Tim Page’s Nam (1983)

No one was really sane, everyone on the point of a total numb shock, of hysteria, a madness that shrinks have only now begun to diagnose. (p.98)

The times

Page is a legendary figure about whom legends were weaved during the climactic years of a war which itself became the stuff of legends, during the legendary 1960s.

I read Michael Herr’s book of journalism from the war, Despatches, which features Page as a central character, when it came out (1977), and bought this book when it was new in 1983. I saw The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) in cinemas when they were released, and in 1980 went hitch-hiking across the USA, getting a long lift through the mid-West from a Vietnam vet who’d had a leg amputated and was stoned all the time. In Boston I hung out with a would-be rock band which featured ‘Weird Ira’ (on bass) and ‘Angry George’ (on frantic guitar), both very fucked-up Vietnam veterans, who lived in a permanent blur of drugs I’d never heard of.

That whole milieu, its culture of ‘dropping out’, drifting through casual jobs, insubordination to all authority, growing long hair, festooning yourself in beads and bangles, smoking dope, popping mandies or quaaludes or snorting speed – it all seems a long, long time ago. Another world.

The biography

In the early 1960s Page left his boring life in Orpington, a suburb of London, and made his way across Asia to Indochina, where he got aid-related jobs in Laos and taught himself photography by the age of 18. He was lucky enough to be in Laos during a coup and took photos which he was able to sell to news agencies. Then he moved across the border to Vietnam, just as the US army presence was ramping up from 1965 onwards, and as he turned 20.

Page began ‘stringing’, working freelance for whichever agencies would buy his pictures. He had survived a motorbike crash a few years earlier, and considering himself living on ‘free time’, took risks and went to places other photographers refused. He established a base in ‘Frankie’s House’, a bar-cum-hotel-cum brothel, with other western journalists and formed a close friendship with fellow photographer Sean Flynn – son of Hollywood megastar Errol. Their escapades formed the basis of a TV mini-series, Frankie’s House, broadcast in 1992.

Page’s colour and b&w photos from 1965 onwards capture all aspects of the war, military and civilian, with a raw immediacy which got them placed in news magazines especially Time-Life. He was wounded four times – the last time, in April 1969, when a soldier stepping out of a landing helicopter ahead of him trod on a mine, which blew his legs off. Page, right behind him, received a 2-inch piece of hot shrapnel in the head. He was considered dead at the scene but choppered back to the hospital, where they discovered he was alive. He was moved on to a series of hospitals back in the States where they removed part of his brain the size of an orange and stuck his skull back together.

Initially paralysed down his left side, Page slowly regained full movement, but his war days were over. He worked for a while rehabilitating other wounded and PTSD soldiers, before returning to work as a photographer for rock magazines in the 1970s. I remember finding out who Page was from a downbeat BBC ‘Arena’ documentary about him broadcast in 1979. I vividly remember him saying that these days he spent a lot of the time getting stoned and masturbating. Even then it felt like the notion that getting stoned and being ‘shockingly’ candid about sex would change anything (as they seemed to believe in the heady 1960s) was long out of date.

Tim Page’s Nam

It’s a large format book from the art publishers Thames and Hudson. Its 120 pages are divided into seven sections:

  • Chopper blitzkrieg
  • Portraits
  • The mechanics
  • Rock and roll flash
  • CV of carriers
  • Sufferings
  • The Dao of peace

A selection of images from the book is available on Page’s website.

Tim Page Nam photos

Blurbs on the back and online talk about the images’ ability to shock – but do they? It’s fifty years since many of these photos were taken, during which we have had plenty of shocking images – and even more shocking movies – depicting the killing fields of Cambodia, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War (with those images of skeletons in tanks on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait), anarchy in Somalia, the massacres in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, 9/11, the American-Afghan war, the war in Iraq, and now the rise of ISIS.

We have drunk deep of horrors on TV and the press, made all the more ghastly by the CGI-enhanced violence of Saving Private RyanBand of Brothers and the hundreds of subsequent movies which have copied their terrifyingly realistic depiction of the effects of modern weapons on the vulnerable human body.

