Archive for Len Deighton

It Couldn’t Happen Here

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2022 by dcairns

I read a ridiculous amount of Michael Moorcock when I was a teenager. With a certain unjustified embarrassment I realize today that I still like him. I can’t see myself rereading the sword and sorcery stuff, except maybe Elric, who always had a lot more character than the iron-hewed knights populating most of the “eternal champion” mythos… it’s Jerry Cornelius, his comic version Jerry Cornell, and the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy that still exert a pull.

So I was glad to pick up England Invaded, which I must have seen listed on some Moorcock bibliography — in his heyday he always occupied an entire man-long shelf at the Science Fiction Bookshop (“only fifty yards from this cinema”) — without knowing what it was. An anthology of early sci-fi dealing with invasions of the UK (generally not just England, but I admit Moorcock’s title sounds better). What got me most interested was the novel by Saki which eats up most of the pages, When William Came.

There’s a whole school of fiction dealing with “What if the Germans won WWII?” — I’ve read Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (I’m a dedicated Dickhead), and even “Sarban’s” The Sound of His Horn, a trashy, pervy alternative history set a thousand years in the future and with the distinction of having been written while the outcome of the war was still in dispute. I haven’t bothered with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, too mainstream for me, but maybe I should. I also haven’t seen Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (I definitely should) or the TV adaptation of the Dickand Deighton books.

(My brother, a bit of a scholar of military history, convincingly explained to my why a German occupation was never a realistic short-term danger — the Reich were surprised at their success in France and had prepared no scheme to effect mass landings overseas. And Dick’s postulate, of America conquered, was never on the cards.)

Anyway, Saki’s book isn’t one of those. It’s the only example I know of a “What if the Germans won WWI?” novel. But not quite, since Saki doesn’t predict depict conflagration, just a face-off between Germany and Britain in which the superior German airforce sinks our fleet and we’re swiftly blockaded into submission. The other thing about it that’s unusual is that it came out in 1913, so it’s not an alternative history, it’s a wrong prediction. (I like old sci-fi best, the stuff that hasn’t come true — there’s nothing cosier than an apocalypse diverted.)

Jemand für Tennis?

One trouble with this is, Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany isn’t as horrifying a baddie as Hitler’s Third Reich. But that makes the book rather fascinating, as the disaffected hero, who missed the whole thing due to a bout of swamp fever in Norway, wanders around looking at the street signs now printed in both languages, bemoaning the fact that London has become, horror of horrors, “cosmopolitan.”

Another trouble is that “cosmopolitan” is in this context a synonym for Jewish. Though an antisemitic doctor tending to the impotent antihero admits that “some of them have behaved well,” both Saki and his protagonist seem obsessed with their repugnance at Jewish social climbers taking a preeminent place in society. It seems weird at this historical distance for an invading German force to be considered less antisemitic than the British, but it may for all I know not be completely inaccurate. And so you get sentences like, “Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground.”

Saki also wrote The Unrest-Cure, a short story in which one of his placid young male protagonists, Clovis, I think, overhears a country gent on a train bemoaning the rut his existence has settled into, and so resolves to liven things up a bit, by impersonating an emissary from the new vicar, intent upon enacting a pogrom in the village. “And your house has been selected as the venue!” I always thought of this story as the product of pre-WWII insensitivity, its shocking premise adding a dash of discomfort to the hazy salad days setting, and I found it very funny in an appalling way — but now it seems much more sinister and malign. As it always should have.

There was a sadism to Saki that sets him decisively apart from P.G. Wodehouse, whom he influences and whose characters move in recognizably the same story world. This malice found its healthiest outlet when his stories slipped without warning from drawing room comedy to horror, and sometimes but not always back again (The Open Window).

The horror at a German Britain may well have motivated Saki — in reality a Scotsman called Hector Hugh Munro — to enlist when WWI broke out, even though he was 43 and officially over-age. He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916. Famous last words, supposedly: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”

Saki was also homosexual, which throws the novel’s homophobia, a recurrent sub-theme along with its antisemitism, into a different and more tragic relief. “In what way, he asked himself in such moments, would his life be better than the life of that parody of manhood who upholstered his rooms with art hangings and rosewood furniture and babbled over the effect?” Of course these are the thoughts of the painfully straight, rather sexless hero. It’s notable that the best lines in the book always belong to, or are aimed at, the languid aesthetes his wife hangs around with. “Larry’s father had been a brilliantly clever man who had married a brilliantly handsome woman; the Fates had not had the least intention that Larry should take after both parents.”

Moorcock in his short intro doesn’t address any of this, calling the work “a sophisticated moral fiction.” Um.

Page Seventeen III: Beyond Thunderdome

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2022 by dcairns

The exit came up on his right, and for a moment he considered driving right past it, continuing on to Chamberlain or Lewiston, stopping for lunch, and then turning around and going back. But back where? Home? That was a laugh. If there was a home, it had been here. Even if it had only been four years, it was his.

It was about eight o’clock, very dark and very cold. Except for the faint creaking of the cooling engine and the rustle of the breeze in some nearby trees, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. Ahead, the road in the headlights curved away to the right. I got out the map and tried to find out where I was.

A penetrating drizzle had been leaking through the low cloud since I had joined the A3 at Kingston Vale about 6.45 a.m. Window display men were junking polystyrene Xmas trees and ordering gambolling lambs. On their way to work people were sneaking a look at shop windows to see how much their relatives had paid for the presents they had received.

Speaking of getting killed, let me clarify that Pinto wagons were not the models that notoriously burst into flames upon impact, even a low-speed impact. Those were the Pinto sedans. It took nearly thirty people dying in Pinto fires and over one hundred lawsuits before Ford acknowledged the car’s poorly designed fuel tank and rear end. On the rare occasion I took a girl out on a date, I hastened to assure her that my Pinto was “not the exploding kind.” Usually, my date had no clue about the rash of fatal rear-end Pinto collisions, and my reassurance had the opposite effect of casting an anxious pall over the evening.

But I must relate what a wonderful country it was into which we were now arrived. Were we not assured that all the world is the Lord’s, we might be tempted to think such a wild region the kingdom of the Evil One.

Dirty Car Art by Scott Wade

We got off the Alley and took the 858 into downtown Naples and out to the beach, turned right, and drove along hotel row until we came to the Eden Beach. I drove the long curve of sleek asphalt past the portico and on over into their parking area. A man tending the plantings stopped and stared slack-jawed at the Rolls pickup. It has that effect. The conversion was done clumsily during the Great Depression. Four fat women in shorts were on the big putting green, grimly improving their game. Through big-leafed tropic growth I could see the blue slosh of the swimming pool,and I heard somebody bodysmack into it off the rumbling board. I saw a slice of Gulf horizon, complete with schooner. We went up three broad white steps and through a revolving door into the cool shadows of the lobby. A very pretty lady behind the reception desk smiled at us, frowned at her watch, picked up a phone, punched out two numbers, then spoke in a low voice.

‘Please, mister, can you tell us what kind of a snake that is in the wagon? Is it something they caught here in Arizona? We’re just out from the East, you know, and don’t know all the animals here yet.’

Seven paragraphs from seven page seventeens from seven books I apparently own — this time, with a motoring/travelling theme.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King; The Army of the Shadows by Eric Ambler, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies; Horse Under Water by Len Deighton; But What I Really Want to Do is Direct: Lessons from a Life Behind the Camera by Ken Kwapis; The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter by Ambrose Bierce; Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald; The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney.

Extract from novel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2020 by dcairns

I won’t do this too often, I promise. Mostly I’ll just sneak in quiet plugs here and there. But this is a full-on extract from my novel, We Used Dark Forces, which is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US and from all the other Amazons.

Anne Billson, critic and novelist (Suckers, The Half Man, Cats on Film) said “Like the bastard offspring of Agatha Christie and HP Lovecraft squished through an Ealing comedy mangler and running amok in a Scottish castle at the height of the Blitz. Slapstick surrealism at its most compelling and hilarious. Whitsuntide is an anti-hero for the ages.”

David Quantick, screenwriter (The Thick of It, Veep, TV Burp) said: “We Used Dark Forces is a twisted mixture of dark wit, wry horror and splendidly-applied imagination.”

Wry horror is going to be my speciality, I think. Now for the extract. I think I was inspired here, if I may use that word, by seeing a TV doc years ago about Len Deighton’s nameless spy (later to become Harry Palmer, the blandest name they could think of), where one of the talking heads on offer exaggerated the facelessness of the character somewhat. A seed was planted, and I began to consider blandness as a superpower.

Inspector Graham There has been summoned to Scotland Yard Underground to receive a strange commission from Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram. Now read on…

It’s hard to describe Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram, let alone sum him up. He’d occupied a senior position at Scotland Yard for some fifty years, yet still had the vigour of a man ten years younger: perhaps ninety or so. He eyed me with, well, an eye, an eye which had seen things I’d never dreamed of, and probably vice versa. You hear of people having a faraway look. Sir Sheckley had the opposite of that. In his presence, I had never felt more in someone’s presence. But the feeling wasn’t mutual.

“Then?” he asked. This rather threw me. Then I surmised it was, perhaps, a stab at my name.

“There, sir,” I corrected him, as respectfully as possible.

“Here?” he asked, which didn’t seem to get us much further.

“Here to see you,” I agreed, then added, a bit uncertainly, “There.”

“Sit down there,” he ordered, or it might have been “Sit down, There.” He nodded at a spot on the rug, but I chose to interpret his nod loosely, and opted for the nearest chair.

“I have a case that’s perfect for you,” he said, flipping open a folder. Then he seemed to forget I was present. Which I’m used to.

“Very gratifying, sir,” I said, hoping to bring things into focus again.

“You needn’t feel flattered,” he snapped. “It isn’t any particular great quality that suits you to this job. Rather, it’s your singular lack of qualities.”

“Sir?”

“Your superiors tell me you’re apt, those of them that remember you exist. Good. I need an apt man who makes as little impression as possible, and you seem to satisfy the latter requirement to a staggering degree. You have no distinguishing traits. No personality. People not only forget you after they meet you, they seem to forget you while they’re meeting you. I’m looking right at you and I can barely see you.”

“Sir?”

“You have a rare talent, Where, you’re a human chameleon. A man of a thousand faces, all of them identical. You’ve heard the expression ‘The best place to hide a leaf is in a forest’? You, sir, are our forest.”

“Sir?”

“We’ve had our eye on you for some time, or at least I think we have. Not my eye, of course, my eye was taken out by a Mahdi spear in ’85. This one’s onyx. No, I mean the great, all-seeing eye of the Yard, which does all our head-hunting. And not like the head-hunters who got mine and shrunk it in ’92, I mean in a benign, caring way. This one’s brass, mostly. Works like a charm. Amazing what the boffins can do nowadays.”

“Sir?” – there didn’t seem to be anything else I could say, you know, and this repeated monosyllable did seem to have the effect of spurring him on. All I could hope for at this stage was to keep the conversation in some kind of motion, in the vague expectation of ending up somewhere comprehensible again.

“My point is that you, sir, are a find. A miracle, a prodigy, no, better than that, a freak of nature. A vacuum in human form, without a shred of charisma or charm or even basic human dignity. When you walk into a room it’s like somebody left. As you approach, you seem to get further away. The more I look at your blank, lifeless features, the more fascinated I become by my blotter.”

“Sir…” I tried to repurpose my word as a sort of remonstrance.

“Have much trouble getting served in bars?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“No. Just you.”

I must admit, he was starting to get on my nerves, partly because there was a nagging ring of truth to his words, as if he were writing my spiritual biography, summing up the way I’d seemed to spend my thirty-two years passing through the world without leaving a ripple.

“You exemplify all the negative qualities, Then,” he was saying. “You name it, you haven’t got it.”

“There,” I corrected. “There!”

“No need to console me, you’re the one with the terrible problem.”

“But there must be millions like me.”

“Yes,” he said, pounding the desk with his hook, “But not exactly like you. Whereas you are exactly like you, to a quite startling degree. You’re like an empty suit of clothes walking around, talking, eating watercress sandwiches — though obviously not as interesting as that would be. But this gives you an advantage over the common man, or should I say, the slightly less common man. You can vanish into a crowd because you are the crowd. Everyone assumes they already know you because you’re like everybody else, more like them than they are. A resemblance without an original. An exact lookalike of nobody special. Where other people have presence, you have absence. If you stood in front of another man, I’d still be able to see him better than you. You’re not a person, you’re not even an outline. You’re the echo of an unspoken thought. The sound of one hand failing to clap.”