Born to be a Spy – John le Carré


July 11, 1993

You spend a day with a man who once paid the rent as a spy and denied it for decades, a professional fabulist whose inventions are so persuasive that they’ve been taken up by the trade he affects to describe, a faker so long in the business of supplying falsehood it doesn’t even occur to him to sign his real name. And what do you feel walking away from such a man? Absolute trust.

John le Carré is very good at what he does.

To meet him is truly to enter his world. A lunchtime signing session in a London bookstore proves a cocktail of international glamour and domestic seediness. Highlights include the American thoroughbred blonde and her nervy, defiant eye-contact, the spinster of some parish with her yellowing newspaper clippings and camcorder, the cad who claims to have had a lot of fun with the novelist’s sister back in the Sixties, the retired spook and Oxford chum in his buffer’s blazer, and the Arab siren who may or may not be the London mistress of the octogenarian tycoon. So, you think: he doesn’t make them up after all.

Standing slightly apart from the crush is an awkward figure in a tweed jacket, collar turned up in the punishing heat of a Piccadilly July, who has been hovering for at least half an hour, reading an atlas. The author singles him out with a flicker of the eyes and later remarks that he’s a familiar type: the watcher who can’t join in, a would-be writer eaten up with envy. ”Those are the people that kill you.”

And then we have the man with the Mont Blanc in his hand, sitting underneath a portrait of the Queen, a character at least as exotic as the tycoon, his mistress, the spy or the assassin. David Cornwell, alias John le Carré: 61 years old, tall, handsome in the particular way of Englishmen-about-town in the 1950s, raconteur, mimic, all-weather conversationalist, a chap who dresses his authority in a solicitous door-opening, let me carry this courtesy. In short, a charm artist. The quintessential Englishman. Or is it all too good to be true?

Gliding through London in the chauffeur-driven Jaguar, he points out the landmarks: his father’s club where as a would-be louche teenager he sketched caricatures for a fiver; the Ritz lounge where James Mason held court while filming an adaptation of one of his books; the Aeroflot offices which used to be solid KGB, to the misfortune of innocents who tried to buy air tickets there; Shepherd Market, once all spies and whores and safe houses; the new MI5 offices and, just along the road, the old headquarters now occupied by Kroll, specialists in financial and corporate information-gathering.

He’s touring the bookshops to push his latest thriller; not that it needs too much help. The Night Manager is currently topping the best-seller lists, having gone on sale a week before the new Jeffrey Archer, Honour Among Thieves. Of course le Carré is loud in his condemnation of publishing as a horse race, and insists he doesn’t see himself as in competition with Archer, but the rest of the world is not so high minded.

Store managers greet him with the news that he’s outselling Jeffrey by 20 to one; sales directors smirk at the most peculiar postponement of Lord Archer’s publication date (the book is already in the shops). Catching sight of a magazine with you-know-who’s puss on the cover, le Carré’s publicist tactfully turns it face down.

In one sense the comparison is invidious. Archer writes pot-boilers, pacy but stylistically challenged. le Carré is a classier act altogether, the subject of no fewer than seven critical tomes. Sceptics may dismiss him as a beach-read for Club class fliers, but admirers maintain the books will stand as chronicles of their time long after the vogueish scribblings of the Granta set have been forgotten.

The charmer shrugs this off as a pointless debate, he’s happy being all things to all men, but he clearly harbours serious purposes as a writer. The latest book is an indictment of contemporary England (le Carré’s UK is forever England), a country where the Cold War’s lofty ideological smokescreen has cleared to reveal corruption, materialism and moral bankruptcy. Here we meet Jonathan Pine, flawed hero and hotel night manager, who is recruited by the British secret service to infiltrate the world of Dicky Roper, an old Etonian arms trader doing dirty deals with the South American drug cartels.

As ever with le Carré the plot is meticulously researched, chockful of army acronyms and intelligence jargon and state-of-the-art weaponry, the sort of detail which makes him a godsend of a gift for difficult uncles at Christmas. But there’s another level beyond the leather-tooled, Old Spice masculinity, a secret narrative running underneath the plot. For those who can crack the code, a powerful emotional drama is being played out.

“Maybe it’s a story of patricide,” he says.

We’re in the garden of his house deep in pastoral London: a suburb of leafy winding streets with wildflowers in grass verges, where people enjoy the simple village pleasures only serious wealth can buy. It’s a long way from the cocaine warehouses and jungle training camps of The Night Manager, but then the heart of the novel is much closer to home.

“That feeling when Jonathan is trying to get at Roper, to put blood on his dinner jacket, to say ‘Tell me you kill, tell me you’re bad…’ The number of times I wanted to say that to my father: ‘You’re so bloody glib.’ He didn’t give…” his voice drops to a church whisper ”…a fuck, and his great strength and his great weakness was his fearful emptiness.”

le Carré owes his father everything. He made him, not just bringing the boy into the world but turning him into a spy and, in so doing, supplying his two great themes as a novelist. Quite a patrimony, but not a free gift. le Carré is still paying.

Cornwell père was a conman, a wellspring of outrageous scams and impossible enterprises, a 49-carat fraudster who seldom had a penny to his name but, in between prison sentences in Jakarta, Hong Kong, Zurich and the UK, lived like a millionaire. A character of great colour and charm, he brought life to any party but sucked it out of those unlucky enough to be close to him.

Since his mother ran off with an estate agent when le Carré was six, Ronnie Cornwell dominated his life. A man so oversized, he once wrote, ”that your only resort as his child was to subterfuge and deceit”. Nothing could be taken for granted; home and ”family” changed constantly as his father worked his way through an endless succession of ”lovelies”. Sent to boarding school from the age of five, the boy David never knew where he’d be from one holiday to the next.

It was a migrant, introverted childhood, friendless too. Even today he doesn’t keep friends for long. The world was what he held in his head, everything else was enemy territory. It was the perfect training for a spy.

His father made them feel they were God’s elect just by being his children. It must be a difficult delusion to give up.

”We thought conventional people were bores and in a way they are,” he admits, with a surprising lapse in charm. ”But they’re wonderful too,” he adds quickly. ”They bother about their neighbours, all those things.”

Whatever its traumas, parts of his childhood were very funny: Monte Carlo, St Moritz, the racehorses, the crazy world of a black marketeer in the 1940s. There was the time his father promised everyone a cricket bat signed by the British and Australian test teams and then had to send six chorus girls round to the Aussies’ hotel; they returned next morning with 50 signed bats. Another year, in late December, he bought up the capital’s unsold Christmas crackers cheap and, 11 months later, invited the street traders of London to collect them from his Mayfair offices. Park Lane was jammed with barrows, the police were not best pleased.

When le Carré grew up and became a successful writer he too became a potential victim of these dodgy schemes. His father was always pressuring him to ”invest” huge sums of money and bitterly resented his steadfast refusal to do so. His son was prepared to buy him a house, providing he retained the deeds, and to meet his grocery bills, but Ronnie declined the offer and continued to burn at the ingratitude of his progeny. When the author failed to mention him in a television interview, be threatened to sue both his son and LWT.

In the end le Carré couldn’t bear to see him anymore, although fate did intervene. The last time they bumped into each other was at the Savoy, where Cornwell senior was entertaining. He was pushing 70, still broke, still living like a lord, still refusing to face reality. Really rather funny, his son says.

Was he an evil man? le Carré looks wary. Evil suggests self-awareness or malice. ”Bad in his effects, certainly, but his capacity for self-delusion was so great that I think he had no sense of his own evil. Self-justification, certainly: you could never get him to admit that he’d done anything wrong.” But isn’t that how evil usually conducts itself? Yes, he agrees, it is.

The social services would class le Carré as an abused child. He prefers other terms, but it amounts to much the same thing. ”It’s the experience of everybody who feels abandoned as a child that they feel guilty about it,” he says. ”I think that’s very normal.”

But recognising this tendency is not the same as escaping it. The guilt remains. At one point it even drove him to a Franciscan monastery where he contemplated becoming a monk. The best therapy is writing, he says, working it out through fiction.

A Perfect Spy, the most obviously autobiographical of his books, is the one which comes closest and consequently his favourite; it was also the most difficult to write. He made several false starts, hating what he identified as their whingeing tone until finally he found a device to make the story work. ”I conceived the notion of making the son much more dreadful than the father.”

There’s something very sad about an abandoned child who writes a book to exorcise personal daemons, and ends up by compounding his own sense of loathsomeness. Wasn’t it a real act of self-betrayal? The novelist shrugs. ”You don’t mind about that as long as you get it right.”

You emerge from an experience like that crippled, he says, and it’s a mixture of whom you meet and your own make-up that determines whether you go to the good or the bad or just become ultra-orthodox. On the positive side, it’s not as if he’s scarred to the core. How could he be? There isn’t one.

”You haven’t much centre, but I don’t think artists do have,” he says. ”Even if you knew who you were when you began writing, the act of repeated experiments with your own personality, through the making of fiction, destroys the centre of you in some ways.”

Sadly for both man and novelist, there was no equal and opposite female influence on le Carré’s early life. He remembers finding the various lovelies intensely irritating. The family’s migrant lifestyle meant that he and his brother, the Daily Telegraph journalist Rupert Cornwell, were unusually late in acquiring girlfriends. He didn’t know his half-sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, until later still. And his mother was long gone, having elected not to take her sons when she absconded with the estate agent, on the grounds that her husband would have come after them. ”A bizarre notion of motherhood” he remarks.

At the age of 21, le Carré went to some lengths to trace her and they met on the platform at Ipswich railway station. It was an awkward encounter. He didn’t know whether to kiss her or hug her or shake her hand. ”The only memory I could muster was of her ironing and wearing a pink angora pullover, to which she replied that she never ironed and never had a pink angora pullover, so it must have been a nanny.”

He stayed a few days, listening to her talk about his father, until he could bear it no longer and cut short his visit in guilty relief.

It all seems highly relevant to le Carré’s oft-remarked difficulties with girls. As fictional characters, that is. He doesn’t seem under any significant handicap in person. While far too much of a gent to discuss his romantic career, he will admit that he hasn’t led a tidy life. I can well believe it. He exudes that lethal quality, susceptibility, combined with the habit of treating women as if they were fine china which used to be known as chivalry. It’s a novel experience for those of us the sunny side of 40, and enjoyable in its way, but there’s also something unnerving about it, like being handed an unfamiliar passport.

He has been married twice. His first, Ann, served as secretarial back-up to his studies, helping him gain a first at Oxford. His current wife Jane types his manuscripts, handles correspondence and contracts with agents and publishers and generally keeps the wheels running smoothly. It seems somehow inevitable that he should have four sons.

If this sounds like a feminist charge sheet. I’m doing him a disservice. He detests the chaps with their ”Conservative party, backbench, locker-room talk”. Think of him as a double agent, a mole in the testosterone establishment, undercover, but definitely a subversive. The Queen and Stalin hang side by side in his downstairs loo.

At prep school he was beaten for small boys’ untidiness, and found that the only revenge was to learn not to cry. There followed public school, with its ethos of ”muscular Christianity”, a lonely year at university in Switzerland, and the male-dominated life of an Oxford college, where he did his first junior grade information-gathering.

His first job was teaching at Eton, which he loathed for its snobbery and the chappish homoeroticism which flourished there, the widespread sense that girls ”weren’t quite real”. Forty years on, despite his patrician manner and friends in high places at home and abroad, le Carré still feels like an infiltrator in the establishment.

In the course of our tour of London bookshops he is snubbed by a tubby but otherwise unremarkable bookseller who insists that five copies of The Night Manager should meet their demand. le Carré’s smile never slips, but back in the Jag he constructs a complete social profile of the man out of nothing more than a vaguely familiar face: former spook, none too bright, probably the son of a brewery magnate, supplementing his pension with a salary of seven grand a year, almost certainly an old Etonian. The episode clearly rankles, and over the next couple of hours he returns to this character again and again. It’s an entertaining party trick, but beneath the comedy, he’s playing for real.

It’s more than 30 years since le Carré turned his back on the espionage business, but he’s probably exercised more influence since leaving than during the period he was on the payroll. He’s been accused of painting a distorted picture of the service, making recruitment harder, but there are also reports of seasoned professionals adopting the jargon he invented and trying to behave like Smiley. ”Probably both are true.”

While he won’t talk about his espionage experience in detail, he’s anxious to nail his ”idiotic” reputation as a superspy. He was an agent runner in Germany, and a pretty junior one, he insists. There was only one attempt to turn him, by the Czechs, and that was so incompetent he can’t be sure he read the signs correctly. Most of the time it was just boring. He once told Graham Greene he found the reports so dull that he was mightily tempted to juice them up a little and Greene replied blithely, ”I used to fabulate here, there and everywhere.”

These days he leads a much more exciting life than ever he did in MI5 or MI6, travelling all over the world to research his novels. The Night Manager had him hobnobbing with the illegal arms dealers of Columbia. ”It took me back to my papa.”

Intelligence work is a form of clandestine journalism, he remarks disconcertingly: the way everything is interesting, the insights, the nerves. ”You’re conducting a conversation and making quite different findings in your own mind, and then one day a sort of cafard sets in, a weariness of the spirit. You lose your innocence, you recognise people’s tricks and evasions and self-glorifications, and you see them as your own.”

It’s absurd, he muses, this misconception that spies are coldly ruthless. You get deeply emotionally involved. So many people in the secret world work for personal loyalty: I’ll tell you something because I like you. ”It’s because you build up some sort of relationship of trust. And then there’s the other side of your head…”

Did he leave out of self-disgust? He nods. ”Self-disgust, the misuse of charm. I gave it to Jose in The Little Drummer Girl: his charm. He looks at it in the mirror and sees it as a wrecker’s light. It’s the making people do things they shouldn’t be doing.”

le Carré believes that espionage is a metaphor for human relations: the endless interplay of love and loyalty and betrayal, the conspiracies and deceptions of workplace and home. Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a metaphor for John le Carré.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications