The Spy Who Came Into Our Living Rooms:
John le Carre is dead and leaves a legacy to wonder at.
And so that’s it. Last night, I stumbled upon this quietly dignified statement from The Curtis Brown Group https://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/news/a-statement-from-jonny-geller-ceo-the-curtis-brown-group
The curtain – an iron one? Surely not – has wrung down on the life and career of David Cornwall, or John le Carre.
In the year 2000, I was a student in Scotland. Like many students, I had more energy than sense.
I would finish work on a Thursday, head home for a cat nap, wake up about 23:00,jump in my car.
Fuelled by too many cigarettes, too much coffee and hours of homemade mix cassettes (look ‘em up kids), I would drive overnight to London or the south coast.
For drunken debauchery or parental visits respectively.
On this particular trip, I was flagging. I was tired and the sickly motorway coffee wasn’t doing it. My mouth was already doubling as sandpaper, my eyelids drooping. I pulled into some services – Congleton was it? – anyway, somewhere not as far away as it ought to be.
I wanted a story. I wanted distraction.
Browsing the tape and CD racks, I saw a John le Carre audiobook.
I was, I think, aware of le Carre as a literary figure.
I’d done the fairly standard spy reading journey of people of my generation (Roger Moore on bank holiday replays of James Bond as a child – public libraries to be introduced to Ian Fleming (“you mean there are more Bond stories I can watch in my head and it’s free?! Any time I want?”) as a young teen) and I feel like my mum had thrust a le Carre at me to try later on.
I can’t remember, but I have a vague half memory like I wasn’t interested. I’d had my head turned aged 13 by ‘The Rachel Papers‘ and the style of Martin Amis and had fully gone down the late teen pretension of the Beat poets.
Good knows what I was reading by this stage, a degree in alcohol studies with additional credits in neglected studies probably.
Anyway, I’d sort of heard of this le Carre bloke. I bought it. It cost a fortune. (£6.99? £8.99? Extortion) But, it had four cassettes and would last me nearly the whole way.
That trip, that book, literally changed my life. I’d known before then I wanted to write. I’d known since Amis had twisted my head to the possibilities of humour and wit and zippy, self-referential style what prose got do and sound like and be twisted to do.
But I really don’t think I had appreciated what plot could do. Le Carre’s honeyed voice helped. A fine actor, he read his work with the silken, upper class drawl of the entitled. He was like a harder-edged Leslie Philips or Stephen Fry’s favourite grandfather.
I stopped once in seven hours. Just because the car was thirsty and, probably, I needed more tobacco. But otherwise, captivated, enchanted, enthralled. The works.
It was anger and passion and characters who resonated and were blind and duplicitous, even to themselves.
I now know that the book which so shook my world on its axis is not even regarded as that good.
Indeed, it may well have helped that I was (I later discovered to my horror) listening to an abridged version (And what an abridgement. The full monty Michael Jayston version I now have on my phone – don’t tell me the world hasn’t got better in the last 20 years – is 12 hours 42 minutes so I’m assuming nearly half the novel has been pared away. This might be a good lesson for all writers, aspiring and established, about the need for judicious editing.)
These days, I can’t be objective about it. It came at the right time, was so powerful when it hit, that I can only love it. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve listened to it. I’m fairly sure I got to the end of the tape as I pulled up at my destination.
On that Sunday night, as I climbed back into the car to do the same trip in reverse, I feel like I went back to tape one and put it back in again to listen afresh, but I can’t be sure.
The novel was ‘Our Game’ and it changed my reading life, that much is clear.
His introduction opened my eyes to more, in some ways even more than the text itself. At the start, le Carre talks passionately about our failure to see through on the promises we made to the little nations during our Cold War rhetoric and centres on the plight of the Ingush.
This is the Caucuses, a region I’d definitely never heard of, encompassing the (then) very failing Russian state and the Chechen conflict of the mid-90s and the looming Islamic problems which I’d missed entirely as the sort of smug teenager who drives the length of the country to good parties rather than study.
The next year, 2001, of course, these were issues which would be unavoidable even to such smug, complacent teens as myself.
Similar events with le Carre would reoccur for me – I had an abridged audio cassette version of ‘Absolute Friends’ which is another angry novel which certainly resonated with me at the time.
I read everything in his back catalogue – finding his work uneven and developing my private theory that there were two types of le Carre book – the unputtdownable and the unreadable.
This is entirely personal and arbitrary – for me, the former includes ‘Our Game’, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, ‘Smiley’s People’.
In the latter category are ‘The Night Manager’ (brilliant tv, tedious novel), ‘Single and Single’ (still don’t think over finished that one) and, more controversially amongst spy geeks, ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ which, for all its arresting imagery, I find so dull I’ve only finished it once in any version – hardback, paperback or audio – and find as readable as wading through treacle in diving boots.
I love this inconsistency, however. He was never dull. He swung for the fences (or drove for the boundary, to use a more Anglocentric image).
When ‘Legacy of Spies’ was released, I asked my partner if we could go from our highland home to watch the live stream talk and Q&A from the Royal Festival Hall. It was my birthday treat.
The fact that this required a round trip, midweek, on a work night, of 190 miles seemed reasonable to sit at the master’s feet, remotely, if not literally.
I think it’s fair to say one of us enjoyed it more than the other. I was enthralled. I thought John Snow had an off night, if I’m honest, but just hearing Le Carre in full flow was worth it.
Which is exactly what I told myself as I drove home, late into the night, letting his words wash over me as they have for two decades.