Since the decline of the old Empire, the British have been obsessed with spies. From Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan to Graham Greene and Alan Bennett, tales of the daring and danger of British intelligence have held a special place in the British literary psyche – perhaps because the military victories were fading into the past, and this was our way of convincing ourselves that we were still setting the agenda around world. And whilst the Americans and the Soviets seemed to be battling for global supremacy in the Cold War, behind the scenes it was actually a suave British secret agent in a Savile Row suit who was single-handedly saving the world from nuclear armageddon. Whilst drinking vodka martinis and bedding the most beautiful women in the world. James Bond, agent 007, arrived (as always) just in the nick of time. As the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels – Casino Royale (tagline: ‘A whisper of love, a whisper of hate’) – hit the shelves, a scandal about five British spies working for the enemy was just beginning to erupt. When it was finally over, it would destroy the credibility of British spies in the espionage community for decades to come.
George Smiley was a different kind of spy. He had been the fictional hero of the first two novels by John le Carré (A Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality). He was also a shadowy figure in the background of the novel that made le Carré a household name: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. But it was in the novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that we first saw Smiley himself in action as a spy, right at the heart of the Cold War action. This novel, as it happened, was a fictionalised version of that very scandal which the Bond novels had proved such a glamorous escape from: a scandal about a small group of Cambridge-educated Englishmen who turned out to be working for Soviet intelligence. One of them was not only a member of MI6 but was even being considered to be its director. His name was Harold ‘Kim’ Philby, and he proved to be every bit as charming, witty, charismatic, sarcastic, resourceful and brilliant as James Bond. But secretly he was a communist, and he passed the names of a whole generation of MI6 employees straight to Moscow. One of these was a young spy based in Berlin, called David Cornwell. Better known to the world as the author John le Carré.
Le Carré knew Philby and the other key players in this story, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was his own fictional account of the hunt for a double-agent – a ‘mole’ – in the heart of MI6. And it is this book and the two that follow it – The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People (‘the Smiley trilogy’) – that I would like to eulogize here.
Before I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, incidentally, I always thought that the title was a tacky, airport-fiction sort of name. But the nursery rhyme refers to a key aspect of the story: the codenames given by the mole-hunters to the 5 mole suspects, who happen to be the 5 most senior people in the service. Tinker: the director of MI6. Tailor: the deputy, who is also director of operations. Soldier: Iron Curtain Europe specialist. (Skip Sailor – sounds too much like Tailor, might be misheard on a radio.) (Skip Rich Man – sounds like it’s related to money networks.) Poor Man: the head of MI6’s surveillance team. And Beggar Man: George Smiley.
Although I have read all of the books, I might actually slightly prefer the television series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), starring Alec Guinness (who gets points for being in both this and my last eulogising). I can watch them again and again, and even though I’m pretty much singing along with them by now I always pick up little nuggets that I’ve somehow missed before.
Going back to the first novel, when we first see George Smiley he is described as a short, fat, anonymous looking man in his 50s. His manner is meek. (So meek, as it happens, that his tailor takes him for a ride, and he is usually found wearing expensive, ill-fitting clothes.) And already his career appears to basically be over, and he is considered over the hill. And yet, in this novel and pretty much all the other ones he appears in, he is the person who gets called in to fix things when everything at MI6 has gone horribly pear-shaped. Usually he is told that the mess is his fault. It never is, and he normally warned his superiors a couple of years ago that this thing would happen, but he still ends up blaming himself.
As each story unfolds we will see him descend, blinking and bemused, into a labyrinthine world of deception, hidden agendas and the very real possibility of torture or murder by secret police. He will bumble from place to place like an avuncular Hercule Poirot, methodically talking to all of the survivors of whatever metaphorical aeroplane crash has taken place. All the while shadowy rivals (foreign and domestic) are closing in, people are ‘disappeared’ and traumatic experiences are painfully revisited.
And eventually, in all of the three main Smiley stories, there comes a point where Smiley feels he’s satisfied that he knows what has happened, and why. And then the reader learns what he plans to do about it. And that’s when we see why the Whitehall civil service mandarins always come back to George Smiley to clean up their messes, no matter how many times he falls out of favour and gets politely ‘retired’. Behind the mask of the kindly uncle, he is an utterly ruthless operator. And his final masterplan, usually to capture an enemy spy in one way or another, is always extraordinarily simple. He just somehow manages to flip everything on its head. In his own words, his preferred method uses “the minimum of force”.
And that, I think, is about as much as I can give away about the stories without some major spoilers.
But before I go any further I probably should offer a little bit of balance. Lots of people find John le Carré’s books utterly impenetrable. The plots are so complicated that they make the 2008 financial crisis look like a Roadrunner cartoon. They are so understated and ‘un-sensationalised’ that, compared to a James Bond book, they can seem almost comatose. And they are full of posh middle-aged men bickering in dusty rooms with peeling wallpaper. I once heard an interviewer tell le Carré that most TV producers will insist that their writers ‘set out their stall’ (i.e. establish the heroes and where the plot is going) within the first 5 minutes of the programme. Whereas le Carré’s books, and the TV adaptations that followed, not only failed to answer the most basic questions, they left you guessing what those basic questions were until the story was almost over. But if you can stick with them then the thing that these books give you, whether truthfully or not, is the sense that this is what spying is actually like. It feels like you’re being let in on a huge secret.
I think these stories are great because I think that Smiley makes a great hero. Gentle, kind, modest, cunning and morally conflicted. But I also think they’re great because Smiley becomes our window into an extraordinary slice of British historical life that never seems to lose political relevance.