The work

For me the immense cloud of legendariness, and the repeated telling of Page’s wildness and his injuries and the brain surgery and paralysis, tend to show that people find it easier to talk and write about the biography of an artist, than about their work.

The most obvious thing about the work is its copiousness. He took a lot of photos, of everything he saw. And he went to dangerous places where other photographers didn’t venture – out on patrol with the GIs and flying all over in the choppers, as well as trips out to the huge aircraft carriers, and in patrol boats. As well as being alert to everyday scenes, particularly of Vietnamese civilians. So Page’s work demonstrates great copiousness and an impressive variety of subject matter.

Next there’s a variety of styles. Nothing is staged in a studio, but, at a formal level, some of the portraits of soldiers or civilians are carefully posed and framed. At the other extreme, he catches images of people in the street or in crowds, blurred, in action, just as he catches unrepeatable moments of choppers taking off or landing. There is a genre of ‘photos of the injured’ along with ‘photos of the dead’.

These people shots are the ones I think the critics are referring to when they write of ‘shocking’, ‘realistic’ and ‘brutal’ images of war. But it’s important to acknowledge the tremendous beauty of many of his photos, where the composition, framing and colour all combine to produce visual images as composed and complete as any painting. Especially featuring machinery – there’s a sequence of an Australian artillery piece where the contrast between the muscular men’s bodies and shining metal is beautiful. The helicopters played a key role in the war, and all the photos taken from choppers give a serendipitous frame and structure to the images.

I will always think that they make a great camera platform, but a better frame… (p.21)

So if you set aside the fact that it was a somewhat violent conflict, to a photographer the Vietnam War provided an enormous range of human situations, of types of human – soldiers, civilians, peasants, urbanites, the young and fit, the old and fearful, the dead – of intense or incongruous situations, and an enormous variety of ways human interact with beautifully-designed modern machinery – steering, guiding, flying, aiming, shooting – a really broad range of 20th-century Homo sapiens.

Some types of photos

The prose

Each of the sections is introduced by a page or two of prose. They’re made of stream of consciousness sentences, running to numerous clauses, listing equipment, feelings, impressions, studded with military jargon and acronyms.

A Delta day at 105 in the shade, 90 humidity pre-monsoon, when the air can be carved with a machete; extracting up out of 12.7 range, the airconditioned luxury of 1500 feet is truly magic, a whirl towards the PX normalcy, a sense of security after the endless plod humping 20 keys of gear through the bad dream (p.17)

The aim is to create a stoned overload of sense impressions threaded with knowing references to military hardware, and all radiating a strong sense of insiderness.

On the black you could get a hot chopper, a can of Cs or a PBR that fell of the back of a truck on the way to the front. (p.42)

Can you dig it, man? Page’s prose screams out, ‘We were there, nobody explained anything or took any pity on us, and so you readers are just going to have to work out for yourself what I’m talking about.’ The continual deployment of GI jargon maintains the author’s superior cool.

Sitting in the door gunner’s seat in a Huey fragged by PIOs of the 25th Div, getting lost over Charlie’s turf up by the Fish Hook and watching those blue-green tracers of 12.7s hover towards you… (p.21)

Don’t know what a Huey is, or the 25th Div, a PIO or a 12.7? Who Charlie is? Where the Fish Hook is? Come on, newbie, keep up!

There’s no map because you’re expected to know where all these places are, as you’re expected to know so much else. Meanwhile, have a puff of this and enjoy Page’s helter-skelter of quick intense impressions, sketches of:

… field trips, scout tracks, refuelling in the monsoon, more GIs voting for noone, Ranger advisers deep in the Plaines des Joncs on assignment for Match, black machine-gunners stoned and leech-infested south of Saigon, and LURP deer-hunter look-alikes in the Michelin sorting out Victor Charlie for Georgie Patton Junior’s 11th Armoured cav, tank drivers boring at you out of their steel hutches, the black dude from Force recon after a week out there, legs, officers, corpsmen, ARVN, ROKs, the whole lot a kaleidoscope of survivors, dead or alive. (p.32)

