The Master is dead.

Discussing the British Television Mini Series “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”  on the 40th anniversary of its screening,  a columnist for the Guardian newspaper remarked “It depicts a country wearing its decline on its sleeve.” The world of George Smiley and the Circus in the 1970s is so redolent of a tired Britain and its ruling class.  Empire gone, wealth gone, influence gone except as a dim memory, to be brought out each year at the Last Day of the Proms. All they have are imperial memories and a reputation for getting things done in the past. Weariness  pervades the atmosphere. “A country wearing decline on its sleeve”. How beautiful, I thought.

The world that John Le Carre inhabited ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. Until then, in language so sublime, he depicted the Manichaean world of the struggle between the West and the Soviet Union without the reader ever being sure of who was right and who was wrong.  He saw corruption in the morality tale of a Christian West led by the brash new power of the United States, championing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while doing so much to stifle that individuality and refusing to admit grey areas,. He documents the Cold War struggle among spies to battle the awesome power of the ideology of the Soviet Union backed by its totalitarian insistence on the suppression of the individual. He sees morality in immorality, evil in nobility.   And above all his superb description of Britain in the 60s and 70s –  Great no longer, bereft of imperial power, the Pound no longer the dominant currency –   but heavy with all the knowledge and background of having once run a global empire not so long ago, trying to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans.

I came across Le Carre in the public library of the small town I grew up in. The publishing sensation of that time, according to TIME magazine, was “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by a writer with an exotic name. – John Le Carre. Almost by accident I found a copy of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”.  I took it home and started on it right after lunch. I put it down four hours later, shaking with excitement. I remember the last scene where Alec Leamas  – a British spy, world weary, cynical, unsure of the rightness of his cause – is trying to cross the Berlin Wall with his lover Liz whom he has rescued as part of the mission. He climbs and reaches for her – when the East German Volkspolizei shoot her dead. Unsure of stepping back into the free world without Liz to give him the ability to be free of himself, he climbs down from the Wall and stands over her lifeless body. After a brief hesitation, they gun him down as “he stood glaring around him like a blinded bull in the arena”.  The romance of it all!

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – the title derived from a children’s skipping rope rhyme – chronicles the search for a Soviet mole within the British Secret Service. The search is led by George Smiley, short, podgy, bespectacled, fond of wiping his glasses on his tie end, husband to the lovely Ann, devotee of Goethe and German poetry, a most unlikely spymaster.   In musty backrooms, in dank University libraries, the search goes on to find the trail of an insider who has frustrated the service, by looking at operations that have inexplicably failed. The trail of treachery and betrayal gradually uncovered in the service is complicated by the slow realization on the part of Smiley that his own marriage is being betrayed by infidelity.

As the threads weave themselves into a fabric of treachery,  Smiley is dismayed to find that his wife is in fact in the arms of a fellow member of the service –  a friend. In the upper class world that he inhabits, an academic cat and mouse game is played out amidst the shambles of the Service that Smiley loves, and his own personal life.  The action is slow, practically  non-existent; but like the slow coiling of a python around its victim, the vast intellect of Smiley and the persistence of his acolytes – Peter Guillam, Toby Esterhaze, Jim Prideaux, George Mendel – tightens its holds on the traitor. It is fascinating to watch; you lose yourself in the maze of a Service in denial of its betrayal by one of England’s very own, someone from the dreaming spires of its aristocratic echelons. The book was written at a time when Anthony Blunt was unmasked as  having been a Soviet Spy for 40 years. He was Curator of the Queen’s Art Gallery no less. And he found it so easy – as does Smiley’s prey – to be comfortable in the English world of Court, Tradition and Duty and at the same time owe loyalty to the Communist cause. A dichotomy never fully understood by the Americans.

The early Le Carre books are set in an English public school, where a damaged Jim Prideaux has repaired to teach French and stay out of sight like a spy gone underground, and indicate the centrality of the public school to the formation of English character. Manly values built around rugby, cricket, footer; lessons in Latin and the Classics; the external cadence of public school life built around manliness had to be balanced with the tortured inner life of coping with one’s individuality and loves. They were crucibles for instilling loyalty and duty, and yet they managed to breed spies.  The schools bred loyalty to inspiring fellow boarders, retaining those loyalties  through life, woven through service to country and marriage.

