© 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