What comes over is how much he loved it, the glamour and excitement and fear and stylishness of it all:

So many of the lethal gadgets had a pure and simple sexiness, the romance of power over life, ego-saving, black and white decisive life and death, the ultimate blast, the final wave on the best-equipped board in the surf. I am not sure if most, even in the depth of the soul-searching hawk and dove debates, really weren’t out there mainly for the hell of it, for the kicks, the fun, the brush with all that was most evil, most dear, most profane… the camaraderie, the sheer adventure of it all, were the biggest isms that could ever frag our hearts and minds. (p.51)

This is what so many anti-war campaigners find hard to understand or underestimate – that for some men, war is the most intense experience available, that it feeds and fulfils something deep in their souls. And even the calm, polite, gentlemanly men among us, many even of them from time to time fantasise and imagine themselves into warlike situations to live out those animal needs, urges and drives. Wars happen because men like fighting.

There are disappointingly few references to the actual craft and art of photography. It would be good to have a page explaining which cameras he used for different subjects, and which lenses, and why, and with what results. Nope. Maybe there’s more about this in his autobiography. The prose here isn’t explanatory; it is designed to replicate the immediacy and confusion captured in so many of the photos. Thus the camera doesn’t appear here as the tool of a trade, but as a psychological technique:

The camera became a filter to the madness and horror, a means of portraying it…It was a passport to witness the most insane events man can put together… There was too much to shoot. Too many frames to be made. No time to do it… (p.86)

Conclusion

If you’re happy to swing with the insider argot and submit to the bombardment of sense impressions, Page’s prose is immensely enjoyable, and the pictures – the more you look at them – the more they not only convey with force the place and time and people, but also say something else, about the man’s eye, and technical ability, and range of seeing. From the formally framed to the chaotic, he finds the core. It is the consistency with which he caught ‘frames’ in all kinds of situations, which builds up a tremendous sense of artistry and instinct.

You learn absolutely nothing about the origins, history, key events, strategy, geopolitics and diplomacy, battles or outcome of the war. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

The 1979 Arena documentary

Related links

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (1983)

I’d been trying to read other people’s minds for most of my life. It could be a dangerous task. Just as a physician might succumb to hypochondria, a policeman to graft, or a priest to materialism, so I knew that I studied too closely the behaviour of those close to me. Suspicion went with the job, the endemic disease of the spy. For friendships and for marriages it sometimes proved fatal. (p.82)

Samson trilogy

After six books about the Second World War, Deighton returned to the world of espionage with Berlin Game, introducing the 40-something spy Bernard Samson. I imagine he planned it as a trilogy with its sequels, Mexico SetLondon Match but I wonder whether he realised he’d go on to write another six novels about Samson, making a trilogy of trilogies, nine novels in all.

Overview

This is a very enjoyable spy novel. As you’d expect from Deighton, the depth of research and knowledge shine through on every page, in two ways in particular: his description of working for British Intelligence, its central London offices and security procedures, the organisational structure, the paperwork, the office rivalries and politicking, are all convincingly portrayed (who knows whether they bear any resemblance to ‘the truth’). But the main arena for Deighton to display his knowledge is Berlin, the city, its geography, the U-Bahn and seedy back streets, the river and lakes, the people, their customs and their characteristic German accent. Though over half the novel is set in diesel London, Berlin is the imaginative heart of the book.

Bernard Samson

When the novel opens Bernard Samson is just short of his fortieth birthday. He works for Britain’s Intelligence Service – like his father before him, who brought him up in Berlin after the War. Samson is past active field duty and has been safely driving a desk in London for the past five years. He is married to Fiona, herself quite senior in the Service – which struck me as unusual: a husband-and-wife MI6 team! She is from a well-off family and brought a lot of money to the marriage so they live in style – they have a Portuguese cook and two children, Billy and Sally, 10 and 8 years old. In what is presumably the author’s in-joke, Samson is described as wearing horn-rimmed glasses (p.13), as virtually all Deighton’s spies do, and as Deighton himself did in those stylish photos of him from the 1960s.

