Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

Dave back from the grave

 

© William Collins

 

The events of the past month have hardly been a good advertisement for the education system through which the children of Britain’s rich, privileged few have traditionally passed.  I’m talking about the training offered by England’s fee-paying public schools – ‘public’ being the English term for them, though in Scotland they’re more accurately known as ‘private’ schools – such as Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse and Rugby, followed by a sojourn at Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

 

No, the recipients of such elitist training have definitely not distinguished themselves recently.

 

Firstly, of course, there’s been the less-than-glorious start to the UK premiership of Boris Johnson, former pupil of Eton and graduate of Oxford University, where he played ‘rugger’ for Balliol, served as Union President and was a member of the Bullingdon Club, which Wikipedia pithily describes as an ‘upper-class drinking society known for vandalism’.  In his first few weeks as prime minister, the hapless Johnson has lost half-a-dozen votes in the House of Commons; reduced his party’s majority in the House of Commons from +1 to -43; seen his younger brother Jo Johnson resign as a Conservative Party MP, launching a fleet of jokes about how he was the first politician in history to stand down from politics in order to spend less time with his family; and been judged by the Scottish Court of Session to be unlawful in his prorogation of parliament, which, since Johnson briefed the Queen to get her approval of this prorogation, raises the possibility that he lied to Her Majesty – the bounder.

 

Meanwhile, Johnson hasn’t exactly shown the grit, fibre and fortitude that you’d expect from someone raised amid the cold baths and cold showers and on the wintry, muddy playing fields of Eton.  When he turned up at Nicola Sturgeon’s residence in Edinburgh in July, he was so feart at the presence of a crowd of protestors going “Boo!” outside the front entrance that, later, he ignominiously sneaked away through the back entrance – earning himself in the Scottish press the icky-sounding sobriquet ‘Back-door Boris’.  And just the other day, the presence of another crowd of protestors going “Boo!”, plus the presence of the PM of that big scary country Luxembourg, caused him to chicken out of doing a press conference.  Unfortunately for Johnson, he’d preceded this latter act of cowardice by likening himself to the Incredible Hulk.  The Johnson version of the Hulk, apparently, doesn’t so much roar “Hulk smash!” as whimper “Hulk shit pants.”

 

Johnson’s antics haven’t been the only recent evidence suggesting that a public-school education, plus Oxbridge, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  See too the behaviour of famously monocled, top-hatted retro-toff Jacob Rees-Mogg.  During a key Commons debate about a no-deal Brexit, Rees-Mogg displayed his contempt for the oiks (i.e. all of humanity who aren’t him) by reposing across a Commons bench like a languid, foppish refugee from an Evelyn Waugh novel being punted down the River Cam.  Having jumped the shark with his Commons slouching, Rees Mogg then proceeded to nuke the fridge by comparing an NHS consultant, Dr David Nicholl, who’d raised concerns about patient mortality in the event of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal (and without access to certain medicines), to the disgraced and discredited anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield.  Rees-Mogg was later forced to issue a grovelling apology.

 

From rte.ie

 

So has the reputation of Britain’s elitist, establishment education system been damaged enough?  Not yet, apparently.  For on top of the punishment inflicted on it by Johnson and Rees-Mogg, it has still to endure the return of David Cameron, freshly risen from the political grave to remind us of how much havoc a posh-boy with a colossal sense of entitlement can wreak if placed in a position of power.

 

Unlike the bumbling Johnson and the grotesque Rees-Mogg, David Cameron, British PM from 2010 to 2016, exhibited the slickness and charm you’d expect from a product of Britain’s supposedly finest educational institutions.  He was smooth and at ease enough to be able to project himself as a regular, matey (if obviously well-heeled) bloke.  He was like a bank manager who comes across as your personable and supportive friend, even if the moment you step out of his office you realise he’s just turned down your plea for a loan and doomed your firm to going out of business.  Also, he knew how to show some affectations of social and environmental concern – witness his blather about ‘hugging a hoodie’ or his photo op with huskies in the Arctic – although I suspect he was as sincere in this as a chancer who gate-crashes a Friends of the Earth meeting in the hope of getting into some female activists’ knickers.

 

Anyway, underneath the cuddly veneer, Cameron was not a nice piece of work.  He lived up to his nickname of ‘Flashman’ (after the bully in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays) and no doubt all the ruthless, materialistic, Sunday-Times-reading, Jeremy-Clarkson-type wankers in the land recognised him as one of their own.   As John Harris pointed out in a recent article in the Guardian, Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, once installed in Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street, set about imposing a brutal regime of cuts on the country.  They “commenced the decade of fiscal savagery that has left some of the most fundamental parts of the public realm hanging for dear life” and created a Britain where now “austerity is part of the everyday ambience, all shut-down pools and libraries, broken-down parks, and once-a-day buses.”

 

Having saved the United Kingdom in 2014 by securing a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum, Cameron then breezed into the 2016 vote on Britain remaining in or leaving the European Union assuming it would be a shoo-in for ‘remain’.  It would also, handily, sort out the anti-EU faction in his party, which had bedevilled it for years.  But of course the Brexiteers narrowly won.  And Cameron was immediately toast.

 

The years of austerity he’d presided over had turned around and bitten him on the arse.  Partly led to believe by the likes of Nigel Farage that the EU and EU-related immigration were the source of their woes, and partly just wanting to give the establishment as exemplified by Cameron a kicking, people in worse-off parts of Britain voted ‘leave’.  Yes, by voting for an economically ruinous Brexit they were bringing yet more hardship upon themselves.  Then again, you could probably bear cutting off your nose to spite David Cameron’s oleaginous face when Cameron had spent the previous half-dozen years grinding your own face into the dirt, to  the point where you hardly had a nose left.

 

Now, three years later after the Brexit vote and his political demise, Cameron has shambled zombie-like into the limelight again.  He’s currently trying to flog his autobiography For the Record, which he wrote in a £25,000 designer ‘shepherd’s hut’ with ‘a wood-burning stove, sofa bed and sheep’s wool insulation’ specially purchased for the task and installed in his garden.  That’s right, he managed to turn even the basic process of transcribing words onto a sheet of paper into an epic statement about his posh-ness.

 

Supposedly, For the Record – which recently ranked at a somewhat low 335 in the Amazon pre-order charts – has some uncomplimentary things to say about Boris Johnson, who betrayed Cameron when he threw his weight behind the ‘leave’ campaign in a move calculated to boost his support among the anti-EU brayers and frothers in the Conservative Party.  Yip, I can empathise with Cameron’s sense of betrayal.  I mean, you’d expect Cameron and Johnson, both veterans of that virtuous, upstanding society the Bullingdon Club, to exhibit more loyalty to one another.  You’d expect there to be more honour among posh thugs who smash up restaurants and allegedly stick their dicks into the mouths of dead pigs.

 

Still, it’s disingenuous to blame all of Britain’s troubles on a privileged, moneyed clique, including the likes of Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, who finished their education school with a zillion contacts and astronomical levels of self-confidence and self-importance, though not necessarily with corresponding amounts of knowledge and ability.  The 93% of the British population who weren’t privately educated, weren’t endowed with fantastic connections and weren’t trained to superbly bullshit their way through life – to talk the talk even if they hadn’t a clue about how to walk the walk – are complicit in this too.  Myself included, I should say.  I did my share of cringing and wilting in front of cut-glass accents in the past, before I came to know better.  Through a culture of deference, cap-doffing, ‘knowing your place’, crippling inferiority complexes and imposter syndrome, through the kneejerk belief that the important jobs should be left to those who sound like they know what they’re doing (though often they don’t), we’ve allowed ourselves, the majority, to become prisoners of a minority.

 

After all, the British public saw fit to vote Cameron back into power in 2015, believing his smooth, Etonian hands were a safer pair than those of poor old Ed Miliband, a man so gormlessly dorky he couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich without making it look like a Norman Wisdom slapstick routine.  And Cameron’s second term as PM ended well, didn’t it?

 

Such is the glamour that the privately educated exert over the rest of us – that’s ‘glamour’ in its old Scottish definition, meaning ‘spell’ or ‘bewitchment’ — that we’ve allowed them to fill ridiculously disproportionate swathes of our top jobs: 65% of senior judges, 52% of diplomats, 44% of newspaper columnists, 44% of ‘top actors’ and 39% of cabinet ministers.  We have, as a nation, surrendered en masse to a class-based version of Stockholm Syndrome.  The unwelcome reappearance of the discredited David Cameron is a small reminder of this.

 

© Redskyshepherdshuts.co.uk

 

Clipping Pinochet’s wings

 

© Debasers Filums

 

I’d like to say a few nice things about Nae Pasaran, a 2018 documentary written and directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra that recounts how some workers in the Scottish town of East Kilbride in 1974 made a gesture of defiance towards fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  It was a gesture that ultimately had more consequences than they’d imagined.

 

The workers – Bob Fulton, Stuart Barrie, Robert Somerville and John Keenan – were employed by Rolls Royce and tasked with servicing and repairing engines from Hawker Hunter airplanes.  Their East Kilbride plant was the only place in the world where such work could be done.  One day they noticed that some engines they’d been assigned belonged to the Chilean Air Force and made sure, via their trade union, that the none of the workforce touched them.  Instead, the engines ended up rusting in crates in the plant’s back yard.

 

This was because the previous year had seen the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile overthrown by the military, who then set up a dictatorship under Pinochet and during the next 17 years, according to official figures from the Chilean government in 2011, engineered the murders and disappearances of 3,095 people and the torture and political imprisonment of 36,948 more – although other estimates are much higher.  The Chilean Air Force got the coup going by bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, on September 11th, 1973.

 

The first part of the documentary – which I was lucky enough to see the other day as part of the Jaffna Film Festival in northern Sri Lanka – is amiable enough, with the now retired Fulton, Barrie, Somerville and Keenan meeting up with Sierra in a Scottish pub (“Don’t start with they war stories,” someone tells the venerable Fulton, a veteran of World War II, “we gottae be hame before eight o’clock!”) and recalling events in East Kilbride back in 1974.

 

But later Sierra travels to Santiago and speaks to people who were on the sharp end of the 1973 coup and, with stories of executions, torture and seemingly boundless cruelty, Nae Pasaran delivers a stark reminder of what the Scottish workers were protesting against.  A senior civil servant whom troops dragged out of the just-bombed La Moneda, for example, remembers how he and fifty others were made to lie in a line on the street.  A tank would have then driven over the top of them if there hadn’t been so many civilians on the street yelling at the troops to stop.

 

One prisoner, later exiled to Britain, claims to have been told by an official that the reason he hadn’t been executed was because the British government had offered to get the Hawker Hunter engines back to the Chilean Air Force – his life and the lives of six others constituted the Chilean side of the bargain.  Nobly, Sierra doesn’t accept this as gospel truth, even though it would have provided the documentary with a stirring feel-good moment.  He qualifies it by also quoting representatives of Amnesty International and the UK government at the time, who are unsure or dismissive of such a deal being made.  But the possibility remains that the actions in East Kilbride did save seven lives.

 

More tangibly, being deprived of those engines took its toll on the Chilean Air Force, as is admitted by its former commander Fernando Rojas Vender.  Although the engines were eventually, and very mysteriously, spirited away from the factory in 1978, and although it was rumoured that future repairs and servicing were carried out in Israel and India, the planes and their engines clearly suffered from the lack of Scottish expertise and there were multiple groundings and crashes.

 

While obviously a considerable tosser, Vender was at least game enough to let himself be interviewed by Sierra.  He dismisses Fulton, the original instigator of the engine boycott, as being like a radical ‘Islamist’.  In his view, Fulton – who’s a Christian as well as a World War II combatant – couldn’t possibly have acted of his own accord, but had been brainwashed by leftist agitators.

 

The film’s finale, where Fulton, Barrie and Keenan are brought south to a grand, plush building in London in 2015 – a world away from the Scottish boozer we saw them in at the beginning – and in front of an admiring audience are awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest order that Chile’s government can bestow on foreigners, is both touching and uplifting.

 

© Debasers Filums

 

Incidentally, the men make one or two comments about how their actions, facilitated by a powerful trade union, probably wouldn’t have happened today.  Nae Pasaran doesn’t mention it, but there’s a brutal irony in how the person who later on did most to emasculate the unions in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was also a great admirer of and buddy to the fascist Pinochet.  Thatcher’s actions against the unions, admittedly, had a lot of public support at the time – support fuelled by the disastrous, strike-ridden Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, when the British trade union movement and the then Labour government didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as blow both their feet away with a sawn-off shotgun.

 

Still, I wish that British working-class people who voted for Brexit in 2016 on the grounds that they were ‘better off’ in the 1970s before Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community as it was then, would realise that the real reason why they were better off was because they had things like a functioning welfare state and proper trade unions to support and defend them.

 

From globalresearch.ca

 

On Target with Terrance

 

From youtube.com

 

If you were to draw up a list of great children’s authors of the 20th century, you’d no doubt end up with names such as Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson, Clive King, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, A.A. Milne, Philip Pullman and Rosemary Sutcliffe.  But you probably wouldn’t think of including Terrance Dicks, who passed away late last month at the age of 84.

 

Dicks made his name on television as a scriptwriter and script editor.  He was involved in TV shows like The Avengers (1961-69), Moonbase 3 (1973), Space 1999 (1975-77) and ITV’s dreadful but (almost) never-ending soap opera Crossroads (1964-88) and also a raft of TV adaptations of classic literary works that the BBC broadcast on Sunday evenings and included Great Expectations (1981), Beau Geste (1982), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982), Oliver Twist (1985), David Copperfield (1986-87) and Vanity Fair (1987).  But his most famous TV work was with the BBC’s long-running science fiction / fantasy show Doctor Who, which kicked off in 1963 and is still with us today – though it had a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005 – and is now a massive franchise on par with Star Wars and Star Trek.  Yet I suspect it was as a writer of books, not TV shows, that Dicks left his greatest legacy.  He had a huge but unsung influence on the reading habits of British kids during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Dicks served as script editor on Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974, when the title character was played by Jon Pertwee as a gloriously imperious, pompous, vintage car-driving, cape-and-bowtie-wearing, karate-chopping man of action, and also contributed the occasional script to the show during the tenures of Pertwee’s immediate predecessor (Patrick Troughton) and successors (Tom Baker and Peter Davison).  However, it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series that perhaps Dicks is most important.

 

© Target Books

 

The Target series turned most of the Doctor Who TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks, with attractive and colourful covers that were often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos.  Now if you were a Doctor Who fan back then, as I was, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow you to catch up with missed episodes: ones you’d missed recently because you’d been doing something else at the time – the show was broadcast early on Saturday evenings, which always made it a bugger to catch up with – or ones you’d missed because they’d been broadcast before you were born.

 

Also, the BBC was decidedly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their archives.  Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of brainless destruction now.

 

So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, the majority of which were penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  Admittedly, I think their quality tailed off a bit in later years as demand for them increased, and the backlog of un-novelised adventures grew greater, forcing Dicks to churn them out at a faster rate, but the some of the ones he wrote in the 1970s were great and, even without the TV show behind them, would have stood up as excellent children’s books in their own right: for example, The Auton Invasion (1974), The Abominable Snowmen (1974), The Terror of the Autons (1975), The Three Doctors (1975), The Genesis of the Daleks (1976) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977).

 

© Target Books

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they made the stories seem much more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  Actually, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling spaceports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets – bare, blank, shaky, obviously low-budget.  Meanwhile, immense alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were invariably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation.  I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Bloodlust of the Sontarans.  (The Sontarans were war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  When it was relaunched in 2005, the Sontarans were reintroduced during the Doctor-ship of David Tenant and one of them, played by Dan Starkey, even became a semi-regular character while Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi occupied the lead role.)

 

Two years later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a vivid, hopefully Chris Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, the demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly evolved virus and were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.  I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

© Target Books

 

As I said, I’m positive Dicks’ books got a lot of kids (who otherwise would have been glued to their TV sets all the time) reading, even if it was the TV connection that got them to open the books in the first place.  And as I’ve suggested in the previous two paragraphs, he was also a big influence on kids who wanted to become writers themselves.  Decades later I still write stuff, and get the occasional thing published, and when I use certain words I’m reminded of Dicks, who originally showed me how to use those words in certain ways.  For example, ‘croak’ used instead of ‘said’, as opposed to just describing the sound that frogs make – that came from Dicks using it in reference to the Daleks.  (Predictably, the word that the Daleks were croaking was “Exterminate!”)  Or ‘wheezing’, to describe a peculiar type of sound, not just people with a bad cold – that adjective Dicks commonly used to evoke the noise made by the Doctor’s space / time-ship, the Tardis, when it was materialising or dematerialising.

 

I ended up with an impressive, colourful row of Target / Doctor Who novels on my bookshelves.  I assumed it was just me who was geeky enough to possess such a collection, but then one day in the late 1980s I happened to be in the Edinburgh flat of one Dougie Watt, whom I knew fairly well back then and who is now an established novelist and historian, and I noticed a similar row of Target books on his bookshelves too.  However, as Doctor Who was definitely not considered cool at that point in time, and labelling yourself a Doctor Who fan was about as damaging to your street credibility as announcing that you took a shower once a month or your all-time favourite musical act was Rick Astley, I tactfully pretended I hadn’t noticed them and avoided Who-shaming my friend.

 

With its relaunch in the 21st century, Doctor Who – suddenly cool again – has had many writers of books, comics, television and films falling over themselves to write either TV-show episodes or spin-off novels for it: for instance, Dan Abnett, David Bishop, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie Mathieson, James Moran, Patrick Ness, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Robert Shearman and Toby Whitehouse.  In addition, the three ‘showrunners’ who have helmed Nu-Who so far, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat and, currently, Chris Chibnall, all made their names as writers originally.  So it’s a writers’ show through and through.  And I suspect a good number of these people were influenced, at least in part, in finding their calling as writers by reading Terrance Dicks’ books back in their childhoods.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Chibnall, if you’re reading this and fancy commissioning a script for the next season of Doctor Who with the title Bloodlust of the Sontarans, give me a call.

 

© Target Books

 

The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons