Remembering John Le Carre


Today is Tuesday December 15th. Kia ora katoa.

We learnt yesterday that John Le Carré has died, of pneumonia, aged 89. While by his own admission he was not a great husband or father, he did write some wonderful books, which have turned into some great films and television series. The books mostly bear re-reading. I realised after a while that the writing was formulaic in many respects; that made it easier to understand what was going on. I do admit that I didn’t really understand “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” when I first read it; the BBC made a marvellous seven-part television series of it in 1989, starring the wonderful Alec Guinness as George Smiley, and Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon, along with a host of other famous stars. I remember that local newspapers published guides to the series, so that we could all watch it and understand it. You can still watch it on Youtube. The music is directed by Geoffrey Burgon, and features a singing of the Nunc Dimittis at the end of each episode:

Both the book and the series bear re-watching and re-reading. The 2011 film was very good, but not as good as the TV series, in my view.

Le Carré is also famous for an earlier novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; this was turned into a black and white film starring Richard Burton. I did not enjoy this so much; the characters were too flawed and their lives too difficult for me.

I guess le Carré’s Cold War novels made the most impact on me, just as The Great Depression (aka “The Slump”) and the Second World War had enormously dominating effects on my parents’ lives, and those off most of their generation. I remember the Berlin Wall going up; JD and I went through Checkpoint Charlie, and saw at first hand the contrast between the bustling, colourful West Berlin with its feeling that all might die tomorrow, and the gray, drabness of both East Berlin and East Germany, through which we travelled by train. The people of West Berlin tried to avoid the railway, run as it was by East Germany. We also enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies movie with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, remembering the U2 flights and pilot Gary Powers, and the great fear of a nuclear conflict that would make the earth uninhabitable in most places. We also saw the Berlin Wall come down at the end of 1989, whereas for many years it looked as though this it was there for ever.

Le Carré is also famous for a series of novels featuring George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness):  The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People, which was also made into a great TV series.  After the unmasking of the mole, it wasn’t really possible to clean up the mess, as demonstrated by these novels. In reality, there were several British spies working for the Russians as well as Philby and MacLean (the Cambridge Five, George Blake), and despite the charming Kim Philby’s treason, it took years to unmask the rest. I fear it will be so after Trump’s presidency, if the Americans ever get rid of him. Even if Joe Biden is sworn in as president, there are so many priorities for putting things back to some kind of order, and dealing with the pandemic and providing some economic relief must be high on the list of priorities, quite apart from putting guard-rails in place against the very extensive powers of the American president.

Le Carré also wrote A Perfect Spy, which is based on memories of his father, Ronnie; this was also made into a television series.  Le Carré packed a huge amount of detail into his novels.  He later turned his focus to the post-Cold War period, writing about a wide range of countries, characters, and issues. The Night Manager was made into a TV series; The Russia House into a film starring Sean Connery; A Most Wanted Man into a wonderful film, starring the late James Seymour Hoffman; Our Kind of Traitor into another film starring Damian Lewis. He also wrote a memoir, titled The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life, which many of us scanned avidly for insights into the real Le Carré. One suspects he was only giving certain secrets away; that the habit of secrecy was engrained in him.

I am omitting to mention The Constant Gardener, which was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and The Little Drummer Girl, recently made into a television series starring Florence Pugh and Alexander Sarsgaard.  This book I found very scary to read. It got right into the Middle East conflict, and the efforts by the Israelis to subvert Middle Eastern terrorism.

I still think my favourite has to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both the novel and the TV series. What a profound effect he has had on the worlds of writing and filming, to say nothing of spying. I really don’t think anyone else can hold a candle to him, although perhaps others would disagree with me.

Le Carré was so prolific that for many years there was a new book every Christmas, tempting one to buy a copy for someone. All his books were well-researched, with a large amount of sometimes bewildering detail. For many years I thought how nice it would be to curl up with a book on Christmas Day, after doing my duty in terms of producing Christmas Dinner.  Now I can do this, although it doesn’t seem so much fun. One of my daughters-in-law has a nice Christmas tradition of reading a play by Shakespeare. I remember a spirited reading of Julius Caesar, a highlight one year.

I feel a whole lot of re-reading coming on, and the need to get my own copy of The Pigeon Tunnel. On our first skimmed reading, I realised it goes some way towards explaining my husband’s fractured relationship with his own parents.

Back in the real world, two of my sons have been active on messenger, and in the US, enough votes have been cast in the Electoral College to award Biden the Presidency. There is still a meeting of Congress to be held on January 6, but another big hurdle has been passed. Just stay well, Joe, and become inaugurated as US President!  We’re all rooting for you, in the so-called free world. Free for democracy! Meanwhile, another grim milestone has been passed. There have officially been 300,000 deaths in the US from the coronavirus.

There is more good news today. Apparently Bill Barr is stepping down as Attorney-General, “to spend more time with his family”. Haha! That old canard, again. Well, Bill, many didn’t really want a bar of you.

I will write about Tableland, but that will have too be another episode. Ngā mihi.

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