Groovy baby. The swinging sixties meant nothing to most people in Britain. They had jobs and mortgages and marriages and kids and gas bills. Only a select few got to hang out with dope smoking aristocrats in Chelsea or peacock around town in an outfit from Granny Takes a Trip. The class barriers may have come down for a few talented working-class photographers and musicians but they remained firmly in place for everyone else.
The closest the great British public got to joining the psychedelic generation was through the vicarious second-hand thrill of popular entertainment. The Beatles and Rolling Stones sold the sixties dream on vinyl, and movies like What’s New Pussycat? pushed the vision on screen. In 1967 the written word got in on the act. Adverts were all over the Sunday supplements and double-decker buses for a new face in town. He had a blond Brian Jones-style cut and fashionable neo-Victorian clothes.
‘You Don’t Listen to Adam Diment,’ said the slogan. ‘You Read Him.’
He was the first psychedelic spy novelist. And he burnt out quick.
The Honourable Schoolboy
Frederick Adam Diment came from that strata of British high society that has enough money to afford public schools and universities and the occasional trust fund but still has to work for a living. Everyone below thought it was posh and stuck up; everyone above thought it provincial and not quite smart enough.
His family farmed land in East Sussex and sent him to Lancing College, a well-known public (i.e. exclusive private) school that had turned out Evelyn Waugh and David Hare. Diment did cadet corps, 6 ‘O’ levels, 2 ‘A’ levels, and showed a talent for drawing.
At 18-years-old he went off to Circencester Agricultural College. It looked like he was getting groomed to take over the family business.
Diment had other ideas. He dropped out of his course and headed to London. He wanted to be a writer.
The big break came via Tim Rice, now the world-famous lyricist to Andrew Lloyd Webber, then an unenthusiastic junior at a law firm, daydreaming about a career in pop music. Rice had been at Lancing with Diment and the pair shared a flat in London.
Diment wrote obsessively, turning out fourteen manuscripts in a couple of years. All seem to have been fairly serious literary efforts; all were rejected by publishers. To support the writing, he worked for advertising agency Connell, May & Stevenson, where he became friends with dark-haired occasional model Suzy Mandrake.
‘I honestly think Adam was still quite green and a country boy when we first met,’ she said. ‘We became best friends outside of office hours, and Adam used to hang around with my boyfriend and myself, which I think introduced him to the Chelsea lifestyle.’
The writing bug must have been catching. In 1965 Rice floated a proposal for a book on the history of pop music to Arlington Books. Man in charge Desmond Elliot wasn’t impressed but, after suggesting Rice contact a young musician called Lloyd Weber, indicated his door was still open for any new book ideas.
Two years later Rice passed along a new manuscript called The Runes of Death and explained it had been written by his friend Adam Diment. It was a very contemporary spy thriller.
Passport to Success
The Runes of Death was Diment’s fifteenth manuscript. The move into thrillers was prompted by a relocation to Fulham where his new absentee landlord was James Leasor, war hero and journalist whose espionage novels sold well. Diment wasn’t a big thriller fan but saw it as a good way to break into the business.
He read Ian Fleming and Len Deighton to get the idea then wrote his own book in only seventeen days. It was part homage, part parody of the James Bond style. Hero Philip McAlpine is a Chelsea-set type playboy with a glamorous girlfriend (based on Suzy Mandrake) and a swinging pad set very far from the mudane reality of Diment’s flat share in Fulham.
‘I have a 15-year lease on a three-roomed bit of real estate in Hampstead. A number of modish knick-knacks like expensive record players, deep foam, leather hide, swivel, wing-backed chairs, a wall-to-wall white Chinese carpet, floor-to-ceiling bookcase and a small but very good wine stock.’
He also smoked dope, a thrilling bit of transgression in a 1967 spy novel. McAlpine is blackmailed by British Intelligence into infiltrating a criminal courier service with the aim of kidnapping a Nazi war criminal.
The Runes of Death was a brisk read, although the occasional meandering digression is a clue that Diment shared his hero’s fondness for marijuana. Desmond Elliot liked the manuscript and saw a marketing opportunity.
The Undercover Man
Psychedelia was big news in 1967 and Arlington Books wanted a piece of the action. Elliot agreed to publish the book if Diment changed his image. The 23-year-old author looked like a public-schoolboy-turned-copywriter with louche friends, and nothing like the Philip McAlpine of the book. Elliot dressed him up in King’s Road hippy finery, told him to grow his hair long, and bought him an Aston Martin convertible.
The book went through minimal editing, except for one crucial change. The Runes of Death changed its title to the the far more swinging sixties The Dolly, Dolly Spy.
An advertising blitz followed. Elliot persuaded everyone from teen magazines to Life that Diment was going to be bigger than The Beatles. His author, with blond bowl cut and green velvet jacket, happily played up the role. Photo shoots saw him posing with a MP 40 machine pistol, driving the convertible through London, smoking dope, and rolling round with a half naked Suzy Mandrake. Diment was appropriately frivolous in his interviews, casually dismissing his own writing efforts.
‘Personally,’ he said, ‘I’d call them competent junk!‘
The Dolly, Dolly Spy was a massive success. The film rights were sold and the novel appeared in America, with even less separation between Diment the author and McAlpine the character. A US publicity tour that year cemented the image.
Adam Diment had become a celebrity writer. He didn’t like it.
Through the Looking Glass
Two more McAlpine thrillers came out the following year. The Great Spy Race and The Bang Bang Birds were efficiently written adventures, with raunchier sex scenes and more mentions of The Rolling Stones. The Great Spy Race sees McAlpine taking part in an international competition organised by a retired masterspy, as the world’s best agents battle each other to win details of China’s global espionage network. In The Bang Bang Birds Diment’s hero is infiltrating an upmarket Swedish brothel that’s been seducing secrets from its powerful clientele; McAlpine has to retrieve the information for Britain.
On the surface it looked like more of the same, but a sourness had crept into the writing. McAlpine comes across more as a bitter noir detective, cynically observing a corrupt world, than a fun-loving hippy playboy. He doesn’t even like rock music.
‘The party was in a large studio flat over a boutique doing a strong line in old Wehrmacht uniforms. A tiny modelling girl, with long blonde hair and eyes like a bushbaby’s, led me into the room. Dark as the Western Front but not as quiet, the cigarette fumes clotted the air like clouds of mustard gas while the very latest Stones’ LP gave a realistic sound track to the trench-warfare atmosphere.’
The books are full of complaints: about the weather, London, the crumbling empire, older people, younger people, and everything else. The psychedelic touches increasingly seem tacked onto a darker and grimmer narrative. It’s not all misery: the sex scenes are fun and the Diment prose is always capable of a light touch, even if the books seemed written at speed and never revised. But it was clear the author had become disillusioned with his newfound fame.
Both came out in 1968 and made a lot of money for Arlington Books and Diment. The next book wouldn’t appear for another three years. It would be Diment’s last.
End of the Game
Diment spent the end of the sixties splitting his time between flats in London, villas in Italy, and ashrams in India. The book money funded the lifestyle and spiritual search, although promised film versions never appeared. He also made some enemies, judging by two anonymous letters sent to the Bank of England denouncing Diment for money laundering, currency speculation, and drug dealing. Whoever sent them, nothing came of the accusations.
Think Inc. came out in 1971, although seems to be set three years earlier, and is a bleaker novel with bloodier violence than the earlier McAlpine adventures. The hero is kicked out of British intelligence after a defecting spy gets killed, and has to go on the run. In Italy he’s blackmailed into joining a criminal gang and helps them with everything from kidnapping an film starlet to hijacking a Boeing 707. The tone is gloomy.
‘What’s London like now?’ someone asks.
‘Coming down off its high. The scene is shifting but nobody is sure where to.’
Characters are better drawn than Diment’s previous caricatures, with a young prostitute effectively and sympathetically sketched in. The book has a grim ending, with McAlpine barely escaping an ambush that wipes out the rest of the gang and probably kills the woman he’s come to love. Add in McAlpine’s moments of introspection in which he realises how sick he is with the violence and casual sex, and it doesn’t seem too surprising this was the last book Diment wrote.
Four years later The Observer ran a piece wondering what had happened to Diment. After the publication of Think Inc., he’d just disappeared.
The Zurich Affair
The author’s vanishing act was mysterious, but hardly thriller material. Diment had moved to Switzerland and got work as an editor at a publishing house known for its psychology books. The Think Inc. blurb even mentioned his move to Zurich and teased a fifth book that never came. The reasons for quitting the writing game are still murky but it’s clear Diment was never happy with writing spy novels or the accompanying fame.
‘I don’t want to be writing McAlpine when I’m 27!‘ he told an interviewer.
Another acquaintance remembered him toying with the idea of studying psychology in California at some point during the early seventies. He might even have done it. Perhaps editing psychology text books was meant to be the start of a new, serious career for Diment. It didn’t last.
Diment pops up through the rest of the decade in various points abroad on the hippy trail: Ibiza, Nepal, Cambodia. He smoked dope in hostels; chatted with backpackers in hotel bars. The book money was still funding the travelling and he continued to write, serious stuff that publishers wouldn’t touch. It was a laid-back, freedom-loving existence but the money eventually ran out and by the late 1970s he was working as a minicab driver in London.
At some point over the next few decades Diment returned to the farming life that he’d dodged by dropping out of Circencester Agricultural College all those years ago. Possibly he took over the family business. There was marriage and children, and even a brief return to the literary world when he somehow ended up as coach at a writers’ conference in Winchester. His harsh criticism of would-be authors meant he wasn’t asked back the next year. He still travelled as much as he could, returning often to Cambodia.
He gave no interviews and refused to allow his books to be reprinted.
In From the Cold
The appearance of a piece called The Disappearance of Adam Diment in modern history blog Another Nickel in the Machine back in 2009 reawoke interest in Diment as a writer. It triggered a few other pieces and an Esquire article that dug deeper into his life than anyone had previously managed.
Diment still refused to do any interviews (‘Adam’s a bit reclusive these days and doesn’t enjoy interviews or articles,’ said his brother) but in 2017 he connected with crowdfunding publisher Unbound and agreed to have his spy novels reprinted if enough money was pledged. There were plans for luxury hardbacks, posters, and bindings in leather.
So far the books haven’t appeared, although whether due to finances or a change of mind isn’t clear. Adam Diment and his swinging sixties spy Philip McAlpine remain as mysterious as ever.
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