“To be a spy, you need first to know what you think about the world, whom you would like to help, whom to frustrate. This, I am afraid, takes time. Also, you have to decide how much you are prepared to do by dishonest means.”
These words of advice were written in January 1988 by David Cornwell, AKA John le Carré, to ten-year-old Nicholas Hargreaves who had sent him a letter seeking espionage tips. The author guessed that “you want excitement and a great cause”, but urged his young correspondent to serve such a purpose in daylight, away from the moral compromises of the shadows: “You will be more than a spy then. You will be a good, happy man.”
What sort of man was le Carré? His own episodic memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016) and Adam Sisman’s comprehensive biography (2015) tell us a great deal. But the publication of A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré (Viking), edited by his late son Tim Cornwell, is a colossal addition to our knowledge of the writer whom Ian McEwan has said “will be remembered as perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain.”
Weighing in at more than 700 pages, the collection begins with a letter written on 24 June 1945, to his prospective housemaster at Sherborne from his Berkshire prep school, and ends on 25 November 2020 (less than three weeks before his death from pneumonia), as he writes to his American journalist friend, David Greenway, denouncing Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, “part of the destroyer’s movement, a Trumpist through & through.”
In between, le Carré discloses much about himself – but also owns up to a lifelong, reflexive habit of concealment. In common with Bill Haydon, the “mole” embedded by the Soviet spymaster, Karla, at the top of Circus (le Carré’s name for MI6) and unmasked by George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), he perhaps resembled “one of those wooden Russian dolls that open up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside him” – reserving “the last little doll”, one imagines, only for a handful of people (and perhaps none at all).
He was, by his own admission, a flawed husband – twice married, first to Ann Sharp, the daughter of an air vice-marshal, and then, for half a century, to Jane Eustace, a publicist and foreign rights manager at Hodder & Stoughton – and a serial adulterer. Letters to two of his lovers – Susan Kennaway and Susan D. Anderson – are included, but Tim Cornwell explains in his introduction that his father destroyed a considerable cache of private correspondence. In life, le Carré was carefully curating what posterity would get to see, and which of the files in the private embassy of his heart would be burned before his death.
Yet this caution was trumped by a writer’s impulse towards disclosure, which makes the collection a richly rewarding experience for the reader. His shyness was evidently deep-rooted and complicated his relationship with what he calls “the vapour of celebrity.” He corresponded with Graham Greene, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth, Alec Guinness, Gary Oldman, Sydney Pollack, John Cheever and many other luminaries of his time. But, as he admitted to his friend and former publisher, Roland Philipps, in a letter of 16 February 2017, he passed up opportunities to meet Noël Coward, P.G. Wodehouse (his greatest literary hero, of whose books he kept two sets at his house in Cornwall), Arthur Koestler, and Ryszard Kapuściński: “possibly… I was so suspicious of fame that I took it out on other people.”
His own fame, albeit pseudonymous, was sealed by The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), the book that he confidently predicted to his stepmother, Jean Cornwell, would be his “last thriller”. In practice, it ended the intelligence career that had embraced spying upon communist students at Oxford, the Intelligence Corps, agent-running at MI5 and undercover work for MI6 as a diplomat in Germany.
Yet, for all his public protestations to the contrary, he never really left the secret world. In May 2019, more than 55 years since resigning from SIS, he wrote to the author, diplomat and intelligence expert Alan Judd that “I miss the Office, always have done.”
The psychology that underpinned this was complex. Some of the most moving letters included in the collection are those to his older brother, Tony, who clearly dealt as stoically as he could with being the overshadowed sibling of a world-famous author. In May 2007, he tried to explain that his work for MI5 and MI6 had not, as Tony imagined, reflected a conventional desire for Establishment power: “It’s a much mistaken fantasy of yours that I ‘conformed’… The bodies I worked for were so way out in so many ways that they were a kind of nirvana of anti-orthodoxy put to orthodox ends. We were rebels in suits, and much of it – though probably useless – was positively anarchic in its creative thinking.”
To Robert McCrum in July 2016, he put it differently, comparing the world of the Circus to the fictional milieu portrayed by Wodehouse: “The Spy stuff that I invented was also a paradise, if a pitch black one, and I find myself in age returning to it, or sticking with it, in blithe despair, as it all returns to me.”
