Conversations with John le Carré
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I am sitting in a sunny and perfectly ordered garden in north London, engaged in tea and conversation with my neighbour David Cornwell, the writer John le Carré. We cover our usual topics (Hampstead, Britain, his books and films, my legal cases), reflecting on the state of the world and his appearance at the Hay Festival earlier this summer, where I had interviewed him. “I do think we live in most extraordinary period of history,” he says now. “The fact that we feel becalmed is the element that is most terrifying, the second-rate quality of leadership, the third-rate quality of parliamentary behaviour.”
The exceedingly rare public appearance at Hay (“my swansong”, he told a delighted audience, although I didn’t really believe it) had been preceded by two lengthy lunches, as he is meticulous in preparation. It coincided with the publication of his latest novel, A Delicate Truth, as well as the 50th anniversary of his third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which brought fame and liberation from a life in the British intelligence services. In the course of a relaxed performance – what Peter Florence, the festival’s director, described as “an extraordinary combination of gracious wit and political savagery” – the audience obtained an insight into the complexities and depth of the man described by The New York Times as one of “the finest writers alive”.
I got to know John le Carré by accident, 10 years ago, at my local pub, The Wells, after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Before that he’d been a recognisable regular (white hair, warm eyes, brown suede shoes, safe and establishment look) but I had no idea who he was. Our first conversation was coloured by the unfolding disaster in Iraq and allegations of detainee abuse. We’ve not looked back, lunching at The Wells every few months, topping the hours with a rhubarb crumble and a fight over the single scoop of vanilla ice-cream that we allow ourselves, fearful of our respective wives.
The relationship is forged on the anvil of those post-9/11 issues, events that reset the national debate on the relationship between the individual and the state. They are matters on which we share a strong interest. A central spine of le Carré’s work – reflected in 23 novels written over five decades – is the responsibility of the individual who faces a fork in the road, required to take a decision that will have morally dubious consequences. My own work, in which he shows considerable interest despite certain reservations (“I have a great distrust of lawyers,” he has repeatedly and pointedly told me), largely focuses on the flip side of his concerns, the rights of the individual.
Over the years, we have not lacked in matters to engage. This is the age of national security and liberty, a constant debate about balance that often turns around the role of the intelligence services. Our interest is mutually self-serving: he might ask me to review a draft that raises a legal point, I might seek his opinion on a matter that draws on his former life in “the secret world”, as he calls it, or on his life’s experience. He is wise and his life, I have come to appreciate, has been informed by a very particular past.
Le Carré believes that the credit balance of the writer is his childhood, citing Graham Greene. By this standard, le Carré was an early millionaire. He was born in 1931, in Dorset, to a family that he celebrates despite (or perhaps because of) its manifest dysfunctionality. With a largely absent mother, his father became the central figure in his early life. Ronnie Cornwell was “seriously bent”, volatile, a convicted fraudster, yet also “exotic, amusing” and lovable. He avoided military service during the war by standing as a parliamentary candidate, an Independent Progressive. The postwar period offered Ronnie a goldmine of shady activity, allowing his son to enter maturity in an unpredictable environment populated by racehorses and Bentleys, passing from St Moritz to the Savoy Grill in the company his father kept, which included the Kray twins (“lovely boys”, his aunt called them).
For an observant son, Ronnie offered a rich seam from which to tap on matters of human weakness and moral complexity, or deceit and counter-play. You only need to read A Perfect Spy, published in 1986 and hailed by Philip Roth as “the best English novel since the war”, to understand the full extent of the interplay between life and art; a great number of the anecdotes he shared with the Hay audience as tales from his life feature in the novel.
He’s not starry-eyed about Ronnie, well aware of the dark side of a “brutalised” and violent man who did time under tough conditions (a thought that remains painful to le Carré), and whose behaviour caused his mother to leave the household and her five-year-old son and his older brother for good. This is a matter of lifelong regret (“a motherless household doesn’t seem like a childhood at all,” he says, “just immersion in life”). He recognises, too, that the circumstances of his childhood informed his view of women, often portrayed in his early works as “angels or whores, people who came and went, couldn’t be trusted”. The views about women have changed, he says, largely because of his “amazingly loyal wives”. First Ann, who he met on a jaunt to St Moritz with his father when he was 17. They married in 1954 and had three sons. The partnership, which didn’t thrill Ronnie, who’d have preferred a more subordinate woman (“although he would have had a dab at her himself if he could”), lasted until 1971. A year later he married Jane, intelligent, engaging and protective, and they have one son. He and Jane are often together in the pub, having lunch, animated, sans crumble.
THE SECRET WORLD
A series of boarding schools eventually led to Sherborne, which he left at 16. He made his way to Bern, to enrol at the university so as to develop a “German soul”. Graduation was followed by a stint in the army, honing interrogation skills in Austria, then German studies at Oxford, and then a spell teaching at Eton. By this time he had entered the secret world of the security services, moving to Germany in 1960, where he began to write, with the permission of his masters, provided he used a nom de plume. He doesn’t remember how he chose le Carré, or won’t say, beyond its optical merits (he likes that it’s in three bits).
The secret world offered space for the larcenous side of his character, and satisfied the desire for a “sense of commitment”. He has long disabused me of the sense that his family background might have been an impediment to joining the British intelligence services. The attraction of someone with a semi-criminal background was irresistible to the spooks, he says. They were looking for recruits with a broad sense of morality, individuals who were unanchored and wayward, who hankered for discipline (“his father’s a bit bent, we could use a bit of that”). If the secret service produced so many bad eggs, he tells me, it’s because they looked for them.
He’s long been out of that world but remains respectfully discreet about the confidences he picked up. That sense of correctness has a broader resonance, informing, when we discussed it recently, his views about Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extraordinary scale of US surveillance of its own citizens as well as those of other countries. He tells me he is horrified: “There seems to be no limit to the violations to their hard-won liberties that Americans will put up with in the catchall name of counter terror.” But he also recognises that “no country can allow its secret servants to whistle-blow with impunity”.
Le Carré remains well-connected with that world (lunch at MI5 – “fish pie on a heater” – still not as good as MI6). Once, when I was looking for an introduction to someone who could explain the relationship between the intelligence services and government ministers, he effortlessly introduced me to such a person, one who’d passed through the revolving doors into the upper echelons of one of our biggest and best-known public companies. It’s a world that probably isn’t so different today, although more tightly regulated (or so we thought until the recent National Security Agency revelations). The tentacles reach further – “all of us have an aunt in the secret service”, he has said to me – and he is much concerned that the secret world has become “the spiritual home” of the British political establishment, an upper clergy that is “pernicious” and “widely spread”.
A SECOND LIFE
The success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963 offered him a second life. While he says the story bore no relation to real events, it did bring fame and access to the likes of Richard Burton. Le Carré was 32. The Berlin Wall was newly erected and ex-Nazis abounded. He had growing doubts about Britain’s attachment to the Atlantic alliance (requiring conformity with “every American whim”), and was disenchanted with his marriage. It was a moment of “convergence”, he calls it, a time of chaos in his life that “produced a fugue, in writing terms”.
The writing life into which he moved was broken into two parts, set locally in matters British until Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (published in 1974), and then moving abroad as he embraced broader themes. The constant refrain, however, across the body of work, is the fascination with human frailty in the context of the great issues of the day.
The latest book – A Delicate Truth – is centred in modern Britain, on a supposed threat to national security and the use of dubious means towards a justifiable end; the challenge to an individual oppressed by the power of the state. It’s a political tale, appreciated across the political spectrum (über-conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove chose it as one of the Daily Mail’s “hottest reads” of the summer, even if it was “permeated with Leftie politics”). Like the reviewers, Gove probably didn’t pick up on the book’s strong attack on the secret courts for which his government voted (allowing matters of “national security” to be heard behind closed doors). Le Carré is greatly concerned about such courts, which undermine the rights of some individuals while making it easier for others to make the wrong choices. He “smuggles this kind of stuff” into his best-selling stories, conscious that subliminal influence lasts longer than a news story. There is a political agenda, born of personal experience.
Thus do many of his recent books draw on recognisable characters, with a serious political message. A Most Wanted Man (published in 2008, currently being filmed with the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), concerns what he considers to be a gross overreaction to Islamic threat. It’s a “war on terror” story, drawing on the real events that befell Murat Kurnaz, a 20-year-old Turkish resident of Germany, whom le Carré has befriended and whose book (Five Years of My Life) also came out in 2008. Kurnaz was caught up in the post-9/11 events, detained, tortured, then incarcerated in Guantánamo for five years, despite the early recognition that he was wholly innocent.
“Come over and meet Murat,” le Carré said one day. So I went to his house, accompanied by my children, interested in meeting someone held at Guantánamo because he happened to be a Muslim in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few days later le Carré and I accompanied Murat to my son’s school, arranged at the last minute and supported by the headmaster, to meet a large group of lively north London schoolboys, a most fascinating encounter. Children, it turns out, are willing to ask the questions that adults are too polite to ask, seeking details about the food and toilet facilities, and asking him to re-enact various acts of torture.
Invariably, le Carré returns to British themes. The topics seamlessly trace his adult life – the overthrow of Iran’s elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, Suez in 1956, Iraq in 2003, Syria in 2013. First the Soviets (he believes that the next worst thing after communism was anti-communism), now the response to Islam, which he thinks of as “the same old stuff”. Such events offer a means to “drill down into a personal story”.
Did you hear Blair’s latest horror? le Carré asked me during our postmortem on the Hay event. The former prime minister had been on Newsnight as the situation in Syria ratcheted up. “I had taken the view that we needed to remake the Middle East,” le Carré correctly recalled him saying. Blair appals my neighbour in a meaty and full-blooded way. He was “a closet Catholic throughout much of the Iraq war”, le Carré says, who hadn’t engaged in a consultation with God so much as obtained a prior sign-off. It is, in his view, “a truly perverse concept of religion”. When I ask, he says his great distrust of organised religion is a consequence of his detestation of the painful forms of authority forced upon him by various schools.
These and other thoughts were shared with a much-satisfied Hay audience, who plainly felt they got their money’s worth. The feeling seems to have been mutual. The first sight of the man in brown suede shoes induced a frenzied ovation of unusual intensity. While he likes to entertain, he arrived in the small Welsh town with apprehensions, not least the usual fear that he’d get questions about MI5, the CIA and Mossad, questions he won’t – and can’t – answer.
It was the first time I’d seen him in action. He uses the twin levers pulled by the finest interrogators: establish early control, then build rapport. This is achieved by a mix of charm, geniality and a robustly down-to-earth tone. The excellent sense of timing and power of mimicry don’t harm the cause. It took but a few minutes to win over the audience, utterly and completely, a result obtained with an anecdote about his encounter with Yassir Arafat in Beirut in the early 1980s.
“Tell Mr Arafat I am an opinion-maker,” he tells a lieutenant. A few hours later, while eating supper – “a giant spring roll”, to leave us with an endearingly messy image – a man approaches. Cue at this point a faux mid-Lebanese accent: “The chairman will see you now.” The writer is blindfolded, driven around Beirut in a sand-coloured Volvo by kids with Kalashnikovs, brought to an elevator, introduced into a chamber like a dentist’s waiting room, sweaty and populated by Rexine-covered chairs. Fighters are hanging around, girls with masses of “ammunition on their chests”. Arafat eventually enters.
“Mr David, why have you come to see me?”
“I can be a ham too,” he tells his audience, throwing them a knowing glance. He has come to put his hand on the Palestinian heart, he tells Arafat. This prompts the chairman to seize his hand and place it on his chest. “It is here, it is here,” he says.
The audience is in his pocket. Later he takes questions.
Who is his greatest hero? Andre Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, who came to recognise the dangers of his own work (“He realised he’d given the bomb to a bunch of gangsters”).
What does he think about Britain’s relationship with the US? He’s not anti-American, just opposed to British parasitism and being “harnessed” to American power.
What’s his greatest regret? He wishes he’d started writing earlier, and that he’d not turned down the offer to meet Kim Philby, who was keen to see him when he was in Moscow (“I must have been a fool”).
One question prompts a mention of Sky TV, which sponsors the Hay festival and will broadcast the conversation. This offers an opportunity for mischief, about Rupert Murdoch. Le Carré explains that some years ago The Times had published an “ungrateful” photo of him, alongside a story that he’d clobbered a small Polish theatre company by asking for an exorbitant royalty. He wrote to the then editor to seek a correction, which brought a dismissive reply to the effect that he was big enough to take the rough with the smooth. So he wrote directly to Murdoch, requesting “a big apology, a contribution to the theatre, and lunch”. He was amazed to receive an instant and simple reply: “Your terms accepted, Rupert.” This put him in a funk, like a naughty schoolboy whose bluff had been called. Lunch was at Ronnie’s favourite, the Savoy Grill – Murdoch’s suggestion. What an odd couple they must have made. Murdoch then amazed him again, with a question that came out of the blue. “Who killed Robert Maxwell?”, he asked quietly. “A gorgeous moment,” le Carré says. “Rupert, the man of hard fact, imagining that I knew what had become of Maxwell!”
There was a real warmth in the public engagement, which took place in a cavernous tent, somehow made intimate by his reassuring, warm voice. He was generous, in control yet impromptu, forthcoming yet intimate.
After the event he signed books. Some in the queue apparently claimed a connection with his secret past. “They’re all over the place, the old spooks,” he says. “There’s always someone who’ll come up and whisper quietly about the ‘Vienna operation’, or ‘Operation K-32’, reminding you that you were a bit laggardly, back then.”
He’s been on such a line himself, though, knows about that need for “connection” with a writer. During our postmortem tea he tells me about an event he’d been at in Bern in 1949, to celebrate the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth. Thomas Mann, back from exile in California, spoke, and was booed by German students who thought him “anglicised”. Le Carré was so irritated by the absence of precision – “they meant Americanised” – and the lack of respect shown to the writer, that he made his way to the dressing room, banged on the door. The great Mann opened it, looking like the actor Clifton Webb, tall and disdainful: “He said, ‘What do you want?’ ‘Was wollen Sie?’ And I said, ‘I want to shake your hand.’ And he said, ‘Well, here it is.’ So I shook it and he closed the door.” I recognise the tale – used in A Perfect Spy.
There are plenty of reasons to enjoy the company of my neighbour. He’s entertaining, serious, politically engaged, active and self-deprecating. There is also, it must be said, an endearing sense of vulnerability. I was surprised at how nervous he’d been in the moments before he stepped out on stage, pacing and sweating, no small talk. Later he confided that he was “in preparation”, intending to seize the initiative early in the conversation, “to put us on an equal basis at the start”. Once an interrogator, always an interrogator, I thought. He worried that he wouldn’t stand up to interrogation and cross-examination.
“I don’t know the literary world, I was scared of being confronted with famous names, not knowing what they had written. It was occupied territory I was entering.” Somehow I found this a little hard to believe. Yet he says that in the secret world he was an insider, a position that allowed him authenticity and heft, and opened many doors. As a writer, by contrast, he feels like an outsider, almost an interloper. The Hay audience had offered its greatest approval when he spoke to this theme, the one who tweaks the establishment of which he is a part. “That’s where I belong”, a place of independence. He says he’ll never accept a British gong. “I don’t want to be Sir David, Lord David or King David … ”
It’s not my sense that he spends much time really worrying about the views of others. The books sell in great numbers, even the old ones, and many get turned into films. A large and faithful readership consoles him. Yet there are doubts, visible to those allowed close. “I am what I am,” he tells me, someone who writes from his own experience, from his heart. Maybe it sounds bitter, he says, but he’s promised himself never to be appointed “a member of the literary elite”.
It was touching to see him moved by the audience, by the sense of rapture. The eyes welled up, did they not? “Oh yes, it sounds fruity to say so, but really for a moment it was an affirmation of my life’s work. I was very moved.” He liked the intimacy of the room, “like a good concert, people sharing the mood”.
Sitting in his garden earlier in the summer, he’d bemoaned “the third-rate quality of parliamentary behaviour”. Then, just last week, the House of Commons surprised us all by voting down the desire of David Cameron and Nick Clegg to wage war on Syria, for President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. This time, unlike Iraq, the supposed legal advice and intelligence weren’t persuasive. The parliamentary revolt is a belated gift from Bush and Blair to the people of Syria, and an event that allows my decade-long conversation with le Carré to complete its circle.
I inquire of his reaction. “If you bomb it, you own it,” he says in an email. He writes that he’s “profoundly relieved and for once proud of the House of Commons”, for “a landmark of belated political maturity”. It is a moment of self-recognition, that Britain is not where it once was, that there will not be a knee-jerk accommodation to the wishes of our political masters, or the Americans. The view is rational, reached on reflection. “Punitive raids,” he tells me, “when you don’t know who you are punishing, and who you are unwittingly supporting – and whether one raid will do the trick or a few more might be necessary – are sheer insanity at any time, but now more than ever before.”
In the meantime he has also emailed me a photograph. “I don’t know whether you are referring to my late papa in your piece,” he writes, “but I suspect you are, and it might amuse you to see the attached.” He encloses an image of the flyleaf of a first edition of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It is inscribed to an unknown person by Ronnie Cornwell, in 1965, styling himself as “the father of the Author”. Ronnie was apparently on the run in Hong Kong at the time.
The image does indeed amuse me, as does the thought of Ronnie’s never-ending efforts at leveraging fame-by-filial association to some unknown – and no doubt fraudulent – end. The photograph reminds me too that my conversations with le Carré have so often settled on fraudulence, the theme that cuts across a range of subjects, an invisible thread that links Blair and Iraq back then, maybe Syria now, and certainly Ronnie long ago. It’s a thread that le Carré, with his impeccable lineage, is easily able to spot. He has the experience, after all, and the wisdom.
Philippe Sands is a writer and barrister who teaches international law at University College. To comment on this article email firstname.lastname@example.org
Letters in response to this article:
Spy thriller acted as a calling card for author’s father / From Dr Julian Davison
The secret world of le Carré revisited / From Mr Valerio Fiandra
A beautiful piece on a great man / From Mr Erik F Nielsen
A bucket of cold water for hot-headed pugilists / From Mr Stephen Hazell-Smith