John le Carré was beaten up by his father and grew up mostly starved of affection after his mother abandoned him at the age of five, he reveals in his hugely awaited autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel, serialised in the Guardian.
Le Carré – one of the greatest novelists of the postwar era – gives a definitive account of his life as a writer and sometime MI6 agent. He insists he is an author who “once happened to be a spy” rather than a “spy who turned to writing”.
His memoir details the extraordinary first-hand research and relentless travel that underpins his long career and literary success. Le Carré gives amusing and at times lacerating pen portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch and Yasser Arafat, as well as a kaleidoscope of other cultural and political figures.
The most personal passages cover Le Carré’s fraught relationship with his father, Ronnie, whom he describes as a “conman, fantasist [and] occasional jailbird”. Ronnie was an erratic presence in his childhood and adulthood, he writes, who beat up his mother, Olive, prompting her to “bolt”.
“Certainly Ronnie beat me up, too, but only a few times and not with much conviction. It was the shaping up that was the scary part: the lowering and readying of the shoulders, the resetting of the jaw,” Le Carré writes, adding that Ronnie would call him from various foreign prisons asking for money.
“Today, I don’t remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent.”
Le Carré – whose real name is David Cornwell – offers insight into his creative habits. He explains that he “loves writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafes”. He eschews laptops and computers. “Arrogantly, perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanised writing,” he says.
In 1982 Thatcher invited him for lunch, after he refused a government honour. “I had not voted for her,” he writes. He had just returned from a trip to the Middle East and pleaded the case of the “stateless Palestinians”. Thatcher was dismissive, telling Le Carré they had trained the IRA bombers who “murdered her friend Airey Neave”.
Le Carré is hilariously brutal about Murdoch. Meeting him in 1991, Le Carré writes that he seems smaller than the last time they met and “has acquired that hasty waddle and little buck of the pelvis with which great men of affairs advance on one another, hand outstretched for the cameras”.
Murdoch brusquely asked Le Carré who killed the tycoon Robert Maxwell, found bobbing in the sea after falling off his yacht? The novelist didn’t know but suggested Israeli intelligence. Murdoch departed soon afterwards. “Estimated duration of lunch: 25 minutes,” he writes.
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