I felt that, in these three books, John le Carré explained what Britishness actually meant. For the first time, my parents’ cultural tastes and political opinions made sense. He explained how the ruling class ruled, and why. He showed how, for example, everything in British politics is done for historical reasons, not functional ones, and he showed this in detail. He gave a human voice to it.
Example: a particularly waspish civil servant is belittling Smiley by describing one of Smiley’s protégés (and one of the five mole suspects) as the only spy “from a red brick university” to make it to the top of MI6. Smiley then corrects him: he didn’t go to a red brick university; he went to St Antony’s College, Oxford. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ replies the civil servant, ‘St Antony’s is a red brick university’. In other words, St Antony’s College is nowhere near old enough and wealthy enough to be considered a proper Oxford college. It’s not enough to have gone to Oxford: you need to have gone to the right sort of Oxford.
Many writers have written about Britain’s recent past with a similarly forensic attention to detail. The TV series Downton Abbey has been hugely popular thanks to Julian Fellowes’s richly detailed analysis of the waning of the British empire. But that said, it focuses on one country house, a bubble within the wider bubble of early 20th Century aristocracy, and so it can’t really be said to be reflective of the national psyche at the time.
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of the character’s comments that they believe the best way to understand and judge a nation is by looking at its secret service. And this is clearly David Cornwell / John le Carré’s view. You learn why people come to positions of power, and it’s never for the right reasons. You also learn why those in power might choose to betray their country – or why they might not even consider it their country at all. It plays out what feels like a particularly English battle between a desire for gentle moderation and a lust for elite status and unaccountable power.
These three novels have a wide political sweep, but they are also treasure troves of little gems. There are characters that are drawn with such vitality that it’s easy to forget they’re fictional. There’s Connie Sachs, the former head of research who, like Smiley, has been sacked at the beginning of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and is now eking out a living through private tuition (of what we don’t know). She is embittered, arthritic and, so she claims, losing her memory. Which is a problem for Smiley, because when he can’t get access to MI6’s files (which is pretty much all the time) he needs to visit her house and flatter her, trick her or bully her into trying to remember things. Because, thanks to a photographic memory and decades of analysing intelligence data, she has basically memorised their entire filing system.
Another interesting side-point here, I think, which shows how great these books are. They were written in the 1970s. And we learn that Connie is bisexual. In fact, a good number of the characters are homosexual or bisexual. And it’s always just mentioned in passing. In most dramas written today about the 1970s this would be written as shocking and taboo, and there’d be a bigoted character inserted to make us all feel warm and fuzzy about how liberal we are today. But these stories take place in a world where most of the main characters are well into middle age, and no one is shocked by anything anymore. There’s a lovely point in Smiley’s People where Smiley needs to speak to the owner of a brothel / strip club in Hamburg. So he shuffles in, sets up a membership account with the club, and politely asks for “no company”. He then sits through hours of a tedious sex show until he finally gets to talk to the boss. When the boss asks him what he thought of the show, Smiley – diplomat to the last – describes it as “very artistic”.
Then there is possibly my favourite of John le Carré’s characters: Toby Esterhase. When we first meet him he seems to be yet another pompous middle-aged English gent, obsessed with status and desperate for promotion. It’s only as the stories progress that we learn he was actually a Hungarian petty crook, probably a pimp. He wouldn’t know an honest job if it sat on his lap and sang to him. When he ends up getting fired by the Service (as they all seem to eventually) he goes back to being an art forger, and it’s around then we learn that, thanks to Smiley’s guidance, he is still the best fixer a spymaster could want. Occasionally, of course, Smiley still needs to rein him in a little. They can’t keep stealing post office vans for surveillance purposes, for example, even in sleepy Switzerland. And yes, every once in a while Esterhase will slightly defraud MI6 out of tens of thousands of pounds – but Smiley is philosophical about it. So long as he’s not actually working for the other side, he’s worth his weight in gold. (One of my favourite lines in all the stories is when Esterhase is trying to scam Smiley out of some money, and is laying on the charm so thick and fast that he invites Smiley out to a dinner that he “very nearly paid for”.)
There are also two characters who loom over the stories that we almost never see, but no one can stop talking about.
The first is Smiley’s nemesis: a Soviet intelligence officer every bit the equal of Smiley himself. He is known by the codename of Karla, and he has risen to such a point of authority that he runs his own agency within the Soviet secret service. He is the one who recruited the mole they’re hunting, decades ago, and has been guiding and protecting that mole ever since. The Moriarty to Smiley’s Holmes, his plans have the same elegant symmetry as Smiley’s, but the difference is that he is, in the words of Smiley, “a fanatic”. Karla has always recruited the best agents, trained them himself, and used them to kill anyone who gets close to him, with the result that after decades in the spying game almost nothing is known about him.
The second ghostly presence is Smiley’s wife: the aristocratic, beautiful and unfaithful Lady Ann. Right from the beginning, no one can quite understand how this mismatched pair ever came to be an item, let alone married. But whenever anyone – and really, anyone – in the story gets rattled by Geroge Smiley’s gentle interrogations, they all twist the knife and ask “How’s Ann?” Ann is always, presumably, sleeping with someone else. Indeed, at one point she is sleeping with one of the five mole suspects, which complicates things no end.
And what of this mysterious mole: ‘Gerald’, as he’s codenamed. Does Smiley ever catch him? And can Smiley ever outwit Karla, and undo any of the decades of damage that both Karla and Gerald have done to his beloved secret service?
Ah, but if I told you that… well, I wouldn’t have to kill you. But I would have to fire you. And then put someone else in your place who is a total unmitigated disaster. And then I’d need to come back to you in two years, grovelling, to beg you to somehow work your magic, and ‘put the spilt milk back in the bottle’.