One Man’s Flag

Title:                      One Man’s Flag

Author:                  David Downing

Downing, David (2015). One Man’s Flag. New York: Soho Crime

LCCN:    2015014946

PR6054.O868 O54 2015


  • “Spring 1915. As the Great War burns its way across Europe, Jack McColl, a spy for His Majesty’s Navy, is stationed in India, charged with defending the Empire against Bengali terrorists and their German allies. In England, meanwhile, suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley begins the business of rebuilding her life after the execution of her brother, an Irish republican sympathizer whose plot Jack McColl—Caitlin’s ex-lover—had foiled. The war is changing everything, and giving fresh impulse to those causes—feminism, socialism and Irish independenc—which she as a journalist has long supported. The threat of a Rising in Dublin alarms McColl’s bosses as much as it dazzles Caitlin. It was one Irish plot which came between Jack and Caitlin in 1914, and it will take another to bring them back together, as both enemies and lovers”—Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 3, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s 1915 and British intelligence agent Jack McColl is back, defending the far-flung Empire as the First World War rages in Europe. David Downing introduced McColl in Jack of Spies and he’s a likeable character, an English patriot who also sympathizes with the Indian and Irish nationalists chafing under imperial rule.

Jack has been tasked with disrupting plots against His Majesty’s control of British colonies, and that puts him in tight spots from Darjeeling to Dublin. At the same time, One Man’s Flag follows the travels of the feminist American journalist Caitlin Hanley—McColl’s estranged love interest—who chronicles the brutal war on the Western front.

One Man’s Flag is an engaging read, chock full of adventure and history. The British Empire held together until after the Second World War, when demands for independence and self-determination by its colonies could no longer be denied. Until then, the Foreign Service and intelligence agencies of the Crown fought a holding action, and Downing’s Jack McColl novels should offer an intriguing short course on this somewhat ignored history.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015,” accessed at


Title:                      The IPCRESS File

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1962). The IPCRESS File. New York, Simon and Schuster

LCCN:    63015370

PZ4.D324 Ip


Date Updated:  January 11, 2016

Review by Nicolas Tredell[1]

Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Len Deighton’s first novel, The Ipcress File, starts in London, moves out of England through a network that follows the contours of global power, and returns finally to the capital. But Deighton’s narrator, an unnamed intelligence agent, begins his tale, not on a cruising yawl in the Thames, but in a Sheraton chair in a government minister’s well-appointed flat overlooking Trafalgar Square. Edward Milward-Oliver’s Len Deighton Companion[2] (1987) suggests “Ipcress Man” as the most appropriate way to refer to this nameless narrator but we will abbreviate it to “I.”in this article, for the sake of concision and also because it sounds the same as the first-person pronoun Deighton’s storyteller uses and, in its similarity to “K.”, the initial used to designate Franz Kafka’s protagonist Josef K. in The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), suggests that I.’s battle with disorientation and misdirection has a Kafkaesque quality, reinscribed in a London-based spy story”.

In his tale to the minister, which is supposed to be the basis of the book we are reading, I. retraces an itinerary that takes him across London districts (for example, Whitehall, Fitzrovia, Soho, Shoreditch) and out of England to Beirut, Tokwe Atoll in the Pacific, and, apparently, to a prison in Hungary, then part of the Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc. But times have changed since the 1890s and this is not Conrad’s London, hub of a mighty empire, but post World War Two London, the faltering heart of a fading imperium, where the USA has displaced British power and the flight of Burgess and Maclean to Moscow in 1951 has partly revealed the duplicity within an intelligence service supposedly pledged to protect national integrity.

Len Deighton knew London well; he grew up in Marylebone, went to St Martin’s School of Art in Charing Cross Road and the Royal College of Art, and lived for a while in Soho. But he also knew from experience the filaments that linked London to distant places across the globe. He had worked for a year as an airline steward on BOAC’s long-haul routes to Africa, Japan and Australia, at a time when crews had long stopovers at many places–for example in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, a place of which, according to Deighton, few people had then heard and which provided the setting for one of the key out-of-London settings of the novel. For the other out-of-London setting in Ipcress, Tokwe Atoll, Deighton drew on research and imagination.

I.s’ story starts in December but is not dated to a specific year. At the start of chapter 13, however, he describes a colleague as a man “who, had he been a few years younger, would have made a John Osborne hero”. John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square on 8 May 1956, so, by this reference, the earliest starting-date for I.’s narrative is December 1956.

1956 was also the year in which the Clean Air Act was passed, in belated response to London’s Great Smog of 1952, and the London of Ipcress helps to show the need for that Act: it is a grey-on-grey city, yet to experience the polychromatic pyrotechnics of Swinging London and the later refurbishments of monuments and buildings that, like gigantic tooth-descalings, returned them to a simulacrum of their pristine whiteness.

On the day I. is to start his new job, he draws back his curtains after getting up and finds “December in London–the soot-covered tree outside was whipping itself into a frenzy”. A month or so afterwards, he walks towards Soho on “that sort of January morning that had enough sunshine to point up the dirt without raising the temperature”. This is an anti-lyrical London with sooty trees and soiled sunshine.

Later in the novel, he gazes blankly out one cold April morning “across the chimneys, crippled and hump-backed, the shiny sloping roofs, back-yards of burgeoning trees and flowering sheets and shirts”. If the “crippled and hump-backed” chimneys are an idiosyncratic personification in a Dickensian mode, they are too cramped and static to permit of Dickens’ exuberant amplification, while the “flowering sheets and shirts” are ironic in the manner sometimes found in T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (1922), in which natural processes, in the “Unreal City” of London, shrivel into artificial ones (“She smooths her hair with automatic hand”).

  1. starts his main narrative with his change of job from Military to Civilian Intelligence, specifically to “one of the smallest and most important of the Intelligence units–WOOC(P)”. (We never learn what the letters stand for.) This involves a move from Westminster to Fitzrovia. I. first goes to the War Office–or, as he sometimes more colloquially calls it, the War House–in Whitehall. “It had always made me feel a little self-conscious saying “War Office” to cab drivers; at one time I had asked for the pub in Whitehall, or said “I’ll tell you when to stop,” just to avoid having to say it”.

This self-consciousness is one mark of I.’s uneasiness in assuming the upper middle-class manner of most of his colleagues. In the War Office, he takes leave of his former boss, Ross, and moves across London to the premises of his new boss, Dalby. “Dalby’s place is in one of those sleazy long streets in Soho, if Soho had the strength to cross Oxford Street”. This sense of an enervated Bohemia, unable to extend beyond its own area, reinforces the sense of decline in the novel.

The street turns out to be Charlotte Street, site of the Fitzroy Tavern (where I. once takes a drink), the pub whose name provided the basis for the dubbing of the district as “Fitzrovia” and the launching of a claim to a distinctive identity of its own rather than being simply a failed continuation of Soho. But this term is not used in the novel, as if to rebut any such claim. Charlotte Street has

a new likely-looking office conversion wherein the unwinking blue neon glows even at summer midday, but […] Dalby’s department is next door. His is dirtier than average, with a genteel profusion of well-worn brass work, telling of the existence of “The Ex-Officers” Employment Bureau. Est 1917”; “Acme Films Cutting Rooms”; “B. Isaacs. Tailor–Theatrical a Specialty”; “Dalby Inquiry Bureau–staffed by ex-Scotland Yard detectives”.

In fact WOOC(P) occupies the whole house and these businesses are fronts for its operations.

The boss of WOOC(P) is Dalby (no forename supplied). Dalby’s responsibility is direct to the Cabinet and he is “almost as powerful as anyone gets in this business”. He is “an elegant languid public school Englishman”, blond-haired and over six feet tall, who has been to a German university in the late 1930s and, unusually in the Intelligence Service, won a DSO and bar in 1941. There is some class-based friction with I., who comes from Burnley and, we infer, attended a grammar school, and who ironically alludes more than once to his lack of a classical education and smokes Gauloises.

  1. also differs physically from Dalby, as we learn when I. finds some images in another man’s wallet that he is rifling:

The other three photos were also passport style–full face, profile and three-quarter positions of a dark-haired, round-faced character; deep sunk eyes with bags under horn-rimmed glasses, chin jutting and cleft. On the back of the photos was written “5ft 11in; muscular inclined to overweight. No visible scar tissue; hair dark brown, eyes blue”. I looked at the familiar face again. I knew the eyes were blue, even though the photograph was in black and white. I’d seen the face before; most mornings I shaved it.

This combination, in its supposed hero, of Northern provenance, a grammar-school education, an absence of classical learning, baggy eyes, horn-rimmed glasses, a tendency to carry too much weight and a preference for Gauloises helped to make The Ipcress File seem, on its first appearance, like an anti-Bond novel, an abrasive counter to the class-burnished self-assurance of Ian Fleming’s hero. But in his introduction to the Silver Jubilee edition of Ipcress, Deighton denies any intention to make the book “a working-class crusade against private school education” and expresses sympathy with those who had to cope with his chippy protagonist.

While there are indeed differences between the Bond books and Ipcress, there are also likenesses. Both seem to offer the privileged cognitive access to a concealed world epitomized in the first line of one of the epigraphs to Ipcress, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV 1: “And now I will unclasp a secret book”. Deighton’s narrator also converges with Bond in his appreciation of good food. When Dalby treats his new recruit to lunch at Wilton’, a venerable Jermyn Street restaurant, established in 1742, that exists to this day, I. takes a gourmet’s pleasure in the “iced Israeli melon, sweet, tender and cold like the blonde waitress”, the lobster salad and the “carefully-made mayonnaise”, even if his more usual lunch venue is “the sandwich bar in Charlotte Street, where I played a sort of rugby scrum each lunchtime with only two PhDs, three physicists and a medical research specialist for company, standing up to toasted bacon sandwich and a cup of stuff that resembles coffee in no aspect but price”.

I.’s first assignment for Dalby is to try to track down a British biochemist, codenamed Raven (all subjects of long-term surveillance have bird names). The Home Office has informed Dalby that Raven has gone missing that morning. He is the eighth top-ranking scientist to disappear in six-and-a-half weeks. Dalby believes that if his unit can find Raven, the Home Secretary will disband his own intelligence department and hand over their files to WOOC(P), an acquisition for which Dalby devoutly wishes. A man codenamed Jay, whom I. has seen with his minder, Housemartin, on covertly shot film, may be masterminding the disappearances. Dalby assigns I. the task of buying back Raven from Jay or whoever else has him and authorizes him to offer £18,000, with the option of going up to £23,000.

  1. meets Jay and Housemartin in a Soho café called Lederer’s, “one of those continental-style coffee-houses where coffee comes in a glass”. Its customers, “who mostly think of themselves as clientele, are those smooth-rugged characters with sun-lamp complexions, half a dozen 10in by 8in glossies, an agent and more time than money on their hands”. Jay’s head touches “the red flocked wallpaper between the notice that told customers not to expect dairy cream in their pastries and the one that cautioned them against passing betting slips”. Today these details are redolent of a past era in which coffee in a glass was an exotic novelty, actors marketed themselves by means of glossy photographic prints rather than on the web, pastries were often filled with artificial cream, and there were no betting shops.
  2. tells Jay he has a financial proposition for him, and Jay and Housemartin take him to what Jay says is a place where they can talk: the narrative offers a montage of I.’s visual impressions and jaundiced thoughts as they walk along Wardour Street:

the three of us trailed out along Wardour Street, Jay in the lead. The lunch hour in central London–the traffic was thick and most of the pedestrians the same. We walked past grim-faced soldiers in photo-shop windows. Stainless-steel orange squeezers and moron-manipulated pin-tables metronoming away the sunny afternoon in long thin slices of boredom. Through wonderlands of wireless entrails from the little edible condensers to gutted radar receivers for thirty-nine and six. On, shuffling past plastic chop suey, big-bellied naked girls and “Luncheon Vouchers Accepted” notices, until we paused before a wide illustrated doorway–“Vicki from Montmarte” [sic] and “Striptease in the Snow” said the freshly-painted signs. “Danse de Desir–Non Stop Striptease Revue” and the little yellow bulbs winked lecherously in the dusty sunlight.

Inside, left alone by Jay and Housemartin, I. decides to explore the premises by himself and finds an upstairs room whose floor is studded with six armor-glass panels, looking like mirrors from below, for covert observation of the gaming room beneath. Looking through the central panels, I. sees Raven lying unconscious on a gaming table. He takes a huge typewriter from an office nearby, drops it through the glass and descends through the hole it has made into the gaming room; but Housemartin has taken Raven away and I. has to make a quick exit when the police raid the premises.

Dalby takes I. to Beirut where, in a bold and brutal ambush, they retrieve Raven; but in the process I. inadvertently kills two American agents. Back in London, a Scotland Yard acquaintance tips him off that a man posing as a police inspector is in custody at Shoreditch Police Station. I. hurries there only to find that Jay’s accomplices, posing as I.’s colleagues, have got there first. He finds the arrested man dead in his cell; it is Housemartin. I. learns from the policeman who arrested him that Housemartin may have come from a big secluded house that has recently undergone alteration. I. orders a raid on this house at 42 Acacia Drive, “a wide wet street in one of those districts where the suburbs creep stealthily in towards Central London”, but the house is empty.

As the quest for Jay seems to founder, Dalby invites I., and I.’s new and attractive assistant Jean Tonnesen, to go with him to the Pacific island of Tokwe Atoll to witness the test explosion of a neutron bomb. There, I. starts to realize he is suspected of being a double agent and he is arrested after allegedly being in contact with a Soviet surveillance submarine and killing a young US soldier by connecting a metal watch tower where he is on guard to a high tension power line. He is treated as a traitor and roughly interrogated by the Americans. He then finds himself in a prison which is, he is told, in Hungary. Here his rough physical and mental treatment is intensified.

  1. does, however, succeed in getting back to London (it would be a spoiler for those who have not read the novel or seen the film to reveal how), and he does finally uncover a mass brainwashing network which relies on the “Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex with Stress”–the basis of the word “Ipcress”. The destruction of this network provides a further revelation near the end of the book, which again we will not disclose here.

The film version of Ipcress (1965), directed by Sidney J. Furie, starred Michael Caine as its protagonist, who was called “Harry Palmer”. In the context of London fictions, its most notable difference from the novel is it has no excursions to Beirut or Tokwe Atoll. It is set almost wholly in London, apart from one

The following are spy novels by Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1962). The IPCRESS File. New York, Simon and Schuster

Deighton, Len (1963). Horse Under Water. London, J. Cape

Deighton, Len (1964). Funeral in Berlin. New York, Putnam

1966       Deighton, Len (1966). The Billion Dollar Brain. New York: Putnam

1967       Deighton, Len (1967). An Expensive Place to Die. London: Cape

1974       Deighton, Len (1974). Spy Story. London, Cape

1975       Deighton, Len (1975). Yesterday’s Spy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

1976       Deighton, Len (1976). Catch a Falling Spy. New York : Harcourt Brace Jovan

1978       Deighton, Len (1978, 2012). SS-GB. New York: Sterling Publishing

1981       Deighton, Len (1981, 2012). XPD. New York: Sterling

1982       Deighton, Len (1982, 2012). Goodbye, Mickey Mouse. New York: Sterling

1983       Deighton, Len (1983, 2012). Berlin Game. New York: Sterling

1984       Deighton, Len (1984, 2012). Mexico Set. New York: Sterling

1985       Deighton, Len (1985, 2012). London Match. New York: Sterling

1987       Winter

1988       Spy Hook

1989       Spy Line

1990       Spy Sinker

1991       MAMista

1992       City of Gold

1993       Violent Ward

1993       Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II

1994 – Pests. A limited edition of just 226 copies. This play was written just after Deighton completed The Ipcress File and was broadcast as Long Past Glory by ABC on 17 November 1963.[18]

1994       Faith

1995       Hope

1996       Charity

2006       Sherlock Holmes and the Titanic Swindle (short story included in The Detection Club anthology The Verdict of Us All, edited by Peter Lovesey; later reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries, edited by Maxim Jakubowski)

2012 – James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father. A non-fiction e-book.

[1] Nicolas Tredell in London Fictions. Tredell is a freelance writer. He has served as editor of Palgrave’s Essential Criticism series and formerly taught literature and film at Sussex University. His website is at

[2] Milward-Oliver, Edward (1987). The Len Deighton Companion. London: Grafton Books [LCCN: 88109917]


Spy Story

Title:                      Spy Story

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1974). Spy Story. London, Cape

LCCN:    74171234

PZ4.D324 Sp

Date Posted:      September 17, 2015

The story opens with Armstrong and his colleague Ferdy Foxwell returning from a six-week mission aboard a nuclear submarine during which they gathered data on Soviet communications and electronic warfare techniques in the Arctic Ocean. He and Foxwell visit “The Bonnet”, a rural Scottish public house. On returning to London, Armstrong’s car breaks down on his way home and he decides to use the phone in his old flat, for which he still has the key. He is surprised and disturbed to discover that the flat has been refurnished, including photographs which he owns, but with an unknown individual replacing him in the images, and clothes identical to his own. He also discovers a door hidden in the back of the wardrobe leading into the adjoining flat, which has been fitted out as some kind of medical facility. When he leaves the flat thinking that a taxi he ordered has arrived, he is confronted by Special Branch officers who have a former member of the Studies Centre verify who he is before releasing him.

While they have been away on their six-week mission, the Studies Centre has acquired a new boss, the abrasive American Charles Schlegel, a former Marine Corps Colonel. Foxwell and Schlegel do not get on at all well, and even less so when Schlegel makes Armstrong his Personal Assistant.

Shortly after his return, Armstrong is about to leave his flat when it is ransacked by KGB Colonel Oleg Stok and two assistants, who even blow open a safe left by the previous occupant. They offer no explanation for this, leaving Armstrong yet more puzzled.

At a party at Ferdy Foxwell’s palatial London house, Armstrong learns that Foxwell is close to MP Ben Tolliver, and has even been passing him classified information. Foxwell shows him a photo of Rear-Admiral Remoziva of the Soviet Northern Fleet, who Armstrong immediately recognizes as the person who had been inserted into the photographs at his old flat. Also at the party is Dawlish, the head of the intelligence organization WOOC(P) of earlier books. We learn that Armstrong worked for Dawlish before deciding to quit intelligence work altogether. Dawlish tries to recruit him, but Armstrong turns him down.

Tolliver has a suspicious car accident returning home from Foxwell’s party. Armstrong traces the woman who was reported to be with him to a small French restaurant, where he discovers photos of Remoziva and a Soviet Admiral’s uniform being made. He returns to the restaurant later to discover it deserted. Breaking in, he discovers all traces of what he had earlier seen have been removed along with all paperwork.

Leaving the restaurant, he is met by a high-ranking police officer who escorts him to Battersea, from where a helicopter takes him to Heathrow Airport, from where in turn he is flown north in a small single-engine aircraft. It takes him to a remote location in the West of Scotland, where he finds Toliver and his co-conspirators. It appears that they have been running their own unauthorized intelligence operation to arrange the defection of Admiral Remoziva, who will die within a year if he does not receive treatment for a kidney condition. The plan is to meet the Admiral on the Arctic ice, and leave a corpse in his place. They had planned to keep him at Armstrong’s former flat, and use the adjoining medical facility to treat his condition. Armstrong receives a message from an unidentified member of the clique advising him to leave, which he does. After a nightmare journey through a snow storm, he reaches a road, where he finds Dawlish and Schlegel waiting. They tell him that the defection is still to go ahead, though using a USN submarine instead of a British one.

Out on the Arctic ice, they make the arranged rendezvous with Remoziva’s helicopter, but it turns out to contain Colonel Stok. After a brief struggle the helicopter takes off with one of Stok’s men holding on to Foxwell. Armstrong grabs Foxwell’s legs and is also hauled aloft. He fires at the man holding Foxwell and they both fall to the ice. He manages to lift Foxwell and staggers off to where their submarine has surfaced, but by the time he reaches it Foxwell has died.

At the end of the book it is revealed that the scheme’s real intent was to discredit Remoziva and, by association, his siblings; his sister was playing a crucial part in talks to unify Germany and is forced to step down, causing the talks to collapse.