First person narrator

The novel is told in the first person, from Samson’s point of view (reminding this reader of the first person narratives of the Ipcress novels). The choice of a first person point of view is important because it gives the author all kinds of means of control. In a book told by a third person narrator, like Deighton’s previous novel, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, there is an expectation that the narrator is being straight with you, telling you the facts, and that they know the facts, as confidently and completely as a historian or a policeman giving evidence. Part of the pathos of GMM comes from the plain, factual style of presentation of what, in the end, become horribly upsetting events.

Samson’s first-person point of view creates a completely different effect. Now we don’t know what the facts are, we don’t really know what’s going on, for two reasons: a) because Samson doesn’t know what’s going on and has to piece it together b) because (just like the Ipcress narrator) at essential moments he skips over key bits of knowledge. The glaring example is towards the end of the book, where he tells the escaping spy von Munte that he knows who the mole in the Department is without even looking at the evidence von Munte has just risked his life to extract from his office (in East Berlin). In fact, he tells von Munte, but he doesn’t tell us – like a crossword, we are meant to have solved the mystery by ourselves with a limited number of clues.

The plot

The plot is complicated but can be summarised quite simply: there’s a communist spy in Samson’s Department of British Intelligence.

It all starts when a high-profile agent working for us in East Germany for decades – codename Brahms Four (who, we eventually learn, is one Dr Walter von Munte, p.266) – announces that he wants to quit and come West. There is debate in the Department about who should be sent to a) check what’s happening b) if necessary, facilitate his escape. From early in the novel it’s clear that Samson, with his background growing up as a child in Berlin and his wide web of local contacts, is the man for the job. But as he makes a few preliminary trips to Berlin, and meets various of his contacts – prompting numerous reminiscences about his childhood there, as the son of a father working for British Intelligence immediately after the war – he (and we) get a sense of far more complex wheels-within-wheels, of a bewildering matrix of relationships which bind together various players. Through this miasma of conversations, hints and tips Samson begins to suspect there is some kind of leak our end.

Rather like John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, most of the emphasis is on a small number of personnel within the Service who we see in a variety of meetings, conversations, dinner parties, in their clubs, at the office, and so on, as they all probe and suspect each other. It’s more like a detective story than a thriller. There are no car chases or shootouts – though there are a few tense moments with guns in pockets – there is one murder (a mistake, as it turns out).

A lot of time is spent by Samson meeting his old contacts in Berlin and piecing together events from five years or so back, when there was a particularly flagrant security leak from the Berlin office. Who was in the office at the time? Who could it have been? The head of the Berlin Office, ageing Frank Harrington, who Samson discovers has squirreled away a foxy young mistress in a house in the Berlin suburbs? But this young woman turns out to be the wife of Werner Volkmann, one of Samson’s schoolboy friends who’s gone on to set up a network in East Germany, ostensibly supporting the work of Brahms Four and a wider network of agents but who, Samson comes to realise, has been using British funds to build up a profitable black market import-export business.

Is it Samson’s immediate boss, Dicky Cruyer – no, too easily confused and panicked, with no German language skills. Or the only American working for the Department, smooth-talking Bret Rensselaer? He had access to the secret information on the night of the leak, and he has certainly built up a nice little empire in Economic Information: maybe he was placed there by the Soviets?

Then again, what about Giles Trent, the nervous bachelor who Samson catches meeting a KGB agent in a Soho chess club, and is making further enquiries about when he makes the surprise move of trying to kill himself (pills). Dicky is on the scene quickly, followed by Samson who is authorised to take Trent to a safe house. Here Samson establishes that Trent has been passing information to Russian contacts, in a complex blackmail set-up which started with his spinster sister being enticed into a love affair with a Russian man, who then started strong-arming Trent into working for them.

Samson has his doubts. It’s all too pat. Letting himself be overheard in the Soho club was amateurish, as were the incriminating bits of equipment (secret radio etc) found in Trent’s flat when it was searched. Almost as if he is a patsy, a deliberate decoy, to distract attention away from the real, much higher-placed, mole. At the safe house Samson bullies and threatens Trent with gaol, not for him but for his sister, unless he co-operates in a plan Samson cooks up to get Trent to continue passing intelligence to his Russian contacts, and offer them a comprehensive breakdown of the whole East German network. The idea being this will flush the high level spy from cover…

Unfortunately, word gets back to the Brahms Four network (ie Trent tells his Russian controller he is about to pass on a goldmine which will blow apart the East German networks, which the East German networks find out about and take seriously) and one of them comes over to London, ostensibly to meet Samson, but in fact to assassinate Trent. With Samson’s gun, borrowed for the purpose. It is an embarrassing moment when Samson has to tell one of this old Berlin friend, when he returns a day or two later with a now-used gun, that he has murdered Trent on a misunderstanding, in fact contrary to Samson’s own cunningly contrived plan, in fact… partly because of him.

Last, and hardest to contemplate, there is Samson’s own wife. In the first half of the novel Deighton plants seeds of doubt about whether she is having an affair. Rich, attractive, younger than him, she has worked her way up in the Department on her own merit. Having done modern languages at Oxford she speaks good German and Russian. She has access to high level information and, on several occasions when he calls late at night, doesn’t answer the phone. Does she get lonely during his frequent trips to Berlin? Has she started to have an affair? A colleague at the Department reports that he saw her being taken out to dinner by smooth-talking Bret Rensselaer: is she sleeping with him?

Deighton shows us plenty of domestic scenes, as they drive with the kids out to Silas Gaunt’s big Cotswold house for a posh weekend party or go to their son’s sports day, or make dinner, eat, drink, watch the telly or go to bed together, during which there is the usual to-and-fro of married banter, but slowly more interspersed with tougher questions, until Samson eventually accuses her flat-out of having an affair…

they negotiate that difficulty (she flatly denies it) but behind the (possible) personal betrayal, a far worse doubt is growing in Samson’s mind: the possibility that she, his wife, may be the high-level mole. Now he thinks about it, she was introduced to him at a party all those years ago when he was already a junior officer in the Department and he helped his new love to get a job within the Department (he seconded her application): was it all a set=up? Fro the very beginning was the entire affair, and then marriage, planned by a cold-hearted, scheming KGB agent and her controllers? Has he spent the past 14 or so years providing the perfect cover for her treacherous spying?

Could it be Fiona? It’s got to be one of them…. hasn’t it?

(If crime thrillers seeking to identify the murderer are ‘whodunnits’, then spy thrillers which are about tracking down ‘moles’ and double agents, are ‘whoisits’.)