No doubt archly, he described his Cornish home, Tregiffian, as a “safe house” for friends to use as a bolthole from the cares of the world – and, as the letters make clear, he and Jane were clearly very generous with their hospitality. But the references to tradecraft were not only meant to be witty, I think.
His books became his agents, his interventions in the world, and the meticulousness with which he oversaw every detail of the publishing process recalled the precision and gimlet eye of Smiley. The interest he took in the screen adaptations of his novels – especially the BBC and movie versions of Tinker Tailor, the film of A Most Wanted Man (2014), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the triumphant dramatisation of The Night Manager (2016) – was no less intense. (We learn that, privately, as much as he revered Guinness, he “secretly thought Gary Oldman was the better Smiley.”)
What, one wonders, would Freud make of the attention that le Carré paid to the “cover” of every novel? When he wrote to the former KGB London station chief, Mikhail Lyubimov about “your new disguise as a novelist”, he was, one suspects, only half-joking. At times, his desk at Tregiffian came to resemble the global headquarters of a one-man intelligence service – “intelligence” in both senses of the word, of course.
In The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré writes that espionage “did not introduce me to secrecy. Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood. In adolescence we are all spies of a sort, but I was a veteran. When the secret world came to claim me, it felt like coming home.”
Deserted by his mother when he was five and raised, if that is the word, by a father (Reggie Cornwell) who was a convicted fraudster, serial bankrupt and conman – who told him not to bother with books – he often cited the maxim attributed to Graham Greene that childhood is the bank balance of the writer (“and by those standards I was a millionaire”).
In Vivian Green, chaplain at Sherborne and Fellow and Rector at Lincoln College, Oxford, he found, if not a surrogate father, then at least a figure of constancy, integrity and compassion upon whom he could always depend. “Nobody ever did so much to set me on my feet as you did,” he wrote in February 1980, “and probably nobody gave me the feeling of seeing me so clearly.” He also revealed to Green that he had inspired certain key aspects of Smiley, his greatest character: “his humanity, at least, his perception of human frailty, & his difficulty about buying clothes!”
This should knock on the head the mistaken notion that Smiley was le Carré’s fictional alter ego. True enough, much of the spymaster’s world-view and his “bitter compassion” were the author’s own. To Alec Guinness in March 1978, he wrote: “Smiley is an Abbey made up of different periods, fashions and even different religions, not all of them necessarily harmonious. His authority springs from experience, ages of it, compassion and at root an inconsolable pessimism which gives a certain fatalism to much that he does”.
All of which chimes with le Carré’s own inclinations, temperament and philosophy. Yet, the more one reads, the clearer it becomes that Smiley’s true role in the Cornwell inner cosmos was much closer to that of an imagined father, a man dealing with the pressures and frustrations of life in precisely the opposite way to Reggie.
In this sense, if le Carré has a representative in his own fiction it is Peter Guillam, Smiley’s dashing sidekick and most loyal ally, described in The Secret Pilgrim (1990) as “Watson to George’s Sherlock Holmes”, and the narrator (now retired from the Circus) of A Legacy of Spies (2017), which returns, after many decades, to the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
For fans of le Carré, the most exciting disclosure in the letters is that the author was working in his final months on a book of “Smiley reminiscences”, narrated once more by Guillam. To Sir Tom Stoppard, he wrote in July 2020: “[T]he scene that presently absorbs me – & you wd write better than I – is set in 1989, with the Wall just down, when Smiley finally decides he is ready to meet his old nemesis Karla, settled under another name with his mentally sick daughter in a village not far from yours. What vision, if any, do they now have in common? Who will be the leading voice in the (theoretically) post-ideology world, what is doable, what is pie in the sky?”
This book, I understand, will indeed see the light of day, though in what precise form has yet to be determined. In the meantime, these letters are full of trails to follow, and stories to chase.
Even in lockdown, his health failing, le Carré oscillated between a default pessimism and a residual optimism that he could not quite shake. “Jesus what an unholy mess,” he wrote to Nicholas Shakespeare in April 2020. “We could get a decent, egalitarian society out of it, or a mad Brexit crashout and a king sized Tory fanatics’ fuck up.”
Then, the following month, to Alan Judd: “Fascinating to discover, by one disastrous appearance after the next, that Boris Johnson cannot muster empathy. It will be his downfall. But then who?” The great magus of the Cornish cliffs was, at least, spared the grim answer to that one.
Read Matt’s previous essays on le Carré.
Le Carre’s people
For six decades, the spy novelist has provided a running commentary on the state of England – right up to the decline of the Brexit years
Le Carré’s last mission
John le Carré was much more than the greatest chronicler of the Cold War. He saw the fault-lines in all that followed – and warned us of them till the end
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Emily (general release, 14 October)
Frances O’Connor’s wonderful debut as director and writer is so much more than a tediously literalist biopic of the most enigmatic Brontë: it takes spectacular liberties with what we know of the life of the author of Wuthering Heights – and is all the better for it.
Emma Mackey excels as the restless and intermittently uncooperative Emily – “The Strange One” – who is close to her troubled brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) but looked upon with a measure of disapproval by her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and clergyman father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar).
Into the parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire strides the charming and manipulative assistant curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Much swooning ensues, but it is Emily with whom Weightman embarks upon a passionate affair.
This is completely ahistorical: Weightman almost certainly flirted with Anne Brontë, and with the family’s close friend Ellen Nussey. In all this, Emily’s only recorded role was to have been sent out as Ellen’s chaperone when the dashing Weightman took her on walks across the moors. In amiable revenge, he nicknamed her “the Major”.
But, really, so what? The beauty of the film lies in its quest to unearth the deep emotions that enabled Emily to write one of the great love stories in all literature and to ask where the passion of Cathy and Healthcliff came from. In a particularly powerful scene, Emily puts on a ghostly white mask and seems suddenly possessed by the dead – again, as if to portend the elements of the uncanny in the novel.
At the screening I attended, O’Connor said that she had aspired to remove the polite “pane of glass” that is positioned between the audience and the story in so much period drama. In this, and much else, she succeeds to brilliant effect.
Russia 1985 to 1999: TraumaZone (iPlayer)
Adam Curtis is not only one of this country’s most celebrated documentary makers but also admirably unconstrained by convention or the rule-book of his profession. As he showed in HyperNormalisation (2016) – a philosophical exploration of power, reality and falsehood – his technique sometimes approaches psychedelia.
Not so in this superb seven-part series, which is best described as a historical video collage, drawing upon thousands of hours of raw footage filmed by BBC crews to create a tapestry of Russian experience between 1985 and 1999.
Apart from straightforward captions and subtitles, there is no directorial intervention. The footage speaks for itself, charting the sequential fall of communism and democracy, and the terrible failures of successive ruling elites.
From the start, we see Russians dreaming of a better future: Coca Cola, shopping for Western goods, exotic pets like lemurs, and a world free of insane planning. Then we cut to a woman cutting dowdy wallpaper: “I don’t live by dreams. Even if I did, they wouldn’t come true.”
The promise of Gorbachev is presented as a mirage. “All the democracy will end soon,” says a young man. “It’s a joke to pretend otherwise.” The real world is one of grinding poverty, food shortages, defeat in Afghanistan and disaster in Chernobyl.
Clips from a hilariously bad Soviet television adaptation of Lord of the Rings encapsulate the mood of a nation where fantasy is risible rather than inspiring. With Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, the rise of oligarchs begins; its counterpoint is the unbearable sight of a young girl skipping from car to car, begging for money for food.
The Berlin Wall falls, Boris Yeltsin leaves the Communist Party and the Soviet Union implodes. We know, of course, where all this is heading, and the price that Ukrainians are paying at this very moment for what will ensue; not only the rise of Putin, but the failure of the West to thwart his neo-imperialism at the start. If any documentarian can put a whole nation on the couch, it is Curtis; but in so doing, he also holds up an unforgiving mirror to the rest of the world.
You Won’t Be Alone (selected cinemas, 14 October; video on demand, 20 October)
Magic realism, folkloric horror or identity politics? Try all three. You Won’t Be Alone, the debut feature from Macedonian-Australian writer director Goran Stolevski, is absolutely sui generis; totally compelling and, at times, so detached from the conventions of plot and film grammar that the viewer has to pay very close attention to keep up (no bad thing in a movie of such artistry).
Set in the hills of 19th-century Macedonia, it tells the tale of Nevena (Sara Klimoska) who is saved as a baby from the clutches of the hideously disfigured witch or “wolf-eateress”, Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), by her mother who pledges to hand her over when she is 16.
The witch claims Nevena, and gives her the shape-shifting power to inhabit the bodies of others – which she does, becoming, in turn, Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), Boris (Carlota Cotta) and Biliana (Alice Englert).
For all the bloodshed, terror and trauma, there is a whisper of hope in this extraordinary film. “It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world, a biting, retching thing,” is its refrain. “And yet … and yet …”
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Faster than a Cannonball: 1995 And All That – Dylan Jones (White Rabbit)
As Dylan Jones writes, “while it lasted – and it lasted for approximately four years, just about the same time as Swinging London did back in the sixties – it was a truly wonderful thing.”
And he is right. The mid-nineties were indeed a remarkable period in British culture, a “fairground” as he puts it in which Britpop, the YBAs, New Labour, a booming magazine market, fantastic restaurants and a mood of hedonism conspired to create an undoubted moment of confidence, ebullience and optimism.
Now well-established as one of our finest cultural chroniclers – following Sweet Dreams, his account of the New Romantic movement (see Creative Sensemaker, 24 September 2020) and Shiny and New: Ten Moments of Pop Genius that Defined the ’80s (see Creative Sensemaker, 8 July 2021) – Jones speaks to most of the key protagonists, taking 1995 as the hinge of his narrative.
Brick by brick, he brilliantly reconstructs a moment in recent history that has continued to resonate – notably in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. This side of Brexit, the pandemic and the Truss regime it feels both enticingly close and a last hurrah for something uniquely open, eccentric, generous and British. Come on, 2025: what have you got in store?
Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus – David Quammen (The Bodley Head)
“Nobody knows everything about this virus, and our efforts to comprehend it have only just begun. As lengthy as the dreary months and years of the COVID-19 pandemic – the pandemic so far – may have felt to us, the time is early.”
This is the central thesis of David Quammen’s Breathless, and – alongside his superb writing – does much to explain its readability. If the thought of yet another book on the pandemic puts you off, be assured that Quammen is one of the best science writers in the world – Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012) was chillingly prophetic – and that he brings a compellingly human touch to the story, as well as a tremendous capacity to make complex ideas comprehensible to the general reader.
The book benefits, too, from its laser-like focus upon the scientific community, and the 95 sources whom Quammen interviewed by Zoom. He does much to dispel the lingering notion that Covid was manufactured in a Wuhan lab; he is brilliant on viruses, “the dark angels of evolution”; and he gives us a powerful sense of the amazement of scientists as they watch Covid mutate – as one puts it, the “fucking cirque du soleil of the virus is discombobulating.”
Quammen’s conclusion – that “COVID-19 won’t be our last pandemic of the twenty-first century. It probably won’t be our worst” – is scarcely cheerful. But it is a timely reminder that all the political talk in 2020 and 2021 about “resilience” and a shift from “just-in-time” to “just-in-case” supply lines now needs to be turned into global action.
Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms and the Corruption of Justice – David Enrich (Scribe)
The entanglement of Donald Trump’s career and ruthless lawyers was dramatised long before his political ambitions turned serious by the mentorship of Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel who became one of New York’s most menacing legal fixers before his death in 1986.
In Servants of the Damned, David Enrich – New York Times investigative editor and author of Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction (2020) – digs deep into the structural relationship between Big Law and the former president, focusing especially on the powerhouse firm Jones Day.
In 1973, the company turned down Richard Nixon’s request for representation as he fought to keep the Watergate tapes secret. But, thereafter, the scruples were ditched and Jones Day sought, quite systematically, to embed itself in “the fabric of the capital’s conservative firmament.”
As the Trump campaign’s outside counsel from 2015, the firm was there every step of the way. Once elected, Trump made Noel Francisco solicitor general; appointed Eric Dreiband to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice; and – most important of all – named Don McGahn, a Jones Day partner, as his first White House counsel. The two fell out over the Mueller Report into alleged collusion with Russia – but by then McGahn had already driven radical changes to the federal judiciary that paved the way for the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Enrich’s conclusion is devastating: the insurrection of 6 January 2021, was the “predictable culmination of a president whom Jones Day had helped elect, an administration the firm’s lawyers had helped run, and an election whose integrity the firm had helped erode”. To this day, the firm is busy with clients promoting Maga, pro-Trump groups preparing for next month’s all-important mid-terms: the relationship is depressingly intact.
MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE – easy life
Easy life, easy listening – and that is intended as a compliment. It takes a lot of confidence, talent and musical eclecticism to produce an album that is so instantly infectious as this sophomore outing by the Leicester five-piece.
After last year’s excellent debut, life’s a beach, frontman Murray Matravers and his crew deliver 15 tracks that will inevitably be labelled as “indie pop” but – in truth – have deeper roots in funk, fusion and old-school crooners’ lounge music.
The lyrical spice is never in doubt: in ‘Silver Linings’, Matravers laments that “I’ve spent a long time waiting ’round for big things/ Opportunities come and go like cheap drinks but/ Cheese and beans and paint-stained jeans/ Inhaling canisters made for whipped cream in my teens.” Few vocalists could get away with referring to Jay-Z and The Great British Bake Off only a line apart.
Just as interesting is the musical ambition. Hence, the recruitment of the New Zealand singer-songwriter and rising star BENEE on ‘OTT’ and of Kevin Abstract on ‘Dear Miss Holloway’. Imagine The Streets, with Stevie Wonder writing the songs and adding vocals, and you’ll get a sense of where easy life could be heading. Tour dates can be found here.
Eclipse – Hilary Hahn, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
The virtuoso American violinist Hilary Hahn has become something of an Instagram star as @violincase, not least for her practice plan, #100daysofpractice, that has helped many aspiring musicians acquire the discipline that their ambitions demand.
Here, she teams up with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor until last year, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, in a three-part recording encompassing Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor; Ginastera’s Violin Concerto; and Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy.
A masterpiece of Dvorak’s Slavic period, the opening piece is much the most familiar, though Hahn’s supreme confidence gives it life and freshness. The Ginastera concerto, in contrast, is demanding in every sense.
First performed in New York in 1963, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, it is a weird and wonderful brew of modernism and traditional Argentinian music – and one that, in Hahn’s words, is “almost unplayable.” Naturally, she proves herself wrong, with a dazzling dexterity that repays repeated listening.
The Carmen Fantasy, which received its premiere in Paris in 1883, sweeps us into another era and another cultural milieu: variations on Bizet’s opera, romantic and often whimsical, a piece that has been a favourite over the decades of Itzhak Perlman. It is no exaggeration to record that Hahn’s joyous interpretation is in the same league.
… and finally, thanks to Tomini Babs, Tortoise’s Social Media Executive and Sensemaker podcast host, for this recommendation of Charlie Puth’s new album, CHARLIE:
“In the lead-up to its release, Charlie Puth cleverly built anticipation for his third studio album, mobilising TikTok as a way of letting people into his creative process. Using a creaky door to inspire the base track on ‘No More Drama’ and for one of the album’s lead singles ‘Light Switch’, he used… a light switch.
Combining this infectious creativity with simple and super catchy pop lyrics, Puth has perfected the recipe for a stand-out digital-age pop record. This album showcases not only his famously perfect pitch but is also entirely self-produced, giving it a personal flair and signalling that this is the work of an artist in tune with his own strengths.
He moves seamlessly from bops like ‘Left and Right’ (featuring Jung Kook of BTS fame) to softer, more emotional songs like ‘Smells Like Me’, all the while illustrating a unique and instantly recognisable style. Each song is only around about three minutes long, giving them endless replay value and guaranteeing that you go away with more than a few lyrics stuck in your head. It’s a fun album: with CHARLIE, Puth has made a well-deserved name for himself as a pop prince.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Portrait by Nadav Kander / eyevine