Rereading Len Deighton

Recently I reread a couple of early Len Deighton novels – the Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin – which I ‘d picked up cheaply online.

I always thought that Len Deighton was underrated as teller of spy stories as his novels captured the snobbishness and genteel poverty of post war England and the creeping sense of paranoia of the Cold war.

It’s a world of Darjeeling tea, shillings for the gas, a world where everyone smokes, and where crossing into East Germany was not quite the dystopian nightmare it later became.

A different world.

A world where there was a Soviet Union, a Yugoslavia, a Czechoslovakia, and of course a GDR.

I am too young to remember those times but I do remember the shabbiness of Britain in the seventies, of sitting idly looking out of the window in an upstairs seminar room at Uni watching air force Lightnings scream into the sky across the bay.

We always thought they were rehearsing for Armageddon, and perhaps they were.

Most times though we didn’t think about these things and tried to ignore the paranoid rhetoric of both the east and the west.

To be fair there wasn’t much during the seventies. Détente, and the understanding of mutually assured destruction, not to mention the more immediate pressures of an economy that no longer delivered produced an atmosphere of general gloom.

It was the rise of right wing hawks at the end of the seventies that was both frightening and ridiculous.

Thatcher on a tank was ridiculous, the old grey men on the Kremlin terrifying waxworks, and one wondered about a US president who had difficulty remembering his lines.

But Len Deighton’s early novels provide a picture of peculiarly English ambiguity. Things are understood.

One of course would never have milk in Darjeeling, just as sometimes there has to be some distasteful business, and one has to deal with people whom one might not care to have afternoon tea with.

And with this ambiguity comes deniability and ruthlessness. And afterwards one goes back to one’s shabby flat, listens to Elgar or perhaps an interesting talk on the radio, and of course another cup of Darjeeling. After all nothing much has happened.

They are most definitely books of their time, and unconsciously they capture the spirit of the time.

Britain, impoverished by the costs of the second world war and without an empire is a failing state, like an old uncle who still has a tuxedo in his wardrobe, but in reality is living on his old age pension and for whom a glass of cheap red and a lasagne with salad in an Italian café is a treat to be looked forward to.

The people who inhabit that world, or at least the world that Deighton describes, aspire to be middle or upper middle class, still worry about what school someone went to, and believe in keeping up appearances, despite the shabbiness of the world around them.

What Deighton’s books don’t describe is the working class condemned to blue collar jobs in grey factories making things badly and going home to poor quality housing for egg and chips on a Saturday night – when I look at photographs of late fifties and early sixties Britain I’m always struck as how absolutely impoverished the working class areas were – grim housing estates crowded buses and the rest.

No wonder so many aspired to migrate to countries such as Australia where life was sunnier and looked to be better even if it wasn’t as good as it looked in the posters outside Australia House.

A different world indeed.


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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