Friday 11 November 2011

The Stone Roses by Sarah Gainham: the Inspiration for the Manchester Band's Name? (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959)

This final Sarah Gainham spy novel I'm showcasing was again recommended to me by spy novelist and espionage aficionado Jeremy Duns. But our tweeted conversation about it largely centred on the influence it had on a legendary – and recently reformed – Manchester band dear to both our hearts rather than on the novel itself...

The Stone Roses was first published in hardback in the UK by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1958, under a striking photographic dustjacket by Christopher Macartney-Filgate, who may, or may not, be related to the filmmaker Terence-Macartney-Filgate (now that's what I call in-depth, detailed research). Set in Prague in 1948 (most, if not all, of Sarah Gainham's early thrillers are set in the past), shortly after the Communist Party coup d'état, the novel is narrated by Toby Elyat, a journalist who is sent to Czechoslovakia to cover the rigged May elections. But Toby has a parallel mission: to find the missing brother of a beautiful female Czech specialist in English affairs – a mission which will see him tangle with the Russian MVD...

Copies of the first edition of The Stone Roses are fairly thin on the ground; AbeBooks currently has around twenty copies of the novel listed for sale, but only five of those are the Eyre & Spottiswoode first, ranging in price from £12 to £20. Frankly, I'm surprised there are that many, because for fans a certain iconic late-1980s/early 1990s Manchester band, The Stone Roses boasts a special significance.

Legend has it that John Squire, guitarist and co-songwriter in – of course – The Stone Roses, decided to name his band after Sarah Gainham's fourth novel after either seeing a copy on his mum's bookshelf or finding a battered paperback himself. Now, that may, of course, be complete bollocks – there are at least two other rumoured origins of the band's name floating around out there – but Squire being a cultured, artistic sort, and in the absence of a firm denial either from him or from fellow bandmembers Ian Brown, Mani or Reni, it strikes me as an entirely plausible explanation for their name.

But why, you may be wondering, should all this be of interest to me (or indeed to Jeremy Duns, who made me aware of the Roses connection and got me interested in Gainham in the first place)? Well, I was – still am, I suppose; I'm certainly intrigued by the prospect of new material from them now they've reformed – a huge Stone Roses fan (as, I believe, is Jeremy). I was a student in Manchester during the Roses' – and the Happy Mondays, and the Inspiral Carpets (who, it seems, have also reformed, and with their original singer, no less) and the rest – heyday, from 1989 to 1992, making the pilgrimage to the Hacienda every week, seeing all the leading lights live at various venues (G-Mex for the Mondays, the International 2 for the Inspirals, the Uni for The Charlatans...). I was at Spike Island, the near-mythical Stone Roses gig near Widnes, and me and a mate once even followed vocalist Ian Brown when we happened to see him on a Manchester street. (He went to the bank, and then into someone's flat. Brilliant.) So if Sarah Gainham's The Stone Roses really was the inspiration for the band's name, then to own a first edition of it is, to a Roses enthusiast such as myself, a fine thing indeed.

Anyway, that's it for Sarah Gainham for the moment... but that's for from it for the spy fiction. Because quite soon it'll be spy fiction (almost) all the way on Existential Ennui, as I embark on a series of series of posts on... well, various spy series. The identities of the authors of those novels shall remain, for the moment, and appropriately, given the subject matter, a secret, but I can reveal some other surnames you'll be encountering before too long; names such as Behrens, Calder, Christopher, Drake, Durell, Fedora, Helm, Rees, Russell, Wilde, and, er, "anonymous".

Alongside all that there will of course be the usual scattering of Violent World of Parker cross-posts, the first of which, a review of Richard Stark's Lemons Never Lie, will, likely as not, turn up ahead of the spy fiction. And there may even be a post – or possible even two posts – before that, depending on what the weekend brings. I'm assisting me mum with her inaugural Beckenham Book Fair on Saturday, at the Elm Road Baptist Church (opens 10.30am), so that may be worth a missive, and on Sunday I'm planning on attending the London Royal National Hotel and Holiday Inn Book Fairs – the two biggest such events in the country – for the first time, so again, if that proves fruitful, I may sling up a post. We shall see...

