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18 October 2023

The darkness of the secret world: Mick Herron and John Gray in conversation

The bestselling author of the Slough House series and the philosopher discuss spy thrillers, the allure of the Cold War and the appeal of dark humour.

By John Gray and Mick Herron

Mick Herron’s bestselling Slough House novel series has been brought to an even larger audience by the 2022 Apple TV adaptation, Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb, the dour boss of the centre for inept or out-of-favour MI5 operatives. Slough House’s staff include the idealistic young River Cartwright, an obnoxious hacker, Roddy Ho, and Lamb’s assistant Catherine Standish, who is a recovering alcoholic.

In his review of Herron’s novel Bad Actors in 2022, John Gray, the philosopher and New Statesman contributor,  wrote: “With this multi-layered tour de force, Herron has consolidated his place as the foremost living practitioner of spy fiction in the English language.” Gray and Herron  met on a video call earlier this month. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

John Gray: In your work there are some distinctive features that are not present in other writers in the espionage genre. In your novels, spies are represented accurately as bureaucrats; that’s to say, people who work in offices, who have careers, who are restructured or gotten rid of for corporate reasons, who compete with one another. They’re not lone figures, and they’re not even related to a single head of a spy agency the way, for example, William Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, and Maugham himself, actually, was: they’re part of a complex bureaucracy, and I think that’s fascinating.

The second thing is that, in your novels, more than any other writer, with the possible exception of Eric Ambler, espionage and politics are closely linked; that’s to say, what goes on in this secret world is connected to the public world, but in complex and often deceptive ways.

The third is that all your novels are in different ways studies of failure, especially the most recent one, The Secret Hours. You’re interested in your characters as human beings who in various ways – alcoholism, marital breakdown, lack of money – have failed in their lives and somehow have to reconcile themselves with that fact. And that shows itself in a very close attention to the texture of their everyday lives.

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There’s a wonderful passage in your recent book where two characters talk about how much they spend on their rent – 47 per cent, I think one of them does – and that he only heats his apartment at weekends for two hours and one hour during the week. And they discuss who gets the teabags when they’ve been used.

Unlike most other writers in this genre, the secret world is not hermetically sealed from the rest of human life. The secret world is an extension of ordinary human life, with people who have ambitions and failures and depressions and anxieties. I find this extremely refreshing after John Le Carré, because in his work there’s a certain mystique of this secret world, which might be generational: he was active in the Fifties, a long time ago, whereas you’re writing about right now.

Mick Herron: I think that because I have no personal experience of the secret world – I’ve never worked in it, in the way that most of the writers you mentioned did – I simply apply what I do know about the world to the books that I write.

I worked for a small organisation that got larger as it was bought by ever bigger businesses – and my observations on that were simply that the larger an organisation gets, the more dysfunctional it becomes. So that, married to the fact that I’m more interested in people than I am in the roles that they’re playing, has produced the books that you’re talking about, where I do focus on the individuals and their own sense of place or lack of place in the world, and put that inside the spy novel, rather than writing a spy novel and peopling it.

I start with the characters, and that sense of failure and dislocation. I have no explanation for that particularly – I don’t have a dark childhood behind me or anything like that. It’s simply what seems to light my candle when it comes to creating fiction.

[See also: Benjamin Myers: “Historical fiction is not all tabards and turnips”]

JG Well, it makes your work very empathetic, very rich. Although there’s bravery and courage in your books – people struggle with their limitations, their addictions and so on. They’re unheroic figures, or if there’s any heroism in them, it’s almost denied by themselves and the environment in which they operate.

MH I think you’re right. Yes, there is buried heroism there; I mean, there is presumably heroism in Lamb’s past, for instance, but we never really learn much about that. This is where these people have washed up. And it’s interesting what you said about Le Carré and his enchantment with the secret world, because I think my characters have that; River, particularly, feels a yearning to be part of that world, and his education comes from realising that the world isn’t really like that.

Even if River weren’t exiled to Slough House, he would be disillusioned fairly swiftly by that overlap between the espionage world he wants to be part of and the political realities that govern it.

Mick Herron, author of the Slough House series of spy novels. Photo by Matt Dunham / AP

JG In reality, most of the operatives of the secret world are now civil servants, so they’re bound by all sorts of legal and procedural practices and rules, but also they’re bound by their political masters, and you bring that out very clearly.

MH Indeed, and the civil service aspect of it was one of the starting points. The notion that you can’t very easily get rid of a civil servant was the premise behind Slough House. It’s easier to send them there than it is to sack them.

JG And Slough House is a concentrated realm of failure.

MH Yes, and as soon as you’re established in a centre for failure, then you’re doomed, really, because you can’t succeed once you’re in that environment. Some of them think that they can overcome, even though they’re continually told there is no way back to Regent’s Park. I think the real heroism lies in continuing to struggle despite the fact that you know that it will avail you nothing.

JG One of the writers I admire the most is Joseph Conrad. He’s not an optimist about anything, but he admires human beings for what they do when they’re really up against it. They may still believe that in some way they can assert themselves or even circumvent the fate that’s been laid on them, but they practically never do. There’s a similarity to your characters: from time to time they are able to show their mettle on their own terms, but it makes no difference to their overall situation, does it? They don’t get back to Park House.

MH No, not at all, and they never will! Conrad’s Lord Jim was a book I read at a very young age, probably long before I was able to fully understand it, but that central idea of the outcast, the man who disgraces himself and has to go into exile, is possibly one of those triggers for the series in the first place.

You mentioned empathy. I do think that is the most necessary tool in a novelist’s kit: to empathise with the characters and therefore cause readers to empathise too. I’m often surprised by the number of readers who claim that Roddy Ho is their favourite character, because he’s the one with the most obvious social flaws. But when I write that character, I’m writing from his point of view: he genuinely believes all these things he expresses, and therefore readers can find him endearing rather than deplorable, and that’s all down to empathy.

JG And there’s Catherine Standish.

MH Well, she’s the heart and soul of the series, I think. Alcoholism is a daily battle for her; from the moment she gets up in the morning to laying her head down at night, this is the struggle that she has to undergo. So for me, she is heroic, and the fact that it’s a very quiet kind of heroism doesn’t render it any less valuable. For her, Slough House is a place of sanctuary, whereas for everybody else there – with the exception of Lamb, of course – it’s a place of punishment and exile. She knows that it’s better than where she might have ended up.

JG I hadn’t thought of that in those terms, that for these two characters, it’s a place where they can, I wouldn’t say be themselves, but struggle with what they are. There’s not much overt sign of Lamb’s struggling with himself, but it’s there now and then. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but it’s evident that he has somehow been wounded, ­actually irreparably.

MH I think so, and there’s self-loathing, too. I mean, he’s come to detest his own past. At the same time, I like to keep it unclear as to what his actual feelings are as regards the people he is with. He doesn’t have a heart of gold. He doesn’t really love them all. What he does have is a sense of property: he is the boss, they are his property, and he will protect his property because it’s his, not because he cares about it.

[See also: Rupert Murdoch’s portrait in the attic]

JG A sense of professionalism, as well, I suppose. Like many people who fail in either their personal or professional lives, they keep going by recommitting themselves to a professional code. Lamb sees it in a particular rather brutish way, but it’s a code, isn’t it?

MH It is very much a code. It is a moral code that he has, although it’s private to him. And I see it really as him belonging on the shop floor rather than in management. He will go out of his way to protect others who are on the shop floor rather than side with the suits, as he would call them, who are enmeshed in the bureaucracy and largely involved in promoting themselves, or at least perpetuating their own roles within the service, at the expense of those who are doing the dangerous work.

Fate and fiction

JG The role of ambition and failed ambition, careerism and the breakdown of careerism – I guess this is connected with a sense of fate. This is peculiarly strong if you’re in an organisation which dispenses with you, or shoves you into Slough House irrevocably: something you might believe you don’t deserve, but there’s nothing you can ever do about it. Many contemporary novels are leery about confronting what used to be called fate: that’s to say characters who know that whatever they do, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to make any change in their material circumstances, or ever get back what they’ve lost. The whole of their lives is in a sense an attempt at self-reconciliation, or reconciliation with their circumstances, even if they hate them and rebel against them.

MH It’s one of the archetypal plots of the novel, isn’t it, obstacles overcome? Whereas my characters have the obstacles, and even if they do overcome them, it’s not going to make any difference.

JG That’s the key.

MH If I’d written Slow Horses and then had them all being redeemed by their triumph at the end of the book and reintegrated into the world of Regent’s Park, then I could still be writing those books now; I don’t think anybody would be reading them. They would become very ordinary tales about people doing spy stuff – which is not what really interests me. It’s that theme of failure and the sadness of life.

I’m not a sad person, but this is where the heart of my creativity lies, and I think that’s true for a lot of writers. We like to look at the underside. What you were saying before about the characters discussing how much they spend on rent and whether they can afford to turn the heating on – these are real concerns, very much so at the time I was writing that paragraph: this was reflected in the newspapers every day and still is. It’s important to me that my characters are living in the contemporary world.

I didn’t dwell very much on the pandemic, but all my characters have undergone it; when Bad Actors came out in 2022, they were all looking back on having been through lockdown and all the rest of it. Again, that comes down to the empathy question; this is what these people think about when they’re on their way to work. They think about what they’re going to have to eat that evening, and whether they can afford to go out at the weekend and that sort of thing.

[See also: Andrew Wylie’s rules for life]

The bad actors of British politics

JG It’s a seamless connection with ordinary life. But the other thing I find interesting is that your work isn’t cynical. And I mean that in two ways: one, there are very few cynics in it. I think true cynics in politics are as rare as saints. A cynic is someone who knows the truth or knows what they should do but doesn’t do it. Most of the politicians I’ve met believed that what they were doing was right.

What encourages the reader – encourages me, at least, when I read your books – is that most of the characters are strongly empathetic in that they’re basically good. Even Lamb is not malevolent. Some of the politicians may be sociopathic, but most of your characters, actually, are fundamentally decent human beings, struggling with their fates.

MH I probably treat the politicians unfairly in my books, because of the times we’re living through, really. The present seemed to supply the necessary evils that I would be writing about, because we have been governed for the past 13 years by inadequate people doing inadequate things.

I sometimes feel I’m resorting to satire (if that’s not too elevated a term for the near-slapstick I’ve been known to indulge in) to ward off despair. We’ve just seen Rishi Sunak row back on necessary measures for the protection of future generations in an attempt to buy votes: where is the sense, let alone the common human decency, in that?

It’s hard to be optimistic about the future when our system insists on short-term gains for the party in power at the expense of the national – and in this case, global – good. There’s probably never been a government prepared to say “OK, we’ve messed up, time to let someone else have a go,” but this one really should take a long hard look at itself.

I do think this has got worse during my adult life, and seems to be accelerating. It’s not difficult to take the view that Brexit came about because one man decided that it would advance his political career to support it. That could only happen in an age when personality is deemed of more value than policy (or competence, or honesty, or principle, or anything else). Maybe we’re turning a corner on that – Sunak doesn’t seem overloaded with personality, and nor does Keir Starmer – but I expect this will turn out to be a blip. Whatever the outcome of the next election – and I don’t think there’s cause for complacency – I’m not going to run out of examples of bad government, or of bad behaviour in government.

JG The danger for politicians, I think, is not so much sociopathy or even being bad actors for good reasons; the danger is they can be possessed by the conceit that they can do great things. Then they feel released from ordinary decencies, not for cynical reasons, but for the opposite.

MH To unshackle themselves, do you mean? They feel that if they were allowed the scope, they could do great things?

JG Yes. Something like that might have gone on inside Tony Blair’s mind over the Iraq War. I mean, he must have known there was an awful lot of dissembling involved, in the run-up to it at least. But I don’t think he would regard it even as lies. Somewhere he said, “I can only act on what I believe,” and then went on to say, “And Iraq is a crucible for democracy” or some nonsense. I think he genuinely believed that: he was practising his own type of fake news on himself!

MH And that does shade into a messiah complex quite readily, doesn’t it?

JG Which is a strange, moralised version of the sociopath, because the sociopath doesn’t care about truth unless it serves their interests; someone like Blair maybe regards as truth what fits his vast project. There’s evidence that Blair has a strong sense of the evil in the world. He used to say of Saddam Hussein, “He’s just evil, he’s got to be stopped.” If you really believe that, you have licence: you can do almost anything, can’t you, to stop it?

MH Yes. We’re heading into Miltonic territory: “Evil be thou my good.”

JG Yes, but only “be thou my good” for the higher good: I embrace evil for the higher good. That’s what I fear most in politics: not cynicism, but the conceit of doing great things. Because it’s that, I think, in the past 20 years, that has led to the worst disasters.

But there’s another thing. I don’t think they can admit to themselves, either, that their project – whatever the higher project – has irreparably failed or, worse yet, could never have worked. The Iraq War could never have worked out the way they wanted because the conditions weren’t there. When a tyrant has been the head of a regime for 30 years or so, the regime has become the state, so if you topple the regime, you topple the state and then you have anarchy. And there was nothing in Iraq’s history which suggested that democracy was even possible. But if Blair or other supporters of the Iraq War were to face that, their world-view would crumble. It would be psychological suicide.

[See also: Richard Milward: “I use humour as a coping mechanism”]

I think there is somewhere within all these people a secret garden of innocence that they go round watering from time to time. Someone like Blair – unlike Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, who don’t care about any of that: they’re narcissists before they’re anything else – is an idealist who says what he thinks and believes what he says, and continues to believe it, whatever the evidence.

MH Right. But the sort of boots-on-the-ground consequence of that is prisoners of war being tortured in Abu Ghraib; it has immediate consequences for people who fall into their hands.

JG I couldn’t agree with you more. Even before the war, I wrote a spoof piece called “A Modest Defence of Torture” which ran in the New Statesman. A lot of people rang in and were horrified, because they didn’t recognise the Modest Defence, even though the then editor had a picture of me with Jonathan Swift’s wig on.

The point was that there were people, in the US particularly, who, before the war, were defending the legalisation of torture on the grounds that it could be used to promote human rights, and I found that such a repellent and obviously paradoxical thing that I wrote the spoof. One of the worst features of my life observing politics has been the way in which torture was rehabilitated by the world’s pre-eminent liberal democratic state.

MH If you canvassed people prior to September 11, you would have had a very different set of opinions being delivered as to whether torture was justifiable under any circumstances: the circumstances altered.

The post-Cold War world

JG It’s a kind of moral slippage. That leads me to another question which touches on Le Carré; one of the limitations of the espionage genre – this does not apply to your work – is how so much of it was rooted in a very anomalous period of world history: the Cold War.

There was nothing much like it before or after. The Cold War was a struggle between two large powers, each animated by a recognisably Enlightenment ideology, liberalism and communism. One of the reasons I don’t like Le Carré’s work – though he did write some books of great brilliance – is that he seemed to see this binary world in terms that meant there was almost moral parity, and I don’t think there was. They may have done bad things, but no Western intelligence agency has terrorised the whole population the way the Soviet intelligence agencies did.

The philosopher and New Statesman writer John Gray. Photographed by Tom Jamieson for the New Statesman

But the other reason this setting is limiting is that before the Cold War, in the world of Maugham, and after the Cold War, now, we’re in a much more plural – and intractable in a certain sense – world. The Cold War could be won, and in one sense, at least, was won, by the West, whereas in this new world, in relations with China, Saudi Arabia, India, there’s no question of winning. These conflicts can be moderated, they can be managed, they can be even turned to some kind of good, but there’s no question of overcoming all these different powers. Would you agree with that?

MH I do. I think it’s a matter of enduring now, or even just surviving is a more brutal way of putting it. Which is why I think that there’s this sense of nostalgia, almost, for the Cold War. This is something that I play upon in the books: idealism seemed more possible then. It was far more black and white, and that was helped by the concrete imagery that existed.

When you’ve got a wall running through a country, that does give you a handy metaphor for the two sides, who’s going to be wrong and right and so on. But you’re right, state terrorism was always more on one side than on the other, although there are brutal truths in all our histories.

JG Oh, some terrible things were done. I mean, it’s part of the Cold War: Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye to large-scale massacres in Guatemala. There were massacres of indigenous people, tens or hundreds of thousands were killed, but nobody bothered about it, because of the big picture we were struggling against. Things went on which were either condoned or at least ignored.

MH Yes, which is why there is so much concentration these days, I think, among young people in particular, about reparation, or at the very least admitting the sins of the past and cancelling historical figures. It’s a difficult subject but one can see where the impetus to do that is coming from.

JG You can, although you might end up cancelling everybody!

MH That’s the trouble. Once you start, there’s no way of stopping. And also, in terms of art, there doesn’t seem to be any division between the morality of the artist and the works that are created. I think that there is a dividing line between the two, and a kind of blanket disavowal of anything created by somebody who is now viewed as being corrupt is just self-defeating. We’d have to burn down the museums, really, and start afresh if we were going to take that line.

What Graham Greene knew

JG Did Graham Greene mean much to you in your reading or in your work? One reason I ask is that his world is a sad world, a melancholy world. But also, he has one or two characters who could be regarded as either sociopathic or evil. In The Third Man, Harry Lime is a wonderful cipher for some later politicians, because he’s unrepentant, isn’t he? He was based on a real person, I think, that Greene heard about from an acquaintance, and what he does is terrible, involving diluted penicillin that gives children terrible disabilities.

Is Lime indifferent to ethics, or does he think he has a more realistic ethic? In the film Lime does give a defence: he says, “If you follow the line of pacifism or strict morality you end up with cuckoo clocks,” and if you follow his line, you get the Renaissance.

[See also: Carol Gilligan: Why I changed my mind on the gender binary]

MH There’s that bit in the film where he’s looking down on all the characters below the Ferris wheel and saying, “How many of those would you be prepared to blot out? Because they’re just dots, from where we’re standing, they’re just the size of insects,” and I suppose that comes back to what we were saying about messianic political figures: once you stop regarding individuals as having any weight, if you can disregard massacres in Guatemala because they’re not really on today’s agenda, then we’re all in danger.

We’re all potential collateral damage to the bigger decisions being made upon how the world is being run. I think Greene wanted Lime to be a spokesperson for the potential evil in the world: this is how badly we could go wrong. Greene means a lot to me. I read him a lot as a teenager and into my twenties. I’m still haunted by Doctor Fischer of Geneva, even though it’s one of his last novels and weak.

JG That’s another study of evil.

MH Yes. But what mostly interests me about that was the man who comes under the sway of Doctor Fischer, choosing what he thinks is going to be death, but it turns out to be a party trick. Greene brought deep emotions to his work, most of which were along the lines of depression and thwarted love. So again, it comes back to failure and unhappiness: these are the triggers for the creative imagination.

JG Greene struggled with it all his life, actually, didn’t he?

MH He played Russian Roulette as a teenager, didn’t he? That’s about as close as you can get to real flirting with death.

JG He created his own world, in a sense, as you have done. The Greene world is one of shades and shadows: you can never hope for light. If there is light, it’s masked in the grey around you.

I must say, I find Greene’s religious faith not exactly fraudulent but I wrote in one of my books that it was almost an aphrodisiac for him. He’d tried all the vices – he’d done everything, I think, you could do – and he was still bored!

MH Didn’t he make love in churches? Didn’t he sneak his lovers behind the altars?

JG He did.

MH Religion is broad-stroke in Greene, isn’t it? It’s almost like it is an excuse to create the novels he was writing, like The End of the Affair, where the loved one turns out to have produced a miracle. These things don’t really have very much to do with everyday religion, it’s more a case of importing it into situations that you can create a novel around.

JG What Greene “really believed” is hard to say. I think the world which contained damnation was just more interesting and more exciting for him than a world in which you did what you wanted and then died and were gone.

MH Yes, the stakes are a lot higher once you put that on the board, aren’t they?

JG Well, he was a gambler, as you said. He also represents – especially in Our Man in Havana but also in his autobiographical writings – the secret world as one of farce and absurdity. Perhaps he goes too far in that direction, because, as I think you show, and Maugham showed, despite all the terrible disasters and cruelties that happened, some evil is sometimes prevented. Whereas in Malcolm Muggeridge [who, like Greene, worked for MI6], it just looks like a totally unrelieved farce from beginning to end, which must surely be unrealistic.

MH Nothing is unrelieved farce from beginning to end, is it, because it’s always going to involve people. And you can submit people to farce but that doesn’t mean that the hurt they feel isn’t real. There are always real people behind the headlines, however ridiculous the stories you’re reading.

Laughter in the dark

JG Is there anything we haven’t touched on in your work that you think is important?

MH I have difficulty finding anything important in my work, to be honest! It’s what I do to fulfil myself and I’m delighted that I now have readers. These are the characters that I like spending time with and, having put them in this situation, which is quite bleak, as we’ve discussed, allows me to write about the world that we’re living through. It’s not that I’m necessarily expressing my own opinions when I have them voicing various degrees of despair: I live a very contented life. But these are the people that I want to write about.

I mean, in the same way that we discussed Greene leaning on and perhaps exaggerating religious feelings in order to create the moral dramas that he did, I lean on the unhappiness that my characters experience in order to give that kind of flavour to the books that I’m writing. It’s not that I genuinely believe that we’re all living lives of quiet desperation: I think, regardless of external circumstances, there are plenty of moments where we do find solace, at worst, and at best, joy.

JG What’s unusual is your fictional lives are truer to the lives of many people than quite a lot of other writers, not just in this genre but in others. They echo the truths that people feel about their own lives, including these fugitive moments of joy or catharsis that everyone does experience.

MH I think that’s part of avoiding heroism – or overt heroism – in the books, because few of us really experience, I know I haven’t, what it must be like to be a hero. But we’ve all experienced moments where we’ve been standing in a bus stop in the rain and see something that nevertheless delights us, or spent our evenings worrying about what the next day will bring. I do think readers want the moments of joy, as well, though; I think they look for them, even if it is simply a fairly crass pun or a moment of inappropriate humour.

JG Black humour and sadness go together very well.

MH Well, of course. We’re often told that the emergency services are where you’ll find the blackest humour available, because how do you cope with trauma if not by adopting a sense of humour? I wouldn’t want to read a book that didn’t have a single joke in it.

Mick Herron’s “The Secret Hours” is published by Baskerville; John Gray’s “The New Leviathans” is published by Allen Lane

[See also: Unmasking Graham Greene]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts