Thursday, 3 August 2017

In the days before flat whites and skinny moccachinos, there was .... chagga

'Oh really, Bernard ...!"

This post was inspired by an email from Deighton Dossier reader Morgan Davies, who sent a link to a shop in London which is referenced frequently by everyone's favourite buffoonish (or is he?) spy in the Samson series of books, Dicky Cruyer.

The shop in question is H R Higgins, purveyor of fine ground coffee in London to the great and the good. Morgan confirmed they are still selling the mysterious "chagga" coffee, which was part of Dicky's daily routine as Head of German Desk at London Central, where he (in theory at least) had full control over agents like Bernard Samson in East Berlin.

This minor detail in an otherwise massive nine-volume text I think illustrates how great writers like Deighton and others use details and moments to round out their characters and deliver subconscious signposting to help the reader understand each character's personality and outlook, and their relationships to others.

Here's some classic back-and-forth repartée between Dicky Samson and his employee, Bernard Samson, when we first meet them in Berlin Game:

'He [Cruyer] had his coffee served in a fine Spode china cup and saucer, and he stirred it with a silver spoon. On the mahogany tray, there was another Spode cup and saucer, a matching sugar bowl, and a silver creamer fashioned in the shape of a cow. 
......
He sipped his coffee and then tasted it carefully, moving his lips while staring at me as if I might have come to sell him the year's crop. 'It's just a shade bitter, don't you think, Bernard?' 
'Nescafé all tastes the same to me,' I said. 
'This is pure chagga, ground just before it was brewed.' He said it calmly but nodded to acknowledge my little attempt to annoy him. 
'Well, he didn't turn up,' I said. 'We can sit here drinking chagga all morning and it won't bring Brahms Four over the wire.

In the reader's first experience of Cruyer and Samson's relationship over 'chagga', key things are established.