I came to know David Cornwell, who wrote as John le Carré, in 2004 because of the Iraq War. We met in our local pub in Hampstead, striking up an unlikely conversation about the “war on terror”. He was intrigued by the law, and impressively skeptical about lawyers. My neighbor and I never looked back, cementing a friendship over many years of enjoying that most English of desserts, a shared rhubarb crumble with masses of custard.
Le Carré died in December; his wife Jane a few weeks later. I miss the furtive street corner encounters, the chats about the state of the country and the world, both messy and fraudulent places in which dubious means are embraced in the name of the greater good. To fill the gap, and hear once more his distinctive and lyrical voice, I revisited our conversation of a few years earlier at the Hay Festival.
Wanting more of his rich tales and glorious mimicry, I dived into the wonderful BBC archive, where I encountered a trove of le Carré interviews going back decades. There was much to amaze — the eager young voice, the clear denial about being a spy — and his journey came into view. It’s one with familiar themes: betrayal and loyalty, patriotism and nationalism, and, a common thread, strong feelings about country.
I decided to make a program for Radio 4 to trace the writer and his country in his voice. A deeper dive followed, assisted by others who knew him or his work. A few weeks later, I was in conversation with one of his sons, who dropped an unexpected new fact. Hold the thought as we return to the beginning.
A Name with “Swank”
Le Carré appears as a quintessential Englishman, yet it was his life in Germany in the early 1960s, immersed in “the secret world”, that caused him to write. He chose a foreign-sounding pseudonym “in three bits”, he explained to an early interviewer, to offer “a bit of swank”.
His third novel, published in 1963, was a global bestseller and sensation. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold offered a deceptively simple tale about a British agent who employs dodgy means to promote democratic values. It broke new ground as the antithesis to Ian Fleming and James Bond, a novel that told an “inner story”, he suggested to the BBC, on “the futility of political conflict” and the “absurdity” of the Berlin Wall.
Le Carré’s prescience was to perch on the “deep moral ambivalence in the espionage world”, the writer William Boyd believes, a reflection “by extension, in the world at large”. Le Carré wanted to grapple with big issues — the search for influence, individuals facing a tough choice, the legacy of betrayal.
The early interviews with him offer a clear view of Britain, the end of empire and colonies as power ebbs and de Gaulle says “non” to membership of the Common Market. “It is fascinating to time-travel back to the Sixties,” Boyd says of the early novels, which offer a deep feel for postwar British society.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold broke new ground as the antithesis to Ian Fleming and James Bond.
In the 1970s le Carré revived George Smiley, a very English spy, with a trilogy that cemented his reputation. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and two other novels caught the mood of pre-Thatcher Britain, a time of economic and social upheaval in which the protagonists were ambivalent about their tasks; having been prepared to serve an empire over which the sun never set, they labored for a much diminished country.
The sense of loyalty to “the Circus”, as le Carré called the established secret service, offered a “vessel” to explore “all sorts of English attitudes, both social and individual”. The country was “on its uppers”, without credit in the world, imbued by “an absolute loss of confidence”.
Early in our friendship I came to understand how such feelings about power and authority, a landscape of characters in decline, was informed by his childhood and relationship with his father. The influence of Ronnie Cornwell, a con man who offered his son a less than fully stable youth, permeates A Perfect Spy, published in 1986, my favorite of the novels, perhaps because it is so autobiographical.
For Nick Cornwell, le Carré’s youngest son, who writes as Nick Harkaway, the book offered a “dark potential version” of his father’s life, inspired by Ronnie, who was narratively “exciting, interesting, colorful, wicked”, but, ultimately, “monstrous”.
Through the Letter Box
An early gift from le Carré (dropped through our letter box) was an article about Ronnie that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine, which allowed me to recognize that his deepest anxiety was that he might be his father; a bit of a con man himself. “I had two educations in criminality,” he told an interviewer. “One from my parents and the other, obviously, teaching at Eton.”
As our friendship developed, he entrusted me with a fabulous task, one that would change my life. “Might you be able to review a draft, just to check the lawyers, how they dress and speak?” This became a joyous routine: the ring of the doorbell, David standing with arms outstretched, the pages of a manuscript thrust forth. As a reader of drafts, I learnt how he wrote and came to appreciate his vulnerabilities, so endearing in an accomplished and renowned writer.
Over time he assisted me, which offered new insights. I made a BBC podcast and wrote a book that took me into the Cold War, to Italy and Austria and the Nazi escape route to South America, known as the Ratline. He surprised me. “I was a little part of that scene.”
He was a young second lieutenant in Graz, Austria, recruiting former Nazis to work as spies rather than prosecuting them. He found it perplexing, having been brought up to hate Nazism and now being told that “the great new enemy was the Soviet Union”. This was a formative experience for him.
“I had two educations in criminality,” said John le Carré. “One from my parents and the other, obviously, teaching at Eton.”
In 1989 the Cold War and the stark East-West stage that inspired the novels came to an end. Roland Philipps, his editor at Hodder & Stoughton, and now a writer of espionage non-fiction, recalls that critics thought le Carré might now be “a man without a subject”. How wrong they were, he says with a smile. He reflects on the first great novel of the new period, one premised on the idea that, having won the Cold War, capitalism had a duty to make the world a better place. “Le Carré’s disappointment was the way capitalism conducted itself; the heart of The Constant Gardener is how the West, exemplified by the Big Pharma companies, was pillaging.” Money’s corrupting influence dominated his view of Britain in the 1990s.
Against a background of disenchantment there was another country to turn to. Siv Bublitz, for many years his German publisher, evokes his great love for that country and its language. Le Carré was a fluent speaker and frequently evoked his German soul. “I was always telling him off about idealizing Germany,” Bublitz says. He was thrilled to be awarded the Goethe Medal, but never accepted any British prize or honor.
Perhaps this too harked back to adolescence, which he called a “revolt against the English condition of my background”, when all things German were loathed. “At my school there was a pigsty and the pig was called Germany; it was as bad as that.” Yet Bublitz believes le Carré felt a “tough love” for his country. “He was very, very, very deeply connected with Britain; he saw it as his home, but like a relationship he was disappointed by what this country did.”
That feeling started early, during the Cold War, “when he thought the West, including Britain, wasn’t any better than the East”. Perhaps he felt morally compromised by being an agent, she adds, which prompted a feeling of distance, but not, initially at least, separation.
The 21st century and the “war on terror” took le Carré into new directions. A Most Wanted Man explored the “disturbing” abuses premised on Britain’s “misnomered crusade”, a “gross overreaction” to the Islamic threat, one rooted in hubris and earlier foreign policy disasters. For Boyd, this was his “angry” period, in which he lacked serenity despite the success and acclaim. “There was some demon in him that made him contrarian.”
Le Carré’s prescience was to perch on the “deep moral ambivalence in the espionage world”, William Boyd said, a reflection “by extension, in the world at large.”
At the end of his life, le Carré returned to familiar characters. In A Legacy of Spies, published in 2017, Smiley is an old man, living in Freiburg, Germany. “I’m a European,” the spy says, reflecting on an “England all alone, a citizen of nowhere”. “If I had an unattainable ideal,” he adds, “it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”
By the final novel President Trump is in office and Brexit has caused a great rupture. “I’ve just had it. I think we should separate,” was the impression Bublitz recalls. Speaking about the 2019 novel Agent Running in the Field, le Carré said of his country: “I’m part of it, I’m depressed by it, I’m ashamed of it.” He was disconcerted by his sense of loyalty, the rise of populism and the new British prime minister. “Eton teaches its pupils how to win, not how to govern,” he told me to explain the behavior of Boris Johnson.
At the end of my journey through the archives I reach his youngest son, who describes his father’s uneasy relationship with Britain, a growing sense of fury. I mention a conversation we once had on the street, when le Carré touched on a desire to explore his Irish roots. Yes, Nick says, Ronnie and his mother blocked the past, until recently, when he realized he had an Irish line. “He went to Cork, where his grandmother came from, and was embraced by the town archivist in some tiny little place. She said, ‘Welcome home.’ ”
The visit catalyzed an “emotional shift”, a new awareness of history and self. Nick pauses, then surprises me. “He was, by the time he died, an Irish citizen … one of the last photographs I have is of him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag, grinning his head off.”
John le Carré, chronicler of the English, died an Irishman. This I did not know, not when we were together, not when I entered the archives just a few weeks ago, imagining a journey around the writer and his country. In the end, there were three countries: the country of his home, the country of his soul and the country of his forebears.
What a joy to have had such a neighbor, with hours spent together in a pub, eating forbidden rhubarb crumble. What a joy, too, to learn, even at the very end, and after, that nothing is ever only what it seems.
Archive on 4: A Writer and His Country—John le Carré Across Six Decades is available now on BBC Radio 4
Philippe Sands is a lawyer and the author of several books, including The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive