John le Carré – prescient chronicler of a nation betrayed

Obituaries describing John le Carré as a “Cold War spy novelist” are selling him short. More than any other contemporary writer, he had a finger on the dark pulse of our times.

It’s not often that the death of a novelist can be described as a national event, but the passing of David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, at the age of 89 has sparked an extraordinary outpouring of grief and affection from his readers.

More than perhaps any other writer, le Carré seemed to many to have acted as a guide to our troubled times, uncovering some of their darkest aspects through his fiction and providing deep insights not just into human character and motivation but also into the hidden forces that have shaped contemporary events. He created characters – not least George Smiley – with such subtlety and depth that they will live on in readers’ imaginations for as long as his work is read. My guess is that this will be a great deal longer than most of the more self-consciously “literary” authors lionised by contemporary critics.  

Le Carré lived in St Buryan in west Cornwall for over 40 years, and in 2003 I met him when he came to Falmouth University to give a talk to writing students there.

Before his talk, the university had organised a small reception. Normally, these are polite occasions at which pleasantries are exchanged over wine and canapés, but this was very different and it left an indelible impression on me.

This was on the eve of the Iraq War, and the media was full of stories about the imminent threat from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, supposedly based on British intelligence reports. Le Carré was incandescent with rage at the way the country was being railroaded into war on the basis of what he – a former MI6 officer – could see was fraudulently cooked-up intelligence.

His anger was not just at the way in which politicians were committing our country to an illegal and unjustified war to ingratiate themselves with a dolt of a US president. There was also a sense of professional outrage that the painstaking work of intelligence officers was being abused and misrepresented by their political masters. As it turned out, he was absolutely right.

I had to introduce le Carré’s talk immediately after this reception, and was concerned that his extremely dark mood might colour the event. I needn’t have worried. He went on to give one of the most brilliant and generous performances that I’ve ever seen from a writer, talking students through the first few pages of the novel on which he was working, Absolute Friends, and the decisions he’d had to make in writing them. It was a consummate masterclass from a genuine master of his craft.

Later, he was to prove an extraordinarily generous sponsor of some of our most talented students, providing support that enabled them to develop their craft at the early stages of their careers.

Newspaper headlines about  le Carré’s death have described him as a “Cold War spy novelist”. He was that, of course, and novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which drew on his experience in both MI5 and MI6 in the early 1960s, helped to shape popular understanding of the labyrinthine world of bluff, counter-bluff and betrayal that was Cold War espionage. Le Carré wrote about this world because it was what he knew, and he made from it a compelling backdrop for complex and compelling human dramas.

But it was very far from being only what he knew. With the end of the Cold War, he made determined efforts to understand the new world that was emerging and the forces that were shaping it. Far earlier than most, he realised that the most potent of these was greed, unconstrained now by the rigid ideological framework that had underpinned the Cold War stand-off.

As George Smiley puts it in The Secret Pilgrim (1990)  “We won. Not that the victory matters a damn. And perhaps we didn’t win anyway. Perhaps they just lost. And perhaps, without the bounds of ideological conflict to restrain us any more, our troubles are just beginning.”

At a moment when naïve intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama were proclaiming “the end of history” and the permanent triumph of liberal democratic values, this was more than a little prescient. And in novels of the 1990s and early 2000s such as The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener, Single and Single and The Mission Song, le Carré brilliantly dramatised the individual and corporate greed on the part of arms dealers, bankers, mining interests and pharmaceutical companies that was ruining lives in the pursuit of profit, everywhere from the former Soviet bloc countries to the Middle East and central Africa.

He was also way ahead of his time in showing how the influence of powerful kleptocracies had spread into the institutions of the British state. The Russia Report that Boris Johnson attempted to suppress last year would have come as no surprise to le Carré – he had been writing about this stuff for three decades.

Ronnie Cornwell at Ascot

If there is a single theme that runs through Le Carré’s work, it is betrayal. This reflects not just his professional experience but also his own early life. Born David Cornwell in Poole, Dorset, in 1931, his father Ronnie  was a flamboyant professional conman and fraudster who le Carré described in his autobiography, The Pigeon Tunnel, as “walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine” (le Carré’s extremely difficult relationship with his father is at the centre of his most autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy). His mother left home when he was five after being physically abused by Ronnie, and le Carré wrote that “to this day I have no idea what sort of person she was”.

Ronnie Cornwell, an uneducated man of lower-middle-class origin, decided that his son should enjoy the benefits of an upper-class English education, and sent him to Sherborne School in Dorset. It was an environment that le Carré detested and from which he escaped at the age of 16 to study German literature in Switzerland.  After becoming fluent in German, he first encountered the world of espionage in 1950, when he joined the British Army Intelligence Corps and worked as an interrogator of people who had crossed the Iron Curtain into the Allied-occupied zone of Austria.

He went on to study at Oxford, where his intelligence world contacts persuaded him to report on far-left groups for MI5. After leaving, he taught languages at a preparatory school and later for two years at Eton College, before joining MI5 in 1958. He was transferred to MI6 two years later, working under diplomatic cover in Bonn and Hamburg. He left the Secret Intelligence Service in 1964 partly because his cover had been blown by the British traitor Kim Philby and partly because he was by then becoming a successful novelist. 

This was a background that put le Carré in an exceptionally good position to understand the intricacies of subterfuge and betrayal, and what these meant in personal terms. It also left him with an acute understanding of the cruelty and snobbery of the British class system – it is significant that George Smiley is from much lowlier origins than the aristocratically connected Bill Haydon, the intelligence service grandee who uses his class-based self-assurance to mask his treachery in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Although his novels are supremely entertaining, le Carré used his fiction to mercilessly skewer the arrogant entitlement and corruption of the British establishment. Towards the end of his life, he talked more openly about politics. On several occasions, he spoke of his profound sense of grief at the terrible damage that Brexit is doing to our country and its international standing, which he saw as perhaps the greatest betrayal of all. “I’m not just a Remainer,” he said. “I’m a European through and through, and the rats have taken over the ship.”

Le Carré’s attitude to Brexit is summed up in the words of one of the characters in his last novel, Agent Running in the Field: “It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.”

In one of his last interviews le Carré spoke movingly of his feelings for Cornwall and the “absolute ease of association” that he experienced living here: “Dealing with traders, and going to cafes and so on, I find that nobody knows, or cares, who I am.” This, he believed, reflected “a real sense of democracy” that still exists in this part of the world.

Many people in Cornwall will remember John le Carré as a kind, unfailingly courteous and unassuming man who used his wealth and position to help others.

The world will remember him as one of the most perceptive and prescient chroniclers of our times.