The Deighton File: An Interview with Edward Milward-Oliver
I have a treat in store today: an interview with Edward Milward-Oliver, author of the excellent reference book The Len Deighton Companion and a forthcoming biography of Deighton.
JD: Edward, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. Can I start by asking you which Len Deighton book you first read?
Edward Milward-Oliver: It was the Hawkey-jacketed Penguin edition of Funeral in Berlin, with the black and white halftone of Michael Caine across the top half of the cover, and diagonal orange and white hazard lines filling the lower half. On the rear cover was a photo of Len looking very cool in aviator sunglasses with a helicopter lifting off in the background and a quote from LIFE magazine claiming ‘Next, big soft girls will read Len Deighton aloud in jazz workshops’. It was the mid-1960s and I was a teenager. The whole look and feel of the book was very sharp, modern and hardboiled, a frontline report from inside the sodium glow of Europe’s Cold War capital.
A decade later I met Len. We were introduced by a mutual friend, the Italian restaurateur and illustrator Enzo Apicella, at his Meridiana restaurant in London’s Fulham Road. We stayed in touch and in the early 1980s when I was living in Bonn, then capital of West Germany, we’d meet up in Berlin, where he was researching Game Set & Match
I’d read all his books by that time. Having started my working life in publishing, I retained an interest in the publication data, so I wrote a slim bibliography, really intended to satisfy a few readers and modest collectors like myself. Then each time we met, Len told me more stories – he loves to impart knowledge, stir up discussion – and I felt that unless someone wrote them down, they’d be forgotten. So that led to The Len Deighton Companion which I wrote in Germany before I moved to Hong Kong, and I was surprised and delighted when it sold so well in hardcover and then paperback.
What were you doing in Hong Kong?
Before living in Germany I worked for several years with David Hemmings and retained a strong interest in film and TV. I moved to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s as part of a start-up with ambitions to launch the first private satellite system in South-East Asia. Our main interest was in the TV programming opportunities. We secured an option on a refurbished C-band satellite and a deal for an orbital relaunch on NASA’s Space Shuttle. The relaunch was cancelled following the 1986 Challenger disaster and China stepped in and offered the services of its Long March rocket. That was April 1990 and marked not only China’s first commercial space launch but also the first time in history a satellite was returned to orbit. Today AsiaSat is a public company and serves the communications needs of over two-thirds of the world’s population.
You stayed in touch with Len through this time?
Intermittently – one forgets that as recently as the early 1990s, distance created practical hurdles; there was no internet to speak of, no email. I lived in the region for nearly 15 years and was very focussed on its media opportunities. I helped found what became Asia Business News in Singapore, today known as CNBC Asia. It was the region’s first satellite-TV business channel, delivering local, regional and global business news to viewers across the Asia Pacific. After I sold my interest in that I was drawn to the emerging internet-driven economy; this was about 1994. We built several companies and I served as an exec in a couple of publicly listed corporations involved in digital media, first in Hong Kong, and then Tokyo. Summarising it like this makes it sound like one easy ride, but as every founder will tell you, creating any business is a long hard slog and an emotional rollercoaster. But I remain powerfully attached to Hong Kong and the region
When did you start on the biography?
In 2005 Lion Television and Len invited me to act as the adviser on the documentary The Truth About Len Deighton, which was broadcast by the BBC in 2006. Len and I got to see a lot more of each other, and of course by then the ubiquity of email meant one was only a keystroke away. As a result of working on that programme, I was keen to explore the whole IPCRESS phenomenon: the book, the movie, the iconography, the early 60s context. I’ve always felt that The IPCRESS File is where the Cold War meets the Royal College of Art. Alongside some of the pop art of that era, it elevated spies, nuclear paranoia and the commonplace in daily lifeto the level of fine art. One might go so far as to describe The IPCRESS File as a work of pop art itself. Wrapped in its ground-breaking monochrome Ray Hawkey jacket, it should have a place in art galleries alongside the works of Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and Colin Self!
As a footnote for ipcressphiles, it’s fascinating to see how Deighton’s fictional acronym has gained widespread use, cheekily adopted for a high-profile clinical trial at the University of Bristol (“Internet PsyChotherapy for dePRESSion”), as a product name for High Grade Internet Protocol Cryptographic equipment used by the Government, an IT programme, a Tokyo fashion shop, a record label, a London DJ, and even a pedigree of golden retriever!
Anyway, once I got seriously into the research I quickly recognised that a history of The IPCRESS Filecouldn’t be isolated from the story of its author.
When will the biography be published?
It’s a work-in-progress, with no set publication date. I’m squeezing it in while developing a digital project called AMICI (ami-chi), which is an online cultural network that will enable millions of people to pursue their cultural passions while benefitting the arts organisations they love and support.
Simultaneously with the biography, I’m working on a comprehensive bibliography of Deighton’s work and the associated material with Jon Gilbert, whose recent 736-page Ian Fleming bibliography has set the benchmark for bibliographic scholarship.
Does all this have Len’s blessing? Is it an ‘official’ biography?
Yes, this has his blessing, and no, it’s not an official biography. I never explicitly sought Len’s permission but the lines of research kept expanding and he couldn’t have been more generous with his time and his introductions. He’s never once tried to impose a preferred point-of-view, direct my research, or steered me away from talking to anyone. There have been occasions, not many, when I’ve found that an incident or an event differed significantly from Len’s recollection. There’s no easy way to tell a subject that they have misremembered something important. But when that’s happened, Len has readily accepted that he got it wrong. There’s no question he appreciates solid research.
Even when you have the facts, is there such a thing as an ‘authentic’ version of the past?
André Aciman recently wrote a wonderful New York Times opinion piece about memoirs, in which he suggested there is no single past, just versions of the past. “Proving one version true settles absolutely nothing, because proving another is equally possible”. I think this is right, and when the IPCRESS project expanded into a full biography, I decided to follow the themes and events that I found most compelling, wherever they led, and hope that the things that most interest me also interest the book’s readers.
So I’ve been following a virtual trail from below-stairs life in pre-war London via the camera towers of Tokwe Atoll to the blue skies of Southern California. It’s taken me through St Martins School of Art and the Royal College of Art, espresso bars in Old Compton Street and jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, convivial gatherings in South London kitchens and the fashionable Trattoria Terrazza in Soho’s Romilly Street, quiet photographic studios, international film sets, Chicago’s Playboy Mansion, and abandoned poste restante addresses in Europe’s Cold War capitals. And it hasn’t ended yet.
Writing is a solitary profession. How do you make that life interesting to readers?
That isn’t a challenge in Len Deighton’s case. The working title, DEIGHTON: An Uncommon Man, tells you everything. His lasting influence extends across photography, cooking, design, marketing, publishing, mass media, and movies, in addition to his reinvention of the spy thriller and a body of work covering half a century. The description ‘renaissance man’ never had a more deserving subject.
Matthew Kirschenbaum, who is researching the crossover between computing and literature for a book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, recently wrote in Slate about how Bomber was the first novel written with a word processor, which is entirely consistent with Deighton’s early adoption of practical technology.
I recall you pointing out that one of Len’s intriguing influences on the spy genre was that after The IPCRESS File everyone started using ‘The’ in the title of thrillers! And do you know, he’s among the top 1000 authors and works cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, and is currently quoted 472 times. In six instances he provides the first evidence for a word: pommes allumettes (The IPCRESS File); Stasi, Grepo and Shin Bet (Funeral in Berlin); Stolichnaya (Billion-Dollar Brain), and merguez (Yesterday’s Spy), and in another 47 instances the first evidence for a sense of a word.
If we step back, we can see that the heart of Deighton’s story is the 1960s, when he played an incalculable role in reshaping popular culture in Britain. A decade which opens with him sitting in the garden of the Hôtel Sainte Anne on the island of Porquerolles filling a notebook with ideas for a story about someone much like himself, except that he makes him a spy which he never was, and closes with the publication of what many consider his finest novel, Bomber, which signals a renewal of his creative energies after his bruising experiences in the film trade.
The 1960s has a powerful appeal today because like our current digital era, it was a time of massive disruption and transformation. The rate of change was extraordinary. And Harry Palmer was, to quote Clive Irving, a metaphor for creative insurrection. If you want to understand how the 1960s has shaped our modern world, there’s no better way to begin than exploring the life of Len Deighton.
You spoke about there being different versions of the past. Has your research thrown up any big surprises?
Not really, just what I might call course corrections. For me, the most important rule is to go to the source. Don’t accept anything as given. I’m very keen on timelines. They’re a framing mechanism. I build them for every major event, every milestone in the story. I look for unambiguous dates and then add in detail around them to build reliable chronologies. Establishing when things happened helps determine why they happened. And as more detail is added, I’m able to verify people’s recollections against them.
Early on I discovered that The IPCRESS File didn’t start life in the way that’s always been reported. A typically self-effacing publicity line by Len following its stunning success – that the manuscript had lain in a drawer unread and unloved until he unexpectedly met a literary agent at a party – was repeated and reprinted so many times that even Len came to remember it as fact. Whereas what actually happened is much more compelling, and revealing about its author.
Incidentally, I found the woman who typed that IPCRESS manuscript (sadly now lost). Paid by Len with a second-hand television set, she went on to achieve fame and celebrated status in the music world.
Although today we have Google and access to unlimited information online, people reach a certain age and frequently drop below the radar. I was thus delighted to locate and correspond with Robin Denniston, who sadly passed away last year. He was the editor at Hodder & Stoughton who bought The IPCRESS File after it had been turned down by Jonathan Cape and Heinemann. Denniston was a talented publisher – he later brought John le Carré over from Gollancz – whose family was closely associated with the security services. His father, Alistair Denniston, set up and ran the Government Code and Cypher School, the ancestor of today’s GCHQ, and his sister at one time worked for Graham Greene, Kim Philby and Tim Milne in an MI6 London outstation.
Like the manuscript of The IPCRESS File, the film’s screenplay – which had early drafts by Lukas Heller (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen) and the author Lionel Davidson – has been frustratingly elusive. But I’ve been able to reassemble some of the scenes and plot developments that were substantially changed or thrown-out during shooting, giving me a much better appreciation of what a great job director Sidney Furie did and how it could have been a lesser film in other hands.
The movie’s title theme is widely remembered for the sound of the cimbalom. I searched for and found John Leach, who introduced John Barry to this hammer dulcimer instrument and played it on the Ipcress soundtrack. Sitting in his home and listening to him pick out those distinctive notes on the very cimbalom he played in the CTS recording studio in February 1965, I could have sworn I smelled coffee brewing . . . John Leach knew Kim Philby in Beirut. Another of the unexpected connections among the neural pathways of this vibrant story.
When examining any life, one quickly recognises how serendipity can play a significant role in determining the outcome. Deighton’s books, with their radical covers, would have looked very different had Ray Hawkey left London for Venezuela as the art editor of Shell’s South American publications. The Ipcress movie would be unrecognizable had Richard Harris not committed to Il deserto rosso opposite Monica Vitti, and Christopher Plummer to The Sound of Music . . . And we might not be discussing Len Deighton author, had he not left the Robert Sharp advertising agency after six restless and unsatisfactory months in 1959.
The journey continues, across a terrain that’s always striking. Deighton’s fans run the gamut from the former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and the historian Simon Schama, to Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards and the celebrated author J G Ballard. Friends and former friends, people from many walks of life who worked with him, they’ve all given generously of their time. I have over 70 hours of interviews, of which nearly 40 are with Len. Transcribing them is a major undertaking!
A few years ago it seemed that Len Deighton was a recluse, or close to one – he didn’t give interviews at all. But recently he has given several, written articles, and even published an ebook about Ian Fleming and James Bond. It’s wonderful. Do you think we’ll hear more of him – perhaps even another novel?
Len writes every day. It’s a lifetime habit. But now it’s no longer with an eye for publication. He’s written a 30,000-word exploration of fountain pens, the way they work and the changes they’ve undergone, and is completing a study of aero engines called The Secret History of Airplanes. Both reflect private passions, and maintain his reputation for exceptional research. The ebook you mention, James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father, is a cinematic memoir written at the request of Amazon as part of the launch of their Kindle Singles.
Over the past four years, he’s also been writing new introductions for the complete edition of his 28 novels, which have provided a platform for him to reflect on half a century of writing and the truth of his observation made many years ago that anyone can write one book, even politicians do it; starting a second book reveals an intention to be a professional writer.
The future? To my knowledge, there’s no unfinished novel lying in a drawer and I don’t expect Len to write a new one, but as recent history reminds us, one should never say never . . .
What do you make of the news about the Bernard Samson TV series?
There’s a great team behind the project that appears to have the talent and confidence necessary to create an authentic world around Bernard Samson with its own set of implicit values and touch-points. At the core of Len’s nine novels is a matrix of narratives about the choices people make, and the series has the potential to engage audiences on a very different level to the cold techno-driven apocalyptic approach of, say, Spooks. Clerkenwell Films clearly recognise this. It was a masterstroke to secure Simon Beaufoy, who I understand is due to start working on the adaptation later in the year.
These aren’t the only Deighton novels headed for TV. Originally conceived as a feature film, Bomber is currently in development as a television mini-series by Roger Randall-Cutler and Robert Cheek of First Film Company in partnership with a major broadcaster. This will give them the screen time to develop the multiple storylines of the novel. I expect news on the writer of this project very soon too. It’s all part of an encouraging commitment to long-form drama on television right now. Many notable film writers are working in the medium. The new UK high-end TV tax relief scheme, which is heavily modelled on the successful film tax credit regime, should help sustain this.
And I know that film and TV rights to another two books are currently optioned. That makes 12 of Deighton’s novels in development today.
Aside from Len Deighton, who are your favourite authors?
John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, le Carré, and my late friend Jim Ballard. These are the authors whose work I most frequently return to. Beside the bed right now I have The Infatuations by Javier Marías and Tim Bouquet’s gripping 617: Going to War with Today’s Dambusters.
Thanks again for your time, Edward – I very much look forward to reading the biography.
For more information about Len Deighton, do check out Rob Mallows’ great website The Deighton Dossier.