British writer John le Carre at home in Cornwall. (Photo by Jacob Sutton/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Keep calm and le Carré on

His pessimism about Britain proved untrue — and its own kind of comforting fantasy

Artillery Row

Evelyn Waugh famously said of PG Wodehouse that as well as being impossibly funny, he had created “an idyllic world [that] can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own”.

Whatever John le Carré thought he was doing when he created the Circus, I doubt it was that.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — the first of the Karla Trilogy, a triple summit which many regard as the height not just of his oeuvre but of British Cold War fiction generally — was surely never intended as a safe haven, a cosy place to retreat to when the outside world became a bit too frightening, confusing or just plain mad. Yet, as the kids say, here we are.

You know where you are with Gerald the Mole

I have been indulging this last couple of weeks in a bit of a le Carré banquet. Inspired, somewhat, by the alarming events in Karla’s old stamping grounds, I have purchased and consumed his works as adapted, as read and as performed on screen, in such bulk that a Cash and le Carré pun has now either to be deployed or at least consciously dismissed. My overwhelming sense, while immersed in the realm of lamplighters, scalp hunters and dead letterboxes, is of a world so reassuring and reliable as to make Antiques Roadshow seem positively dystopian.

By comparison with the uncertainty with which I approach even a BBC news bulletin from Ukraine, let alone an independent twitter account claiming to have found crucial footage inexplicably rejected by the “Main Stream Media”, I feel I’m on solid ground. You know where you are with Gerald the Mole.

For the record: I listened this last fortnight to all eight Smiley books as adapted for Radio Four, the distinctly unsmiling lead in each performed by the estimable Simon Russell Beale; I watched the near-legendary BBC adaptation of TTSS starring Alec Guinness, and the equally bleak 2011 Gary Oldman film of the same which was, if anything, even more evocative of the drab decade the 70s is now universally agreed to have been, than was the series actually made at that time; and finally, I listened to the full text of the novel as read by Michael Jayston, still fondly remembered as Smiley’s trusted lieutenant in The Great Mole Hunt, Peter Guillam. Sadly, it is now my turn to come out, blinking cartoon mole-like, into the light.

I suppose the first question anyone might reasonably ask is, are you any the wiser? I would honestly have to say, no, and nor for that matter, as the old legal joke has it, can I really claim to be better informed. True, I think I begin to understand the plot, finally. Better than I did the first time around, when I was 14 and used to pretend to be a lot more gripped by it all than I was, just so I’d be allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch.

While le Carré’s characters are beautifully drawn, they are not Falstaffs or Hamlets

The plot is ingenious, of course; le Carré’s always are. But his themes have by now been absorbed so thoroughly into the collective unconscious, that they have lost some of their ability to delight. The core tenet of le Carré’s moral universe — that there is always one further double cross in play, that you have failed to factor in — was so perfectly executed so early on, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, that no subsequent iteration can ever quite create the sense of the floor giving way beneath you, as it does when Alec Leamas suddenly realises the diabolical genius of the game in which he has been played. Cunning as the Circus games are, they are no great improvement on that. Nothing I’ve read since has been.

While le Carré’s characters are beautifully drawn (certainly by genre standards), they are not Falstaffs, Prosperos or Hamlets, worthy of endless exploration and reinterpretation. Pace Guinness’s canonisation, Simon Russell Beale’s reading was my favourite, but then he seemed to be knowingly paying homage to The Master, much as Guinness in The Ladykillers had seemed to be channelling Alastair Sim (now, that would have been a Smiley for the ages — perhaps with George Cole as Peter Guillam, Terry-Thomas as Bill Haydon and Herbert Lom as Inspector Mendel).

Nor, despite le Carré’s quiet authority on the matter, have I learned a great deal more about MI6. Nor yet, despite Haydon’s claim (ventriloquising le Carré, I think) that its secret service is the truest expression of a nation’s conscience and soul — Britain itself. That spies are not to be trusted is, I suppose, worth reminding oneself of from time to time. But is Albion really as perfidious as that, through and through, like a stick of Whitehall rock?

Jim Prideaux was the only character to have any sort of vitality, or virility

I have learned a little about narrative control and in particular the power of topping and tailing and interweaving such a complex narrative with a simpler story of strong human appeal — in this case, that of Jim Prideaux. Jim is the beating heart of this thing, the intersection where stale stuffiness, ambition and treachery meet the capacity of a decent man to withstand pain: first acute pain as he is shot in the back and then tortured, then chronic pain without the prospect of relief. He is really the closest thing this story has to a hero. Speaking personally, the portrayal by Ian Bannen in the 1979 series was my single favourite character both at the time and of any of the various adaptations I’ve been immersed in of late. He was the only character to have any sort of vitality, or virility, at all.

That really is the flipside of the cosy familiarity I mentioned at the top. If one had to choose a single word to sum up the default atmosphere, the subtext communicated by TV, film and radio adaptations of this book, it would have to be “moribund”. Bannen, by comparison, at least looked like someone who would still bleed.

That leads me on to the one thing I think I really did learn, or come to recognise, as I gazed back across pretty much the entire span of my adult life. And that is, that le Carré was wrong. What Britain seemed to him to be, both when Tinker Tailor was published in 1974 and even more so when it was the TV event of the year in 1979, was finished. And it wasn’t.

Le Carré told us, in no uncertain terms, that Britain had had it. That our game was up. He even encouraged us to sympathise with, if ultimately reject, the calculation made by Bill Haydon, that for anyone raised to manage an Empire, our role overseas was now so trivial, our hopes of influence so futile and embarrassing, that a Cold War traitor was something to be.

The final scene, of Smiley’s unfaithful wife openly laughing at George’s incomprehension at the mysterious failure of his marriage, and the world at large, was many things, but feel good it certainly was not. This was a Captain going down with his ship. Sure, Haydon had got his comeuppance, but there was no hero whose fate we could choose in his stead. The alternative, it seemed, was to take our pills and not make a fuss.

We remain a destination that millions are willing to literally risk their lives for

And yet. Even as the series went to air, a new Government was settling into Number 10. On the horizon, invariably overcast but settled throughout the 70s, a storm was coming. The nation was about to be offered an alternative after all — or rather, the stern admonition that there was no alternative, none at all. Whatever else she wrought in the next decade, by the time Margaret Thatcher limped off stage with her own wounded back eleven years later, the Cold War had been won — a victory in which Britain’s role was recognised pretty much everywhere other than in Britain itself, as having been as crucial as that of Ronald Reagan, Lech Wałęsa and Pope John Paul II himself.

Britain may never again know the power and might that Bill Haydon grew up believing to be his birthright. But as I write, we have somehow shrugged off the greys and browns, the tonal palate of the 70s casserole recipe book which seem to have defined the George Smiley era. The red stars which hover in extraordinary abundance over London’s night skyline, are those of commerce, investment and the future. Baffling as it seems to many of us, we remain a destination, a society that millions of migrants and refugees around the world are willing to literally risk their lives (and France) to come to and be part of.

Perhaps most tellingly, we continue to hover at (or very near) the top in the charts for soft power, a variety which frankly, as I get older, and see what happens to the hard stuff, I rather prefer.

The irony — that it is the likes of John le Carré, a wonderful novelist who foresaw and depicted such a diminished role for us fifty years ago, who have secured for us that position — is one that I think we can all momentarily remove and polish our spectacles, to reflect upon.

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