One such public schoolboy is Hon Jerry Westerby in “The Honourable Schoolboy”.  A floppy haired public schoolboy with a moral code, he is recalled from a bucolic semi-retirement in Tuscany to London to execute an assignment in Hong Kong. The traitor, in “Tinker Tailor” has been found – a high level upper class English aristocrat. But the Service is in the doghouse in the eyes of the Cousins (the Service slang for the CIA).  A rich Chinese businessman is suspected of being a spy for the Russians. Smiley wants to get him as a coup to recover the lost prestige of the Service.  The battle – fought in a Whitehall conference room! – between the Service, the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office responsible for Hong Kong for the right to go after a wealthy colonial subject is memorable. It is one of my favourite parts of the book – an excerpt:

The conference table was covered in a ripped green baize like a billiards table in a youth club. The Foreign Office sat one end, the Colonial Office at the other. The separation was visceral rather than legal. For six years the two departments had been formally married under the grandiose awnings of the Diplomatic Service, but no one in his right mind took the union seriously. Guillam and Smiley sat at the centre, shoulder to shoulder, each with empty chairs to the other side of him. Examining the cast, Guillam was absurdly aware of costume. The Foreign Office had come sharply dressed in charcoal suits and the secret plumage of privilege: both Enderby and Martindale wore Old Etonian ties. The Colonialists had the homeweave look of country people come to town, and the best they could offer in the way of ties was one Royal Artillery-man: honest Wilbraham.

The other memorable character in the book is Craw – the crusty, foul-mouthed Australian journalist, and British spy. The character is based on a real-life Australian journalist Richard Hughes who lived and worked in Hong Kong for years. Craw specialises in using the language of Catholic priests to talk to people. It is true that Hughes held court in a corner of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel coffee shop, and it is widely rumoured Hughes was a British spy.  The story goes into the detail of this Chinese businessman and his payments from a Russian slush fund, tracing the travels of Westerby through Thailand, Laos and Hong Kong. Betrayal looms large. Westerby cannot countenance the betrayal that the businessman is about to connive in. And the last minute the British are themselves betrayed to the Americans by one of their own.

It is a book you can read again and again, and still be moved. One of the finest novels of the 20th Century.

“A Perfect Spy” is semi-autobiographical,  written around the time of perestroika and glasnost. Le Carre’s father in real life was a con artist and part time impressario, who insisted on his son going to public school even if he could not always pay the fees on time. And like the author, Magnus Pym becomes an upper class Englishman clad in pin stripes, fluent in German, but constantly aware of his hidden side based on trickery and deceit.  He joins the British Secret Service due to his fluency in German – just like the real life Le Carre did – unsure of his own sense of who he really is.  Magnus is recruited as a spy by the East German Secret Service.  His existence as a double agent is easy at first but increasingly more intense. His East German case officer, conscience keeper, interlocutor and friend is Axel.  He describes Magnus in the following passage.

Then Axel began speaking, kindly and gently without irony or bitterness, and it seems to me that he spoke for about thirty years because his words are as loud in my ear now as they ever were in Pym’s then, never mind the din of the cicadas and the cheeping of the bats.

‘Sir Magnus, you have in the past betrayed me but, more important, you have betrayed yourself. Even when you are telling the truth, you lie. You have loyalty and you have affection. But to what? To whom? I don’t know all the reasons for this. Your great father. Your aristocratic mother. One day maybe you will tell me. And maybe you have put your love in some bad places now and then.’ He leaned forward and there was a kindly, true affection in his face and a warm long-suffering smile in his eyes. ‘Yet you also have morality. You search. What I am saying is, Sir Magnus: for once nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy. All you need is a cause. I have it. I know that our revolution is young and that sometimes the wrong people are running it. In the pursuit of peace we are making too much war. In the pursuit of freedom we are building too many prisons. But in the long run I don’t mind. Because I know this. All the junk that made you what you are: the privileges, the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the churches, the schools, the fathers, the class systems, the historical lies, the little lords of the countryside, the little lords of big business, and all the greedy wars that result from them, we are sweeping that away for ever. For your sake. Because we are making a society that will never produce such sad little fellows as Sir Magnus.’ He held out his hand. ‘So. I’ve said it. You are a good man and I love you.’

And I remember that touch always. I can see it any time by looking into my own palm: dry and decent and forgiving. And the laughter: from the heart as it always was, once he had ceased to be tactical and become my friend again.

I found this passage very moving. It describes a part of all of us, doesn’t it?

The Bible tells the story of Simeon, who was a devout Jew, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to Jerusalem, Simeon sees the baby and utters words of gratitude that form the beautiful Nunc Dimittis. The translation in the Book of Common Prayer is as follows:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Is there redemption in life? Are there any moral or ideological certainties that we can all aspire to be guided by? Smiley is not so sure. His own Messiah is his intellect and the pursuit of reason, guided by an understanding of his and everyone’s own imperfect humanity. I first read Le Carre when I was seventeen, and forty years on, I think I am just beginning to understand.  So when the day is done and the task accomplished, is it not fair to ask the Lord to let his servant depart in peace? Even if there is no Messiah to witness?

Here are the closing titles of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” with a beautiful rendition of Nunc Dimittis, rolling through a glimpse of the dreaming spires of Oxford, where so much of English duty and English betrayal was seen through the eyes of Le Carre. And I hope you join me in wishing David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, mystery and adventure in the After Life. Requiscat in Pace!

6 thoughts on “A country wearing its decline on its sleeve

  1. The title misled me. I was expecting something else, given all that is happening in your country.

    What happened to trigger this post on Le Carre. Yes, he was part of our growing up and a whole generation of people like you and me must have discovered him in the “local library of a small town”. Interestingly there were local libraries in small towns in those days.

    I think I made the mistake of reading his books too early in life – too early to appreciate the angles that you have brought out in this post. I remember being throughly bored by Tinke Tailor Soldier Spy. I should read all his books again. I will appreciate them far better now.

    By the way, you shoud write a post on your Queen and what the Head of state shoud do. Sure, the Queen is above politics and should not interfere in what the elected representatives do. But upto what point ? If the country tears itself apart and individual countries secede from the Union, she will still maintain a stiff upper lip and say Pip Pip ? What will take her to wake up ? A nuclear attack on Buckingham Palace ? She is getting away far too lightly in all this. And the excuse that she is old cuts no ice with me. If she is too old, she must abdicate.

    I always felt the debate on royalty vs republic was an archaic, useless debate, but now I am clearer that the Queen must be fired.

    Sorry for a complete digression, but this is to trigger your next post 🙂


    1. Thanks! When I read the line ““A country wearing decline on its sleeve” in the Guardian, my initial thought was to contrast Smiley’s England with the Brexit Britain. The two are so dissimilar that I abandoned it and instead wrote what I thought would a love letter to an author I absolutely adore. I don’t care as much for his later work but all the ones that came up to “Smiley’s People” were brilliant. I am so disappointed by Britain that I did not want a rant on Brexit to get in the way of telling people how sublime Le Carre is, and how big a role he played in my own growing up. Because books like these are about the human condition and they make you think.

      Since you asked I am putting something together on Britain. Wait for it please!


  2. The title led me to believe that it was going to be a commentary on the unsavoury goings on in your homeland. Imagine my surprise to instead read a nostalgic tribute of sorts to legendary spy novel writer, John Le Carre. I read his books at a young age for the relatively complicated spy thrills he conjured up. He was not easy to read then. A lot of prose was ponderous, pensive

    After going through your blog post, I guess it is time to revisit and reacquaint myself with Le Carre


    1. Thanks Chandu for visiting and leaving a comment! Someone – I think Churchill – once remarked that there is a time in your life to read a book. Something about how the anvil needs to be ready for the book to strike or something. Le Carre falls into that category. I was lucky to get hooked very early and since then, every five years or so I read his books again. And I am talking of the Smiley series. The new ones don’t grip as much.


  3. Your thumping endorsement of the book sent me scurrying to the bookcase. And sure enough found an ancient copy there of Tinker Tailor…. that once belonged to my dad. Was looking for a book to read. Giving this a shot now!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s