The many lives of John le Carré, in his own words

If you’re ever lucky enough to score an early success as a writer, as happened to me with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for the rest of your life there’s a before-the-fall and an after-the-fall. You look back at the books you wrote before the searchlight picked you out and they read like the books of your innocence; and the books after it, in your low moments, like the strivings of a man on trial. ‘Trying too hard’ the critics cry. I never thought I was trying too hard. I reckoned I owed it to my success to get the best out of myself, and by and large, however good or bad the best was, that was what I did.

And I love writing. I love doing what I’m doing at this moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a blackclouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive until lunchtime.

I love writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafés, then scurrying home to pick over my booty. When I am in Hampstead there is a bench I favour on the Heath, tucked under a spreading tree and set apart from its companions, and that’s where I like to scribble. I have only ever written by hand. Arrogantly perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanized writing. The lapsed graphic artist in me actually enjoys drawing the words.

I love best the privacy of writing. On research trips, I am partially protected by having a different name in real life. I can sign into hotels without anxiously wondering whether my name will be recognised, then, when it isn’t, anxiously wondering why not. When I’m obliged to come clean with the people whose experience I want to tap, results vary. One person refuses to trust me another inch, the next promotes me to chief of the secret service and, over my protestations that I was only ever the lowest form of secret life, replies that I would say that, wouldn’t I? There are many things I am disinclined to write about ever, just as there are in anyone’s life. I have been neither a model husband nor a model father, and am not interested in appearing that way. Love came to me late, after many missteps. I owe my ethical education to my four sons. Of my work for British intelligence, performed mostly in Germany, I wish to add nothing to what is already reported by others, inaccurately, elsewhere. In this I am bound by vestiges of old-fashioned loyalty to my former services, but also by undertakings I gave to the men and women who agreed to collaborate with me. It was understood between us that the promise of confidentiality would be subject to no time limit, but extend to their children and beyond. The work we engaged in was neither perilous nor dramatic, but it involved painful soul-searching on the part of those who signed up to it. Whether today these people are alive or dead, the promise of confidentiality holds.

Spying was forced on me from birth much in the way, I suppose, that the sea was forced on CS Forester or India on Paul Scott. Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for the reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.

It took me a long while to get on writing terms with Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father. From the day I made my first faltering attempts at a novel, he was the one I wanted to get to grips with, but I was light years away from being up to the job. My earliest drafts of what eventually became A Perfect Spy dripped with self-pity: cast your eye, gentle reader, upon this emotionally crippled boy, crushed underfoot by his tyrannical father. It was only when he was safely dead and I took up the novel again that I did what I should have done at the beginning, and made the sins of the son a whole lot more reprehensible than the sins of the father.

With that settled, I was able to honour the legacy of his tempestuous life: a cast of characters to make the most blasé writer’s mouth water, from eminent legal brains of the day and stars of sport and screen to the finest of London’s criminal underworld and the beautiful creatures who trailed in their wake. Wherever Ronnie went, the unpredictable went with him. Are we up or down? Can we fill up the car on tick at the local garage? Has he fled the country or will he be proudly parking the Bentley in the drive tonight? Or is he enjoying the safety and comfort of one of his alternative wives?

Of Ronnie’s dealings with organised crime, if any, I know lamentably little. Yes, he rubbed shoulders with the notorious Kray twins, but that may just have been celebrity-hunting. And yes, he did business of a sort with London’s worst-ever landlord, Peter Rachman, and my best guess would be that when Rachman’s thugs had got rid of Ronnie’s tenants for him, he sold off the houses and gave Rachman a piece. But a full‑on criminal partnership? Not the Ronnie I knew. Conmen are aesthetes. They wear nice suits, have clean fingernails and are well spoken at all times. Policemen in Ronnie’s book were first-rate fellows who were open to negotiation. The same could not be said of “the boys”, as he called them, and you messed with the boys at your peril.

Ronnie’s entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine. He saw no paradox between being on the wanted list for fraud and sporting a grey topper in the owners’ enclosure at Ascot. A reception at Claridge’s to celebrate his second marriage was interrupted while he persuaded two Scotland Yard detectives to put off arresting him until the party was over – and, meanwhile, come in and join the fun, which they duly did.

But I don’t think Ronnie could have lived any other way. I don’t think he wanted to. He was a crisis addict, a performance addict, a shameless pulpit orator and a scene-grabber. He was a delusional enchanter and a persuader who saw himself as God’s golden boy, and he wrecked a lot of people’s lives.

Graham Greene tells us that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire.

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