Deighton’s Masterpieces

Image: BBC

Hal Wilson is a two-time finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s contests with his stories The Cod Squad and The Flying Circus. Hal graduated in 2013 with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and now works in the aerospace industry. Hal has been published by the Center for International Maritime Security, and is also launching a Cold War-themed naval-warfare board game.

It is 1941. And the Germans won. Welcome to Len Deighton’s SS-GB, just released as a TV mini-series by the BBC. Here, the King languishes in the Tower of London, while the old soldiers of the Great War plot a desperate resistance, and the SS pick the bones of Britain’s scientific establishment.

SS-GB is a melancholy masterpiece and perhaps the finest counterfactual thriller yet written: Occupied London comes to life with desolate beauty and a native’s attention to detail. This will resonate with fans of Philip K Dick’s World War II alternate history novella The Man in the High Castle. Reading Deighton’s story, the imagination stirs at even chance scenes, such as the corner of Wimbledon High Street, where the corpse of a Panzer IV gathers rust in the rain:

“a monument to some unknown youth who – with a Worthington beer bottle, filled from the service station at the top of the hill, and a box of Swan Vesta matches – passed into legend, and into songs that were sometimes crooned softly where no German ears listened.”

Deighton – an octogenarian cook, author and ex-RAF bomber crewman – can rightly be called a treasure to British literature, with work spanning decades. Examples range from Cold War classics like The IPCRESS File (later turned to film by James Bond’s Harry Saltzmann and starring Deighton’s friend Michael Caine,) through to Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, ideal for clueless bachelors struggling in the kitchen.

But Deighton’s greatest masterpiece is surely 1970’s Bomber.

Spanning a single June night in 1943, Deighton combines rigorous research and his own RAF experiences to place us aboard Lancaster bombers flying deep into the Third Reich. With heart-wrenching humanity, he takes us into the exhausted psyches of pilots pushed to their limits. He makes us part of their crews as death stalks their ragged formations, with flak and night-fighters snatching young lives that bantered over bets or cancelled dates just moments before. He also puts us among the fury of the firestorm they unleash on Hitler’s Germany, where doomed firemen dodge incendiaries in a futile effort to save their town.

The result is a tragedy, a farce and a heroic tale; a kaleidoscope of valour, regret and horror.

Bomber’s potency cannot be overstressed, eclipsed only by Nicholas Monsarrat’s maritime epic The Cruel Sea. And this potency is precisely why Bomber stands out against the wry cunning of The IPCRESS File, or even the grim beauty of SS-GB. It drives timeless parables on leadership and adversity into the very core of Deighton’s overnight odyssey. Limping through deadly skies, we watch officers shepherd their crewmen home by sheer dint of leadership, even amid the lingering terrors of random death. Only the best ever make it that far.

Under the cover of a tragic drama that would have shamed Sophocles, Deighton’s lessons are as applicable today as they were 40 years ago, whether for bomber crews or businesses: Expect the unexpected. Plan for the worst. Above all – never flinch from helping your team. Let them down, and you all go down together.

But in the meantime – follow Deighton down the path not taken, into a dark age made more sinister by the lights of perverted science. Grab a copy of SS-GB, or watch it online. You might just enjoy it.