The double life of John le Carré

A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré; ed. Tim Cornwell 

by Peter Hitchens

John le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, was Britain’s greatest novelist of the late twentieth century. He was also a sneaky government nark, who spied on his friends for the state. He sent damaging reports on them to the U.K.’s secret police, MI5, while pretending an affable comradeship. It has been said that Cornwell has much in common with Dickens, and there is a lot in this. Many of his books have altered their readers’ lives and understanding of the world, for the better. They deal with huge themes of our time, most importantly Britain deluding herself in a period of pitiable national decline. They mesh with the imagination like few others. More “literary” writers, whose books are often uninteresting, wearisome, and soon forgotten, must have been relieved that snobbery about spy novels kept le Carré in his own vulgar category, and them in their elevated place, getting the prizes but not necessarily the sales, let alone the readers.

His early life, like that of Dickens, was often horrible and contained much personal betrayal as well as the professional sort. It is impossible, as with Dickens, to separate the misery from the genius. He had a childhood of lies, stinking secrets, and broken promises, and nowhere to call home. His mother simply abandoned him without saying goodbye. His father, Ronnie, was a hideous monster, a ruthless fraud who robbed the genteel poor, preying especially on the old, the lonely, and naïve, and greatly deserved his spells in prison. He looked like an ogre, squat and falsely smiling. You would cross a street or perhaps a river to avoid such a person if you had any sense. The idea of having such a creature in your home, ingratiating himself and seeking your love and approval is (if you can remember childhood) unbearable. I find it astonishing, after seeing photographs of him, that so few of his victims realized in time that he meant them harm.

But think of the shame and the grief of this creature being your father, and of not knowing, until the squalid old crook was dead at last, that he would not turn up yet again out of the past. As long as he lived, his sons were never free of this danger. Cornwell’s succession of expensive, chilly boarding schools were not much of an escape. Like so many boys sent to minor English “public” schools, le Carré experienced the standard miseries of such places, but without the glory and the cachet of Eton or the intellectual grounding of Winchester. In the end, he fled Sherborne at the age of sixteen, presumably hoping to cut himself off from that dingy world of suspect tweedy men with creaky vicarage voices and an inordinate liking for the company of young males. So off he went to Switzerland.

No wonder this lonely man, adrift amid the chilly beauties of Bern, was so easily seduced by His Majesty’s Unmentionables, as proper diplomats once referred to the disreputable, deniable spies who lurked in the back parts of British embassies across the world. In Cornwell’s case the unmentionables were a pair supposedly called Wendy and Sandy Gillbanks. Wendy and Sandy seem to have defied researchers and biographers, and so died unquestioned about their most distinguished recruit. They became Cornwell’s substitute parents, delighted by the small betrayals and denunciations he proudly brought to them. What can have become of them? I can picture them, confident, utterly reassuring, speaking in the now-suppressed accents of the British military classes, in which “hat” rhymed with “bet” and nobody thought it ridiculous at all. Armed with sherry and pocket money, they seduced the young Cornwell into a little harmless snooping on his fellow students, and he found he liked it.

Later, having somehow wangled himself into Oxford, he took up this occupation again. He was paid to smile at and charm his university contemporaries, while secretly truffling in their private things and reporting their politics to the authorities. And after Wendy and Sandy followed the whole circus of the secret world. This is often a parade of sinister clowns, and of acrobatics without safety wires or nets, that go terribly wrong. No wonder Cornwell would later call the fictional headquarters of his fictional intelligence service “The Circus.” But the secret Circus was good to him, giving him what so many of us need, a pattern to our days. In Cornwell’s collected correspondence, now published as A Private Spy, two epistles stand out from all the rest in letters of fire. Both are to Stanley Mitchell, who died in 2011 and so cannot be asked what he now thinks. Mitchell was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a sad and troubled organization, so had his own cross to bear. Cornwell pretended to be Mitchell’s friend, so much so that the two attended left-wing demonstrations together and even shared a walking holiday. Was he sorry for this sordid behavior? Not terribly. Many years later Cornwell gave a television interview in which he confessed that betraying other people “had a voluptuous quality.” That is to say, he enjoyed it. He informed on Mitchell during much of their Oxford friendship…..