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Len Deighton, class and the right… September 30, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Books, Class, Culture, The Left.


One of the most interesting analyses of class in contemporary society I have ever read is available at Dublin Opinion at the moment. Conor has been working through aspects of class definitions, structures and the representation of the working class in Ireland and really getting to grips with something that while elusive retains enormous potency (or ‘agency’ as the current idiom would have it).

And it brought to mind the point that class looms large as an element of many different aspects of representation. For an example of same can I direct people to the thrillers of Len Deighton? What is curious here is that these thrillers, in particular the ‘Harry Palmer’ series did not come from a left-wing base, but instead a more generalised meritocratic approach and one I’d argue that was uniquely British and fed into a later version of right populism.

Across a series of books, from The Ipcress File, through Horse Under Water, on to Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain, Spy Story and Yesterday’s Spy, the initially nameless agent for an obscure branch of British intelligence is pitted not merely against ideological opponents in the shape of East German and Russian agents and military, but also the bureaucracy of civil service institutions which are led by the upper and upper middle classes (who either turn out to be fallible, inefficient or actual traitors). Palmer (as he is later called although it is not clear if the narrator in Yesterday’s Spy is the same agent) is underpaid, from a working class or lower middle class background, lives a very ordinary lifestyle and has a chequered past including military service.

It is this sense of having a strong class differentiation that permeates the novels giving them a curious, and sometimes humorous edge, as Palmer attempts to negotiate through a labyrinthine complex of rival intelligence units headed by elites. Indeed there is often a tellingly bitter tone to the pieces and a sense that the rationale for this new colder war are never quite as clear cut as is often presented. Having said that the books are unequivocal in their anti-Communism.

The Ipcress File, published in 1962, starts the series (I always remember my father seeing the film version – which arguably helped launch Michael Caine on the road to stardom – a feature of which is a rather high-tech, for the 1960s, torture and brainwashing device and muttering about it being exactly how British intelligence operated in the North). It’s interesting when one considers the date. The society was changing, with the Lady Chatterly’s Lover trial a mere two years previously. But Deighton wasn’t addressing youth culture as such. You’ll search for quite a while before finding any references to popular music or suchlike. His concerns were those of men (and the books are pretty male oriented) who had served in the War or had just missed it, a tranche in their late 20s and 30s from largely working class or lower middle class backgrounds in rather mundane jobs. Too old for youth culture but shaking off the social mores of previous decades.

The daily travails of the then nameless protagonist as he is shuttled from one obscure intelligence unit to another are detailed exquisitely. The peculiar hierarchy of the British (indeed any) civil service is laid bare.

Ross, the man I had come to see, looked up from the writing that had held his undivided attention since three seconds after I had entered the room. Ross said, ‘Well now,’ and coughed nervously. Ross and I had come to an arrangement of some years’ standing – we decided to hate each other. Being English, this vitriolic relationship manifested itself in oriental politeness.

Class issues abound.

Dalby was an elegant languid public school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.

Dalby tightened a shoe-lace. ‘Think you can handle a tricky little special assignment?’

‘If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it’.

In Yesterday’s Spy, published in 1975, the plot becomes even more explicitly political and mirrors the concerns of the time. A resurgent Egypt and Syria, supported by the USSR. The protagonist is a former member of a WW2 resistance network in France. One of his old contacts was a Jewish Communist named Frankel. In a flashback Frankel is met my the narrator for the first time in the early days of the war.

“But Hitler and Stalin have signed the peace pact. In Lyon the Communists are even publishing a news-sheet”.

Frankel looked up at me, trying to see if I was being provocative. He said, ‘Some of them are even wearing the hammer and sickle again. Some are drinking with the German soldiers and calling them fellow workers, like the Party tells them to do. Some have resigned from the Party in disgust. Some have already faced firing squads. Some are reserving their opinion, waiting to see if the war is really finished. But which are which? Which are which?’.

Steve Champion (!), who is for much of the book portrayed as the villain of the piece comments:

‘Oooh, they’ve changed you, Charlie! Those little men who’ve promised you help with your mortgage, and full pension rights at sixty. Who would have thought they could have done that to the kid who fought the war with a copy of Wage Labour and Capital in his back pocket?…’

The idealism of youth is gone. Replaced, as Champion says, with a pragmatic approach to life. And this is true not just of the narrator Charlie, but also other characters.

Later Frankel in a discussion with Charlie says:

‘The risks I ran, the times I was beaten with police truncheons, the bullets in my leg, the pneumonia I caught duringthe Spanish Winter fighting… all this I don’t regret…. When they told me about the Stalin-Hitler pact I went around explaining it to the men of lesser faith. The war you know about. Czechoslovakia – well, I’d never liked the Czechs, and when the Russian tanks invaded Hungary…well they were asking for it, those Hungarians…. But I am a Jew…they are putting my people into concentration camps, starving them, withdrawing the right to work from anyone who asks to go to Israel When these pigs who call themselves socialists went to the aid of the Arabs then I know that no matter what kind of Communist I was, I was first and foremost a Jew. A Jew! Do you understand now?’

I think this is interesting if only because it points to one period and set of events during the war years which was a huge betrayal to many on the left (and coincidentally while I was writing this post Ed Hayes brought up much the same point in comments on the CPI). Charlie’s idealism is gone by the end of the war. It is clear from the narrative that actually existing Communism failed in his eyes. Frankel’s devotion to the cause persists much longer. And his split is over religion/nationality in the context of the USSR treatment of a religious minority.

In a later exchange with a German there is the following…

“And if you’d been living just a few miles farther east, you’d be doing your duty on behalf of the Communists, I suppose.’

Claude smiled. ‘I can remember a few nights during the war when you were telling us all how much you favoured theoretical Communism.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, almost everyone’s in favour of theoretical Communism. Maybe even those bastards in the Kremlin.’

In a way it is a sad and bitter little tale. The British are no longer masters of their world. Schlegel, the US intelligence officer is the one in charge.

‘Not all of it,’ said Schlegel. ‘Long after the file closes, Champion was still reporting back to this department.’
‘Was he!’
‘Long before my time, of course,’ said Schlegel, to emphasize that this was a British cock-up, less likely to happen now that we had him with us on secondment from Washington.

Former ‘officer’ class characters such as Charlie’s nominal superior Dawlish appear. Their position is diminished by the intervention of the US. But there is little sympathy for them as the following excerpt demonstrates:

I’d hardly started having a look round when Dawlish arrived. If Schlegel was hoping to keep our break-in inconspicuous, I’d say that Dawlish screwed up any last chance, what with his official car and uniformed driver, and the bowler hat and Melton overcoat. To say nothing of the tightly rolled umbrella that Dawlish was waving. Plastic raincoats are de rigueur for the rainy season in Barons Court.
‘Not exactly a playboy pad,’ said Dawlish, demonstrating his mastery of the vernacular.

And throughout it there runs a strain of civil service speak. Small complaints about the nature and conditions of the job.

Dawlish said, ‘So, should I infer that you have a little blot-hole like this, just in case the balloon goes up?’ Even after all these years together, Dawlish had to make sure his little jokes left a whiff of cordite.
‘No sir,’ I said. ‘But on the new salary scale I might be able to afford one – not in Central London, though’.

It is this mix of the banal and the extraordinary which characterises what Deighton writes. And it is curious because the political analysis is one which is resolutely anti-elitist, but one which in a grudging identification with the US ultimately can be seen as a precursor of certain narratives which are perhaps best exemplified by those who supported Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The understanding, even the critique of class is present and correct, but then it veers off in a completely different direction from the left. I am thinking in particular of the developments in the UK Conservative party which were very much a reaction against the traditional patrician ‘one nation’ mentality which had infused the party for much of the 20th century. This is, to some degree, the same song as that sung by Rupert Murdoch when through his media he decried old monied elites who held back entrepreneurial endeavour. That he was establishing a further elite appears to have eluded him. It’s a populist message, one where the ordinary man cannot trust the old elites, cannot trust those who supposedly speak for him (there is a throwaway line in a club setting where two “socialist” MPs are talking about golf and wine) and in the end it is the Americans who are – if not quite heroic – at least a means towards some sort of a better future.
Deighton wrote many books after these, again mostly dealing in the world of intelligence agencies (bar the extremely odd, and rather cheerless MAMISTA which dealt with South American guerillas). And they’re all fine books. But, something was missing by then. The edginess and friction that his exploration of the interface between different social classes during a time of rapid societal change had dissipated. The later books are rather…well…middle class, as are the concerns. The last really good book I read of his was Violent Ward, set in California and something of an homage to Chandler. He is still around, lives in the US and holds fairly right-wing views on unions and suchlike.
But for all that I think he had something back in the 1960s and early 1970s and caught, perhaps inadvertently, a snapshot of Britain and what it meant to be British.

I should also note an excellent essay by Charles Stross, the science fiction and fantasy writer, who has, in the form of his novella The Atrocity Archive, written a homage to Deighton that manages to cross the Cthulu mythos with…well… the hierarchical structures of the civil service. Good fun and very perceptive (incidentally am I the only one who thinks Stross is something of a latterday Silverberg or Pohl who tries his hand at everything the genres have to offer and generally comes away successfully?).


1. ejh - October 1, 2007

I’m sure it’s The Ipcress File of which the story’s told that Deighton showed a draft to his friends and they could follow the plot, so he re-wrote it until they couldn’t….

I also read that Deighton himself was supposed to have only voted once, and that was for a Communist candidate in Westminster.

Incidentally there’s a character in Le Carré who’s got nearly to the top of the Circus despite being “only” a grammar-school boy. I imagine he’d share many of Palmer’s attitudes.


2. WorldbyStorm - October 1, 2007

I’d never heard that story ejh. Sounds about right though. The early novels were… trickily plotted. Have to say I admire them enormously. Extreme economy of language, beautiful dialogue and a real sense of time and place. Still, these days he sure ain’t no communist. An interview last year with him revealed a rather dyspeptic, if entertaining, view of contemporary Britain. We become that which we… etc, etc…


3. ejh - October 2, 2007

I don’t think he was a communist then, either. There’s an element of épater les bourgeois about the whole thing which partly because it is cynical and shallow isn’t really political at all – or isn’t until it finds itself getting older and really disliking leftists and the unions.


4. Pluto Crime: Pluto Press and the thriller genre « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - May 31, 2008

[…] able to operate as thrillers and left-wing books. I don’t find that entirely unsurprising. Previously the issue of dissidence against the establishment in the Len Deighton thrillers has been […]


5. Len Deighton on Radio 4… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 1, 2009

[…] An excellent programme on Radio 4 this afternoon which engages with the author Len Deighton (someone whose work has been examined here). […]


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