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Southwark blue plaque nominees: Len Deighton, the spy fiction writer who typed the first book written on a word processor in Borough

Len Deighton is an author, journalist, cookery book writer, and historian, who is thought to have written the first novel typed on a word processor from his Borough home.

Along with Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le Carr?, Mr Deighton, 92, is often ranked among the foremost British authors of spy fiction of the twentieth century.

He wrote the IPCRESS File in 1962, which brought ?a more insolent, disillusioned and cynical style to the espionage story?, according to the historian Alan Burton in his recent history of British spy fiction – in contrast with Mr Fleming?s smooth, Etonian James Bond.

Mr Deighton told the BBC?s Desert Island Discs that the novel ?is about spies on the surface, but it’s also really about a grammar school boy among public school boys and the difficulties he faces.? The book, Mr Deighton?s first, is also perhaps his most famous and was adapted into a film starring Michael Caine. Mr Caine also played the role in three later adaptations of the author?s works.

Mr Deighton was born in 1929 in Marylebone, the son of a chauffeur and mechanic, and a cook. He went to grammar school and did his national service in the RAF. Aged about twenty he won a grant to study at art school and later became an illustrator. Much of his work was in advertising and book covers – and he designed the cover for Jack Kerouac?s novel On the Road in 1957.

He was commissioned to write ?cookstrips? – graphic recipe illustrations with minimal wording – for the Observer newspaper for four and a half years from 1962. It was in this period that he wrote the IPCRESS File, which was soon a success and made his name, helping him launch a long literary career. He went on to write another 26 novels over 34 years, including Spy Story and Bomber.

Alongside its literary merit, Bomber, a meticulously researched book about an RAF raid, made history for technical reasons.
The book is thought to have been the first novel written on a word processor. Mr Deighton typed it on an early IBM computer from his house in Merrick Square, near Great Dover Street, starting in 1968. An IBM technician who worked on his typewriters had suggested that he could use the enormous Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter machine to write the book. A window reportedly had to be removed from his house so the 200-pound machine could be lifted in.

He told the magazine Slate in 2013: ?Standing in the leafy square in which I lived, watching all this activity, I had a moment of doubt. I was beginning to think that I had chosen a rather unusual way to write books.?

As well as his novels, Mr Deighton has written several cookery books, including Len Deighton?s Action Cook Book, a collection of his cookstrips ?aimed at an audience of men unskilled at knowing their way around the kitchen?, and O? est le garlic, a book on French cooking.

Mr Deighton also curated Len Deighton?s London Dossier, a sardonic guidebook to the British capital that played on his reputation as a spy fiction writer and a fixture of the city?s ?swinging sixties? scene. Each of the chapters were done by fellow London writers, on broad subjects like ?the underworld? and ?music?. Mr Deighton wrote introductions to the book and to each chapter.

He wrote several history books, including Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain and Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk. Other work included film and television scripts. His output has been sparser since the late 1990s and his last book came out in 2012.

Rob Mallows, the creator of the Deighton Dossier, a fan site devoted to Mr Deighton, wrote that ?in recent years Deighton’s profile in the UK and globally has diminished as he enjoys retirement.?

Indeed Mr Deighton has not given many interviews in recent years and declined through his agent to speak to the News for this piece. He said that he did not enjoy the work of being a writer, telling Desert Island Discs that ?the best thing about writing books is being at a party and telling some pretty girl you write books, the worst thing is sitting at a typewriter and actually writing the book.?

To vote for Len Deighton or any of the nominees for a Southwark Blue Plaque, please email kit@southwarknews.co.uk or admin@southwark.org.uk with the name of the person you want to nominate.

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  1. Len is one of Britain’s most successful authors, with a career spanning sixty years, and also a born and bred London who lived in the capital during its most creative and brightest periods. He deservers a plaque.

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