Dramatis personae

In the service

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough.
  • Fiona – his wife who, quite early on, he starts to suspect is having an affair with…
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee, is he having an affair with Fiona? They were see together in a restaurant; when confronted she replies that he was vetting her, all senior personnel are having private interviews… maybe…
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, married to George an art dealer who’s always away so she’s having an affair with Samson’s boss, Dicky Cruyer, in between teasing Bernard.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – very pukka old fogey, Director-General of the Department who Samson thinks is almost gaga (p.52).
  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German Stations, Samson’s immediate boss, who he thinks is permanently confused and too dim to be the mole. He agrees with Dicky to keep the Trent suicide attempt secret for the time being…
  • Giles Trent – nervous, older operative in the Department who Samson tails to confirm he is meeting a KGB agent at a Soho chess club but before he can be hauled in for interrogation, Trent tries to kill himself. Revived he is kept in a ‘safe house’ where Samson bullies him into continuing to feed information to the Russians, including a bogus plan to blow the entire East German network, a plan which results in Trent being assassinated by one of that network, a man Samson knows well.
  • Frank Harrington – fussy, worried head of the Berlin office, 60, about to retire, is he a double agent?
  • Silas Gaunt – retired, fat bon viveur with an enormous house in the Cotswolds where he holds ‘weekends’, himself a former member of the Department, so the weekend described in the novel turns into an unofficial meeting with Cruyer and Rensselaer on how to handle the Brahms Four situation.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – old friend in Berlin who Samson grew up with, allegedly doing badly in business after being boycotted by the Department, but who Samson finds flourishing, and who turns out to be a vital help in the book’s final tense scenes in East Berlin.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, supposedly run off with a Coca Cola salesman, Samson finds her shacked up in a love nest paid for by none other than Frank Hutchinson, head of Berlin office! But when Samson spooks her, then watches the house to see what she’ll do, he is surprised to see her leaving in a car driven by her supposedly cuckolded husband, Werner. What are they up to?
  • Rolf Mauser – an ageing member of the East Berlin network, who visits Samson in London very mysteriously, not telling him he’s about to carry out the ill-judged execution of Trent – and who puts Samson up on his last, tense mission to East Berlin.
  • Dr Walter von Munte – the agent codenamed Brahms Four who, although he has been supplying information from the Deutsche Notebank, through which came banking clearances for the whole of East Germany, to Bret Rensselaer’s section for twenty years – helping Bret’s empire-building and rise to power – is actually only known by name and sight to Samson. Twenty years earlier Munte came back to save Samson when he was about to be caught by the Stasi in Weimar, which is why Samson is honour-bound to go back to Berlin and save him, now. (There is a good overview of von Munte’s role in London Match, page 48.)

Finale

All these complicated strands – and Deighton’s encyclopedic knowledge of Berlin – are pulled together when Samson takes it upon himself to get Frank Harrington (who he now knows is not the spy) to smuggle him into the East (through Berlin’s underground tunnels at midnight). The plan is to co-ordinate the Brahms network (with help from Rolf and Werner) to smuggle out von Munte and his wife.

These final thirty or so pages are tense to start with, but Deighton piles on the pressure when it becomes clear the Stasi have been tipped off about his mission and are one small step behind him, arriving to arrest Rolf Mause while Samson himself is in the (long, unlit) hallway of the same building, before he is whisked away by the dependable Volkmann, but then nearly caught by the Stasi when he rendezvous with von Munte’s wife at their East Berlin allotment hut, before the climax – a chase through the woods next to the Müggelsee, a lake to the east of Berlin, on a public holiday when the area is crowded with singing, jostling drunks, Samson weaving through the crowd trying to draw the pursuers away from old von Munte as he runs to the safety of Volkmann’s waiting car.

In decoying the Stasi agents away from von Munte, Samson lets himself be captured and taken to Stasi HQ in Normannenstraße. And this is the final scene of the novel, as his captors – and Samson – wait for the high-level KGB colonel who is the mole, the spy in the Department, to arrive. We know now that the mole knows that Samson has got hold of the evidence which clinches their identity, a hand-written document, part of the security leak back in 1978 which found its way to the KGB files and which von Munte risked his neck to go to his office to secure. Thus alerted that their identity is known, they have had to flee from London and, Samson is confident, will be forced to make a deal to release him.

Who will it be? Will the betrayal turn out to be bitterly personal as well as professional?

Prose

To say that Deighton has a number of prose styles might be overstating it; but he has a number of prose strategies which he deploys on different occasions and with varying degrees of success:

Plain Most of the text is in flat, plain, unadorned prose. Functional. I speculated in my reviews of his histories Blitzkrieg and Fighter that the enormous amount of research he put into them, presumably reading thousands of pages of bureaucratic documents, administrative papers, official histories and so on, all written in dead, flat, factual style, had had a flattening, deadening impact on Deighton’s fictional prose.

I sipped a little beer and looked round the room. It was a barren place; no books, no pictures, no music, no carpet. Just a TV, a sofa, two armchairs and a coffee table with a vase of plastic flowers. In the corner, a newspaper was laid out to protect the floor against oil. On it were the pieces of a dismantled racing bicycle that was being repaired to make a birthday present for his teenage son. (p.137)

No colour, no metaphors or similes, no interpretation, no overview or opinion about the scene. Just the facts. The bare facts.

After I rang off, I returned to my desk. When I unwrapped the pistol, I found a series of holes in the woollen scarf. Rolf Mauser had wrapped the gun in it before shooting Trent. A revolver can’t be silenced any other way. I had to use a magnifying glass for a clear sight of the marks left on the bullet cases by the process of hand-loading. There was no doubt that the bullets had been specially prepared by someone with gunsmith’s tools and powder measure. (p.249)

Facts. Technical knowledge. Spycraft. Delivered in plain, colourless prose.

Dry humour The welcome return to the first person narrator allows humour to re-enter Deighton’s world. Samson’s voice is a repeat or an echo of the cocky, sardonic narrator of the Ipcress novels, and there are some very funny moments when he deflates his bosses’ pretentions.

His visit to the estranged Mrs Volkmann in the house where Frank keeps her and where, it turns out, she is in charge of a kennel full of aggressive Alsatian dogs, combines vivid description of the setting with the main purpose – to try and establish what, if anything, Frank has been betraying to her, and whether she is working for the Russians or for the Brahms network – gilded with sly jokes.

I could see a wired compound and a brick outbuilding where some dogs were crowding at the gate trying to get out. ‘Good dog,’ I said, but I don’t think they heard me… She looked at my face. Whatever she saw there amused her, for she smiled to show perfect white teeth. So did the dog. (p.144)

Class consciousness One comedic, or sardonic, running thread is Samson’s permanent awareness/grudge that his superiors in the Department all went to public school and Oxford (notably Balliol college, famous to this day for its course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics). He has the same chippy, contemptuous attitude to this upper class mafia as the Ipcress narrator had. Right at the end his East German Stasi interrogator says:

‘How lucky you are not having the Party system working against you all the time.’
‘We have got it,’ I said. ‘It’s called Eton and Oxbridge.’ (p.318)

Relationships In my review of Goodbye, Mickey Mouse I argued that a new type of discourse had entered Deighton’s fiction, surprisingly obvious and banal truisms about relationships, about human psychology, and dodgy generalisations about gender. They crop up here, too.

I turned to go, but women won’t let anything end like that. They always have to sit you down at the table for a lecture, or write you a long letter, or make sure they have not just the last word but the last thought too. (p.324)

The Ipcress narrator had girlfriends but the nuts and bolts of the relationships – in fact sometimes almost everything about them – was only slyly hinted at. I liked that. These last few novels have become more middle-aged, with frequent generalisations about men and women and married life and parents and children which I found not only otiose, but worked against the illusion that the protagonist is sharp and clever. They make the characters look dull and predictable.

Knowledge Not only must the thriller writer display his (vastly) superior knowledge about spy organisations, the police, hardware and so on, but about the more devious aspects of human nature. He must display his knowledge of men, of the ways of the world.

He had the compulsive desire to drink and nibble that is often a sign of nervousness. (p.114)

His face was tanned in that very even way that comes from sun reflected off the Pulverschnee that only falls on very expensive ski resorts. (p.84)

We want to trust the thriller writer, to put ourselves in the hands of a vastly more worldly-wise, far-travelled, and sophisticated mentor. And so…

Old It is obligatory for all thrillers to refer to the protagonist suddenly feeling old, the implication being that living such a rough, tough life ages you, weighs you down with experiences, feelings, knowledge we ordinary mortals (the readers) just can’t understand. Samson is at his son’s sports day.

I watched the race. Good grief, the energy those kids had; it made me feel very old. (p.211)

I’d forgotten what it was like to be a newly ‘deposited’ field agent with false papers and a not very convincing cover story. I was too old for it. (p.257)

TV adaptation

The entire trilogy was adapted for TV by Granada, starring Ian Holm as Samson. Full details on Wikipedia. I’d love to see it. What a drag it’s not available in any format. All I can find is this trailer copied from what looks like a VHS recording of the Australian broadcast.

