Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Ipcress File by Len Deighton

published 1962








[The hero/narrator/spy is on a flight to Rome]

Fatso was back in his own seat; my cardigan had fallen to the floor over my brief-case. I sat down quickly, strapped in. I could see the Railway Junction now and as we levelled off for the approach the G glued me to the seat springs. I could see the south side of the perimeter as we came in, and beyond the bright yellow Shell Aviation bowsers I noticed a twin-engined shoulder wing Grumman S2F-3. It was painted white and the word ‘NAVY’ was written in square black letters aft of the American insignia.

The tyres touched tarmac. I leaped forward to pick up my mohair cardigan. As I did so I flipped Fatso’s wallet well under his seat. Now I saw the clean knife cut along the back of my new briefcase – still unopened. Not one of those long, amateur sorts of cuts, but a small, professional, ‘poultry-cleaning’ one. Just enough to investigate the contents. I leaned back. Fatso offered me a peppermint. ‘Do as the Romans do,’ he went on, eyes smiling through the cracked lens.



observations: Mohair cardigan - not sure about that? He’s not quite the dapper guy you think… and he also, contrary to what many people have confidently asserted, does not cook anything more than sandwiches or coffee in this book. He buys a few ingredients, he eats lavish meals and he shows a great interest in food, but he Does Not Cook, he does not seduce women with food, make an omelette for a girlfriend, choose button mushrooms.

I am fascinated by the currency this idea has - I recently wrote a piece for the Guardian books blog on food and recipes in books, and friends told me he cooked, the Radio 4 Food Programme told me he cooked, and a number of online commenters absolutely assured me he cooked. But he doesn’t. Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine in the film, does, but the unnamed narrator (and the one thing we know about him is that his name is NOT Harry) does not. The idea has a life of its own now. There are cocktail recipes and a method for cooking lobster (baste frequently with a mixture of champagne and butter), and there is an unusual use for golden syrup from the police canteen – useful in staging a break-in, a method that used to appear on TV crime programmes a lot. Haven’t heard of it for years.

The picture is, obviously, a knitting pattern of the era – the cigarette does look right.

16 comments:

  1. Common ground again, Moira! I will be reading this hopefully sometime this year for my little espionage challenge - the taster above seems good. I've only read some short stories of his, which were kind of slow for me.

    I had a mohair jumper back in the 80's that one of my sisters knitted for me. It was proper snazzy and I felt like a million dollars in it (whilst probably looking fairly ridiculous, to the opposite sex at least).....I never went to mohair cardy route though.

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    1. I enjoyed it a lot, it's a good read and I think refreshing for its time. I bet your mohair jumper was lovely, but it's a rare cardigan that would be stylish. But then, didn't we decide you could do some knitting in your old age? More mohair ahoy.

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    2. Oooh, we might have our first falling out of the year.........are you saying any cardy lacks style? I'm of an age where slippers and cardies take preference over Harlequin onesies as winter comfort dressing!

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    3. Naturally I should have made it clear that any cardi that *you* wore would automatically be stylish and fashion-forward... others might find it more tricky.

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  2. Great stuff (and a terrific book) - it's so easy to get the book and the movie mixed up though they are so dofferemt but Len Deighton himself of course definitely cooks!

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    1. I know - I am asking for trouble, because it's exactly the kind of mistake I might make myself comparing a book and a screen adaptation! Yes, I've always wanted to see that cookbook Len Deighton wrote as a comic strip.

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  3. Maybe they just thought he cooked because Deighton liked to cook. But probably just confusing it with the movie... which I have not seen. When I read this book, fairly recently, I was disappointed. The style did not grab me, and being a big fan of espionage, I wanted to like it. But then I read 6 of the Bernard Samson books and fell in love with that series so I will read more of the nameless spy series.

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    1. I just had to go and look up the Bernard Samson books, I will try them next on your recommendation. I think I have only read a couple of Len Deighton books, but I liked this one so much I want to read more.

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    2. In that series, definitely important to start with the first one, although I think Deighton said they could be read in any order. It is 3 sets of trilogies, and I haven't read the third one yet, although I plan to do so this year. (And my memory could be failing me, but I think there are descriptions of clothes too.)

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    3. Righto, useful advice. though 3x3! a long-term project...

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  4. Moira - I think it's fascinating how we can start making those assumptions just based on mis-remembered things. It's a bit like Elementary, my dear Watson, which Sherlock Holmes never said. And yet we adopt those beliefs over time so that they take over reality. Oh, and thanks for reminding me of a solid spy tale. :-)

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    1. Yes, and as I say above, I am equally likely to make one of those mistakes, I am sure to get caught out soon with something similar...

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  5. The overlapping of the publication of The Ipcress File and its sequels with Deighton's weekly Cookstrips for the The Observer (some of which are pinned up in Harry Palmer's kitchenette in the Ipcress movie) made everybody, including the scriptwriters, transpose the attributes of author and character. And it's a bloody brilliant way to suggest a sensuous, rounded, un-snobby and practical hero. When it comes to eating out, none of that Bondian giving orders to waiters, and sneering at diners over their dinners: Deighton's unnamed spy sinks grappas with the Trattoria's staff after hours. Cheffy cool decades before its time. As to the mohair cardy, that was probably Italian (THE trendy thing circa 61-62) and possibly suede-detailed, likely bought from the rather edgy, early John Stephens, Soho zone on its way to being proto-Carnaby Street. Graphic artist chic as well as cheffy cool. Clever, clever Deighton -- can spellbind equally with digressions on tank warfare at Stalingrad and a recipe for proper custard for a trifle. Veronica Horwell

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    1. Veronica: I love the idea of suede detailing on the cardigan! And of course you are absolutely right about the un-Bond-ness of the spy - I have another entry coming up on this book, making exactly that point. Deighton just makes it all look easy, doesn't he, but not in that superior Eton & Guards way, just a proper nice chap.

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  6. I watched this the other night on TV. A great film. And I love the knitting pattern. Takes me back to my mum knitting (and teaching me)

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    1. I saw it was on, happy serendipity. I used to knit a lot, and keep thinking I will get back into it one of these days. But no mohair cardigan I think.

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