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John Le Carré’s childhood betrayal that forged a master spy writer

His books are a masterclass in the dark arts of concealment, offering up their secrets stealthily, with one invariably leading on to another.

But figuring out their author, the spy writer John Le Carré, is like peeling off layers of the Russian dolls made famous by the TV adaptation of his most successful novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Le Carré, whose death at the age of 89 from pneumonia was announced on Sunday, wrote about treachery, betrayal and tragedy. 

Yet it was only decades after the publication of his breakthrough book — and international bestseller — The Spy Who Came In From The Cold that we learned how much the morally ambiguous world he described was formed by personal experience.

That his father was a philandering fraudster and ‘five-star conman’ and his mother deserted the family home when he was five would surely make any young man secretive and inward-looking. 

This wounded, shaming childhood turned Le Carré into someone who, as he put it, ‘had to protect myself from discovery’.

John Le Carré, pictured with his family, died following a short battle with pneumonia on Saturday. He was 89. RICHARD KAY has revealed how the acclaimed author’s upbringing helped him develop into a successful spy and novellist

This ability to hide in a crowd would make him a natural recruit for the intelligence services and later allow him to conduct an affair with his best friend’s wife.

When, aged 25, Le Carré — whose real name was David Cornwell — was formally inducted into the secret services as a junior officer, he was told that rule number one was: ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems’.

Yet even as a teenager he was capable of leaving questions unanswered, quitting fee-paying Sherborne School in Dorset — he didn’t demur when interviewers called it ‘absconding’ — to study German at Bern University in Switzerland.

He told the thriller writer Robert Harris how, as a young boy, he was sent to boarding school and so longed for physical contact that he arranged to meet his older brother Tony — his only sibling, at another school nearby — in a field so the two could hug.

Their upbringing was forever marked by the behaviour of their father, Ronnie, and how they were transfixed by his duplicity.

In one unsparing account, Le Carré revealed that his father would think nothing of sporting a top hat in the owners’ enclosure at Ascot on the same day he appeared on a wanted list for fraud.

He described him as ‘bent from the day he shook his first rattle’, adding: ‘Killing him was an early preoccupation of mine, and it has endured on and off even after his death.’

He would fantasise about chopping off his father’s head, studying Ronnie’s neck for the best point to aim his axe.

When, aged 25, Le Carré ¿ whose real name was David Cornwell ¿ was formally inducted into the secret services as a junior officer, he was told that rule number one was: ¿Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems¿. His works include The Night Manager, which was later adapted for television starring Tom Hiddlestone

When, aged 25, Le Carré — whose real name was David Cornwell — was formally inducted into the secret services as a junior officer, he was told that rule number one was: ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems’. His works include The Night Manager, which was later adapted for television starring Tom Hiddlestone

As teenagers, he and Tony were sent on errands to extract money from his father’s creditors. On a visit to Paris, he was entertained by Panama’s ambassador, who was involved in a whisky-smuggling ring.

Later, he was despatched to see the concierge at the George V hotel, with orders to ‘slip him a tenner’ to recover a set of golf clubs. 

The brothers were sent away by the manager, who hissed: ‘No golf clubs until your father’s bill is paid.’

On another occasion, Le Carré was told ‘with shame’ to reassure an elderly diplomat and his wife in Chalfont St Peter that a cheque was on its way. 

‘With profound reluctance we went and drank their sherry and did our feeble best to vouch for Ronnie’s integrity, while Sir Eric and his Lady peered at us with terrified disbelief.

‘“We’re living on our pension,” Sir Eric said. “And a bit of capital my wife inherited. We’ve given them to your father to invest.”’

Ronnie, who perfected ‘an air of injured sanctity if his word was doubted’, fleeced widows of their pensions and served time in the prisons of Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. 

Alec Guiness stareed in the 1980s televsion programme Smiley's People, which was adapted from Le Carre's work. Born David Cornwell, the former British spy was raised by a philandering fraudster and ¿five-star conman,' while his mother deserted the family home when he was five

Alec Guiness stareed in the 1980s televsion programme Smiley’s People, which was adapted from Le Carre’s work. Born David Cornwell, the former British spy was raised by a philandering fraudster and ‘five-star conman,’ while his mother deserted the family home when he was five

His phony schemes included dodgy football pools operations, amphibious vehicles, gun-running, slum property development and even signing copies of his son’s books in return for a percentage. 

One improbable get-rich scheme involved a fleet of giant airships, backed by the Aga Khan.

This flamboyant man-about-town also liked to throw lavish parties. Maurice Winnick and his band, who played at every deb dance, were hired and there would be lots of pretty girls — ‘lovelies’, as Ronnie called them.

Le Carré recalled how in 1948 his father had entertained the Australian touring cricket team, including the great Don Bradman (who was knighted the following year). But other guests were distinctly shady.

‘One or two were frightened senior civil servants who’d been drawn in because my father always wanted things like concessions to build runways at airports. Huge dinner parties had to be laid on and compromising relationships encouraged.’

Years later, the author recalled being shown a picture of his father in a family photo album owned by the gangster Charlie Kray.

it was only decades after the publication of his breakthrough book ¿ and international bestseller ¿ The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (adapted into a film in 1965, pictured) that we learned how much the morally ambiguous world Le Carre described was formed by personal experience

it was only decades after the publication of his breakthrough book — and international bestseller — The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (adapted into a film in 1965, pictured) that we learned how much the morally ambiguous world Le Carre described was formed by personal experience

Le Carré would spend unexplained periods with relatives whenever his father’s collar was being felt. He invented the fiction that his father was in the security services to explain these absences.

The author was born in Poole in 1931 and his early life was marked by domestic unhappiness.

His mother Olive, who he says never hugged him, walked out on her violent, womanising husband and abandoned her sons. He traced her when he was 21 and found her living in Suffolk, the mother of two other children.

‘In the creaking jargon of the secret world I later entered, her departure was a well-planned accordance with the best principles of need-to-know security.’

He said he had no idea what his mother was like, except that she was ‘thin and bony and very tall’ and her voice sounded like ‘Mrs Thatcher halfway through her elocution course’. 

He later wrote to his brother about the effect of their mother’s desertion, saying: ‘We were frozen children, and will always remain so.’

This loveless, itinerant childhood, devoid of female affection, prepared him perfectly for his future life as a spy and a novelist.

His father, who craved respectability for his children, did at least see the value of a good education, sending his son first to St Andrew’s prep school in Pangbourne, where the Duchess of Cambridge was later a pupil, and then Sherborne, which Le Carré later recalled as being ‘too pious’.

He chose ‘neutral’ Switzerland to get away from the muscular Christianity of his boarding school and ‘crazy lifestyle’ at home.

While he was in Bern he took his first steps for British intelligence, when he was recruited by the visa section of the British embassy as a ‘travelling evangelist’ for Britain’s entry into the Common Market. After National Service he went up to Oxford to read modern languages.

But two years into his degree, his father suffered a spectacular bankruptcy and Le Carré had to go down.

He married his first wife Ann — with whom he had three sons — and taught at Millfield in Somerset for a year as a prep school master at £8 a week. 

Then his college, Lincoln, where many of the dons were covertly recruiting for the intelligence services, lent him the money to come back to Oxford. 

Having secured a First, he moved to Eton as a languages beak for two years.

Soon after, he worked first for MI5 and then in espionage for MI6 and was sent to the embassy in Bonn under the cover of Second Secretary. 

The success of the The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was made into a hit film with Richard Burton (pictured together with Cornwell) and Claire Bloom, changed his life irrevocably

The success of the The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was made into a hit film with Richard Burton (pictured together with Cornwell) and Claire Bloom, changed his life irrevocably

He later moved to Hamburg as political consul and it was then that he began penning spy novels. 

To avoid controversy, he wrote under a pen-name, choosing Le Carré because it was slang for someone who was a ‘square’.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published in 1963, was a runaway critical and commercial success. 

His career as an intelligence officer ended a year later, following the betrayal of British agents’ covers to the KGB by the infamous traitor Kim Philby.

The success of the book, which was made into a hit film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, changed his life irrevocably. 

The work was an essay on loneliness as much as spying and was dramatically different from the escapism of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories.

But domestic happiness was eluding him. Ann had hoped for the certainties of a life as an ambassador’s wife, not that of an author, however successful he might be.

Around this time, Le Carré had become close friends with the novelist and screenwriter James Kennaway and his wife Susan. 

Kennaway had adapted his own novel Tunes Of Glory into a highly praised film, starring John Mills and Alec Guinness, and he and his wife were a glamorous couple. Their marriage seemed to Le Carré to have everything his own lacked.

In fact, Kennaway was repeatedly unfaithful and it wasn’t long before Susan, wanting to give her husband a taste of his own medicine, embarked on an affair with Le Carré. It became an extraordinary and tempestuous triangular affair.

To avoid controversy, David Cornwelll wrote under a pen-name, choosing Le Carré because it was slang for someone who was a ¿square¿. His career as an intelligence officer ended in 1964, following the betrayal of British agents¿ covers to the KGB by the infamous traitor Kim Philby

To avoid controversy, David Cornwelll wrote under a pen-name, choosing Le Carré because it was slang for someone who was a ‘square’. His career as an intelligence officer ended in 1964, following the betrayal of British agents’ covers to the KGB by the infamous traitor Kim Philby

When he discovered it, Kennaway went berserk with jealousy, threatening to shoot Le Carré and stab his wife. On one occasion the two men had a tug-of-war over Susan, each pulling one arm in opposite directions.

In a scene that could have come from the pages of Le Carré’s favourite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan ran off to try to find a train that she could throw herself under.

But Le Carré would not leave his wife and the Kennaways were reconciled. Le Carré wrote to his friend: ‘Dearest James, I have failed you most terribly. 

I describe you in conversation as my best friend. If you can, say the same.’ But Kennaway was distraught and never saw Le Carré again. 

He died in a car crash in 1968.

The Le Carré marriage ended in 1971 and, a year later, he married Jane Eustace. The couple went on to have a son. Jane recognised early in their life together that she would have to share him with other women, admitting: ‘Nobody can have all of David.’

Meanwhile, the books — almost all bestsellers — kept on coming. In all, he wrote more than two dozen. But while commercial success was assured, Le Carré was not accepted by the literary establishment.

Reviewing The Russia House in 1989, the writer Salman Rushdie, with whom Le Carré later had a feud, wrote: ‘He is as close to a serious writer as the spy genre itself has thrown up. Close but — this time — no cigar.’

Despite his acclaim, Cornwell turned down honours and declared he would never accept a knighthood, commenting: ¿I have the most profound contempt for the system ¿ a total alienation from it'

Despite his acclaim, Cornwell turned down honours and declared he would never accept a knighthood, commenting: ‘I have the most profound contempt for the system — a total alienation from it’

If he cared, he never let it show, turning down honours and declaring that he would never accept a knighthood. ‘I have the most profound contempt for the system — a total alienation from it.’ He refused to allow his books to be entered for prizes such as the Booker.

When the Cold War ended, he turned to the Middle East, African corruption and the world of gun-running for inspiration.

In 2003, he joined a number of writers attacking the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in an essay entitled The United States Of America Has Gone Mad.

Betrayal and the deceptive maze of human relations remained his themes. Wry and with a dry sense of humour, he might have made a good actor. In the BBC version of his book The Night Manager, he had a bit-part confrontation with star Tom Hiddleston.

At home in Cornwall, where he had a clifftop house near Land’s End, and in London’s Hampstead, he avoided the literary social scene of book launches but was a generous host — particularly for spies, who treated him as a venerable oracle of the profession.


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