Sagas

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker (1968)

16 January 2012

Read M*A*S*H (1968) in a day. Bubble gum, a kind of Catch-22 lite, though written out of the author’s own experience as a MASH surgeon in Korea, so based on real horrors. Reviews said it was significantly different from the TV series but I was struck by how similar it is.

The Altman movie and then the long-running TV series profited form the rising tide of anti-Vietnam sentiment in the US. Ironically, its author, Richard Hooker (pseudonym of Richard Hornberger), was a conservative and disliked the liberalism Alan Alda brought to the TV series. Despite success with the book and a run of cheap sequels, Hornberger carried on practicing medicine in Maine, USA, till his death. The book’s detailed descriptions of anatomy, wounds and operations stick out like shrapnel in the otherwise sitcommy, wisecracking style.

M*A*S*H on Amazon

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