Though the wonders of the CBC Radio App, I listened to a fascinating interview on CBC with an old friend whom I have never met–Len Deighton. I never met him but I grew up with him. Deighton was the writer of spy novels from the 1960s to 1980s. He was in my opinion a great writer. He was right up their with another favortie John LeCarre. Both of those writers broke the protocol of spy novels in suggesting that the good guys–the British and America spies–were just as morally corrupt as the bad guys–the Communists. Who would ever have thought that?
Listen to this conversation between Bernard Samson and his boss Dickie Cruyer in British intelligence, who Phillip Coulter described as having “a PHD in office politics,”
Bernard: Who pays him?
Dickie: He’s not for sale Bernard.
Bernard: Then he’s no one I know.
His first novel, which he actually wrote for himself because he did not intend to publish it, did catch the public attention after he did publish it. He described blink and dingy streets of Berlin soaked with betrayal and paranoia. As Philip Coulter said, his books described “a broken down society at war with itself in which the greatest dangers were from within.”
Deighton realized that one of the most most common fears of our policial leaders was a fear of a lack of information. He likened this to a fear of the dark or a lack of confidence that our future unknowns will be benign. That opened up a lot of room for intelligence services (at least until the arrival of Donald Trump who relies instead on his own personal ‘intelligence.’)
Deighton described this in the first of the fabulous trilogy Game, Set & Match where the spy Bernard Samson had sent a young and inexperienced spy, McKenzie, to a situation in which he was murdered. After that Bernard had terrible visions of McKenzie’s brains spattered on the wall behind his corpse. The visions came back to him at night and he shuddered. “I felt guilty and as I prepared for bed I suffered the delayed reaction that my body had deferred and deferred. I shook uncontrollably. I did not want to admit even to myself that I was frightened but that image of McKenzie kept blurring into an image of myself. And my guilt was turning into fear for fear is so unwelcome that it comes only in disguise and guilt is its favourite one.”
Coulter interviewed Deighton in the London Travellers Club dining room where well educated and well to do Englishmen who had travelled abroad met to discuss their travels. The club was a vital a cog in the British class system. It had a huge library with books that went right up to the ceiling. However, like the books in British aristocratic manors, many of them were seldom read. They were not really there to educate their owners; they were there for decoration. As Coulter said, “Fake books. A Library not used for the purpose of imparting knowledge are in some ways metaphors for the themes in Len Deighton’s novels. Worlds where things are seldom what they seem where those with the trappings of power and competence actually rarely have those skills. The room too is emblematic of the class tensions that run through Deighton’s books. The tension between a natural aristocracy with wealth and power and the classes below them with little or none.”
Yet Deighton was actually ambivalent about that class system. He saw the good and the bad of that system and saw himself as a referee between the classes. He is a spectator. As Deighton said in the interview, “If we look at history we see that the upper classes provided people with a sort of dignity, knowledge, self-respect and honour that is completely absent from the political world today and the world has grown much poorer in practicalities.”
Deighton’s complex view of classes is a familiar theme right through his books, filling them with humour, delight, and wonder. As Coulter said, “Yes he believes that there should be a leadership cadre, but no it shouldn’t be closed. Those who lead bear responsibilities not legislated but moral.”
This ambivalence in his novels is exemplified best by his main protaganist Bernie Samson. Sampson is constantly wracked by that cruel division. After all he is the one who failed to go to one of the better British schools and had this constantly held over his head and his career by his superiors in the office and inferiors in life. “His office wars revolved around the occasionally inept but well educated bureaucrats who are his bosses.” Here is a delightful example, in a description by Bernie Samson:
“On Wednesday afternoon I was in Brett Renssalaer’s office. It was on the top floor not far from the suite the DG occupied. All the top floor offices were decorated to the personal taste of the occupant. It was one of the perks of seniority. Brett’s room was modern with glass and chrome and gray carpet. It was hard, austere, and colourless, a habitat just right for Brett with his dark worsted Saville Row suit, and the crisp white suit and club tie and his fair hair that was going white and the smile that seemed shy and fleeting, but was really the reflex action that marked his indifference.”
Deighton knew this world of spies from London was interesting, sly, and vicious, but above all complex. It is a world well worth inhabiting with a master guide like Len Deighton. He is well worth reading.