Good as he was, le Carré was nowhere near the greatest postwar novelist

IN THE CHAIR: Spy writer John le Carré

Picture: Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Tell a lie often enough and it turns into an irrefutable truth. Like the accolade bestowed on John le Carré in The Times the other day.


It described him as “one of Britain’s greatest postwar novelists”. Best-selling, yes, but I would quibble with “great”.


This is a legend he created for himself and carefully fostered, the kind of fake identity one of the characters in his spy stories might have fabricated.


I wouldn’t put him among the top five novelists. What, better than Graham Greene? Or George Orwell, or either Amis, or Doris Lessing, or William Boyd? I don’t think so, and that puts him seventh, at best.


Perhaps they meant the finest writer of spy novels. No, again. At least two of his peers were better in that line of work.


It’s not that I didn’t like le Carré’s books. I have read every one and they are still on my bookshelves. Most were good, two were brilliant – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – while several of his 19 novels were filmed for cinema or TV.


The best of them tapped into Cold War paranoia, that nagging, ill-defined fear that we were all going to die soon under a mushroom cloud. (It’s back; you might have noticed.)


When the Cold War ended, le Carré cast around for ideas that didn’t involve Berlin or gentlemen spycatchers in bijou Chelsea townhouses. It didn’t work and critics began to wonder aloud if this ex-secret agent had been unmasked as a one-trick pony.


But he confounded them by coming back from his fallow period, albeit without ever again hitting the heights of Tinker, Tailor He was 89 when he died and still writing, though by then his work was turgid and he was using it to espouse his political beliefs as an angry liberal.


He was a vocal critic of Blair’s Iraq war, arguing that it was prosecuted on the flimsy excuse of unverified, single-source intelligence (and it was). In the last of his books published before his death, Agent Running in the Field, he raged against Brexit.


Le Carré – real name David Cornwell – sold millions of books with clever, mazy plots but behind them was a philosophy that regarded politicians as morally corrupt and intelligence agencies as their willing accomplices. It was a cynical world view that earned him many fans among the well-educated middle classes.


If you took the Guardian and admired the BBC, le Carré was the author for you: on message and always a good read that you didn’t have to feel ashamed of. I’m not suggesting his work was pulp fiction masquerading as Tolstoy, but you get the drift.


Le Carré’s greatest gifts were to write with crackling tension and a palpable sense of jeopardy for his characters; and to provide those characters with a backstory that gave them a credible motive for their duplicity.


But he couldn’t write dialogue and too often for a thriller writer his action scenes were unconvincing. He seldom attempted humour, perhaps because he took himself so seriously.


Former spy chief, Sir Richard Dearlove – known to MI6 staff at Vauxhall Cross as C – once claimed that le Carré was “so corrosive in his view of MI6 that most professional Secret Intelligence Service officers are pretty angry with him”.


He said le Carré’s books were “exclusively about betrayal” and added: “He was only in the Service for three years and something must have happened to him while he was there to breed this cynicism.”


Le Carré hit back by saying that Dearlove had presided over the “flow of dicey intelligence into Mr Blair’s office”.


Dearlove’s broadside came weeks before Agent Running in the Field was published and le Carré relished the free publicity, saying he would have paid good money to have Dearlove “loose off a full-frontal on me and my work”.


Though he was a fine writer, le Carré was a complex man. His mother Olive walked out when he was five and his father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a high-living conman who served time for fraud. When the young le Carré’s school fees came due, he would sometimes find himself doing a moonlight flit from the dormitory.


In his book A Perfect Spy, le Carré based one of his characters, Rick Pym, a scheming rogue and father of the novel’s protagonist Magnus, on his own father Ronnie.


In 1954 Ronnie Cornwell went bankrupt and the Daily Express reported it under the headline: “Uncrowned king of Chalfont St Peter owes a million and a quarter”. Le Carré admitted this instability may have driven him to join the intelligence services.


“I desperately needed the embrace of big institutions, as many people do who go into the secret world,” he said in one interview.


“They’re unanchored and they want a doctrine and they want a paternal or maternal connection, and they want the feeling of exclusiveness.”


The same insecurity probably contributed to le Carré’s flaws as a human being. More evidence of this emerged last week. His biographer, Adam Sisman, revealed that while researching his subject, he kept finding new le Carré mistresses.


He identified a dozen of them – the tip of the iceberg, said Sisman, who suspected at least another 12. Several came forward to say they had been in sexual relationships with the author. Perhaps most shocking of all, Sisman claims le Carré deliberately befriended three men just so he could seduce their wives.


Le Carré forbade Sisman to write about the women in his book, The Secret Life of John le Carré, to avoid embarrassment to his second wife, Valerie Jane Eustace, an editor at Hodder and Stoughton. When Sisman confronted le Carré about them, he would “hold his head in his hands and say: ‘Oh, no’.”


Footnote: You might be wondering who are the two spy writers I rate more highly than the much feted le Carré. The fact is, I started this article intending to write about them, and not le Carré at all. But that will have to wait for another day. Sometimes the piece has a mind of its own.


 I see that Avanti train drivers on the west coast line are looking forward to racking up £100,000 a year in a new pay deal.


Well, enjoy it, lads. But try to put a little bit aside – I think you’re going to need it.


Those of us who worked in Fleet Street remember what happened when the unions got too smug and greedy. Their members were replaced by new tech.


So that’s not light you see at the end of the tunnel, chaps. It’s a driver-less train coming the other way.


Reading Robert Crampton’s Beta Male column in Saturday’s Times magazine, I was struck by how well he would have fitted in on the subs’ desk of the Daily Express, circa 1985.


He has a WhatsApp group called No Moom, which includes his two children, Sam and Rachel, but not their eminently sensible mother, Nicola.


This is to excuse her from the silly antics the other three get up to. “For instance,” he writes, “Sam, Rachel and I all like espressos, whereas Nicola is a cappuccino girl.


“On the basis of this commonality, the three of us have invented a ritual called the Spro Bro. We stand in a line, the two on the end touching fists with the one in the middle, who then chants “Spro” before the other two bend at the knees, form a cross with their forearms and hiss in the manner of an espresso maker.”


This instantly called to mind an ancient ritual on the Express called a vowel howl. Anybody could call one. They just had to howl Aaaaaaaa. Then, like a pack of wolves, other subs would individually take up the call: Eeeeeeee, Iiiiiiii, Oooooooo. And finally, all would join in with a crescendo of Yyyyyy-ooooo!


It was mad and pointless and deeply irritating to executives, older subs and those of a nervous disposition. But it made the participants laugh and brought down the stress levels. I think Crampton would have loved it.


There was even a variation: Vowel howl with lampshades. This always took place in the Press Club, where the lampshades were removed and placed on the howlers’ heads, to the consternation of the bar steward.


I could tell you who was behind the nonsense but I might be relieved of this gig. (Glad the secret’s safe with you, Dick — Ed)


Next week: The labyrinthine reasoning by which a cheese roll came to be known on the subs’ desk as a wanderer.


26 March 2024