Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book

Subscribe

Happy 91st birthday to Len Deighton, master of spies

Blog | By William Cook | Feb 18, 2020


Happy birthday to Len Deighton, arguably Britain’s greatest spy writer, who turns 91 today.

As oldies understand, reliability is far more valuable than virtuosity and, as any discriminating fan of espionage fiction will tell you, Deighton can always be relied upon to deliver a rattling good yarn.

Deighton’s only serious rivals for this title are Ian Fleming and John le Carré and, in a way, Deighton’s achievement is the most remarkable of all. Fleming was in Naval Intelligence. Le Carré was in MI5 and MI6. Conversely (unless he’s been keeping something very quiet), Deighton did no spying at all. And yet the novels ring just as true as le Carré’s, and a lot truer than Fleming’s. It only goes to show that fact and fiction are two separate worlds.

The other big difference is that Fleming and le Carré were both pretty posh, whereas Deighton was a working-class lad, who grew up in Marylebone - still a proletarian district back then, unlike today. He didn’t really shine at school but he read anything he could get his hands on.

‘Much of it was beyond my intellectual ability, and much of it still is,’ he reflected, disarmingly (modesty has always been his main asset – his dissatisfaction with each book he’s written means he’s kept on improving throughout his long career, rather than tailing off after a strong start, like so many other writers do).

His mum and dad were both in service, as a cook and a chauffeur, which gave him an ‘upstairs downstairs’ view of the British class system – a perspective which was to prove invaluable when he finally turned his hand to writing. Before then he did all sorts of day jobs (a great apprenticeship for an aspiring writer), ranging from railway clerk to airline steward. He didn’t go to university. Instead, he trained as an illustrator at Saint Martin’s and the Royal College of Art. Like a lot of Sixties artists (Peter Blake, David Bailey, Don McCullin), he did his National Service in the RAF.

His first novel, The Ipcress File, was written purely for his own amusement (by far the best motivation for any sort of writing), while he was working in advertising. ‘I had never been a journalist or reporter of any kind, so I was unaware of how long writing a book was likely to take,’ he recalled. ‘Knowing the size of the task is a deterrent for many professional writers, which is why they defer their ambitions, often until it is too late.’

The Ipcress File festered in the proverbial desk drawer until he met a literary agent at a party who said he’d like to take a look at it. The agent liked it and the rest is history. The book stands on its own two feet (it still reads well today) but it got a big leg-up from the film, starring Michael Caine, which cemented his reputation as the streetwise rival to Ian Fleming. Funnily enough, this class distinction is less pronounced in the novel, but then the Bond books and Bond movies are also worlds apart.

Funeral in Berlin is my favourite (its depiction of Cold War Berlin is intensely evocative) even though I still can’t work out the plot to save my life. SS-GB is gripping, for its nightmare vison of London under Nazi occupation. The BBC's recent TV adaptation did it credit, but the book is even better. ‘I work very slowly,’ he reveals, in the introduction to that book, ‘so I don’t embark on a story until I am confident that I will be able to get the material for it and live with it for many months, perhaps years.’

This painstaking planning pays off in the ease with which his books wash over you. Like all the finest writers, his hard work makes it look so easy. ‘I’d never had any childhood ambitions to be a writer, so I was not tempted to write “serious” literature,’ he revealed, a few years ago. ‘This is not because I think that serious literature is too serious. It’s because I think most serious literature is not serious at all.’