“I sit at my desk in the basement of the little Swiss chalet that I built with the profits from the Spy Who Came In From The Cold in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern, the city to which at the age of sixteen I had fled from my English public school and where I had enrolled at Bern University.”
THERE is a line on page 72 that asks: “maybe I am just one of those who people who are unable“…surely, surely, John that should be singular, is unable, it is not a royal we? Or do you mean we the secret service, we at her majesty’s service, or we the spies or we who lived in the ’60s or is it just an old idiom of the time? The royal we, John the queen? Or the establishment, a loose knit old boy’s network of bumptious undergraduates who speak foreign languages and are uplifted to a secretive world of embassies and ambassadors, lies and deception?
His major role at the Bonn embassy was to chaperone parties of German journalists and politicians on visits to London to see how things are done, or should be done post world war 2. He had carte blanche to just travel about then west Germany like a radar antennae to listen into the local politics. What in this context of the cold war is a spy anyway, something he transfixes on and has brilliantly conjured up in his fiction but as he explains here the real line between lies and truth is thin. John is not a spy in the sense that he has a bagful of secrets to offload, rather he was briefly the bag man and conduit through which such a creature might suggest a getaway plan. Until he became such a successful writer that he could afford a chalet in Switzerland, a house in Hampstead and a mile of Cornish coastline.
Much of this book is less memoir and more trailers for the people he has met and portrayed in his fiction. The best of all, by a street, though is his father Ronnie, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird“. Everyone else pales in his shadow. Here is a snatch:
“I am holding the hand of my mother Olive, alias Wiggly. As we are both wearing gloves, there is no fleshly contact between us. And indeed, as far as I recall, there never was any. It was Ronnie who did the hugging, never Olive. She was the mother who had no smell, whereas Ronnie smelled of fine cigars, and pear-drippy hair oil from Taylor of Old Bond Street, Court Hairdressers, and when you put your nose into the the fleecy cloth of one of Mr Berman’s tailored suits you seemed to smell his women there as well.”
Think of Hugh Laurie as Richard Onslow Roper in the Night Manager. Ronnie stands out because he is real where everyone else tends to be cartoons, of interest only for who they were, Richard Burton, Robert Maxwell, Alec Guiness. In Rupert Murdoch’s case, lunch lasted 25 minutes. There is not so much to tell.
For all the clues, the winks, the brown envelopes, the double dealings, the standing on street corners in old raincoats, the retelling of old yarns, it all feels very black and white compared to the colour of his fiction. But the ’50s and ’60s were the era of black and white, dissolved in the darkroom of truth. What colour we have is not high minded and principled but delivered by larger than life rogues like Ronnie, and one suspects Le Carre aka David John Moore Cornwell, himself.