As a child I gorged on all the science fiction Hadleigh library held. It was often something of a struggle to persuade the librarians that at ten-years-old I could cope with more than Target novelisations of Doctor Who and the words of wonder lurking behind the lurid covers of the Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks. I remember the first time a story broke my heart – All Summer in a Day – and first time one made me think that politicians were more likely to ruin my future than aliens – 1990.
The first alternate history novel that scorched shadows on my imagination was Len Deighton’s SS-GB. After the inevitable tussle with the staff that refused to let any adult book out on a child’s card and the usual subversion of the system using my mum’s card, the first few pages disappointed. This was not the book that told me how Britain lost the war and how the plucky resistance fighters were going to take it back from the Nazis.
Like many books I wanted to read at the time, it occasionally needed a dictionary. However, bigger challenges lay with the realistic depiction of the labyrinthine, competing bureaucracies of the Wehrmacht and the SS; various German titles and why the hero liked the American reporter scratching his flesh with her nails. At nine, brought up on a diet of family experiences of World War II and the steady stream of movies like The Great Escape and 633 Squadron it was a revelation.
By chapter 13, previous certainties had been crumpled like drawings made and then balled in frustration when they did not match the pictures in my mind. History was no longer inevitable. Plucky, British and resistance were no longer a family of words living together. Most of all, I had some inkling that whoever won, the consequence of all war was loss.
The book made such an impression that several years ago I picked up a copy in a Leigh-on-Sea charity shop. Circumstances meant I never got around to reading it at the time of purchase. These days, before I surrender a book to the Erisian path of BookCrossing or donate it St. Mary’s hospital, I always reread it, so I have just reacquainted myself with SS-GB.
Memory has not cheated. Beyond a well-engineered thriller which could only be faulted for an ending which sees the final bends taken with too much acceleration, SS-GB offers a nuanced story of the myriad betrayals, ambitions and human failings which connect to shape the web of history. Within a few pages you admit its first triumph when the ‘‘What If…?’ component is no longer the reason for turning the pages.
SS-GB is a book I would recommend to any of my writing pupils. The prose is efficient without sacrificing any engagement of the senses. Demarcations between German luxury and the poverty of an occupied country drained of more than colour is captured in the smallest facets of the taste and smell of food. The cold of an English winter filtered through the threadbare clothing of those on rations and the leather great coats of those doing the work of the Reichsführer-SS. The quality of light in a room or even density of grime on a surface not only helping to fix place, but offering simultaneously a faultless metaphor and clue to the unfolding mystery.
At the time, much of the depth and clever use of historical detail, such as Himmler’s attention only being engaged in atomic weapon research if his scientists dressed it up in the language of magic, was beyond my years. On re-reading it, more than anything else, what escaped me at the age of 10 was the portrayal of the city I now live in. In keeping with some of the best of Deighton’s work, SS-GB is a dark love letter about London in the form of a novel. Intimate details of place and character recalled and then remade with the same ghastly horror of imagining a former lover of with a new man. The capital through the distorting lens of a Nazi approach to real estate. Marylebone, the drift of Victoria toward Pimlico and Scotland Yard will never be seen quite the same again and that is the mark of great book.