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 Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré (1983)

This is a brilliant novel. In some of le Carré’s early novels – The Looking Glass War and A Small Town In Germany and even in The Honourable Schoolboy – there’s a sense of mounting hysteria at the climax which I found forced and strident. But here the sense of delirium is really justified by the mind-boggling events of the previous 500 pages; they’ve only covered the events of a few days but seem to have lasted a gruelling lifetime.

Background The Little Drummer Girl was John le Carré’s 10th novel, a deliberate departure from the English setting and characters of the Smiley trilogy. It is set on the Continent (Germany, Greece) and the Middle East (Lebanon, Israel). But more of a radical break than the settings are the dramatis personae – the lead characters are Israeli intelligence operatives and Palestinian terrorists.

The book is absolutely drenched in all aspects of the highly contentious Arab-Israeli conflict and displays a breath-taking confidence at describing the intimate thoughts and speech patterns of characters far removed from the stuffy clubland or Anglo journalists of the Smiley books. It demonstrates a boggling level of familiarity with the methods of the Israeli secret service and a terrifying portrait of the complexities and suffering of the Palestinian rebels.

Plot After an opening section describing the terrorist bombing of a diplomatic quarter of Bonn, the scene moves to a Greek island where a troupe of ‘radical’ actors is resting between tours, and describes the character of Charlie, an attractive middle class ‘gel’ who’s been to various boarding schools but whose parents split up and who has drifted into ‘radical’ politics.

Turning Charlie The central part of this long (522 pages) book is a minutely detailed and convincing description of how Charlie is picked up by an Israeli agent then abducted to a safe house where she undergoes an immensely thorough breaking-down of her personality and building up again as a double agent for the Israeli security service.

Detailed brainwashing At first it seems ludicrous that every word of every exchange between the head of the Israeli group, an old timer named Kurtz, and innocent young Charlie, are described in such detail. But as 20 pages turns to 50, turns to 100, turns to 150, the reading experience becomes more like a gruelling movie, as you find yourself living every moment of Charlie’s brainwashing, becoming persuaded that this rootless, but clever and directionless actress could be turned into a spy in 24 hours because you yourself are experiencing the conversion process in real time.

It is exhausting and thorough and Le Carré triumphs over initial scepticism. By the time Charlie is ready for her double agent mission, to be picked up by the Palestinian terrorist group and trained as one of them, you are prepared to believe she can do it.

Palestinian terrorists The last 100 pages or so describe Charlie’s transportation through the hands of various Palestinian middle men to a training base amid a squalid refugee camp in Lebanon. Here she experiences with shocking immediacy the squalor and suffering of camp life made all the more terrifying by the repeated air raids of Israeli planes indiscriminately killing women and children. If the middle section of the book dwells at length on the Israeli perspective with heavy reliance on the Holocaust and the Israelis’ unwillingness to be victims ever again, this final section is a no-holds-barred depiction of the terrible injustice to which the exiled Palestinians have been subjected.

Schizophrenia It is here that the really elaborate preparations the Israelis have made to create Charlie’s identity as the lover of the playboy agent who was co-ordinating the terrorist attacks in Europe pay off; but it is not just an act: what she has seen and experienced in the camps gives her a genuine burning hatred of Israeli injustice which she uses to convince her Palestinian abductors of her sincerity but which at the same time she is using to hide the fact that she is working to the Israeli plan and that plan involves the betrayal and execution of all the Palestinians she is vowing sisterhood with.

It is here that the book really transcends anything I’ve read in this area, as it paints an increasingly powerful and disturbing portrait of a double-minded human being, simultaneously an impassioned agent for the Israelis and an increasingly outraged convert to the cause of the Palestinian refugees.

Shattering When the climax of the book comes Charlie is left absolutely shattered, turned inside out, devastated, obliterated as a human being and we are left just as upset, confused, devastated by what we have seen and heard and known. I felt shaken, really upset and tearful and confused, as few books have made me feel.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
%d bloggers like this: