Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dutch Courage

While writing my third novel, I stumbled on a small problem. I had plotted out a chapter set during the Second World War in which my protagonist, British agent Paul Dark, is sent on a mission to an island in the Baltic. But as I came to write it, I realized I was unsure how he would reach the island. Parachute? Submarine? I reached for one of my most thumbed books, M.R.D. Foot's official history of the Special Operations Executive, to refresh my memory on how that organization had inserted secret agents behind enemy lines during the war. To my great surprise, I found myself reading a passage I had never paid due attention before, mentioning an operation MI6 had undertaken in 1941.

Those few lines took me on a fascinating journey into the origins of one of the best known moments in modern cinema, and taught me a great deal about how fiction and reality can sometimes collide in the most surprising ways. I submitted an article about my research to The Sunday Telegraph, who felt that the story would be better told for their readership if they cut it a little and reframed it as an interview with me. I agreed, and you can read the result here. Below is a slightly extended version of the article I originally submitted to them – click on the images to enlarge them. And Paul Dark's arrival in the Baltic? You'll have to wait a bit for that one. But no dinner jackets are involved.

Dutch Courage
Jeremy Duns explores how a real MI6 operation during the Second World War may have inspired one of James Bond’s most famous moments

It’s one of the most iconic – and coolest – scenes in modern cinema. A secret agent emerges from water at night wearing a wetsuit, creeps onto a heavily guarded wharf, knocks out a sentry, and plants some plastic explosive in a storage tank. He then unzips his wetsuit to reveal that he is wearing a dinner jacket beneath it, complete with a carnation in the buttonhole. He walks into the nearest bar, glances at his watch and lights a cigarette just as the storage tank erupts into flames behind him.

This, of course, is the opening scene of the third James Bond film, Goldfinger. Released in 1964, it turned Bond into a global phenomenon, and 007 peeling away his wetsuit to reveal black tie has become one of the most recognisable moments of the series. No such scene featured in Ian Fleming’s novel of the same title, but in many ways it defines the character of James Bond: one moment a tough secret agent focused on a dangerous mission, the next a high-living playboy. It is pure fantasy, of course, and light years away from the world of real espionage.

Or perhaps not. Surprisingly enough, it seems that the scene may have been inspired by an extraordinary mission undertaken by British intelligence during World War Two.

The operation was planned in the autumn of 1941, in a small flat above 77 Chester Square, the London residence of the exiled Dutch queen, Wilhelmina. Three young Dutchmen – Bob van der Stok, Peter Tazelaar and Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema – had an idea for a method of inserting an agent into occupied Holland, from which they had recently escaped.

As students, the Dutchmen had often spent time at the seaside resort of Scheveningen, near The Hague. They knew that the Palace Hotel there had been taken over by the Germans as a headquarters for their coastal defence forces, and that every Friday night they held a large and boisterous party there. Their idea was both ingenious and audacious – approach Scheveningen in darkness by boat, and then take Peter Tazelaar into the surf by dinghy. He would strip off his watertight suit into evening clothes and make his way ashore, right under the noses of the Germans. If stopped by sentries, he would drunkenly claim to be one of the party-goers. From there, he would continue his mission.

Dutch intelligence in London was mired in political intriguing, and not interested in running the operation – but the British were. They were initially sceptical of the method of inserting Tazelaar onto the beach, which sounded more like a student prank than a serious proposal for an espionage operation, but the head of MI6’s Dutch section, Colonel Euan Rabagliati (right) – nicknamed ‘The Rabbi’ by the Dutch – eventually agreed to the plan.

The mission’s aims were twofold: first, Tazelaar (pictured left, as a naval cadet) was to make contact with a Dutch wireless operator at a safe house and begin transmissions with London at pre-arranged times; secondly, he was to set up a wider intelligence-gathering network to provide reports, maps, photographs and other items that couldn't be transmitted over the wireless but that would be picked up by sea and taken back to London by Motor Gun Boat (ie the same way he had come). In the latter category were also two people, Dr Wiardi Beckman and a Captain Tielens, both of whom Queen Wilhelmina wanted to join the Dutch government-in-exile in London.

To prepare for the operation, The Rabbi sent Hazelhoff Roelfzema and Tazelaar to train at various secret establishments. They learned to shoot at a pistol range beneath Baker Street Underground station and practised boat landings off the coasts of Cornwall and Devon. An experimental watertight suit was made for Tazelaar and, so that his contacts would be in no doubt of his credentials, Queen Wilhelmina was persuaded to write a note in her own hand verifying his mission. MI6 reduced her message to the size of a fingernail, and it was placed inside the collar of Tazelaar’s dress shirt.

The operation itself proved harder to pull off than anticipated, due to poor weather and the difficulties of locating Scheveningen’s promenade in the dark. But after several frustrating false starts, at just after half past four in the morning on November 23 1941, Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Tazelaar and another Dutchman, Chris Krediet, along with Lieutenant Bob Goodfellow, disembarked from British Royal Navy Motor Gun Boat 321 onto a small dinghy. The Dutchmen slipped out of the dinghy as they neared the surf, and Hazelhoff Roelfzema and Tazelaar waded onto Scheveningen’s beach. Hazelhoff Roelfzema helped Tazelaar unzip his watertight suit: beneath it he was wearing immaculate evening clothes. Hazelhoff Roelfzema poured a generous dose of Hennessy XO (Tazelaar’s favourite) from a hip flask over his friend, and returned to the dinghy.

Now reeking of brandy, Tazelaar proceeded to stagger convincingly past the sentries stationed around the hotel. Against all odds, the first part of his operation had succeeded. He made contact with the wireless operator, and within three days had also made contact with Dr Beckman and Captain Tielens. Then things started to go wrong. Tielens didn’t want to make the journey to London, and couldn't be persuaded, but Beckman agreed to the plan. However, the return rendez-vous was beset by problems: the Motor Gun Boat didn't navigate to the meeting point on time, and then a collaborator betrayed the fact that landings were taking place at the beach to the Germans.

On January 18 1942, Hazelhoff Roelfzema (right) arrived on the beach at a prearranged time to deliver two vitally needed transmitters to Tazelaar. But his friend was not there. Thinking quickly, he decided to bury the transmitters in the sand, to be picked up later. But how to let Tazelaar know where to find them? He knew from his student days that there was a telephone booth near the hotel. If he could reach a member of the Resistance, they could tell Tazelaar where the transmitters were buried.

After donning a British naval uniform from the motor gunboat, which he hoped in the darkness would resemble a German one closely enough, Hazelhoff Roelfzema embarked on his own Bond-like mission. Once ashore, he safely passed several sentries and managed to reach the telephone, where he discovered to his horror that it no longer accepted the old Dutch coins he had brought with him. Frustrated, he beat a hasty retreat to the motor gunboat, and headed back to England.

Unknown to him, Tazelaar had had a very good reason for not making the rendez-vous – he and a member of the Resistance had been picked up by the Germans while walking down to the meeting point. Amazingly, they managed to bluff their way out of it: both were wearing dinner clothes, and stuck to the cover story of being drunken revellers. Tazelaar had even brought along a bottle of genever, which he generously passed around. A local policeman, luckily also a member of the Resistance, vouched for the pair, and the Germans let them go. Dr Beckman was not as lucky: he was arrested on the beach waiting to be picked up by motor gunboat, and later died in Dachau.

The highly unusual idea of an agent coming onto an enemy coastline in a watertight suit, only to strip it off to reveal full evening dress and then mingle with the local nightlife festivities, is remarkably similar in concept to the opening sequence of Goldfinger. The director of Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton, was an officer in the Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla during the war, and was involved in landing MI6 agents onto coastlines in much the same way as was done with Peter Tazelaar. But, now 87 and living in Mallorca, Hamilton says he has never heard of the operation in Holland. ‘I was indeed inserting agents into enemy territory from motor gunboats during the war, but they were always as farmers or something along those lines, to blend in with the locals – never in black tie!’

So how did the idea behind this remarkable wartime operation make it into Goldfinger? It was not public knowledge when the film was made, but it was something of a cause célèbre in British intelligence circles. According to the official history of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), published in 1984, MI6 pulled off this operation ‘in a style SOE envied’. The scene in Goldfinger was written by a former SOE agent, Paul Dehn, who had been brought in to polish the first draft of the screenplay by Richard Maibaum. Maibaum’s draft opened with James Bond in black tie watching a dancer stamp her heels in a waterfront nightclub, when a warehouse bursts into flames off-screen. Everyone scatters in turmoil, but 007 stays seated calmly, until Sierra, ‘a well-dressed and good-looking young Latin’ enters the club and approaches Bond. ‘Forgive me for being late,’ he says. ‘There were last-minute complications.’

Dehn evidently decided it would be more exciting if we saw how the operation to blow up the warehouse had been done – and if Bond were the one doing it. The scene first appears in his draft of December 23 1963, albeit in a somewhat less playful form than the version filmed: the ‘hairless distended cadaver of a dead dog, legs pointing stiffly skyward’ drifts through water ‘scummed with flotsam, refuse and vegetable rind’. The dead dog then rises clear of the water, revealing James Bond with his teeth ‘clamped to the cadaver’s underbelly’.

This was deemed too grotesque, and the dead dog became a seagull in the film. But the scene is otherwise almost identical to the finished product. Bond comes ashore in ‘a black water proof suit, zip-pocketed all over and a water proof ruck-sack’, dispatches a couple of sentries, breaks into a storage tank, squeezes gelignite ‘like toothpaste from a stocking’, then clears the wall and reaches comparative safety. Then, ‘in one smart gesture’, he unzips the top of his water-proof suit, revealing a white dinner jacket, ‘complete with red carnation.’

Paul Dehn knew quite a lot about the use of gelignite, attacking storage tanks, and inserting secret agents into enemy territory. In fact, he was an expert. During the war, he had been a senior instructor at SOE’s training school in Beaulieu, and wrote a manual for the organization’s agents. Between 1943 and 1944, he was a senior instructor at Camp X, the centre in Canada set up to train SOE and OSS agents to be inserted behind enemy lines to conduct sabotage operations (he is second from left, below).

Dehn also took part in SOE operations himself, in both France and Norway. Camp X’s syllabus, much of which Dehn probably wrote, and with all of which he would have been very familiar, contained detailed instructions on how to kill sentries silently, place explosives in storage tanks and camouflage oneself when crossing water.

Peter Tazelaar undertook his mission in November 1941 with MI6, but he joined SOE later in the war. Following his brief capture by the Germans in January 1942, his use as an agent in Scheveningen was over. After escaping via Switzerland and Spain, he made his way back to Britain in April 1942, whereupon he was promptly dismissed from the Dutch navy for insubordination, a victim of political intrigues beyond his control. After a stint with the Commandos, Tazelaar also became a training instructor in Canada, at the Dutch military base in Guelph, following which he was recruited by SOE and parachuted back into Holland in 1944, from where he maintained radio contact with London for six months.

There is no evidence that Dehn ever met Tazelaar, either in England or Canada, but it seems likely he would have heard about such a remarkable operation from colleagues either during or after the war. One possible occasion came the year before he started work on Goldfinger. In December 1962, former SOE agent William Deakin organized a conference on wartime resistance in Europe at St Antony’s College, Oxford, of which he was warden. One of the lectures was by Dr Louis de Jong, the director of Holland’s State Institute for War Documentation, and in it he described Tazelaar’s ‘evening dress’ operation in detail. De Jong’s lecture was published in the proceedings of the conference in a limited mimeograph of fewer than 100 copies. Dehn may well have attended the conference or read de Jong’s lecture in the proceedings afterwards.

At any rate, the idea of the real operation seems too bizarre to have been thought up twice, so it seems likely that, one way or another, Paul Dehn learned of it through his contacts in Britain’s close-knit intelligence community and decided it was just the sort of daring mission suitable for James Bond. In drawing on real espionage history and expertise, Dehn created a sensational opening sequence that would become an iconic cinematic moment, but perhaps also paid secret tribute to the ingenuity and bravery of Allied secret agents he had worked with and heard about during the war. If so, that would have been very much in the spirit of Ian Fleming, who did much the same in his novels.

Dehn went on to work on the screenplays for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Deadly Affair and several other films. He died in 1976.

Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema continued to run operations on the coast of Holland, inserting agents, weapons and transmitters, before joining the Royal Air Force – he flew 72 missions in a Mosquito and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as the Militaire Willemsorde, the Netherlands’ highest military decoration. After the war, he emigrated to the United States. His autobiography, Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), was published in 1971 and was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven in 1977, with Rutger Hauer starring as a fictionalised version of him and Jeroen Krabbé as a composite of several characters, including Peter Tazelaar. Edward Fox played a version of Euan ‘The Rabbi’ Rabagliati.

Soldier of Orange was the most expensive Dutch film made to date, and helped pave the way for Verhoeven and Hauer’s careers in Hollywood. It was also a calling card for Krabbé. In the DVD documentary Inside The Living Daylights, the James Bond films' producer and writer Michael G Wilson mentions that Krabbé, who plays Koskov in The Living Daylights, had been brought to their attention by Soldier of Orange.

In 2003, Hazelhoff Roelfzema published In Pursuit Of Life, an expanded autobiography in English, including most of the material from Soldier of Orange. The introduction was by Len Deighton. Hazelhoff Roelfzema died in Hawaii in 2007.

Bob van der Stok also joined the RAF, but his Spitfire was shot down in France in 1942 and he was captured by the Germans. He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, but was one of the three men to tunnel his way out. In the film The Great Escape, James Coburn’s character was partly based on van der Stok. He died in 1993.

Peter Tazelaar’s life could have provided enough material for several films. Queen Wilhelmina also awarded him the Militaire Willemsorde, and in May 1945 he and Hazelhoff Roelfzema became her aides de camp. Tazelaar wasn’t satisfied with that, though, and went off to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to fight the Japanese. After that, he served with the military police during the Dutch colonial war in Indonesia, then became a CIA agent, carrying out several missions in eastern and central Europe during the 1950s. He died in 1993.

‘He had a lot in common with James Bond,’ says Victor Laurentius, author of a recently published biography, De Grote Tazelaar: Ridder & Rebel (‘The Great Tazelaar: Knight and Rebel’). ‘He was good looking, a cool womanizer, and in many ways an atypical spy.’ Laurentius points out that, like Bond, Tazelaar was an inveterate daredevil: during his operations, he spent significant amounts of time in casinos and other places crowded by German officers.

Real espionage is, of course, much less glamorous than a Bond film, even if you’re in black tie. Peter Tazelaar was one of the lucky ones: many Dutch agents ended up captured, tortured and shot. Nevertheless, his remarkable brandy-soaked stroll past the sentries at Scheveningen stands as one of the most imaginative and daring espionage operations of the Second World War. Next time you watch Goldfinger, spare a thought for the real spy who dared to journey behind enemy lines in a dinner jacket.

With many thanks to Guy Hamilton; Victor Laurentius; Lynn Hodgson, Renu Barrett at McMaster University Library, Ontario; Sophie Bridges at the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge; and Colleen Kelley at the Special Collections of the University of Iowa Libraries.


EH Cookridge, Set Europe Ablaze: Special Operations Executive in Western Europe 1940-1945 (Pan, 1969)
MRD Foot, SOE: The Special Operations Executive, 1940-1946 (BBC, 1984)
Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Soldier of Orange (Sphere, 1982)
Erik Hazelhoff, In Pursuit Of Life (Sutton, 2003)
Louis de Jong, Britain and Dutch Resistance, 1940-1945 (delivered at a conference on Britain and European resistance, St Anthony’s College, Oxford, December 10-16, 1962)
Victor Laurentius, De Grote Tazelaar, Ridder & Rebel (Stichting Peter Tazelaar, 2010)
Denis Rigden (introduction), SOE Syllabus: Lessons in Ungentlemanly Warfare, World War II (PRO, 2004)
Adrian Turner, On Goldfinger (Bloomsbury, 1998)

On the web:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Prisoners of the ice

In 1897, the first scientific expedition reached Antarctica. Jeremy Duns looks at the dramatic story of the Belgica

In the late 19th century, the world’s major powers were gripped with the fever of exploration. By 1890, man had set foot on most of the globe. Only Antarctica remained a mystery: a few outlying parts had been explored, but the continent’s interior was still virgin territory.

In England, the head of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham, was pushing for a major scientific expedition to Antarctica. On July 5, 1895, the Society held the sixth International Geographical Congress in London. The conference closed with a speech by the Marquis of Lothian:
“I should, too, like to say one word, which I think will appeal to many people, and that is that the work of Antarctic research should be done by Englishmen.”
As the conference ended, it looked as if Britain or one of the other major powers would soon launch an expedition to Antarctica. Few would have guessed that one of the conference’s quieter attendees, a 29-year-old lieutenant in the Belgian navy, would beat them all to it.

Adrien de Gerlache (pictured, right) was a hydrographer for the navy. Two years earlier, he had decided he wanted to be an explorer. “An initially vague idea was born,” he later wrote. “Why should I not myself undertake, on my own initiative, a voyage of discovery in the so little known area of the Antarctic?”

De Gerlache offered his services to the Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, but nothing came of it. Undeterred, he turned to the Belgian government - but it was preoccupied with the Congo, and not interested in ploughing money into some mad excursion to distant icy wastes. However, when de Gerlache raised 100,000 francs for the project through the Belgian Geographical Society, Parliament chipped in another 100,000 francs. It was still a fraction of what he needed but, inspired anew by the speeches he had heard in London, he set up fund-raising committees in towns across Belgium, organising conferences, concerts and parties to drum up support.

Eventually, he managed to raise 600,000 francs. It was around one tenth of the sum Markham was looking for in London – 100,000 pounds – but it was enough to mount a small expedition. In 1896, de Gerlache bought a small Norwegian three-master ship, the Patria, and renamed her Belgica. Then he set about looking for a crew. Among the applicants were Frederick Cook, an American doctor and photographer, who became the ship’s surgeon, and a 25-year-old Norwegian called Roald Amundsen, who became first mate.

On the morning of August 16, 1897, the Belgica left Antwerp. Its crew consisted of nine Belgians, six Norwegians, two Poles, an American and a Romanian. This multi-lingual crew contained something that none other had yet done: scientists. The Romanian was Emile Racovitza, a zoologist and botanist; oceanographers, geophysicists and meteorologists were also on board. Nobody was being paid, but to these young men – the average age was 28 – that hardly mattered. They were about to discover a continent.

The first disaster struck on January 22, 1898, when, stuck in a ferocious storm, Norwegian sailor August-Karl Wiencke climbed over the ship’s railings in an attempt to free the scupper. He fell overboard and drowned.

The death did not deter the crew, however, and they pushed on to the Antarctic Peninsula. The strait they discovered is now known as Gerlache Strait, and many parts of Antarctica are named as a result of Belgica’s pioneering work: Antwerp Island, Brabant Island, Mount Solvay. The latter was explored by Gerlache, Amundsen, Cook and a couple of others for three days and nights. The sector was mapped, and specimens of plants and animals were collected.

On February 18, 1898, de Gerlache spotted a large gap in the pack ice leading south. He decided to follow it. The scientists on board were less than keen, because the chances were high that they would become trapped by the pack ice. On March 5, this is precisely what happened, and some of the crew turned on de Gerlache, saying that he had wanted it to happen, as it meant that the Belgica’s crew would be the first men to winter in Antarctica. De Gerlache denied the charge, but insisted that they make the most of it. He mapped out a rota whereby everyone had eight hours of work, eight of leisure and eight of sleep. Nobody was allowed to step out of sight of the ship’s mast.

The winter took its toll, as polar night set in and the crew’s world was covered in darkness, fog and snow. On bad days, the temperature reached -37°C with strong winds. When they became bored of skiing or card games, they invented bizarre competitions, such as a beauty contest in which they picked out women from magazines, convincing themselves that when they got home, the winners of the competition would be so flattered that they would agree to commemorate the expedition (this didn’t happen).

Scurvy and stomach aches were the least of the problems: some men became hysterical and suffered from temporary dementia. On June 7 1898, Belgian physicist Emile Danco died of heart failure, plunging the crew into even deeper despair. For those suffering from heart palpitations, Cook introduced a strict diet:
'I prohibit all food except milk, cranberry sauce and fresh meat, either penguin or seal steaks fried in oleomargarine.'
That any scientific work was done in these circumstances is impressive, but when it finally broke the pack ice and returned to Antwerp in November 1899, the Belgica returned in triumph. Two men had died, but the crew had secured a scientific bounty: as well as the first detailed maps of much of the continent, they had undertaken oceanographic measurements and brought back hundreds of samples of fish, birds, flora and fauna.

The Belgica made Belgium known across the world, and its crew became heroes. Frederick Cook’s career would later become mired in controversy when it was revealed that he had falsely claimed an ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska, while in 1911, Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole. As leader of the expedition, de Gerlache had the honour of naming islands and coastlines that had been discovered; some were given in honour of crew members (including the two dead men) and others to areas of Belgium. De Gerlache later led expeditions to the Persian Gulf, Greenland and the Barentz Sea, and died in 1934. The Belgian Navy’s current research vessel is called the Belgica in honour of de Gerlache’s ship.

Select Bibliography

Frederick A Cook, Through The First Antarctic Night (C Hurst, 1980)
Hugo Decleir (editor), Roald Amundsen's Belgica diary: the first scientific expedition to the Antarctic (Erskine Press)
TH Baughman, Before The Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

This article was first published in The Bulletin magazine in January 2006.

On Human Bondage

Here's an article I wrote in 2008, about the Ian Fleming short story Quantum of Solace. At the time, the title of the story had just been chosen for the forthcoming Bond film, and there had been a lot of press about how 'unBondian' it was. The short story is often compared to the work of Somerset Maugham, but in my view is rather better than most of Maugham's work. In the article, I look at what I think Fleming was trying to achieve with the story, and how I feel it cuts to the heart of the humanity lurking within 007. You can read the original version of the article at James Bond fansite here, or you can read it below, where I've added some material and used a few different images. I hope you enjoy it.

On Human Bondage

Jeremy Duns takes a closer look at the Ian Fleming short story ‘Quantum of Solace’

‘James Bond said: “I’ve always thought that if I ever married I would marry an air hostess...”’

So begins Ian Fleming’s short story Quantum of Solace, first published in Cosmopolitan in 1959 and reprinted a year later as part of the collection For Your Eyes Only.

As with many of Fleming’s short stories, it is experimental – there is no space for our hero to foil the kind of major plot he does in the full-length novels, so instead Fleming treated his readers to an incidental episode in his character’s career – indeed, For Your Eyes Only was subtitled ‘Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond’ on its release.

The events in Quantum of Solace are only secret, it could be said, because nobody would bother to find out about them. The action is slight, and deliberately so. It is a story within a story; told by a British official in the tropics; at a dinner party he has given; about a scandalous and tragic love affair; that shows how cruel love can be; ending in a twist in which the characters are revealed to be other than who we thought they were; with the pay-off that appearances can be deceptive and that even the dullest most respectable-appearing people may have extraordinary life-changing dramas hidden in their past.

Each of these elements marks its debt to the short stories of the British writer W Somerset Maugham, who Fleming both knew and admired. In Maugham's 1934 collection Creatures of Circumstance – subtitled 'Fifteen Tales of Far And Near Places' – the stories A Casual Affair, The Happy Couple, A Point of Honour, The Colonel's Lady and Appearance and Reality all incorporate several of these elements, as do several others he wrote.

For those expecting a James Bond story to contain excitement and danger – in other words, everyone! – none of this bodes well: Quantum of Solace is essentially a piece of island gossip told to Bond in the wake of a dull dinner party by the governor of the Bahamas, with Bond reduced to the role of listener. Fleming was anxious at the time to sell film rights to his work, but it’s hard to think of elements less likely to attract such interest.

And yet the title of this story has just been announced as the name of the next James Bond film. Why? Is it simply because ‘it’s one of the last Fleming titles left’? Well, that probably does have something to do with it. Fleming’s name still has cachet – perhaps even more so this year considering the number of events planned by his estate to celebrate his centenary – and the massive success of 2006’s adaptation of Casino Royale seems to have emboldened the film’s producers. But Quantum of Solace means more than that. The concept of it is central to Ian Fleming’s work, and its success. The phrase is used by the governor to sum up the story he has just told Bond, about the cruelty of a young husband toward his unfaithful wife:
‘The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: “You’re not married, but I think it’s the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn’t care if the other is alive or dead, then it’s just no good. That particular insult to the ego – worse, to the instinct of self-preservation – can never be forgiven. I’ve noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I’ve seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I’ve seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster – all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I’ve thought about this and I’ve invented a rather high-sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace.”’
The power of the short story comes from the sincerity of the above speech. Fleming was an excellent mimic as a writer, and the story to this point follows the Maugham pattern perfectly. But while Maugham also frequently concluded his stories with a moral, Fleming – unhappily married when he wrote the passage – cuts free from the formula by speaking from the heart. The passage is remarkable for its contrivance, its precision: it is something important to the writer to get across, and we are conscious that it is in fact the writer’s view. While this should be a weakness, the message overcomes it. Fleming was appealing for compassion in human relations, for warmth and intimacy – and understanding from his wife.

The effect is hammered home when Bond, who through his previous adventures has repeatedly been described as cold and ruthless, and who earlier in this story appears laconic and jaded, immediately drops that customary mask and takes up the Governor’s theme:
‘Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself.’
Cold, ruthless Bond is also, of course, the first to fall for a beautiful woman, and before long would marry (albeit to a countess rather than an air hostess). And that is perhaps a large part of Fleming’s enduring appeal: despite the weight of criticism judging him to be a sado-masochistic misogynist, there is a streak of romanticism in his work, and a consistent focus on what Graham Greene would later call ‘the human factor’. It is an oddity that those who condemn James Bond as a super-heroic fantasy figure with no relation to real life are sometimes the first to complain about a story in which Bond doesn’t go on any fantastic adventures. The poignancy of Quantum of Solace is that it shows how the seemingly mundane can be more powerful than the highest melodrama. ‘Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow,’ Bond thinks to himself at the end of the story. A half-hearted mission to stop some Castro rebels now seems ‘the stuff of an adventure-strip in a cheap newspaper’:
‘He had sat next to a dull woman at a dull dinner party and a chance remark had opened for him the book of real violence – of the Comédie Humaine where human passions are raw and real, where Fate plays a more authentic game than any Secret Service conspiracy devised by Governments.’
The reference to a newspaper comic strip may be a pointer to Fleming’s motivation for writing the story – The Daily Express had started running comic-strip adaptations of the Bond novels a year earlier. Fleming had initially been reluctant, fearing that such a move might lower his literary credibility. Quantum of Solace may have been his response to Bond’s growing success, and an attempt to move a character he was increasingly losing control over in another direction.

Regardless of its origins, it is an important piece in Fleming’s canon, partly because it serves as a counter-balance to the rest of his work. Without it, one could arguably see all Bond’s missions as the stuff of cheap adventure strips (and indeed, many have done and continue to do so regardless). But once one has read the story, Bond becomes a much more human and moving figure – no mere ‘cardboard booby’, as Fleming once disparagingly called him. As a result of Bond reflecting on the unreality of his mission here, his other adventures seem more real. The story deftly reverses the traditional relationship between author and reader in ‘escapist’ literature. Here, Fleming effectively tells us that our own lives are far more interesting than Bond’s, and Bond in turn longs to escape into our world.

Perhaps another layer still is the relationship between Fleming and Bond – what is their quantum of solace? Fleming famously felt constrained by his character as his work progressed, and frequently tried to ‘destroy’ Bond. This usually meant his physical person, as in the shock ending of From Russia, With Love. Here, Fleming purposefully set out to destroy Bond’s popular image, by denying readers the type of adventure for which they were now clamouring.

The governor’s speech, therefore, is a statement of philosophy from a writer who was already becoming tired, both of life and the formula of his art. Fleming was attempting to take Bond somewhere he had not been before. Not a jungle in South America or the wastes of the Arctic, but somewhere internal – ‘the book of real violence’, human emotions. It may be a failed thriller story because Bond ‘does nothing’, but it is a successful Maugham-style story because it is infiltrated by Bond. There is a friction between the two worlds that gives the tale that satisfying crunch of interlocking ideas that should conclude every short story. Despite being written off by most critics as simply ‘Maugham-esque’, the story is better written and more moving than much of Maugham’s work.

Fleming never returned to the experiment he began in Quantum of Solace; although James Bond became an increasingly human figure in subsequent adventures, they were all nevertheless adventures in a way this story defiantly was not. However, the message at the heart of the story informs all his work, and was also key to the revitalising of the character in the last film, Casino Royale (the final Fleming novel to be adapted). Although it appears that the short story will not be directly referenced in the film currently in production, the ‘rather high-sounding title’ is not merely a token nod to the creator of James Bond – it’s a very astute recognition of one of his signature themes.

Angry Young Spy

John Braine holds a curious position in the canon of spy fiction: very few know he’s in it.

He’s most famous for being one of the Angry Young Men, a group of British writers in the 1950s – including Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne and Kingsley Amis – who rebelled against the establishment in excoriating novels and plays about working-class life. Braine’s novel Room at the Top is a modern classic; the 1959 film adaptation of it, starring Laurence Harvey, won two Academy Awards, despite receiving an 'X' certificate in Britain.

The work of the Angry Young Men had a significant impact on the spy novel – until their arrival, the spy genre had predominantly featured patriotic upper-class gentlemen beating off plots by Johnny Foreigner with a customised walking stick as something to while away the time before the hunting season begun. The nameless anti-hero of Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File and its sequels has a few things in common with Joe Lampton, the anti-hero of Room at the Top.

Deighton helped legitimise the spy novel, but the gentlemen adventurers still prospered, notably in the work of Ian Fleming, although even James Bond was described in Moonraker as not looking like 'the sort of chap one usually sees in Blades’ (Fleming's fictional gentleman's club). James Bond may have been expelled from Eton, but he still wore Savile Row suits. Bondmania took hold in the Sixties, and this led to a proliferation of imitators. In 1968, following Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis, fellow Angry Young Man and a friend of Braine, wrote the Bond novel Colonel Sun. This, and an earlier book by Amis on the Bond phenomenon, went some way to legitimising Fleming’s species of adventures. But it wasn’t for another eight years that Braine tried his hand at a spy thriller.

Published in 1975, The Pious Agent was marketed as a Bond clone: the cover of the paperback featured a young woman wearing black lace underwear being held by a man holding a gun, with a rosary wrapped around his knuckles. And there are certainly plenty of Flemingesque (or should that be “Flemish”?) touches. Braine’s hero, Xavier Flynn, is a half-Irish, half-British counter-espionage agent who is also a devout Roman Catholic. He drives fast, has easy sex with beautiful women, and goes after a terrorist group called F.I.S.T., standing for Fear, Insurrection, Sabotage and Terror. But stylistically, the novel is much more akin to early Deighton (or the other way round). Flynn is working class, a rough diamond, religious but still deeply cynical.

This book, incidentally, opened my eyes to Donald Hamilton: the villain has a bookshelf with first editions of the James Bond and Matt Helm series. It’s also a brilliant thriller, and deserves to be much better known.

A sequel, Finger of Fire, was published in 1977. While it’s not quite as good as the previous installment, it’s still great stuff. At one point in the novel, a villain calls Flynn 'a smudged carbon-copy of James Bond'. He's much more than that, although one of the reasons I like these two books is to see a twist on the familiar themes. Here’s a chance to get all the stuff you like about Bond, but with the thrill of the unfamiliar; to immerse yourself in another formula, a new iconography. Flynn drinks Bison vodka, prays for his victims, and his agency uses CS Lewis’ Narnia novels as a base for its codes. Somehow, it doesn’t feel contrived: Flynn is as much his own man as Deighton's unnamed narrator (he was given the name Harry Palmer for the films).

What really lifts these two books, though, particularly the first, is the writing: you start out thinking you're reading a well-crafted Bond clone, and by the end you feel like you've put down a minor classic. Both novels are widely available at online used books specialists such as Bookfinder. Do seek them out!

The real dogs of war

Dozens of books and films have told the stories of mercenaries in Africa. Jeremy Duns looks at the reality behind the myths

On November 30 1968, Paris Match published a story titled 'Biafra: Final Mission'. Dramatic black-and-white photos by Gilles Caron showed a group of Nigerian soldiers carrying a large white man across a river. The man, who had been shot in the stomach and heart, was Marc Goossens, a Belgian mercenary. When the soldiers reached the other side of the river, Goossens' fellow mercenaries searched his pockets and found his last pay-check – 4,000 US dollars – and a photograph of his girlfriend back in Ostend.

Goossens was one of several Belgian mercenaries in Africa in the 1960s. As a colonial power and home to one of the world's most prestrigious arms manufacturers, Fabrique National, Belgium was a natural recruiting ground for mercenary operations – some say it still is. In 2005, Mark Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister, pleaded guilty to breaking anti-mercenary laws in Equatorial Guinea, following accusations that he had financed a coup attempt in the oil-rich West African state. Newspapers focused on Thatcher and other high-profile British establishment figures alleged to have been involved, and on the background of the mercenaries' leader, Simon Mann (below), an Old Etonian and former member of Britain's special forces.

Few reports mentioned that the coup attempt had been a shambolic affair: the 'mercs' had flown into Harare in a plane that still carried the markings of the American Air National Guard, and had compounded the error by travelling with their weapons. Within minutes of landing, Mann and his associates were arrested by Zimbabwe's security forces. Many of the plotters were imprisoned.

The exploits of 'soldiers of fortune' have been told in countless books and films, but rarely do the accounts linger on the manacled, humiliated mercenary rotting in a jail cell, or the half-naked corpse being dragged through the bush.

Many of the myths of the modern mercenary started in the Congo. In the days after its independence from Belgium in June 30, 1960, the country rapidly spiralled out of control. Following a mutiny in the army, the local leader of the province of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, declared independence from the rest of the country. In February 1961, the country's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba (below), was assassinated with the complicity of the American and Belgian governments.

In 1964, Tshombe became prime minister, only to be deposed by General Joseph Mobutu the next year. Friends of Tshombe planned a second secession of Katanga, and on July 5, 1967, a 36-year-old Belgian plantation owner-turned-mercenary, Jean 'Black Jack' Schramme, who had been involved in the first secession, took 11 white mercenaries and around 100 Katangans to Stanleyville, where they fired on a Congolese army camp, killing troops and their families.

The Congolese army retaliated by killing 30 Katangan mercenaries (who had not been involved), after which Schramme's private army, nicknamed the Leopard Battalion, grew to around 1,000, 160 of which were foreign fighters. The Congolose army was around 30,000 strong. After weeks of fighting, the Leopard Battalion retreated to Bukavu, a coastal resort that had once been favoured by the Belgian colonisers.

Schramme set up a headquarters in the city's Royal Residence Hotel and issued an ultimatum to Mobutu in Kinshasa, giving him 10 days to negotiate peace. His terms included a return to democratic rule in the country and to appoint Tshombe – who was imprisoned in Algeria on treason charges – to his cabinet.

Mobutu refused, saying he would never negotiate with assassins (an ironic charge, considering that he is likely to have smoothed the way for the Americans and Belgians to assassinate Lumumba). Schramme warned that he might attack Kinshasa. 'We have shown that the Congolese National Army is incapable of defeating us.'

Schramme's men held Bukavu for seven weeks, after which Mobutu sent in paratroopers, followed by 15,000 regular troops. Frenchman Bob Denard had his own brigade of mercenaries – the infamous 'Affreux' – in Angola and tried to cut across to help Schramme, but was driven back by air strikes. On October 29, the Congolese army moved into Bukavu; a week later, the surviving members of Schramme's 'white giants' fled over the border to Rwanda.

While Schramme and his men were taking on the Congolese army, mercenaries were also flying into Nigeria. In May, the eastern region of the country had formed a breakaway state called Biafra. In the ensuing civil war, both sides recruited foreign mercenaries. There were about a dozen on the Biafran side, including Frenchman Denard, Briton 'Mad Mike' Hoare, 'Taffy' Williams, a South African of Welsh origin, and a German, Rolf Steiner. The Nigerians had Egyptian pilots loaned to them by the Russians, and John Peters, a Brit who had also been in the Congo.

It was an unusual situation: groups of mercenaries hadn't fought on opposite sides since the Carlist wars in Spain in the 19th century. The fear of killing old friends sometimes led to stalemates, and some commentators feel that the use of mercenaries helped prolong the civil war: more decisive action from them might have meant an end to their monthly salaries (transferred into Swiss bank accounts).

From 1968, Steiner, a former member of the Hitler Youth who had fought in Indo-China and Algeria, led the Biafrans' 4th Commando Brigade, which adopted a skull and crossbones insignia. The brigade was 3,000-strong at one point, and 'Big Marc' Goossens was one of around a dozen mercenaries serving in it. He had never planned to go to Biafra, but after a row with his girlfriend had left Belgium on an impulse.

In September '68, the 4th Commando mercenaries went on strike over outstanding salaries; according to the memoirs of Major-General Alexander Madiebo, who was commander of the Biafran Army, the transfer of fresh funds was negotiated by Steiner's interpreter at the time, former BBC and Reuters journalist Frederick Forsyth. Two months later, in an assault on Onitsha, Goossens met his end. 'One good thing about this war is that we're fighting the English on the other side!' he was reported to have said just hours before his death, seemingly forgetting that several Brits were also on his 'side'.

'Black Jack' Schramme never reappeared after the Congo, although rumours about him continued to be spread through books and films: one was that he fled to South America. Forsyth (pictured right), wrote a non-fiction work about the Nigerian civil war, The Biafra Story, before turning his hand to fiction. In 1978, after the worldwide success of his thriller The Day Of The Jackal, an article in The Sunday Times claimed that in 1973 Forsyth had helped fund an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea by mercenaries who had previously worked in Biafra.

Forsyth denied the allegation, but he had already written The Dogs of War, which featured fictionalised versions of Steiner and the other mercenaries he had met in Biafra attempting to take over a mineral-rich West African country; Goossens was the inspiration for the character 'Tiny' Marc Vlaminck. Forsyth had written and researched much of the novel in Equatorial Guinea, and in 2006 he admitted that he had played a small part in the aborted coup attempt, posing as a South African arms-dealer to attend a meeting of gun-runners in Germany – his cover was apprarently blown when one of the arms dealers saw his photograph in the window of a Hamburg bookshop promoting the German edition of The Day of The Jackal.

No books or films will be made about Marc Goossens – all that remains of 'Big Marc' from Ostend are a few photos in an old issue of Paris Match.

A version of this article was first publised in The Bulletin magazine in February 2005.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shooting gallery

When I met my British publishers, Simon & Schuster, for the first time, we had a long conversation about jacket art.  'No guns' was something we agreed to fairly quickly, for fear of putting off female readers – there's a love story, albeit of a pretty twisted sort, at the core of my debut novel, Free Agent. Well, in the end the British hardback (right) did feature a gun, and I'm very glad it did because I think it was a superb cover.

As the American paperback, due out next month from Penguin (left), also features a gun on the jacket – and I am equally pleased with it! – it looks like I have entered 'thriller-writer with guns on his jackets' territory.

Well, I could be in worse company. Below are a few scans of thriller jackets from my own collection – just click to enlarge them. Which do you think work best?

Creating Klebb

Rosa Klebb was one of James Bond's most ruthless enemies, and one of Ian Fleming’s most memorable characters. Jeremy Duns reveals some surprising truths about the real secret agents who inspired her creation

In his 1957 novel From Russia, With Love, Ian Fleming created one of the most loathsome villains in the thriller genre, the ‘toad-like’ Soviet counter-intelligence officer Major Rosa Klebb. An ogress with poison-tipped daggers concealed in her shoes, this ‘dreadful chunk of a woman’ was memorably played in the film adaptation by Lotte Lenya (pictured above right). But the character was in fact a composite of three real Soviet agents, filtered through Fleming’s prodigious imagination.

Major Tamara Nicolayeva Ivanova was one of Soviet intelligence's 'few female high officials' and 'an over-worked nervous spinster', according to Soviet Spy Net by E.H. Cookridge. Cookridge was a pseudonym for former British agent Edward Spiro, and this book, published in Britain in 1955, is a highly coloured account of the activities of Russian intelligence agencies around the world – Fleming used it as the background source for several novels. Ivanova was an instructor of Nikolai Khokhlov, the Soviet agent who defected to the Americans in Germany in 1954, claiming he had been sent to assassinate an anti-Communist activist in Frankfurt. The Americans wasted no time in showing the world press the would-be assassin’s equipment, which included a gold cigarette case that concealed an electrically operated gun capable of firing cyanide-tipped bullets. In Fleming’s From Russia, With Love, the fearsome assassin Red Grant tells his masters at SMERSH that they gave Khokhlov's mission to the wrong man: 'I wouldn’t have gone over to the Yanks.'

Fleming was also inspired by Emma Wolff, an apparently hideous NKVD agent based in Vienna who had dyed red hair. Fleming had been told about her by Rachel Terry, who wrote thrillers under the name Sarah Gainham and who was married to Fleming’s friend and colleague Antony Terry.

The third inspiration for the character was more unusual. In Fleming’s novel, Klebb is a member of the deadly SMERSH. This Soviet organization was real, although Fleming sensationalized many of its working methods and responsibilities. He had first written about it in his debut novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, but his interest was reignited by the case of the Russian cipher expert Vladimir Petrov, who defected to Australia in 1954. Discussing the case in his Sunday Times column Atticus, Fleming brought in his knowledge of SMERSH agents – or Beria's 'messengers of death' as he called them – and also mentioned a mysterious 'Madame Rybkin', who he thought might be the most powerful woman in espionage; according to Fleming's biographer John Pearson, this sowed the seed of Klebb.

Colonel Zoya Rybkina (right), operating under the alias 'Madam Yartseva', was the head of the German section of the NKVD – the predecessor of the KGB – throughout the Second World War. She was responsible for the selection, organization and training of Soviet sabotage and reconnaissance groups, selecting radio operators, translators, skydivers, and skiers for her agents.

She also did her own spying. In May 1941, she attended a reception in Moscow for the German ambassador Werner von Schulenburg. While waltzing with von Schulenburg, Rybkina, 'an elegant figure in a velvet dress', noticed that a neighbouring room in the embassy had had paintings removed from the walls. Coupled with a glimpse of some suitcases and overheard remarks from the surrounding German diplomats', she realized that the Nazis were intending to invade the Soviet Union. On June 17 1941, five days before Operation Barbarossa began, she delivered a report to Stalin to warn him. But Uncle Joe did not believe her, thinking he was being fed disinformation.

After the war, Rybkina's career took a surprising turn: under the name Zoya Voskresenskaya, she became famous throughout the Soviet Union as a children's writer, penning a series of best-selling stories following the adventures of Lenin as a boy, two of which were made into successful films. Between 1962 and 1980, over 21 million copies of her books were in print. Another wartime intelligence officer who became a children’s author, of course, was Ian Fleming, who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, published in 1964.

Rybkina died in Moscow in 1992. It seems unlikely that she ever learned that she was the inspiration for one of James Bond’s most fearsome villains – or that Ian Fleming ever knew about the second career of the real Rosa Klebb.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In conversation with Penguin

Here's an interview I did with Penguin in the US in 2008, when they were gearing up to publish Free Agent in hardback (it's out in paperback on June 29). You can find it at the Free Agent Reading Guide on their site here, or read it below. I've snipped some of the questions appended from the Reading Guide, which give quite a lot of the plot away. Anyway, here it is:

Q. What made you decide to make your protagonist a double agent?

I wanted to write a spy thriller set in the Cold War, but I wanted to bring a fresh perspective to it rather than simply repeating what had already been done. The hunt for a double agent, or mole, is a plot in many spy novels of that period, but very few take the viewpoint of the moles. I wondered what it would have been like to be one of the Cambridge Ring. How would it have felt to deceive everyone around you and live in constant fear of exposure? It seemed like an interesting and suspenseful situation and I thought it would allow me to explore the Cold War through new eyes.

Q. Of the many now-infamous British double agents, who do you think was most interesting and why?

I find them all interesting, but I’d have to say Kim Philby. He got the furthest of them all, becoming very senior in MI6, and almost everyone who knew him found him extremely intelligent and charming company. In his memoirs, published in the late sixties, he painted a picture of himself as a man who stuck to his principles through thick and thin. But some of those who knew him in his later years in Moscow have since revealed that he was terribly disappointed by the reality of life under Soviet rule. There’s been much more written about him than the others, but for good reason, I think.

Q. Is Dark himself based on a real double agent?

He has a roughly similar background to the Cambridge Ring, but other than that, no one in particular. He heads the Soviet department of MI6, as Philby did, and has a troubled relationship with his father, like Donald Maclean. Some scenes were inspired by real events. His rummaging around Templeton’s house, for example, was inspired by an account of Anthony Blunt’s clearing up Guy Burgess’s flat after he and Maclean fled.

Q. For a work of fiction, you include an extensive bibliography. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in the course of your research?

I was surprised at some of the declassified material. For example, the Foreign Office’s dossier on Harold Wilson’s trip to Nigeria included a long letter from a British professor who had just visited the country, volunteering his impressions of all the leading players in the war. This was seized by officials and some of it went into the briefing notes given to Wilson for his visit. I read a lot of surprising and fascinating material, only a fraction of which made it into the novel.

Q. What do you think it is about the Cold War period that continues to fascinate?

It was a decades-long war conducted largely in secret across the globe, and it brought the world to the brink of destruction. It was waged across many spheres and the effects of it are still felt today—and there’s still a lot we don’t know about it.

Q. A character mockingly refers to Dark as 007. What are the challenges of writing a spy thriller in the post-Bond world?

James Bond still dominates the espionage genre, and writing about a British secret agent in the Sixties probably made me more conscious of this. It does become hard to use some ideas without bringing Bond to mind, but sometimes I aimed to do that. The first chapter, for example, is a play on those scenes in Ian Fleming’s novels in which M summons Bond to tell him about his next mission—with a twist.

Q. Dark seems to combine 007’s charm and ruthlessness with the moral ambiguity of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Who are your literary influences?

Fleming was an influence, as was Patricia Highsmith, although I hope Dark’s a more empathetic character than Ripley. I was also inspired by John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, Elleston Trevor, and Geoffrey Household to name a few.

Q. To what extent do you believe the Cold War is responsible for the problems Africa currently faces?

I think in some cases the dynamics of the Cold War exacerbated existing situations. Nigeria was already facing problems as it emerged from colonial rule and the civil war began without any other nations becoming involved, but the superpowers’ involvement undoubtedly prolonged the war. Africa was in some ways a distant battlefield on which the opposing sides of the Cold War could try to exert influence, selling ideas and weapons, often with disastrous results. Some African countries are still recovering from that, and some are experiencing it in new forms.

Q. Will Paul Dark make another appearance? What are you working on now?

Free Agent is the first part of a trilogy featuring Paul Dark, with all three novels taking place in 1969. I’ve just finished writing the second novel, Free Country, which is mostly set in Italy, and have begun researching and making notes for the third book.