John le Carré has been propelled through more than five decades as a writer by twin, ambiguous connections that puzzled him long before he took his pen name and which continue, in his mid-eighties, to feed his energy and guile. These are his relationship with the secret world and his relationships with his family.
The son of a conman and jailbird who charmed his way around the world, David Cornwell nonetheless became a master at Eton and a smooth young diplomat in a black jacket and striped trousers. Yet something of his father’s spirit stayed with him. After a stint with MI5 and MI6 – just long enough to be exhilarating – he discovered the joy of writing and began a romance with those early years that has endured. His twin obsessions remain.
Maybe they were consummated in his love affair with Germany – its books, its language and its story – where he found a culture that possessed a hypnotic attraction because it consisted, as he puts it, of classic austerity and neurotic excess. “The trick, it seemed to me, was to disguise the one with the other.” Disguise everywhere, and an understanding of all the vanities.
The Pigeon Tunnel is an episodic memoir that traces the journey from those first stirrings. It is often written in the present tense, so le Carré’s duties as an embassy chaperone for young West German parliamentarians on trips to London in the 1960s (taking in the Commons gallery and a Curzon Street brothel) sit alongside the writer’s field trips to Beirut, Cambodia, Moscow and Berlin, as if time had been suspended and they were all part of the same exploration.
What lies behind the veil? It would be easy to presume that he is haunted by that question, but it is not so much a burden as a gift. Whether he is observing Harold Macmillan across a desk in Downing Street, the prime minister’s liver-spotted hands quite still and a tear working its way down his cheek, or talking to Chechen gangsters, or lunching with an old KGB chief, or taking Alec Guinness to see Maurice Oldfield (the former director of MI6) to talk about George Smiley, or careering through the backstreets of Beirut in the company of Yasser Arafat’s bodyguards, his zest for observation, discovery and fun never flags. Above all, he has a way with a story.
A master people-watcher and raconteur, le Carré can lift a scene with a brushstroke or a magic phrase. During his first man-hug with Arafat, in the dead of night, he is surprised to discover that the rough-looking beard is downy-soft and smells of Johnson’s Baby Powder. After that lunch with Oldfield, Guinness wonders why the spymaster had run his finger along the rim of his glass: was he checking for poison? The intelligence chief in the newly reunited Germany shows le Carré around his office, which was once Martin Bormann’s lair.
The fun never stops. The Times publishes an inaccurate story about him and has to issue an apology; part of his price is lunch with Rupert Murdoch, which is accepted. At the Savoy Grill, Murdoch has one question, straight out: “Who killed Bob Maxwell?”
From every bar and from around every corner, the characters spring out: the nomadic suspects in Germany and Russia and Africa who were the material for some of the post-Cold War books, and the people who seemed to confirm the things he’d imagined. For example, the real Jerry Westerby, the decent dupe of The Honourable Schoolboy, whom he found one day at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (where else?), was an itinerant foreign correspondent called Peter Simms, red-faced, with a thatch of fair hair, enormous shoulders, a wicketkeeper’s hands and a perpetual smile.
So many encounters are memorable. Le Carré tracks down a Russian gangster called Dima, who looks like Telly Savalas playing Kojak, to talk about mafia matters. When asked whether he might one day become legitimate, even philanthropic, the gangster speaks for a long time. Then the interpreter says, paring it down: “Mr David, I regret to tell you, Mr Dima says – f*** off.”
Floating in this rich bouillabaisse are rare delicacies. Most delicious of all is a conversation le Carré had in the mid-1980s with Nicholas Elliott, who was probably Kim Philby’s closest friend in MI6, about his confrontation with the traitor in Beirut in 1963 in search of a confession. Le Carré asks, “Could you have had him sandbagged, for instance, and flown to London?” Elliott replies, “Nobody wanted him in London, old boy.” Philby fled to Moscow where, more than two decades later, le Carré was offered a chance to meet him and refused. The betrayal was too much.
That residual loyalty to old comrades-in-arms – even some who have considered his books a betrayal of sorts – is absolute. There is a sense of the absurd (Elliott says, “My God, we had some belly laughs – we were terribly amateurish, in a way”), but deep affection, too. And beneath it all is his refrain that we are closer to the secret world than we think: “If you are a novelist seeking to explore a nation’s psyche, its secret service is not an unreasonable place to look.”
Le Carré has written with brilliance about the waxing and waning of empires – Britain after Suez, America after Vietnam, Russia before and after the Berlin Wall came down – and always with a passion for the characters who jostle for space in this memoir, with their disguises and weaknesses, pomposity and pride.
He wonders whether it was always bound to be like this for him since he began to do “this and that” as a youngster at the urging of a mumsy embassy officer in Bern. The “pigeon tunnel” of the title refers to an installation he saw with his father near the casino in Monte Carlo, which forced trapped birds to seek escape from their cages through a tunnel under a lawn, at the end of which were shooters, waiting. And here is the point: any pigeons that survived went back to the cages, because their nature compelled them to do it, and repeated the journey until their death. Likewise, we never learn. Human beings don’t change.
Le Carré writes that his father “could withhold a great secret on grounds of confidentiality, then whisper it to your ear alone because he has decided to trust you. And if all that isn’t part and parcel of the writer’s art, tell me what is.” Thanks to his father, and many others, he has written an uproarious, darkly poignant and precious book.
James Naughtie is a broadcaster and writer. His most recent novel is “The Madness of July” (Head of Zeus)
This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories