Conversations with John le Carré

I am sitting in a sunny and perfectly ordered garden in north London, engaged in tea and conversation with my neighbour David Cornwell, the writer John le Carré. We cover our usual topics (Hampstead, Britain, his books and films, my legal cases), reflecting on the state of the world and his appearance at the Hay Festival earlier this summer, where I had interviewed him. “I do think we live in most extraordinary period of history,” he says now. “The fact that we feel becalmed is the element that is most terrifying, the second-rate quality of leadership, the third-rate quality of parliamentary behaviour.”

The exceedingly rare public appearance at Hay (“my swansong”, he told a delighted audience, although I didn’t really believe it) had been preceded by two lengthy lunches, as he is meticulous in preparation. It coincided with the publication of his latest novel, A Delicate Truth , as well as the 50th anniversary of his third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which brought fame and liberation from a life in the British intelligence services. In the course of a relaxed performance – what Peter Florence, the festival’s director, described as “an extraordinary combination of gracious wit and political savagery” – the audience obtained an insight into the complexities and depth of the man described by The New York Times as one of “the finest writers alive”.

I got to know John le Carré by accident, 10 years ago, at my local pub, The Wells, after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Before that he’d been a recognisable regular (white hair, warm eyes, brown suede shoes, safe and establishment look) but I had no idea who he was. Our first conversation was coloured by the unfolding disaster in Iraq and allegations of detainee abuse. We’ve not looked back, lunching at The Wells every few months, topping the hours with a rhubarb crumble and a fight over the single scoop of vanilla ice-cream that we allow ourselves, fearful of our respective wives. The relationship is forged on the anvil of those post-9/11 issues, events that reset the national debate on the relationship between the individual and the state. They are matters on which we share a strong interest. A central spine of le Carré’s work – reflected in 23 novels written over five decades – is the responsibility of the individual who faces a fork in the road, required to take a decision that will have morally dubious consequences. My own work, in which he shows considerable interest despite certain reservations (“I have a great distrust of lawyers,” he has repeatedly and pointedly told me), largely focuses on the flip side of his concerns, the rights of the individual.

Over the years, we have not lacked in matters to engage. This is the age of national security and liberty, a constant debate about balance that often turns around the role of the intelligence services. Our interest is mutually self-serving: he might ask me to review a draft that raises a legal point, I might seek his opinion on a matter that draws on his former life in “the secret world”, as he calls it, or on his life’s experience. He is wise and his life, I have come to appreciate, has been informed by a very particular past.

Le Carré believes that the credit balance of the writer is his childhood, citing Graham Greene. By this standard, le Carré was an early millionaire. He was born in 1931, in Dorset, to a family that he celebrates despite (or perhaps because of) its manifest dysfunctionality. With a largely absent mother, his father became the central figure in his early life. Ronnie Cornwell was “seriously bent”, volatile, a convicted fraudster, yet also “exotic, amusing” and lovable. He avoided military service during the war by standing as a parliamentary candidate, an Independent Progressive. The postwar period offered Ronnie a goldmine of shady activity, allowing his son to enter maturity in an unpredictable environment populated by racehorses and Bentleys, passing from St Moritz to the Savoy Grill in the company his father kept, which included the Kray twins (“lovely boys”, his aunt called them).

For an observant son, Ronnie offered a rich seam from which to tap on matters of human weakness and moral complexity, or deceit and counter-play. You only need to read A Perfect Spy, published in 1986 and hailed by Philip Roth as “the best English novel since the war”, to understand the full extent of the interplay between life and art; a great number of the anecdotes he shared with the Hay audience as tales from his life feature in the novel.

He’s not starry-eyed about Ronnie, well aware of the dark side of a “brutalised” and violent man who did time under tough conditions (a thought that remains painful to le Carré), and whose behaviour caused his mother to leave the household and her five-year-old son and his older brother for good. This is a matter of lifelong regret (“a motherless household doesn’t seem like a childhood at all,” he says, “just immersion in life”). He recognises, too, that the circumstances of his childhood informed his view of women, often portrayed in his early works as “angels or whores, people who came and went, couldn’t be trusted”. The views about women have changed, he says, largely because of his “amazingly loyal wives”. First Ann, who he met on a jaunt to St Moritz with his father when he was 17. They married in 1954 and had three sons. The partnership, which didn’t thrill Ronnie, who’d have preferred a more subordinate woman (“although he would have had a dab at her himself if he could”), lasted until 1971. A year later he married Jane, intelligent, engaging and protective, and they have one son. He and Jane are often together in the pub, having lunch, animated, sans crumble.

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