Thursday 10 November 2011

The Mythmaker; a Spy Fiction Novel by Sarah Gainham: First Edition (Arthur Barker, 1957), John Dugan Cover Art

Continuing this run of posts on the spy novels of British author Sarah Gainham, next we turn to her third work of espionage fiction:

The Mythmaker was first published in hardback in the UK in 1957 by Arthur Barker, under the kind of splendid, restricted-palette, hand-cut-lettered and illustrated dustjacket which was prevalent in British book publishing in the 1950s and '60s, but which has since sadly slipped out of fashion (with the odd exception, such as the book covers designed by Lewes' very own Neil Gower) – see these posts on other examples by largely (and unjustly) overlooked illustrators like Donald Green, John Rowland, Roy Sanford and Peter Probyn. The artist in the case of The Mythmakers is the similarly neglected John Dugan, whose illustrations appeared on a number of Barker covers in the 1950s, among them an edition of Defoe's Moll Flanders, as well as featuring in various Enid Blyton books.

AbeBooks currently has eight copies of The Mythmaker listed for sale worldwide, six of those being the Barker first edition, ranging from a few quid to around £20, so it's certainly more attainable than firsts of her preceding novel, The Cold Dark Night, of which AbeBooks has just two at present. As I mentioned in my initial Sarah Gainham post on Tuesday, The Mythmaker, which is set in 1947 and for the most part in Vienna, was inspired by Gainham's own experiences in that city at that time. The story centres on Kit Quest, a young English officer who's dispatched on a mission to Austria to trace Otto Berger, Hitler's (fictional, I believe) personal servant, but as with The Cold Dark Night, the book is as much a picture of the city and the time in which it's set as it is a spy story – perhaps more so.

Gainham said of her novels, "they are not really fiction at all, only written as fiction", and in the shape of Kit we have a protagonist who, according to contemporary spy novelist Jeremy Duns, "is a thinly disguised portrait of Ian Fleming". Gainham knew the creator of James Bond well – very well, in fact; reportedly he attempted to seduce her – and Jeremy maintains that The Mythmaker – which is one of two Gainham novels Mr. Duns recommended to me – is also "a comment on Bond" and "one of a handful of thrillers to be influenced by and comment on Fleming before the [Bond] films."

Which brings me to the third and final Sarah Gainham work I'll be looking at, which was the other one of her novels Jeremy Duns recommended, and which was, in a way, an influence itself, this time on an unlikely beneficiary: an iconic – and particular favourite of mine – British rock band who've very recently reformed...

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Spy Fiction Book Review: The Cold Dark Night, a Novel by Sarah Gainham (Arthur Barker, 1957)

After yesterday's introduction to British author Sarah Gainham, let's turn to the first of three of her spy novels I'll be examining this week:

The Cold Dark Night was first published in hardback in the UK by Arthur Barker in 1957, under a wonderfully evocative but sadly uncredited illustrated dustjacket (there's a partial signature on the bottom right corner of the cover, but the jacket is damaged and I can't quite make it out). The author's second novel following 1956's Time Right Deadly, it's based on Gainham's own experiences as a journalist in Berlin in 1954 – which is where and when the story is set – covering the Conference of Four Powers.

In his 1977 survey Who's Who in Spy Fiction, Donald McCormick quotes Gainham as saying, "All the best spy thrillers whose origins are known seem to be based on reality. Certainly my own stories were: they are not really fiction at all, only written as fiction." That close adherence to at least a form of reality is evident in The Cold Dark Night, which is narrated in the first person by Joe Purdey, a young American journalist recently arrived in Berlin to cover the conference for the World. Purdey becomes involved with Gisela Schill, an East Zone emigre whose husband, Horst, returned to the east at the behest of a Western Intelligence handler, and is now missing. Gradually, a complex tapestry of subterfuge, corruption and desperation – involving sundry journos, various military types and a scattering of shady secret agents, not to mention innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders – unfurls, as the murder of a journalistic colleague of Purdey's leads to a showdown between Russian and British forces at the abandoned Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus straddling west and east zones.

The Cold Dark Night is illuminating on the low-level espionage which was endemic in 1950s Berlin. The secret services of the various Western powers routinely used emigres as their front-line troops, sending them into the East Zone on trifling but dangerous missions, from which the hapless amateur agents were, often as not, destined never to return. This was a grubby sort of spying at the sharp end of the increasingly frosty Cold War, and The Cold Dark Night portrays it in what feels like an authentic fashion – especially when you take into account the fact that Gainham was herself both a journalist and a spy, and therefore perfectly placed to observe – and probably participate in – these activities.

In a way, the novel is a spy story by default; there are no James Bonds or George Smileys, merely a collection of wretched refugees whose motivations for spying range from the financial to the fraternal rather than out of any duty to king and country. Gainham is interested in people, with all their human foibles and failings, whether they be journalists – the main players here – regular city denizens, or the administrative military personnel who control Berlin; indeed, the cast of The Cold Dark Night is so extensive that at times it's tough keeping tabs on who's who. But Gainham is also interested in Berlin as a place – she lived there herself – and paints a compelling, vivid picture of a shattered city being shepherded into a slow recovery on one side and steadily succumbing to a dark nightmare on the other.

There's a brief, moving preface in the book which sheds light on how the facts on the ground informed the writing of the novel, and on the fate of one character in particular: 

There is a city called Berlin, and a Conference of Four Powers was held there in the bitter winter of 1954, but none of the people in this story were among those present. They are all inventions except for one person. "Horst Schill" was a real man, and his story is true. Unfortunately, it was not possible to ask his permission to include him. He has gone where nobody is likely ever again to ask his leave for anything.

August 31, 1956

One suspects that, despite Gainham's protestations, more than a few of the protagonists in the novel were based on real people, but the fate of the real Horst Schill lends the plight of the "fictional" Horst an added poignancy.

And from Sarah Gainham's second novel we move to her third – another work of espionage fiction which is a particular favourite of spy novelist Jeremy Duns, and which features a male lead supposedly based on Ian Fleming's famous secret agent...

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Spy Thrillers of Sarah Gainham: an Introduction to the Author and a Bibliography

For the remainder of the week on Existential Ennui I'll be blogging about Sarah Gainham (1915–1999), a British author who had thirteen novels published between 1956 and 1983 – all of which, I believe, have fallen out of print. The most famous of those is probably 1967's Night Falls on the City, a bestselling account of life among theatre folk in Austria during the Nazi years, the first of a trilogy also comprising A Place in the Country (1968) and Private Worlds (1971). By and large her novels are concerned with central European cities and the people who dwell in them, especially Vienna, where she lived from 1947.

So far, so unremarkable, at least as regards Existential Ennui, the established remit of this blog being, for the most part, works of genre. But Sarah Gainham did, in fact, begin her career writing genre fiction. Her initial five novels from 1956's Time Right Deadly to 1960's The Silent Hostage are all, ostensibly, suspense and spy thrillers, and it's those books that I'll be concentrating on this week, in particular three consecutive works which are all of an espionage bent.

As has been the case previously, Gainham came to my attention courtesy of spy novelist, espionage aficionado, and friend of Existential Ennui, Jeremy Duns, who mentioned her during a tweeted conversation earlier this year. Jeremy informed me that Gainham – real name Rachel Terry-Ames nee Stainer, "Sarah Gainham" being a nom de plume taken from her maternal great-grandmother – was for a time married to the investigative journalist Antony Terry, a friend and colleague of James Bond creator Ian Fleming (Fleming hired Terry to The Sunday Times, where Fleming was Foreign Manager, in 1949). According to Jeremy it was Gainham who drew Fleming's attention to the Soviet agent Emma Wolff, the basis – along with two other female Soviet operatives – for the memorable From Russia, with Love character Rosa Klebb. (The estimable Mr. Duns explains all in this post on his essential blog The Debrief.)

Quite apart from her genre connections, however, Gainham was an interesting individual in her own right. Born in Islington, north London, in 1915 (although she claimed she was born in 1922), like many of the characters in her books Gainham became a journalist, writing for The Economist, Atlantic Monthly and The Spectator, where she was Central and Eastern European Correspondent. But she was also, Jeremy Duns recently revealed to me, employed by MI6 – as was Antony Terry, for whom Gainham researched a document – commissioned by Ian Fleming – titled "East-West Routes for Agents", on how to gain access to West Berlin from East; see Berlin to Bond and Beyond (2007) by Terry's stepdaughter, Judith Lenart, for more.

Gainham's first stint in Vienna – initially working with the Four Power Commission – informed the writing of her third novel, The Mythmaker, which, although published in 1957, is set in 1947 Vienna. In his 1977 survey Who's Who in Spy Fiction, Donald McCormick quotes Gainham as saying, "When I arrived in Vienna I was, like nearly all English people at that time, pronouncedly pro-Russian, as well as being young, ignorant and self-opinionated. It was the Russians who cured me in about six weeks." (In her at-the-time private correspondence to McCormick, Gainham again confirmed hers and Terry's MI6 connections, stating, "Certainly I did have links with intelligence – what do you think Antony has been doing all these years?") Gainham's negative view of the Soviets may well have been shaped, too, by her first-hand experience of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising – a sentiment shared by Kingsley Amis and Anthony Price.

Gainham told McCormick that she "always wished I had taken a man's name for my pseudonym", presumably to deflect attention from her being a female thriller writer, as opposed to the much more common male variety. That doesn't seem to have had the desired effect; in a manner one suspects would not have been the case with a male equivalent, Jonathan Ray and Robert Elphick's obituary of the author in The Independent lingers on titillating details of her sexuality, noting pruriently and – without wishing to sound prudish on my part – perhaps gratuitously: "Gainham had immense sex appeal, was highly flirtatious – skittish, even – and well aware of the appeal that she had for the opposite sex. She once remarked in late middle age: 'I know that I am no great looker, but I've always had a magnificent pair of tits.' Indeed, until well into her eighties she would wear dresses with heroically plunging necklines."

The success of Night Falls on the City – it nested in the New York Times bestseller list for months – brought Gainham financial security, but her private life was less than ideal. In 1964, following the breakdown of her marriage to Terry, Gainham married again, this time to Kenneth Ames of The Economist, claiming – again as reported by Ray and Elphick – that she had wed Ames so as to not have to spend her dotage on her own. But when Ames committed suicide in 1975, and having had no children in either of her marriages, that was precisely the fate that befell her. "Attended by a succession of grossly over-indulged cats," wrote Ray and Elphick, "she became in her later years reclusive and somewhat eccentric, in stark contrast to her gregarious and sociable former self." Having left Britain in 1947, Gainham never returned to live in the land of her birth – as well as Vienna she also resided in Berlin, Bonn and Trieste – and for fifty years until her death, she remained in – reciprocated, but unattainable – love with another, unshakably married man.

However, her celebrated literary career soared where her private life suffered. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984, and for crime, suspense and spy fiction enthusiasts there's a lot to like about her initial five books (and also, quite possibly, Night Falls on the City). "I had a special feeling for using the thriller as a vehicle for ideas, or rather propaganda," she told McCormick for Who's Who in Spy Fiction. "I always used them as anti-Russian propaganda. All the best spy thrillers whose origins are known seem to be based on reality. Certainly my own stories were: they are not really fiction at all, only written as fiction."

That's readily apparent in the Sarah Gainham novel I'll be reviewing in the next post: a convincingly grubby tale of low level espionage in 1950s Berlin...

Sarah Gainham Bibliography

1. Time Right Deadly (Arthur Barker, 1956)
2. The Cold Dark Night (Arthur Barker, 1957)
3. The Mythmaker (Arthur Barker, 1957), a.k.a. Appointment in Vienna (E. P. Dutton, 1958)
4. The Stone Roses (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959)
5. The Silent Hostage (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1960)
6. Night Falls on the City (Collins, 1967)
7. A Place in the Country (Holt, 1968)
8. Take Over Bid (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970)
9. Private Worlds (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971)
10. Maculan's Daughter (Macmillan, 1973)
11. To the Opera Ball (Macmillan, 1975)
12. The Hapsburg Twilight: Tales from Vienna (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979)
13. Tiger, Life (Methuen, 1983)

Sunday 6 November 2011

The Paperback & Pulp Bookfair 2011 (London Park Plaza Hotel, 6 November)

Just a quick one before we get stuck in – er, so to speak – to that female British spy fiction author I promised on Friday, because I forgot to mention that the annual Paperback & Pulp Bookfair was being held today up at the Park Plaza Hotel in London. Longtime Existential Ennui readers – yes, I'm looking at you two again – may recall my having dedicated a series of posts last November to the wares I procured at the previous Bookfair, which took place at the end of October 2010, and I'm pleased to report that this year's event, which I trekked up to this morning from a still-smoky-smelling Lewes (5 November is kind of a big deal round my manor...), was even better. That may, in fact, have had more to do with my being slightly better informed re matters criminal and espionage-al – fictionally speaking – than I was a year ago, but certainly the room the Bookfair was in at the Plaza was bigger this year, and even more certainly I came away with quadruple (at least) the books I did last time out, and of a higher calibre, too.

Those books – both paperbacks and hardbacks – will be filtering on to Existential Ennui over the coming months, but as a sneak preview, I thought I'd offer a glimpse of the ill-gotten gains to prove just how profitable the 2011 Paperback & Pulp Bookfair was – both for myself and for the dealers who got my cash:

Feast your eyes on that little lot, my friends. Quite the haul, huh? My, but we've got some fine books blogging ahead of us, I can tell you. That's for the future, however. Next up on Existential Ennui... it's back to the British spy fiction...