The spies won’t let him go. John le Carré, still writing with vigour at 85, knows that George Smiley still has something to say, more than half a century after we first read of his Cold War exploits.
No writer of spy novels has produced a richer or longer tale, which stretches back to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the novel that lifted the veil on the espionage game and, published in 1963 only a few months after the Cuban missile crisis, sat atop bestseller lists around the world for months.
John le Carré, still writing with vigour at 85, knows that George Smiley still has something to say
Le Carré tells us in his new novel, A Legacy Of Spies, that Smiley, the gentle, bespectacled master spy, is toiling patiently in a German library in his retirement, and looking unhappily out at a world turned upside down.
‘Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag one way or another, now feels alienated from the world,’ le Carré says, with some passion. ‘He’s been affected by the sense of aimlessness that has entered all our lives.’
In his heyday, patrolling the East-West divide in the Cold War, Smiley had a simple belief: that the Europe shattered in the Second World War could be rebuilt. But now? ‘He feels a stranger in his own country,’ le Carré says, as the old spies look back on their lives and ask: was it worth it?
Alec Guinness as George Smiley in TV’s Smiley’s People in 1982
For le Carré himself, who joined MI5 and then MI6 in the Fifties, there’s no doubt. He was attracted by the romance, but an overwhelming sense of duty too. Like Smiley, and his faithful ally Peter Guillam, who is the narrator of Legacy, he has to balance in his mind all the adventure and comradeship with the betrayals and deceptions that are the spy’s stock in trade. ‘What the secret world offers is going for the end without worrying too much about the means.’ And that can bring loneliness, fear and moral torment.
He is talking in Hampstead, where the trees are beginning to turn with autumn and a crisp breeze is freshening the Heath. Sitting with him for a few hours is to tune into music that has become darker through the years, certainly more wistful, but still has all the verve and drive of the writer who, he says, had the good luck to feed the appetite for realistic spy stories that Ian Fleming had stirred up.
Le Carré’s ear for conversation is as sharp as ever. But since Legacy takes us back to the beginning to complete the Smiley story, it has an inevitable valedictory air.
Gary Oldman as Smiley in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
His post-Cold War books have been huge successes – the televised version of The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie has been a worldwide hit. But it is to Smiley and his gang of friends in The Circus – le Carré’s nickname for MI6 – that he was drawn to revisit.
He talks about the new terrorist threats, the lack of a seemingly coherent world order, the arrival of Donald Trump – ‘whom I detest, as I do Brexit’ – and it’s as if all the upheavals since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 have caused the older generation to look back to the half-century or so of the freezing Cold War with something like nostalgia.
In Legacy, Peter Guillam is called home from France to be interrogated by his successors in the secret world, who are trawling through the files without understanding what it was like for Smiley and Guillam as they followed Russians through the streets and spirited defectors through the Iron Curtain, fighting what Rudyard Kipling called The Great Game.
For young David Cornwell, writing under his pen name le Carré because he was still in MI6 and undercover in Bonn, the attraction to this world had come early. As a 16-year-old he insisted on going to university in Switzerland, because he’d already fallen in love with German culture (thanks to a teacher called Mr King at his public school, Sherborne, where he hated everything else) and there he was recruited. A motherly embassy official in Bern wondered if he might do ‘bits and pieces’ for her, and deliver messages here and there.
‘I have sometimes fantasised since then that I was simply carrying messages between lovers, but I fear that wasn’t the case.’ He loved it, and he’d never give up the game.
So afterwards, as a student at Oxford, he agreed to pose for MI5 as a secret Left-wing sympathiser to attract Soviet recruiters in the hope of ending up as a double-agent, informing on those who were secret communists. It was a fevered time, after the defections of the diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to Moscow. Young Cornwell was plied with vodka, shown the Eisenstein silent film Battleship Potemkin several times and taken to the Russian Embassy. But he failed as a double. ‘I thought I vamped rather well but I was dropped like a hot brick.’
By the time he’d left both MI5 and MI6 he was gripped by the romance of a secret life, but scarred by his creeping conviction of imperial delusion in an age of decline.
That divided nature is with him still. He talks happily about MI5 bugging operations against the British Communist Party in the Fifties, climbing into their offices through a skylight. Days of adventure, but with le Carré it’s impossible to cast off the shadow of an inheritance that he’d rather not have had.
Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager
The file kept on him by the East German secret service, the feared Stasi – which I was able to see – is disappointing, so cut and edited as to be boring. But the file on his father, Ronnie Cornwell, a ne’er-do-well with a nose for a dodgy deal, is far more revealing.
Understanding le Carré and his world means understanding Ronnie, who’d been buying and selling all kinds of things, including arms, into East Germany. The Stasi were convinced that he was very rich and influential in the upper reaches of the British Establishment. The truth was that he was permanently broke, in and out of jail, and usually on the run with a rampant creditor at his heels. David was used to phone calls – once from Indonesia, the last time from Zurich – asking whether he could spring him from a cell as his latest dodgy deal unravelled.
The story of his father’s file sends a surge of energy through the writer, now 85, his pure white eyebrows dancing over those familiar features, who is as eager as ever to talk about betrayal and loyalty, and the post-war Britain in which he grew up.
I will always feel that I never quite got to the best book I could have written
‘When I was first making Smiley up in my head I used to do little drawings of him and it was always of a tubby little man carrying his horse uphill, and the horse was, in some sense, duty. In Smiley it is mysterious but it is a very big burden.’
Le Carré is well aware of the burden of working in the shadows from his own time as a spy. ‘I was entrusted with a number of agents. You go in offering whatever you can. It’s companionship, solace. It’s taking the phone call at two in the morning when someone says they’re going to cut their wrists. I was attentive to their needs, receptive to their problems.
‘I did my best as parish priest. You were very aware that you were exploiting people but you had to explain that to them somehow.’
Looking over Hampstead Heath in the autumn sun today, the place where Smiley met his agents, he’s enjoying the idea that the story is complete while knowing that the old master in the German library is wondering who really won. Above all the storyteller looks ahead. There’s always another book.
‘I will always feel, as all writers do, that I never quite got to the best book I could have written. I’ll always, I hope, be in the middle of a book, so death will be an interruption and an irritation.’
‘A Legacy Of Spies’ (Viking) is out now, £20